Fateful Choices (By Ian Kershaw)
Ten Decisions That Changed the World, 1940-1941
By Ian Kershaw
Penguin Press. 624 pp. $35
World War II made for great myths and great mythmakers. Consider this one, from Winston Churchill: "Future generations may deem it noteworthy that the supreme question of whether we should fight on alone never found a place upon the War Cabinet agenda."
In fact, from May 25 to 28, 1940, while the entire British Expeditionary Force was threatened with destruction at Dunkirk, Churchill and his war cabinet engaged in an intense debate over whether to seek detente by approaching Adolf Hitler through Italy's Benito Mussolini. Would a negotiated end to the war be possible? The foreign minister, Lord Halifax, forcefully advocated exploring the possibilities; Churchill passionately argued to the contrary and won, with crucial support from Neville Chamberlain, not often associated with such steadfastness. Even then, the war cabinet "did not rule out the possibility of an approach to Mussolini 'at some time,' though it explicitly did so in the current situation," writes Ian Kershaw in Fateful Choices, his ambitious history of the war's most important decisions. "It is not easy to imagine, in the light of later events, how insecure Churchill's position was in the middle of May 1940. His hold on authority, soon to become unchallengeable, was still tenuous."
That decision and nine others are the subjects of searching, careful -- sometimes pedantic -- analysis, drawing on a wealth of primary sources and bibliography, detailed in copious endnotes and a list of works cited. Kershaw, the author of Making Friends with Hitler and an acclaimed two-volume biography of the dictator, writes with deep command of his material, weaving together the consequences that each decision had on those that followed. The other decisions involve Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union; Japan's targeting of British, French and Dutch possessions in Southeast Asia; Mussolini's entry into the war and the subsequent invasion of Greece; Roosevelt opting to aid Britain and, later, to wage an undeclared naval war; Stalin ignoring the clear signs of the impending German attack; Japan choosing war with the United States; and two last choices by Hitler, to declare war on the United States and to give genocide against the Jews of Europe its final, monstrous shape.
Within 483 pages of text, that's a lot to get through, and for that reason Fateful Choices sometimes feels like a college textbook's survey history. At times the chewy prose is very slow slogging. Kershaw's analysis centers on the process of decision making, the war of memos and meetings and -- particularly with Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini -- the influence of personality and absolute power in leading up to disastrous choices. He briskly sums up Mussolini's orders to invade Greece: "What passed for dictatorial decisiveness was in reality the merest veneer of half-baked assumptions, superficial observations, amateurish judgement and wholly uncritical assessment, all based upon the best-case scenario."
Nothing truly revelatory there, and that is the case with some of the other decisions, including Japan's long path to the Tripartite Pact and war with the United States. In fact, Kershaw's unraveling of that decision and a few others seems to undermine a premise of the book, that "there was no inexorable path to be followed." The Japan of his history was at a watershed moment in a decades-old path toward great-power status and its own colonial empire, with a military that answered only to the emperor and was ruled as much by fanatical mid-rank officers as by its generals and admirals. It was trapped in a war in China and faced an uncompromising, rearming United States. Kershaw's portrait of Japanese leaders is almost poignant; all, including the emperor, were fatalistic about their chances of winning the war without an immediate knockout blow. At the same time, they were utterly convinced that the only alternative to war was national humiliation and subservience. The real choices here, as Kershaw notes, were made over decades, with the support of much of the Japanese public; by 1940, Japanese leaders were largely in a straitjacket not entirely of their own making.
The last decision Kershaw explores -- moving to the industrial-scale murder of Europe's Jews -- wasn't so much a decision as the endpoint of a long trajectory of anti-Semitism that found its ultimate exponent in Hitler and its impetus in the speed of his victories in 1940 and 1941. This final chapter is a horrifying chronicle of the "spiral of radicalization" in Nazi thinking that led from Mein Kampf to Auschwitz-Birkenau. It is a fitting coda to Kershaw's thoughtful, far-reaching examination of events that echo down to today. ·
Vince Rinehart, who often writes about World War II, is The Post's editorial copy desk chief.