Fateful Choices: Ten Decisions That Changed the World, 1940-1941 Hardcover – 31 May 2007
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Top Customer Reviews
Ian Kershaw had an excellent idea when he decided to focus on this crucial period of World War II between May 1940 and December 1941 during which indeed almost all most important decisions were taken which would determine the fate of the whole humanity for the next 50 years. Author also very well establishes connections between those decisions, showing how each one of earlier ones greatly helped to decide the later choices.
The ten Fateful Choices that comprise Kershaw's work are:
1. The British War Cabinet's decision to continue the war rather than negotiate a settlement with Hitler.
This was maybe the most difficult and the most crucial of all the ten decisions described here. In my opinion, there is no doubt that British leaders held in their hands in May and June 1940 the fate not only of their country but that of whole humanity. Settling with Hitler in June 1940 would mean safety and peace for United Kingdom, but Nazi domination for many, many years to come for continental Eurasia, as it would also most probably seal the fate of Soviet Union... The decision to fight on taken unanimously by Churchill, Fairfax, Attlee, Chamberlain and Greenwood saved humanity from Nazism and Fascism - but as all five men knew, it was also a death sentence for British Empire... All the circumstances of this terrible dilemma are here well described.
2. Hitler decides to attack the Soviet Union.
Once again, a well described point, establishing firmly that Hitler decided to attack Soviet Union soon after his victory over France and decided to do it as soon as possible as the result of British persistence to resist him.Read more ›
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Kershaw takes ten separate major decision points, made between the spring of 1940 (England decides to fight on) and the fall of 1941 (Hitler decides to kill the Jews), explores the decision making process of each government (or individual leader) making that decision; he attempts to identify the range of options the leader(s) thought they had under the circumstances, the political and social factors impacting the decision, and the timelines of the evolution of the decision, finally justifying it not through historical hindsight or from our modern point of view, but from the point of view of the decision-makers themselves. It makes for fascinating reading.
Kershaw's research is detailed and meticulous, made possible by the greater availability of previously secret or unknown documentation on all sides. He reconstructs the personalities involved in each case, the pressures they felt, and just how a decision could be made, contrasting the democracies (USA, where Roosevelt felt under steady political pressure from the isolationists, and had to shape public opinion as much as lead it; and England, which operated much more like a political oligarchy where the cabinet made their decisions in something of a group, with little regard for public opinion) with the European dictatorships (Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin were by this point making decisions almost completely unilaterally, even in defiance or disregard of their staff or advisors, indeed in some cases almost in a vacuum), as well as Japan (where a type of groupthink had become so prevalent that the individual leader mattered less than the nation's overall perceived trajectory, and the concept of 'face' prevented any sort of alternate course). This is the meat of the book, and is very well done. The reader feels he understands why each decision - some appearing puzzling or foolish in retrospect - was made, indeed often HAD to be made.
Overall, the book is clearly written, extremely well documented, utterly absorbing. One wishes Kershaw had added decisions made after this time period as well.
The ten Fateful Choices that comprise Kershaw's work are:
