You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Books: The Deciders

is Seth Low Professor Emeritus at Columbia University and the author of, among other books, Essays on Hitler's Europe (University of Nebraska Press).

Fateful Choices: Ten Decisions That Changed the World, 1940-1941

By Ian Kershaw

(The Penguin Press, 596 pp.,


Between October 3, 1935, when the armies of Italy invaded Abyssinia, and May 10, 1940, when German troops entered the Netherlands, Belgium, and France, war after war rocked the world. In 1936, a horrendous civil war began in Spain; a year later, the Japanese attacked and devastated China; in the summer of 1939, Soviet troops trounced the Japanese army in Manchuria and Mongolia; and in September of the same year Nazi and Soviet forces wiped out Poland. Meanwhile, Great Britain and France began the notorious "phony war" against Hitler. In the winter of 1939-1940, the Soviets attacked Finland, suffering enormous losses in the process, and in April 1940, German armed forces invaded and occupied Denmark and Norway. A month later, in the most triumphant of all the German twentieth-century military campaigns, Hitler's tank divisions defeated and occupied the Netherlands, Belgium, and France, causing the British expeditionary forces to fall back to their island.

And yet all these bloody conflicts did not amount to a world war. That, as Ian Kershaw shows in this splendid and thought-provoking book, came as a result of decisions made in London, Berlin, Tokyo, Rome, Moscow, and Washington between May 1940 and fall 1941. It was then that the many local conflicts expanded and merged into a single gigantic struggle between, in the one camp, Nazi Germany, its minor European allies, and the Japanese Empire, and, in the other camp, much of the rest of the world.

That the great strategic and political decisions taken in 1940 and 1941 assured the victory of the Great Allied Powers testifies to the wisdom of Churchill and Roosevelt as well as to the supreme viability of the democratic systems over which they presided. The decisions also exposed the fatal inefficiency of militaristic, authoritarian Japan and tyrannical, fanatical Germany. Still, ultimate success in this greatest of all wars was not a democratic monopoly: the country that contributed most to the defeat of Hitler was not the United States or Great Britain but the Soviet Union, a state based on unbridled terror, whose murderous leader invariably made the wrong decisions in the years 1940-1941.

None of this will come as sensational news to readers even of college textbooks on World War II, but Kershaw--who has produced some of the most significant works on Nazi Germany, most notably a superb two-volume biography of Hitler that has caused the scholarly world to rethink many accepted views on the Fuhrer and his times--is the first to build the entire story systematically on crucial decisions made by political leaders at the time. He uses the results of recent historical research to prove what had often been only surmised until now, and he convincingly disproves many legends--for instance, that Germany attacked the Soviet Union in June 1941 in the nick of time, just before the Soviets would have launched a preventive strike. Kershaw also engages in stimulating meditations on which decisions were inevitable and whether there were viable alternatives.

In Kershaw's account, no statesman--not even the greatest among them--lacks serious shortcomings. Churchill saved Great Britain and the world from National Socialist aggression, but he was (in Kershaw's account) unattractively enamored of his own words, and had a weakness for fanciful and unrealistic projects. Kershaw places the responsibility for the Franco-British debacle in Norway in the spring of 1940 on Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty. And he finds also that Hitler had moments of greatness, as when he brilliantly grasped, in 1939-1940, the weakness and the irresolution of the British and French government and military; and also when, in matters of strategy, he listened to a few iconoclastic generals such as Hans Guderian and Erich von Manstein rather than to the majority of German commanders. But Hitler was so convinced of his omniscience and his invincibility that in 1941 he led his country into the two- front war that he had always feared.

