Thursday, April 25, 2013

Book Review of Ian Kershaw's "Fateful Choices: Ten Decisions That Changed the World, 1940-1941"

Title: Fateful Choices: Ten Decisions That Changed the World, 1940-1941
Author: Ian Kershaw
Hardcover: 656 pages
Publisher: Penguin Press HC

In “Fateful Choices: Ten Decisions That Changed the World, 1940-1941”, Kershaw shows us that he is much more than just a bold surveyor and student of Nazi Germany. In this book, Kershaw takes a great historical leap forward in examining the key decisions made by the political and military leaders of the United States, Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, Soviet Russia, Fascist Italy, and the United Kingdom in the critical period that bridged the beginning of World War Two in Europe and America’s entry into it by way of Japan‘s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.

One incredibly intelligent and enhancing feature of “Fateful Choices” is Kershaw’s well-adjusted, polished, and well-versed usage of detailed sources and information. He gathers this information into a cohesive whole in which all ten decisions, made across divergent continents, perspectives, histories, and national interests are integrated into a close and authoritative reading of the brief but momentous historical interval that is covered in the work.

Kershaw concentrates on the period from May 1940 to December 1941. It was during this approximately one-and-a-half year interim that the author’s so designated “fateful choices” on how to pursue what would become the greatest military conflagration that the world had ever seen were settled upon. The reader can easily understand why Kershaw chose this narrow timeframe. In it, Winston Churchill became the Prime Minister of Great Britain and with the support of the British War Cabinet, was able to convince his critics and the British people that in the long run, it would be more advantageous to go to war against Hitler than reach some sort of political accommodation with him.

It is also during this period that the fateful decision of Adolf Hitler to invade the Soviet Union takes place. No history about World War Two can be written without reconstructing the military campaign that decided the final outcome of the war in Europe. Kershaw’s readers will be all the more illuminated about Nazi Germany’s attack on Russia, codenamed “Barbarossa”, when they pore over his account of what ideological agendas led Hitler to undertake the colossal endeavor. Readers will also be fascinated and equally astounded by Josef Stalin’s deleteriously-prominent role in hollowing out the USSR’s prewar ability to defend itself against a Nazi invasion.

It seems, given the international scope of “Fateful Choices”, that Kershaw is especially sensitive to the words, thought-processes, and actions of Adolf Hitler. This is perfectly understandable not simply because Kershaw is a consummate Hitlerologist, but due to the fact that the F├╝hrer is one of the constants that links all the book’s chapters. Even Kershaw’s fundamental considerations of distant Japan’s economic, military, and geopolitical aspirations bring into play, at one point or another, Hitler and his egomaniacal fixation with establishing Germany’s new place at the top of the most powerful nations on earth.

For many living in Southeast Asia prior to the inception of the Pacific War, Japan loomed large as a potential threat. The Japanese warlords, made up of the Imperial Japanese Navy and Army, were all-too cognizant of their nation’s limited sources of vital raw materials—materials that were primarily located in Western colonial territories in Southeast Asia—and that were essential to continuing the empire’s protracted war against China and realizing the Japanese leaders’ dream of a Pacific Ocean dominated by them.

Kershaw is the kind of historian who does not shy away from the tyranny of historical details. Mingled with his astute overall analyses, Kershaw displays a supreme grasp of the historical details that surround the pivotal decisions that are chronicled in his book. His strong grasp of the details allows Kershaw to paint an authoritative, in-depth, behind-the-scenes look that peels back a whole new layer of meaning and understanding in World War Two studies. The level of familiarity that Kershaw has with his subject-matter is such that you feel as if you have come out of a time warp and are now a fly on the wall during the war’s historic meetings, brainstorms, debates, and conversations, the outcomes of which would shake the foundations of global peace.

Readers may think by now, with the cornucopia of publications that have been written on it since Nazi Germany’s and Imperial Japan’s surrender in 1945, that they know the history of World War Two down to a tee. But Kershaw with his meticulous use of impressive wartime and post-wartime archival sources, coupled with his vast expertise on the conflict, makes the meanings of the wartime leaders’ decisions come out as far more complex and multifaceted than we have come to understand them.

This is particularly true of how different history could have looked today had any one of the “fateful choices” examined in Kershaw’s work had been altered, re-sequenced, re-defined, or tactically or strategically modified to any significant degree. A point that Kershaw makes is that seriously-contemplated alternatives to some of these choices nearly became state policy. These intriguing, what-if propositions would certainly have steered world history in another direction from the one that has been ingrained in what is by now our jaded historical consciousness.

What would have happened had England struck a deal at the outset to avoid war with Hitler? Or if Stalin had heeded the warnings of his intelligence contacts about the impending Nazi invasion of Russia? Or if the United States did not join the war in Europe, as isolationists in the country wanted? Or if Japan had embarked on an attack on the Soviet Union, a move that, in conjunction with Hitler’s Operation Barbarossa, may very well have spelled the doom of the USSR.

Memories of World War Two still flash in the minds of millions of people around the globe. But it is not enough to remember. It is equally important to apprehend the attendant causes of the conflict and to give credit where credit is due, however malevolent or benevolent, to the high-ranking personages who are to be held responsible for the genesis and conduct of the war. Readers should help themselves to the content in Ian Kershaw’s “Fateful Choices” for they will find themselves enriched and totally immersed in one of the most decisive and dramatic historical episodes that mankind has ever known.


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