Fateful Choices, by Ian Kershaw

But can those have been possible seeing that they never were? Or was that only possible which came to pass? Weave, weaver of the wind.
–Joyce, Ulysses

The author examines ten “fateful choices” that determined the course of the Second World War:

1. London, Spring 1940: Great Britain Decides to Fight On

2. Berlin, Summer and Autumn 1940: Hitler Decides to Attack the Soviet Union

3. Tokyo, Summer and Autumn 1940: Japan Decides to Seize the “Golden Opportunity”

4. Rome, Summer and Autumn 1940: Mussolini Decides to Grab His Share

5. Washington, DC, Summer 1940–Spring 1941: Roosevelt Decides to Lend a Hand

6. Moscow, Spring-Summer 1941: Stalin Decides He Knows Best

7. Washington, DC, Summer-Autumn 1941: Roosevelt Decides to Wage Undeclared War

8. Tokyo, Autumn 1941: Japan Decides to Go to War

9. Berlin, Autumn 1941: Hitler Decides to Declare War on the United States

10. Berlin/East Prussia, Summer-Autumn 1941: Hitler Decides to Kill the Jews

Through these more or less chronological decisions, though there is a great deal of overlap, the author explores how things happened to unfold and how they might have gone otherwise. There is a great amount of detail in the book, and probably too much for all but the most dedicated history buff–who met with whom when, what was said and written, movements in one direction stayed, reversed, moved to a new course, and sometimes back to the original plan.

FDR’s determination to get the US into the war in Europe to help Great Britain is examined closely. He knew his political limits and was careful not to go further than Congress would let him at any particular time, but always looking for the event that would justify a declaration of war against Germany. Hitler tried to hold off war with the US until he could achieve victory in the east, instructing the U-boats not to fire on American ships in the Atlantic. As it turned out, Japan struck first, and Germany declared war on the US under the Tripartite Pact, relieving FDR of having to justify getting into the war. As a matter of pride, Hitler wanted to beat the US to the punch and declare war first.

Stalin’s belief that he knew more than anyone around him made Barbarossa a surprise. It wasn’t that Stalin believed that the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of 1939 would prevent an attack by Germany–Stalin expected an attack, but not until 1942 and was furiously working to rebuild the Soviet Union’s armed forces, whose officer corps he had largely destroyed in the purges. When the news came on June 22, 1941, he was flatfooted. Kershaw considers the interesting prospect of what might have happened if the Soviet Union had taken the initiative and attacked the Germans in Poland. In the end, though making for fun speculation, this is unknowable.

 

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