As for the Japanese leaders, they present a spectacle of division and indecisiveness; they drifted into a situation that many did not wish to have happen. The Japanese politicians were much too subservient to the army and the navy. And how is one to judge a supreme leadership in which the emperor, who in theory held full personal power, was allowed to ask questions from his cabinet only through the agency of one of his courtiers, and even then was not the one to formulate the contents of the question? In the crucial moment, when the government was deciding whether or not to go to war with the United States, Great Britain, and the Netherlands, in addition to having China already as an enemy, the emperor broke with tradition and recited a little poem composed by his grandfather from which one was to understand that he had some concerns about fighting the United States--yet without the emperor's approval, the attack on Pearl Harbor would not have taken place. As for Mussolini, he is unmasked in the book as a fool, if such an unmasking is still needed: irresolute, reckless, boastful, morbidly envious of the Fuhrer, he would lead Italy to ruin. But Roosevelt emerges from that crucial year as a statesman of great political flair who succeeded first in keeping the United States out of the war and then, when it fitted his wishes and his convictions, in leading it to war.

As for the lineup of politicians, military commanders, and industrial captains below the top decision-makers, Kershaw shows that everywhere they basically fell into line when their superiors required them to do so. Despite the misgivings of many among them, they all accepted the decision to go to war. Kershaw does not think highly of the German military resistance, whose leader General Ludwig Beck hoped, in 1938, to overthrow Hitler before he engaged in the folly of attacking Czechoslovakia. Beck's fears were unwarranted: the German attack did not have to take place, because at Munich Chamberlain and Daladier gave large parts of Czechoslovakia as a gift to Hitler. In any case, Kershaw believes that Beck would not have been followed by the vast majority of the German officers.

Particularly appalling was the servility of the Italian establishment, many of whose members, as well as King Victor Emmanuel III, were convinced that Il Duce would bring about the country's defeat and destruction. The Japanese military elite, which was often profoundly divided along political-ideological and service lines, especially between army and navy, nevertheless unanimously rallied for the war effort and dragged the non-military elite of functionaries and industrialists with them. The British social and political elite also lined up behind Churchill once he had won the fight in the cabinet against those who sought accommodation with Hitler. In the Soviet Union, after having been partly annihilated by the purges of 1937-1938, the surviving generals, party leaders, and high-ranking bureaucrats were happy to be alive in 1940, and so they offered no resistance to Stalin's diplomatic and military decisions. It is remarkable, however, that thousands of officers who had been released in 1941 from concentration camps played a crucial role in stopping the German onslaught and in leading the Red Army to final victory.

Unlike the British, Soviet, and German statesmen, Roosevelt had ample time to decide whether the United States would fight, and when, and where. Similarly, members of the American establishment were in no hurry to make up their mind about American policy. At first the neutralists and the isolationists dominated. But by 1941, after it became clear that beyond helping Great Britain with shipments of arms it was also necessary to participate in the effective defense of that country and to offer material aid to the Soviet Union, America's military, industrial, and business leaders lined up easily behind Roosevelt's pro-war policy. Whether the official American entry into the conflict would have occurred without Pearl Harbor remains a matter of speculation. Kershaw believes that it would have taken place in any case, at least as regards a war against Germany.

Of the ten decisions that Kershaw discusses, the first was undoubtedly the most significant. Without the London government's resolve not to negotiate with the Nazis, the European struggle might have ended then and there. All other decisions would have become superfluous, or would at least have been very different. It is important to appreciate the distressing circumstances under which Churchill's War Cabinet met between May 25 and May 28 to decide whether to continue the fight against Germany. By then only very few British troops had been brought home from Dunkirk, and Britain was quite defenseless against a possible German onslaught. It was therefore perfectly understandable, Kershaw argues, for Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax to offer to negotiate with Hitler, if possible through the intermediary of Mussolini.

As Kershaw explains, Halifax was as adamant as Churchill that Britain's freedom must be preserved, but he hoped to gain time by making concessions to the Germans. Churchill and Halifax equally hated communism and saw the Soviet Union as a major menace, but for Churchill the Nazis were the primary enemy. By accommodating Hitler, he stated, "we should become a slave state." In all likelihood, Kershaw explains, Britain would have been forced fatally to weaken its fleet, surrender some of its major colonies, and endure the pro-German Edward VIII as king and the Hitler admirer Lloyd George as prime minister.

But Churchill stood firm, and so did several fellow War Cabinet members. At last even Halifax came around, and turned into a dedicated advocate of the war effort. Those were tragic as well as heart-lifting days, brilliantly explored in John Lukacs's Five Days in London: May 1940. The only somewhat disconcerting element in all this is how long and how seriously British statesmen discussed the possibility of Mussolini's coming to their aid as an intermediary in the negotiations. Not only did the Duce have no power to change events, but he himself wanted war, since he hoped to gobble up French and British colonies.

