It’s been fascinating following Ian Kershaw’s trajectory as a historian over the years. Trained as a specialist in the social and economic history of English monasteries in the Middle Ages, Kershaw changed countries and centuries in the late 1970s, in search of topics more relevant than medieval estate management. Two pathbreaking books were the result: The “Hitler Myth”: Image and Reality in the Third Reich (published in German in 1980; translated into English in 1987) and Popular Opinion and Political Dissent in the Third Reich: Bavaria 1933-1945 (1983).
Having begun his research independently, Kershaw had by this time become closely involved with the “Bavaria Project,” led by Martin Broszat, then director of the Institute of Contemporary History in Munich. Like other historians working on the project, Kershaw sought to reconstruct the history of Nazi Germany “from the bottom up” by using the extensive reports of the SS Security Service and local government officials on public morale and the voluminous and very detailed accounts of popular opinion smuggled out to the exiled German Social Democratic Party leaders in Prague by agents based in Germany. The resulting picture was complex and highly differentiated. Instead of presenting the conventional postwar clichés of a ruthless dictator bending everyone to his will, Kershaw showed a huge variety of popular responses to Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime, ranging from resistance and opposition through dissent and indifference to enthusiasm and praise.
In this vision, relatively few Germans were committed Nazis; most were lulled into acquiescence by Nazi propaganda and Nazi achievements in one or another area, objecting–sometimes with success–only when the regime interfered directly with the innermost values of their daily lives, most notably in matters of religious practice. All of this of course raised the question of how the regime managed to put its policies into effect. In The “Hitler Myth” Kershaw showed how the propaganda image of the Führer provided until near the end of the war a repository for people’s hopes and aspirations that deflected many of their discontents onto his subordinates or held out the prospect that he would eventually find a remedy. People were reluctant to believe that in reality Hitler was a man driven by a fanatical hatred of the Jews, a boundless desire for conquest and, at bottom, a deep contempt for the mass of ordinary Germans.
Kershaw’s pioneering study of Hitler’s propaganda image thus seemed to point naturally to the next step, a biography of the man himself. After a decade of research, the resulting two volumes–Hitler 1889-1936: Hubris (1998) and Hitler 1936-1945: Nemesis (2000), totaling nearly 2,000 pages–established themselves immediately as the standard works on the German dictator. Among their many virtues were their scrupulous scholarship, their meticulous sorting-out of fact from myth and, not least perhaps, Kershaw’s new, more relaxed style of writing, displaying a hitherto unsuspected talent for taut narrative, gripping description and the atmospheric re-creation of past events and situations.
Kershaw came to the biography, as he confessed at the time, from the “wrong direction”: not from the history of high politics and decision-making but from the history of everyday life and opinion in Nazi Germany. What resulted was a book that for the first time related Hitler convincingly to his historical context, that showed him as created by his times rather than acting independently upon them. The biography, indeed, rushes impatiently through Hitler’s obscure early life, dismisses psychological speculation about his motives (his alleged fears of Jewish ancestry, supposed homosexuality, early failure as a painter, etc.) and devotes only minimal and evidently somewhat irritated attention to the few episodes we know about in his personal life.
In Kershaw’s account Hitler appeared, in many ways, as a kind of blank space on which Germans, or rather key groups of them, projected their ambitions and aspirations. As time went on and he came to believe in his own myth, largely fashioned for him by others, Hitler assumed a more decisive–and ultimately disastrous–role in the formulation of policy, especially with regard to the war. This structuralist approach to the dictator’s role in the Third Reich has led to the charge, leveled most recently by Christopher Browning in The Origins of the Final Solution, that “Kershaw portrays Hitler’s role in actual decision making on Jewish policy,” as in other areas, as “passive, simply assenting to pressures and proposals from others.”
Perhaps, then, it is not surprising that in his latest book, Kershaw returns to the theme of decision-making, this time on a much broader scale. Here he offers a narrative and analysis of ten decisions, each influencing the ones that followed, starting with Britain’s decision to fight on in the spring of 1940 and Hitler’s decision to invade the Soviet Union, and moving through Japan’s decisions to ally with Germany and Italy and then to strike at Pearl Harbor, the Italian Fascist leader Benito Mussolini’s somewhat belated decision to join the war, US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s decisions to aid the British and then to escalate this into undeclared war against Germany, and Hitler’s decisions to declare war on the United States and to attempt the extermination of Europe’s Jews. As one might expect from Kershaw’s previous record, he does not delve too deeply into the psychology of the world leaders whose actions in 1940 and 1941 shaped the course of World War II, and thus the parameters of the postwar order. Like Hitler in the two-volume biography, they remain remarkably bland and elusive. Indeed, at times they virtually disappear as individual actors altogether. Thus, for example, Kershaw concludes that “the colossal risks which both Germany and Japan were prepared to undertake were ultimately rooted in the understanding among the power-elites in both countries of the imperative of expansion to acquire empire and overcome their status as perceived ‘have-not’ nations.”
