George Kennan has called World War I "the original catastrophe." And indeed it was, as it destroyed old and fairly stable empires and led to World War II, a global conflict of incredible carnage, destruction and genocide that challenges our very definition of what it means to be human.
Central to that gruesome chronicle is the biography of Adolf Hitler, whose life and times were the subject of a massive and informed two-volume study by Ian Kershaw of the University of Sheffield. Continuing his interest in that war, Mr. Kershaw has now made the fascinating argument that a series of critical decisions made in 1940 and 1941 laid the groundwork for what followed in so many ways.
In "Fateful Choices," he starts with the decision of the British war cabinet under Winston Churchill's leadership not to approach Hitler through Italian dictator Benito Mussolini for an early peace settlement. Others have made much of this initial debate in May 1940, but that historical approach is perhaps a bit inflated.
There is nothing to suggest that either Hitler or Mussolini would have even considered such a settlement, and Churchill was correct: Such hesitations would simply hurt the morale of the anti-Nazi forces. Still, Mr. Kershaw provides a full treatment of this debate, which indeed did take place. And so England stood alone, alone in what became its "finest hour."
Hitler, unable to defeat the British people, decided to turn on the Soviet Union — a nation he was sure was polluted by Bolshevik Jewry. Ignoring the bitter lessons that attended Napoleon's earlier attack on Czarist Russia, Hitler unleashed his armed forces against Russia and its republics, and they waged a titanic struggle leading to the Battle of Stalingrad. It was to become the turning point of World War II.
After Stalingrad, even Hitler knew he could not prevail in his plans. In many ways, the Red Army won the war. In Gerry Roberts' "Stalin's Wars," Stalin is seen as the man who made the world safe for democracy! Another major related decision is the commanding presence of dictator Josef Stalin over the full war effort despite his earlier hesitations.
Across the ocean, Japan's militaristic regime and the emperor moved south, finally attacking Pearl Harbor, which of course brought the United States and its economic might into the war. Before that attack, President Franklin D. Roosevelt made convoluted and difficult decisions to aid England in the early stages, and then waged an undeclared war on the Nazis, especially in the sea lanes.
After Pearl Harbor, Hitler insisted on declaring war on the United States, and suddenly all domestic opposition to intervention came to an end. Mr. Kershaw outlines the gruesome details of Hitler and the Nazi leadership's plans to kill the Jews, a decision that was not a byproduct of the war but an integral part of their strategy of conquest and enslavement. Lastly, Mussolini's hapless desire to grab some spoils of war for Italy led to an attack on Greece.
Of course, World War II is more than year one, and many more important decisions were made by the Allies and by the Axis, but Mr. Kershaw has given us a well-written and tightly drawn account of 1940 and 1941. He shows also that underneath the swirl of events, economic conditions, concerns about empires and national rivalries lies the importance of individuals who make history, for better or worse.
There are no surprises here — Churchill and Roosevelt are still larger than life heroes and Hitler, Mussolini and the Japanese military are the villains. Bertolt Brecht once said that unhappy is the land that needs heroes; he was wrong in this case. There were many miscalculations and intelligence failures, and indeed Dame Luck, what Machiavelli called "fortuna," is important in the fates of war.
When one looks at the magnitude of those decisions in the global war, one must stop and remind oneself how important elections and appointed offices are in determining consequences and foreclosing options. Considering the good and bad leaders we merit, even with institutional restrictions and constitutional safeguards, we cannot afford to denigrate the central importance of wisdom, judgment and personal integrity.
Michael P. Riccards is the author of the two-volume history of the presidency "The Ferocious Engine of Democracy."