Blame It on Mussolini

R.W. Johnson

  • Fateful Choices: Ten Decisions that Changed the World 1940-41 by Ian Kershaw
    Allen Lane, 624 pp, £30.00, June 2007, ISBN 978 0 7139 9712 5

The Second World War is the conflict that shaped all our lives and will go on shaping lives for generations to come. Looking at it in terms of the key decisions that determined its course and outcome – all of them taken in a period of about eighteen months – could have had the effect of disposing of the war as the sort of heroic recitation that too much TV history has turned it into. Instead, by focusing on the strategic choices facing the various actors, and the way these were transformed by the shifting tides of the war itself, Ian Kershaw gives a far stronger sense of the open-endedness of things. Very little about the war was inevitable. Many of the biggest decisions were, by most counts, irrational, even crazy: Britain’s to fight on against hopeless odds; Germany’s attack on Russia and Stalin’s refusal to believe in it till after it happened; Japan’s attacking an enemy it could not defeat; and Germany’s doing the same by declaring war on America. No one could possibly have predicted any of these, let alone Hitler’s attempt to annihilate European Jewry, an act without precedent. One of Kershaw’s greatest triumphs is getting inside each of these decisions and showing how natural and right they came to seem to those who took them.

But the Second World War was also a war of rapid movement, in which sweeping changes transformed the strategic situation almost overnight. There is no better example than the German advance across Scandinavia and Western Europe in the first half of 1940. The world had seen the Wehrmacht dispose swiftly of the Poles but everyone knew that had been a war in which cavalry charged against tanks. The astonishing ease with which the Germans overwhelmed the Danes, Norwegians, Belgians, Dutch and French, and reduced to ruins the large British Expeditionary Force sent to help them, left no doubt as to how superior the Nazi forces were. In a few weeks Hitler had achieved what more than four years of struggle had failed to do in 1914-18. Habituated by that conflict to a front that moved only glacially, no one was prepared for the German raz de marée and its complete destabilisation of the old strategic balance.

Khrushchev was with Stalin when the startling news of the fall of France arrived in June 1940. ‘He’d obviously lost all confidence in the ability of our army to put up a fight. It was as though he’d thrown up his hands in despair and given up after Hitler crushed the French army . . . He let fly with some choice Russian curses and said that now Hitler was sure to beat our brains in.’ Stalin’s increased sense of vulnerability had the effect of making him determined to avoid provoking Germany. When Hitler invited Molotov to Berlin in November 1940 – a meeting, as Kershaw makes clear, of huge potential significance, though it has seldom received much attention – Stalin hurriedly complied. Hitler wanted to find out whether the USSR would join the Tripartite Pact with Germany, Italy and Japan, effectively dividing the world up into four, with the USSR encouraged to expand towards the Persian Gulf, the Middle East and India. Hitler already had it in mind to attack the USSR in 1941 but we can’t know how things would have gone had Molotov embraced Hitler’s plan. Clearly under orders from Stalin to exercise maximum caution, he doggedly contested every detail. Hitler, who had wanted to use the meeting to explore Soviet thinking, was frustrated and angry, concluding that any notion of a deal of that sort was hopeless.

The effect of June 1940 on Tokyo was electrifying. Japan immediately insisted that Britain and France stop allowing supplies through to the Chinese Nationalists – demands with which, humiliatingly, they had to comply. More important was the ‘golden opportunity’, as the army minister, Hata Shunroku, put it, of a sweeping Japanese expansion southward, opened up by the undermining of British, French and Dutch power in the Pacific. In the ensuing debates about American power, and whether or not to confront it, attention always quickly reverted to this ‘golden opportunity’, as Japan drifted steadily towards war with an enemy it knew it could not defeat. On 27 September 1940, it signed the Tripartite Pact with the idea that this would deter the US from reacting if Japan moved southward. When it became obvious that it had had the opposite effect, Tokyo convinced itself that backing down would mean disavowing everything that Japan had done and suffered since the original Mukden Incident in 1931, and would therefore be an unacceptable national humiliation.

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