Ian Kershaw’s Fateful Choices: Ten Decision That Changed the World 1940-1941 is an outstanding history of a time of immensely influential but not necessarily obvious decisions made by dictatorships and democracies. There are many dangers in the study and writing of history, such as navigating the risk of hindsight bias—of course, someone acted in such and such a way because of this and that reason compelled the decision. We better understand the reasons and compulsions that affected the decision-makers because we know how the decisions turned out and we can know the simultaneous acts of others that affect the outcome. On the other hand, when titanic forces are on the move, the importance—even the reality—of individual decisions can become mere chimeras in comparison to the great impersonal forces that shape the course of events. Kershaw’s book shows how historians can understand and appreciate the decisions of actors in the face of profound change and uncertainty. Individual decisions do make a difference, although all human decisions are constrained. The constraints may arise from within the individual, such as his [sic] values, goals, and beliefs (true and false); from the effects of other actors in a strategic game; or from the effects of Nature’s whims. The historian—and I think I’m following Collingwood here, as I believe Kershaw implicitly does—must “re-enact” (Collingwood’s term) the thoughts (and perceptions) of the actors as they sought to act in their worlds. Of course, such as undertaking of “re-enactment” is at best partial and incomplete. Any representation of reality, no matter how concurrent it may be, must always result in “reality-lite” in any re-telling. Yet, despite the limitations, some efforts are more successful, more edifying, that others and Kershaw’s work fits this description.
The ten decisions that Kershaw addresses were momentous and did change the course of history (if we can say that history has a course; perhaps we should say that it unfolds willy-nilly like the weather—somewhat predictable only in the shortest run). For instance, Kershaw opens with the decision of the British cabinet to continue the war against Hitler even as France is falling. Here, of course, we see the importance of a single individual, Winston Churchill, who has only just assumed the post of Prime Minister. Under the lead of Lord Halifax, the British contemplated cutting a deal with Hitler that some hoped would preserve the Empire and guaranty of freedom of the seas for them. Indeed, Hitler hoped that Britain would take just such a course. In this account—also brilliantly relayed in John Lukacs’s Five Days in London: May 1940—Kershaw reveals the uncertainty, yet underlying value, of the reasoned arguments required by the British parliamentary democracy. In contrast, for instance, consider another decision that Kershaw recounts: that of Stalin to ignore the numerous sources that warned him of Hitler’s impending attack. Stalin’s refusal to act on the warnings he received allowed the Soviet Union to come perilously close to falling in the face German onslaught. (The fascinating question is what combination of wishful thinking, outright denial, or strategic miscalculation (Stalin thought Hitler wouldn’t dare open a second front with the British fighting on) took place in Stalin’s mind, but Kershaw is not, nor is any historian, a mind-reader.)
Kershaw also includes chapters on the Japanese decision to attack Pearl Harbor and engage the U.S. in a war in the Pacific; Mussolini’s reckless and ill-fated decision to enter actively into the war; and the evolution of the Final Solution from the circumstances of the conquest of Eastern Europe with its huge Jewish population. For Americans, Kershaw details Roosevelt’s decisions to come—slowly, hesitantly—to Britain’s aid, and then his eventual decision to risk war in the North Atlantic by engaging German U-boats. In another chapter, Hitler, a couple of days after Pearl Harbor, declares war on the U.S., relieving Roosevelt from the need to make a case for a war in both Europe and the Pacific. Kershaw details the rationality of this decision that might, at first glance, seem quite irrational.
Whether one is a student of WWII history (as I am) or just an occasional history reader, this is a first-class work of history that will entertain (well, if you like narratives of political decisions) and instruct. We all see through a glass darkly, but some put on darker glasses than others. Kershaw helps us see more clearly.