four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
30-Sept-Oct-2007
By: 
Ian Kershaw
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Ten Decisions That Changed The World, 1940-1941

A-Fateful ChoicesDuring the 19-month period starting in May 1940, leaders of the Allies and the Axis made decisions that had far-reaching effects on how the war was waged. Historian Ian Kershaw offers his top 10 events that shaped the early part of World War II, including Churchill’s decision to fight Germany, despite the fall of France; Stalin’s unwillingness to concede that an uneasy peace with Germany would be broken by Hitler’s relentless attack; Japan’s efforts to control the Pacific, culminating in an attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941; and Hitler’s resolve in initiating the Holocaust. No single decision determined the war’s outcome, though close examination of those "fateful choices" and the leaders who made them gives us a better understanding of how the war unfolded.
Penguin. 641 pages. $35. ISBN: 1594201234

Guardian 4 of 5 Stars
"The book may be a little repetitive in places, but the background to each stage is brilliantly explained. … [Kershaw] poses the alternatives and their likely consequences without stumbling into the terrible bog of counterfactual history." Antony Beever

Independent 4 of 5 Stars
"[Fateful Choices] is a magisterial, richly textured and very readable book. … Kershaw’s deft character sketches are one of the major attractions of the book, and he raises interesting issues about the role of personality in history." Gary Sheffield

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"The central achievement of Ian Kershaw’s latest book is to make new some bits of history you thought you already had a handle on. … Fateful Choices … is far from being just another deadweight addition to the already bowing shelves of World War II dope." Christopher Bray

NY Times Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Fateful Choices is not quite as stimulating or engrossing as the best analytical studies of World War II, my personal favorites being Richard Overy’s Why the Allies Won (1996) and Eric Larrabee’s Commander in Chief: Franklin Delano Roosevelt, His Lieutenants, and Their War (1987). But Kershaw does an excellent job of synthesizing a great deal of scholarship and thereby helping to further our understanding of this epic struggle—as well as of the role of contingency in the making of history." Max Boot

Sunday Telegraph 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Kershaw displays here those same qualities of scholarly rigour, careful argument and sound judgement that he brought to bear so successfully in his life of Hitler. Nothing is taken for granted, and by the end it is clear in every case why the decision was made." Richard Overy

Critical Summary

In Fateful Choices, Ian Kershaw, professor of history at England’s University of Sheffield and author of multiple volumes on Hitler, including the acclaimed two-volume biography Hubris (1999) and Nemesis (2000), has done his research, and his arguments here possess the same reasoned analysis that he brought to the Hitler books. Not all key decisions were made in the opening months of the war, of course, and critics wonder whether the author might have chosen other events to examine, including the offensive attacks by Japan and Germany that were catalysts for the war in the first place. Nonetheless, Kershaw offers a solid primer on the war’s early history and a fresh perspective on the events that avoids the "terrible bog of counterfactual history" (Guardian) so popular these days in history books. Fateful Choices is engaging, and its insights into the decision-making process valuable.

Cited by the Critics

Why the Allies Won | Richard Overy (1996): Overy looks at the military, macroeconomic, and moral forces at work that led the Allies to victory. At one moment, the author examines the tactical superiority of the Soviets at Stalingrad; at another he cites the fact that the Germans had more than 425 different models of aircraft to manufacture and maintain. Overy then explores how the moral certainty of the Allies gave them the strongest motivation to win.