Insofar as he is interested in the leaders as individuals, Kershaw is most fascinated by the constraints under which they operated and the broader factors by which their freedom of action was limited. Thus when Hitler rejected the advice of his military leaders to give priority to North Africa and the Mediterranean after the stunning victories they had achieved over France and the other Western European countries in 1940, he was, to be sure, driven by the ideological priority he had always given to the conquest of the Soviet Union. Yet at the same time, Kershaw argues cogently, “the decision to attack and destroy the Soviet Union…was strategically forced upon him. He had to gain victory in the east before Stalin could build up his defenses and before the Americans entered the war.”
Such decisions, Kershaw underscores, depended not least on previous decisions made by others, and some of these were less governed by force of circumstance than others. The decision with which he opens the book is a case in point. In late May 1940, as it became clear that France had been defeated and it looked as if the British forces sent to aid the French would be killed or captured before they could be evacuated from the Continent, powerful voices within the British Cabinet, led by the Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax, began to be raised in favor of seeking mediation through the Italians, first via Roosevelt, then, when that failed, in a direct Anglo-French approach to Mussolini. Newly appointed British Prime Minister Winston Churchill had to use all the rhetorical force at his command to quash the idea:
Signor Mussolini, if he came in as mediator, would take his whack out of us. It was impossible to imagine that Herr Hitler would be so foolish as to let us continue our re-armament. In effect, his terms would put us completely at his mercy. We should get no worse terms if we went on fighting, even if we were beaten, than were open to us now.
If Britain sued for peace, he said, it would be forced to disarm and become a slave state, under a puppet government run by British Fascist leader Sir Oswald Mosley. In the event, the French decided to go it alone; their peace feelers were rudely rebuffed by Mussolini, who did indeed want to “take his whack.” Nearly 225,000 British troops were evacuated from the Continent at Dunkirk, an event that Churchill’s stirring rhetoric remarkably turned from a calamitous defeat into some sort of victory. And Britain fought on.
What would have happened if Halifax and his allies had carried the day in the Cabinet? Here, following Churchill’s lead, Kershaw engages in some fascinating counterfactual speculation. Certainly, he argues, in the event of a peace between Britain and Germany in May or June 1940, Hitler would have demanded the sacking of the Churchill administration. But more likely as a successor than the unpopular and discredited Mosley would have been a widely admired politician such as David Lloyd George, Britain’s prime minister in World War I and a self-professed admirer of Hitler. Lloyd George indeed envisaged a role of this sort, possibly under a restored King Edward VIII, whose sympathies with Nazi Germany and belief in the need for a separate peace with Hitler were also on record. This would have been something like the regime installed in France in 1940 under the hero of France’s army in World War I, Marshal Philippe Pétain, though initially at least without its Fascist leanings. A rival government, possibly under Churchill, might have been set up in Canada. But with Britain effectively on Germany’s side, the swelling tide of American aid would have been stopped, and Hitler would have been free to marshal all his forces, whenever he wanted to, for the long-desired invasion of the Soviet Union. And whatever he might say, Hitler would not have waited long before embarking on the dismemberment of the British Empire, contrary to the view expressed by some later historians such as Maurice Cowling, Alan Clark and John Charmley, who have argued that a separate peace with Germany in 1940 would have been the best way to have preserved it.
How legitimate is this kind of speculation? Kershaw is careful not to take it too far; indeed, he does not go much beyond the scenarios painted by Churchill himself on this occasion. Rather than draw imaginative pictures of what might have happened, Kershaw seeks to assess the alternatives open to the decision-makers. He does no more than hint that a peace with Britain in 1940 might have increased the chances of Hitler’s defeating the Soviet Union. But in fact, those chances were never very great. Though Germany might have had “all the Continent’s material resources at its disposal” in such an event, the Nazi exploitation of the defeated French and other economies was so ruthless that these counted for relatively little in the long run. The Soviet Union defeated Germany largely on its own.
Hitler’s decision to invade Russia was made in the summer and autumn of 1940, prompted, Kershaw argues, not least by the German dictator’s knowledge that with Britain still in the war, the vast resources of the US economy would soon be pouring into the British war effort in ever-increasing quantities. It is possible to imagine, as Kershaw does, that if the counsels of the German generals had prevailed and the German war effort been directed toward the conquest of North Africa and the Middle East, gaining vast oil reserves desperately needed by the Nazi economy and cutting off the main British supply route to the East through the Suez Canal, the fatal confrontation with the Soviet Union might have been postponed, perhaps indefinitely.
As it was, Hitler got the worst of both worlds. Turning to Mussolini’s decision to join the war on the German side after the crushing defeat of France, Kershaw portrays the Italian elites as avid for a share of the spoils. Remaining neutral would have enabled Italy to have husbanded its weak resources in the traditional manner by playing one side off against the other. Mussolini should, perhaps, have remembered the sarcastic remark of a Russian negotiator at a peace conference in the late nineteenth century, that since the Italians were demanding an increase in their territory, he supposed they must have lost another battle. Disappointed with Hitler’s refusal to accede to his demands in the West, Mussolini made the fatal decision to invade Greece. Soon, Italian military failures there and in North Africa had sucked the Germans into a theater of war in which they did not really want to fight.
