Why It Happened the Way It Did | The Nation


Why It Happened the Way It Did

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The German declaration of war freed Roosevelt from his dilemma. Now the United States could enter the conflict openly and without any reservation or holding back. Kershaw asks, Was this a megalomaniacal act of folly on Hitler's part? No, is his answer: War with the United States was inevitable anyway, and the Japanese aggression would tie up American resources in the Pacific, allowing Germany to win the war in Europe before the full might of the US military was brought to bear on the Anglo-Soviet side. Even had Hitler not issued his declaration, the escalating submarine war in the Atlantic would have brought America in sooner rather than later. Hitler's decision, therefore, was not fateful after all--a verdict that, while convincing enough, rather undermines its inclusion in a book titled Fateful Choices.

About the Author

Richard J. Evans
Richard J. Evans is Regius Professor of History and president of Wolfson College, University of Cambridge. His books...

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The second decision prompted, at least to some extent, by America's growing involvement in the war, was, however, truly fateful: Hitler's decision to exterminate the Jews of Europe. In a sense, says Kershaw, there was no decision that could be "traced to a single order on a specific day." Certainly, explicit orders have survived from Hitler ordering the mass killing of Polish intellectuals and the ethnic cleansing of Jews from the areas of Poland incorporated into Germany after the German invasion of September 1939.

In 1941 Hitler's orders were less explicit, but according to Kershaw, the wide powers he gave to SS chief Heinrich Himmler, to "pacify" the newly conquered areas and kill Soviet political commissars and Jews who posed a security threat, were decisive. By early August 1941 Himmler's task forces and police units were indiscriminately massacring Jewish men, women and children in vast numbers, in a process of which Hitler was kept well informed.

In October 1941 the Nazi authorities began the eastward deportation of Jews from Berlin, Prague, Vienna and other Central European cities, sending them to ghettos into which vast numbers of Polish and East European Jews had already been forced, living in rapidly deteriorating conditions. Meanwhile, the shooting of Jews by the "task forces" and police units reached new heights. Himmler began to try to resolve the situation by using poison gas as a quicker method of murdering people in large numbers: first in mobile vans, then through the construction of stationary facilities in extermination camps, beginning with Belzec in November 1941. To this degree, at any rate, the pace of events was beginning to force the Nazi leadership to make a fundamental decision and coordinate the program of killing in an orderly way--hence the decision to call a conference of the leading administrative agencies involved, at the Berlin suburb of Wannsee, in November 1941, postponed to January 1942 because of the declaration of war on the United States.

Speaking privately to Nazi leaders the day after the declaration of war on America, Hitler made it clear that "the world war is here. The annihilation of the Jews must be the necessary consequence." Reporting the speech to his underlings a few days later, the Governor-General of Poland, Hans Frank, was brutally explicit: "We must destroy the Jews wherever we find them." There were 3.5 million in his area alone. "We can't shoot these 3.5 million Jews," he said; "we can't poison them, but we must be able to take steps that will somehow lead to success in extermination." The decision had clearly been made, and it had been made by Hitler.

It is surprising, given the structure of this book, that in explaining Hitler's invasion of Russia, Kershaw does not give more prominence to Roosevelt's decision to bring about the de facto entry of the United States into the war. Through the summer and fall of 1941, Hitler repeatedly referred to what he saw as a malign worldwide Jewish conspiracy driving Roosevelt into an unholy alliance with Churchill and Stalin to bring about the destruction of Germany. All three statesmen, he believed, were under Jewish influence; and his private statements were backed up by anti-American propaganda pumped out by Goebbels's Propaganda Ministry in Berlin. Here is a link that Kershaw might have made more of.

As it turns out, therefore, not all the decisions analyzed in this book were fateful, and not all of them were, strictly speaking, decisions. But they were all connected in one way or another, and there is no doubt that together they helped determine the course of the war. Of course, one could easily pick alternative choices to the ten analyzed in this book, from British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's declaration of war on Germany in September 1939 to Hitler's refusal to let the German Ninth Army withdraw from Stalingrad at the end of 1942, from Churchill's order to bomb German cities the following year to the various decisions made by the key conspirators in the German Resistance's plot to kill Hitler in 1944, and so on. In the end, Kershaw does not really bother to argue for the fundamental importance of the period from May 1940 to November 1941 in shaping the course of the war; he knows that history isn't as simple as that. The way, indeed, would seem open for him to write a sequel, or even two sequels, to this book, covering the years 1942-43 and 1944-45. They would be well worth reading.

Such books, focusing on decision-making by wartime leaders, would seem at first sight to be far removed from the kind of social history in which Ian Kershaw began his career. But in some ways this contrast is deceptive. Kershaw nods in the direction of the individual in history: The "fateful choices" of Mussolini, Churchill, Hitler, Stalin and the rest, he says, "were directly determined by the sort of individuals they happened to be. At the same time, though," he goes on, "they were not made in a vacuum as arbitrary whims of personality. They were choices made under preconditions and under external constraints." One cannot help feeling that the personalities of the men who made the choices do not really interest Kershaw very much. In the end, then, this book is less about the fateful choices they made than about the factors that constrained them. That is precisely what lifts it out of the rut of ordinary military history and puts it into a class of its own.

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