Kershaw's scene now shifts to Berlin, where the Fuhrer and his newly minted field marshals bask in the glory of genuine popular enthusiasm. Gone were the gloomy days of September 1939, when many Germans feared the renewal of the two- front war and ultimate defeat. By June 1940, public celebrations had reached their crescendo. Not only had both Poland and France been completely defeated, with small losses for the German armies, but there were seemingly no more enemies left. Germans from Hitler down expected that the British would come to reason and the world would be divided between them and Germany. But the hated Churchill proved to be adamant, and Hitler did not really know how to deal with the problem, because neither he nor his admirals and generals believed in the possibility of an invasion. Why this was so is unclear to me: Churchill's rousing rhetoric notwithstanding, it is unlikely that barely armed British soldiers, militiamen, and civilians would have fought to the death "on the beaches ... in the fields and in the streets." At least the German leaders could have been inspired by the case of the British Channel Islands, where--at the orders of the London government, it is true--the local administration and population meekly surrendered to (and thereafter generally collaborated with) the German invaders.

For the Germans, there was the formidable obstacle of the British Home Fleet, but the German High Command made no serious plans to deal with the problem; instead, Hitler and the generals put their faith in the Luftwaffe's ability to bomb Britain into submission. In any event, and without even waiting for the success of the Blitz, Hitler decided on July 31, 1940 to attack the Soviet Union. This was the second crucial decision of that year--the one that, as we know today, led to Nazism's defeat. Hitler's decision has been the subject of much debate, complicated by the lack of convincing documentary evidence as to what really motivated the Nazi leader. Kershaw and others argue that the decision was both ideological and strategic. It was ideological owing to Hitler's manic hatred of "Judeo-Bolshevism" and his dream of opening up living space in the East for the allegedly space-starved German people; it was strategic owing to his desire to force a settlement on the British government through victory in the Russian campaign. Stating that "a campaign against Russia would be child's play," the Fuhrer declared that because the British and the Soviet Union would inevitably become allies, it would be best to destroy the Soviets as soon as possible.

Inspired by the Stalinist purges as well as by the Soviet fiasco in the RussoFinnish war, the Germans grossly underestimated the strength and the dedication of the Red Army. Even in its weakened state, the Red Army surpassed the Wehrmacht in troops, tanks, artillery pieces, and airplanes. Characteristically, even Grand Admiral Erich Raeder, the only person of high rank who argued against the Russian campaign, fell into line once he had learned of Hitler's wishes. He still hoped, though, for the defeat of Great Britain with the help of a hugely improved German fleet. This, he expected, would lead to the establishment of a great German colonial empire. Kershaw ponders the possibility of a strategic alternative for the Germans, and mentions the Mediterranean, where a successful war against the British could possibly have been fought. But he then concludes that "given the leadership which Germany had, and the very reason she was facing a strategic dilemma in the summer and autumn of 1940 in the first place, the attack on the Soviet Union was indeed the only practicable way open."

It requires quite a mental leap to move from the hate-filled, fanatical, and yet sentimental and petty-bourgeois milieu of Hitler's headquarters to the sedate, formal, conservative, and militaristic atmosphere of Japan's center of power. Unlike Germany, where the cabinet never met, and unlike the Soviet Union, where members of the reigning Communist Party Politburo hardly ever sat together, Japan's civilian government met regularly. Kershaw writes of Japan's "factionalized authoritarianism." In that country, too, a fatal decision was taken in 1940, namely to shift the center of military attention from the north-- that is, from the politically nearly independent Kwantung Army's operations in Mongolia and Manchuria--to the south, specifically southeast Asia. There the Japanese concept of the "Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere" would prevail. More importantly, the oil wells and the rubber plantations of the Dutch East Indies might be exploited at a time when the United States demanded that the Japanese evacuate China in exchange for American oil and scrap metal. Reading Kershaw's account of Japanese deliberations, one experiences a sense of inevitability: they would never permit themselves to lose face, and the Americans would never allow the whole region to fall into Japanese hands.