Hitler would later complain that this diversion of German resources cost him the war by forcing him to postpone the invasion of Russia, officially known as Operation Barbarossa. If the invasion had taken place earlier, he claimed, the Germans could have defeated the Red Army before the rains bogged down the German advance in the fall. But as Kershaw points out, bad weather in May and early June would have postponed the invasion anyway. What is more, in the first weeks of the Russian campaign, Hitler anticipated victory well before the fall. Hundreds of thousands of Soviet troops were surrounded and killed or captured in vast encircling movements driven forward by fast-moving German armor backed up by complete German domination of the skies. The collapse of the Soviet regime seemed imminent.
Responsibility for the Russians’ near defeat, Kershaw argues, must lie principally with Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, whose decision to ignore the warnings pouring in from intelligence agents about an impending German invasion in June 1941 forms the subject of another chapter. What alternatives were open to Stalin? One that was put to him by leading generals the previous month was to launch a pre-emptive strike. The documentary traces of this have provided fuel for those who have tried to argue that Hitler invaded in order to stop the Red Army from marching westward. But Kershaw persuasively rejects this “far-fetched interpretation.” Operation Barbarossa had been in preparation for many months before the idea of a pre-emptive strike by the Red Army was first mooted. Therefore the strike was to have been a defensive move.
After the war, one of its principal authors, Gen. Georgi Zhukov, admitted it would probably have been a dismal failure anyway. The Red Army and its leadership had been crippled by Stalin’s purges in the late 1930s. The frantic arms program launched in 1939 had not gotten very far; Stalin did not think the Soviet military would be in a position to fight the Germans successfully until 1942. He rejected the idea out of hand. “Have you gone mad?” he exploded: “Do you want to provoke the Germans?” Stalin knew how poorly prepared his forces were, and he was playing desperately for time, even continuing deliveries of goods and raw materials under the Nazi-Soviet Pact signed in 1939 up to six days before the invasion.
Ideologically blinkered, the Soviet dictator would not tolerate any dissent from his own complacent assessment of the situation. Kershaw does not say what Stalin’s ideological preconceptions were, but as a good Marxist-Leninist, Stalin was convinced that Hitler’s regime was the tool of German monopoly capitalism, so that if he made available everything German business wanted, there would be no immediate reason to invade. Moreover, he thought it inconceivable that Hitler would launch an invasion while the war with Britain was still in progress. Surely the German dictator was aware of the folly of waging a war on two fronts? But Hitler held the Soviet Union in boundless contempt. One push, he thought, and the whole edifice of Communism would come crashing down.
It did not. By the end of 1941 the German armies had been fought to a standstill before Moscow, and though they made further, major advances in 1942, the factor most feared by Hitler, the growth of US aid for Britain and to a lesser extent also the Soviet Union, now came increasingly into play. Kershaw devotes two chapters to decisions made by Roosevelt. On October 30, 1940, the President promised American mothers and fathers: “Your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign war.” By this time, he had already long been convinced that German expansionism posed a fundamental threat to the United States. He was right.
As Kershaw remarks, Hitler had always envisaged in the longer term “a war of the continents” in which a German-dominated Europe would launch a final struggle for world supremacy with the United States. But Roosevelt knew that he would never get Congress to support a declaration of war on Germany. So he proceeded cautiously, step by step, to shore up first the British and then the Soviet war effort. “I do not think we need worry about any possibility of Russian domination,” he declared shortly after the launching of Operation Barbarossa. Lend-lease, which made available vast quantities of war materiel to Britain and later Russia, was followed by the Atlantic Charter, implicitly allying the United States with Britain by stating the common democratic principles they sought to uphold, while a clash between a German U-boat and an American destroyer provided the pretext for persuading Congress to approve American warships protecting Allied merchant ships and convoys in the American half of the Atlantic in the interests of the “freedom of the seas.”
Roosevelt’s decision to wage undeclared war on Germany had an impact on two crucial decisions made by Hitler. The first of these was the German declaration of war on the United States on December 11, 1941. The introduction of lend-lease had already convinced Hitler that the Soviet Union needed to be defeated quickly, before American resources could be thrown into the fray on the Allied side. The more US naval forces intervened to protect British shipping, the more Hitler began to fear that unless he could unleash the full force of his submarine fleet against them, the battle of the Atlantic would be lost, and his attempt to cut off essential supplies of food, arms and raw materials from the British Isles would fail. Yet he continued to hesitate until the Japanese bombed the US Pacific naval base at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. This was, Hitler said, a “deliverance.” “We can’t lose the war,” was his response. On December 11, the formal declaration of war on the United States was made.
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.
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.