Magazine article The Spectator

The Ebb and Flow of War

Magazine article The Spectator

The Ebb and Flow of War

Article excerpt

FATEFUL CHOICES : TEN DECISIONS THAT CHANGED THE WORLD 1940-41 by Ian Kershaw Allen Lane, £30, pp. 656, ISBN 9780713997125 £24 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

Britain's decision to fight on in 1940; Hitler's to attack the Soviet Union in 1941; in the same year, Roosevelt's to wage undeclared war in the Battle of the Atlantic; Japan's to attack Pearl Harbor and expand southwards; Hitler's declaration of war against America and his decision for genocide of the Jews. These are the choices, together with a few related ones, plus Mussolini's by comparison less important decision to enter the war on Germany's side, that Kershaw sees as the keys that turned the lock of the second world war.

Few would argue that he has not lighted on the vitals of the matter, although some might think that the decision for genocide should be separately categorised since it was hardly on a par with the others, which were essentially strategic in nature. The decision for genocide and the resulting holocaust were scarcely part of the construct of the war but one of the most ghastly products of it.

In this highly impressive work, the author examines each of his selected choices in depth and in width, showing their backgrounds, the mechanics of how they were reached, the personalities of those involved in making them and the consequences they produced. He has made a thorough investigation of the massive volume of evidence available and in doing so has applied the most stringent of historical standards and a particular conscientiousness that he perhaps owes to his apprenticeship as a medievalist. The upshot is really no less than a one-volume history of the war -- perhaps the most brilliant that has yet appeared.

Kershaw wisely refrains from venturing far into the 'ifs' of what might have happened had the choices been different from what they were. As he says, no one can tell, and speculation is idle. All the same, he does frequently make the point that there were alternatives that might have been adopted, while also asking the question whether it would ultimately have made very much difference if they had been. Towards the end of the book he writes, 'From the perspective of the German and Japanese leadership, the gamble had to be taken.' In other words, the 'have not' nations of Germany and Japan were bound to challenge the 'have' nations of America and Britain and the Lebensraum-rich Soviet Union and China. …

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