The story then moves to Rome, where, in 1940, decisions were made to attack France, then to beat the British in Egypt and, finally, to invade Greece--all this in an atmosphere of wishful thinking. As Kershaw writes: "What passed [in Rome] for dictatorial decisiveness was in reality the merest veneer of half- baked assumptions, superficial observations, amateurish judgment, and wholly uncritical assessment." Since Italy was hopelessly poor as well as unprepared for war, its armed forces experienced defeat after defeat. By January 1941, for instance, the British held 113,000 Italian prisoners. The Italians' failure in Libya and the Balkans burdened Hitler with some of his most exasperating problems.

Stalin's court was cruder and far more dangerous than Hitler's court. Kershaw's chapter on Moscow begins with an obscene remark uttered by Stalin a few days after the beginning of the German invasion: "Lenin left us a great legacy, but we, his heirs, have f--d it up." Kershaw also reminds us that in the late 1930s, no one in a high position in the Soviet Union was safe. In 1937- 1938 alone, 110,000 people were shot, including 80 of the 101 highest military commanders. Still, all was not insane self-destruction. After 1935, for instance, Soviet diplomacy worked hard, although ultimately unsuccessfully, to isolate Nazi Germany and to assemble all left-wing forces into so-called Popular Fronts. This was in complete contradiction to Stalin's earlier policy, which had aimed at isolating and destroying all non-communist left-wingers as "social fascists." After some initial success, however, the Popular Fronts failed everywhere; nor did Great Britain and France show serious interest in concluding a military alliance with Stalin. This led the Soviets to accept the idea of an accommodation with Nazi Germany.

On August 23, 1939, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was signed in Moscow, which provided for the division of Eastern Europe between the Soviet Union and Germany. Kershaw insists that the pact favored Germany more than it did the Soviet Union, because even though the Soviets gained large territories, the brutality of their annexations earned them the hatred of the Romanians, the Western Ukrainians, and the Baltic peoples. For this the Russian people--and, one might add, even more the Jews, the eternal scapegoats--later paid a terrible price. Moreover, Stalin abandoned the line of defense along the old Soviet frontier in favor of a new line of defense to be drawn up in the newly annexed territories. For this, however, it was too late.

Stalin harbored no illusions about the brittleness of the German-Soviet alliance, and he ordered preparations for the inevitable confrontation. But he wanted to delay the conflict until 1942: under no circumstances should an earlier German attack be provoked. He dismissed all reports about the imminent Operation Barbarossa. He treated Churchill's repeated warnings as a deliberate attempt to mislead him. There would be no invasion of the Soviet Union precisely because the British prime minister said that there would be one. The German attack on June 22, 1941 came as a complete surprise to Stalin and the rest of the Soviet leadership. They rallied only after millions of soldiers, as well as thousands of tanks and airplanes, were lost.

After discussing Moscow in the summer of 1940, Kershaw takes us once more to the inner circle in Washington. There Roosevelt and his subordinates constituted a formidable team. Despite the inevitable mutual jealousies and disagreements on the proper political timetable, Secretary of State Cordell Hull, Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox, Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall, and others were keen on stopping Germany and Japan in their tracks-- but without risking for Roosevelt the loss of the next presidential elections.

Since Roosevelt decided, in the summer of 1941, to wage an undeclared war against Germany as well as to force Japan economically to disgorge some of its recent territorial conquests, Tokyo took the decision, in the autumn of 1941, to go to war against the United States. This occurred, with what we might now call shock and awe, on December 7. At that point Kershaw's story might have ended, but instead he has added an interesting chapter on how Hitler decided to declare war on the United States, thereby making the war even more global. Incidentally, one of Kershaw's main perplexities is why, in 1941, the Soviet Union and Japan did not declare war on each other. This left two great powers at peace with each other, at least until August 1945 when the Soviets smashed the Kwantung army in Manchuria and Korea, making World War II completely global, if only for a few days.