1. The British War Cabinet's decision in May, 1940 to continue the war rather than negotiate a settlement with Hitler;
2. Hitler decides to attack the Soviet Union.
3. Japan decides to seize the "Golden Opportunity" and turn south.
4. Mussolini decides to join the war on Hitler's side to grab a share of the spoils.
5. Roosevelt decides to lend a helping hand to Britain.
6. Stalin decides he knows best and ignores all the clear signals that Germany is going to invade.
7. Roosevelt decides to wage undeclared war.
8. Japan decides to go to war against the United States.
9. Hitler decides to declare war on the USA.
10. Hitler decides to commit genocide.
Especially Hitler's decision that he needed swiftly to attack and defeat the Soviet Union (which he thought would be `child's play') before he could force Britain to make peace and thereby also prevent US intervention, is very well documented. Kershaw stresses that Hitler had no cabinet meetings after February 1938, and all major decisions were essentially his own, often in defiance of even his military advisers. The plans of the German navy to force Britain to make peace by attacks in the Mediterranean were briefly considered by Hitler as a supplement, but not as an alternative, to the invasion of Russia. Kershaw believes that from Hitler's point of view, the attack on Russia was logical. There is a fascinating chapter on the choices made by Mussolini: to enter the war in 1940 against the pessimistic warnings of the military, followed by the even more fateful decision to attack Greece in 1941, against the advice of the military and against German attempts to restrain him. Then there are the fateful choices made by Stalin: the emasculation of his armed forces in the purges of 1937; his pact with Hitler in 1939; and his refusal to the very last moment to act on intelligence information that Hitler would attack in 1941 rather than, as Stalin had anticipated, in 1942 at the earliest. Two chapters plot in great detail the slow but steady involvement of the United States in helping Britain with Lend-Lease, underlining Roosevelt's anxiety to do everything short of war to support Britain, even though Lend-Lease was likely to make American entry into the war almost unavoidable. Roosevelt was the only leader whose scope of action was restricted by democratic institutions. Only Pearl Harbour and Hitler's declaration of war on the United States resolved this dilemma for him. Two chapters trace the choices was made by the Japanese. I found extremely interesting the process of Japanese strategic thinking and one must admit that the Japanese couldn't do anything else but grab the chance of European turmoil in the 1940s. The debate inside the Japanese armed forces about this policy will be unfamiliar to most readers, and continued almost up to Pearl Harbour. Immediately after Pearl Harbour, Hitler chose to declare war on the United States. Kershaw finds that decision more explicable than most other historians do, on the assumption that, sooner rather than later, the United States would have declared war on Germany even while at war with Japan. It seems to this reviewer the least convincing argument in the book. The last `choice' Kershaw examines is the destruction of the Jews of Europe. This had always been in Hitler's mind, especially since he saw the Jews as responsible for Germany's defeat in the First World War and as steering the policies of Germany's two main enemies, the United States and Bolshevik Russia in the Second.
Taken as a whole, the greatest value in Kershaw's book is to be found in his comparison of the decision-making process engaged in by the five nations involved. Three of those nations (Germany, Italy, and the USSR) were totalitarian states where decisions were invariably made by Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin with little input other than sycophancy from those around them. Collective decision-making was the norm in the United States and Britain. In each chapter, Kershaw starts with the decision in question but leads the reader back to a logical starting point and then through the series of events leading up to that decision. It seems axiomatic, but Kershaw adroitly shows how previous events have a way of narrowing ones options so that what may in retrospect look like an irrational choice is, however, one of the few options left at the time. All in all, Ian Kershaw's "Fateful Choices" is a compelling book. It is a book that manages to combine excellent academic research (the book is immaculately annotated and contains an extensive bibliography) with a writing style that makes this book accessible to any reader with an interest in the period. Highly recommended.
In "Fateful Choices", Kershaw has focussed on ten choices that were separately made in 1940 and 1941. Each choice had monumental consequences. For example, consider any of the following: Great Britain choosing to fight on against Germany after the fall of France, Hitler's decision to invade the Soviet Union, Japan's decision to attack Pearl Harbour, Hitler's declaration of war on the United States and Hitler's decision to annihilate the Jews. Without any doubt, each of the above events involved totemic decisions. The consequences of each decision effected the larger world.
Kershaw is to be commended for his work. His has shone light upon key historical events that need to be understood by as wide an audience as possible. Kershaw has achieved this end.
If I was to have a criticism of the work it is that Kershaw has not written with his typical clarity. The book can be hard going at some intervals. This is a pity. However, I would strongly suggest that potential readers should not be put off by this point. Occasional portions of hard work fail to offset an otherwise great book that plays its role in furthering our knowledge of the tragedy that was World War II.
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