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.
LRB 29 November 2007 | PDF Download