The book's last chapter is devoted to the Holocaust, which seems to break the thematic unity of the other chapters. Up to now, Kershaw's concern has been entirely with strategic decisions. Many might argue that the extermination of five or six million European Jews did not in any way alter diplomatic or military strategy--that it did not affect the course of the war. Remember that the British and the Americans, not to speak of the Soviets, refused to divert aircraft to destroy certain concentration camps or the railroad lines leading to them. But Kershaw argues that the Nazi program for the "Final Solution of the Jewish Question," adopted in the summer and autumn of 1941, was for Hitler a strategic decision. In his view, the war could never be won unless the Jews were destroyed. Attributing defeat in World War I to a Jewish conspiracy, the Fuhrer wished to avoid a repetition of that mistake. Kershaw writes: "The decision to kill the Jews of Europe, though it arose in quite specific circumstances in 1941, followed an inexorable, awful logic." And so, in his view, the Holocaust must be seen as one of the "Ten Decisions That Changed the World" at that time.

One can agree with this view only up to a point. It is true that, as he observes, "the Nazi war on the Jews was a central component of ... the Second World War itself--the greatest slaughter the world has ever known." It is also true that the Nazis' unwillingness to make use of German-Jewish talent and patriotism, which had been crucial factors in strengthening the German war effort between 1914 and 1918, seriously weakened Germany between 1939 and 1945. Moreover, the Nazis' willingness to destroy millions of able-bodied Jewish men and women at a time of catastrophic labor shortage in Germany was inspired by Hitler's "strategic" considerations and did have some effect on the conduct of the war. And consider, finally, Adolf Eichmann's ability to divert hundreds of trains for the transportation of Jews to Auschwitz gas chambers, especially in 1944, when the trains were desperately needed at the eastern front. And yet it must be said, on the other hand, that the killing of the Jews did not in any way affect the Allied prosecution of the war, and so in this sense the influence of the Holocaust on Allied or German military strategy was very limited indeed.

In a stimulating "Afterthoughts" chapter, Kershaw reflects on whether these ten decisions could have been avoided, or others been made instead. His answer is that there were barely any alternatives. It is a little surprising, perhaps, in a book that studies the free historical agency of political and military leaders, and casts the individual in such a central role in history, to find this sense of historical inevitability; but it pervades Kershaw's book. In his telling, the British in May 1940 had really no choice but to hold out if they wanted to avoid total humiliation and the end of their empire, not to speak of the end of Western civilization. Unable to mount an invasion of Great Britain, Hitler had hardly any choice but to seek Britain's isolation through an attack on the Soviet Union. Stalin, once he had committed the folly of coming to an agreement with the Nazis, had no choice but to defend himself when attacked by his erstwhile allies. The Japanese were unwilling to surrender their imperial policy achieved through several decades of painful re-armament and modernization; and, finally, the United States could not allow Japan to dominate China as well as to interrupt the balance in the Western Hemisphere. And so events took their inexorable course. This led to victory for the Western democracies, but it led to victory, too, for Stalin's tyrannical empire.

But is Kershaw right in devoting a large book to individual political decisionmakers? Today, when professors advise their doctoral candidates to write on great historical trends--on social, psychological, and cross-cultural currents, or on economic underpinnings, social classes, and institutional developments--it is not surprising to find that research projects and pathbreaking studies on diplomatic and political history have become a rarity. Yet Kershaw's book is precisely that: a diplomatic and political history.

Clearly, industrial and economic developments were crucial for wartime decision-making. The United States, Japan, the Soviet Union, and Germany were first-rate industrial powers; Great Britain less so; Italy not at all. And yet in none of these states did the captains of industry dictate strategy to the politicians. Instead they worked for the government--with a handsome profit to themselves, but still under strict state control. Political leaders such as Roosevelt, who understood his country's economic situation, wisely abstained from entering the war before the industry was ready. Stalin attempted to do the same in 1941, but was overruled by the German attack. Hitler was rightly convinced that Germany had only a few years before its enemies would outstrip the country's and even Europe's production figures, and so he was always in a hurry with regard to strategic planning. Yet in 1940, for domestic political reasons, he allowed the war industry to fall grievously behind. In sum, then, it was not economic forces that dictated German policy; it was Hitler who dictated economic developments.

Historians and political thinkers used to attribute enormous significance to the behavior and collective strategies of specific social classes, especially the working class, which was said to hold the power to stop a war or even to turn it against its makers. This dearly held idea proved to be wrong during World War I and again during World War II. No doubt, the discontent of French workers, or rather of trade-union leaders, was partly responsible before the war for sagging production figures in tanks and fighter planes, but that is not why France was defeated in 1940. The French army in that year still had better tanks and more artillery than did the Germans. Similarly, the relative satisfaction of German workers, now free of the threat of unemployment, contributed to the rapid development of the pre-war armament industry in that country.

But the war itself proved that European workers were neither more nor less "progressive" than members of other social groups. Their role in the anti-Nazi resistance was less significant than that of intellectuals or of army officers. True, hundreds of French railroad men and hundreds of Belgian miners, most of them communist trade-union members, fought and died in the resistance movement, but other railroad men unhesitatingly served the Germans or the collaborationist governments. (And without the assistance of railroad engineers and stokers, whether in France, Poland, the Netherlands, or Hungary, the Final Solution could not have been implemented.) Mainly, it was a question of money and nationality: Czech workers toiled diligently in the German-run factories throughout the war, because of their good pay and good food rations; Polish workers often engaged in sabotage, because of their low pay and starvation food rations. German workers in uniform served their country well; but Italian workers in uniform were likely to surrender to the enemy in a war that few Italians considered their own.

And what about the role of religion? It is astonishing how limited a role religion and the churches played in World War II, as opposed to the wars of the early modern age or today's conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan. Polish Catholic laymen and priests resisted the Nazis and the Soviets and were victimized by the two in turn, but then Catholicism and Polishness were virtually interchangeable. The German Catholic clergy and the faithful generally supported the war effort, especially when it came to fighting Bolshevism, even though they objected to many aspects of Nazi practices and doctrine. Catholic and Protestant clergymen in the rest of Europe might or might not have been in favor of Nazi Germany, depending on their nationality and the local circumstances. During the war, the Soviet leadership employed Eastern Orthodox clergymen to promote Russian and Slavic patriotism. In Yugoslavia, Catholic Croats and Orthodox Serbs were killing each other in the name of both nationality and religion. Overall, however, one can argue that had no religions and no churches existed in Europe between 1939 and 1945, the war would have been fought practically the same way. The role of religion in the Japanese theater of war was even more doubtful.

The same cannot be said, of course, about the causal influence of nationalism. It was the principal motivation for the German conquest in the East and for collaboration as well as resistance in occupied Europe. Ukrainians, Slovaks, Croats, Albanians, Bosnians, Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians expected national salvation from the German occupiers; Czechs, Serbs, Poles, and Russians feared the German presence because the national ambitions of the ethnic minorities and the neighboring nations. Modern studies show that even in such countries as Norway and France, where statehood was not in doubt, the main motivation of the resistance movement was not political ideology but patriotism. In Europe, and to a lesser degree in East Asia, the perceived need for the nation to rid itself of ethnic minorities was why people joined or opposed the German and Japanese war effort. World War II was not only a clash among great powers and a clash of conflicting ideologies, it was also a series of civil wars and ethnic conflicts. The most important and lasting outcome of the war was ethnic cleansing, which forever changed the demography and the ethnic composition of many countries. The five million East European Jews who were killed during the war, and the thirteen million East European Germans who were expelled after the war, did not return to their homeland; nor will their descendants.

In view of all this, we must return to the underlying premise so eloquently propounded by Kershaw: that the major events of World War II were the work of individuals. In August 1939, Hitler and Stalin agreed to smash Poland and to re- divide Eastern Europe, yet no more than a handful of assistants had advance knowledge of all this. Without Churchill's eloquence and dynamism, the war against Nazism would have come to an end nearly as soon as it started. Hitler and Hitler alone decided to invade the Soviet Union. Roosevelt and his trusted associates prepared the United States for war. And it was only when the emperor of Japan nodded his head that a mighty Japanese fleet, loaded with attack aircraft, sailed for Hawaii.

By Istvan Deak