It is only in hindsight that the course of a particular war seems inevitable. One reads the histories, sees the dominoes tumbling against each other in a clearly defined line and concludes it could not have been otherwise. The fact is, of course, that wars, particularly in their early stages, can shift in many different directions according to the actions that any one of the principals decides to take. It is only after armed forces are arrayed and hostilities commenced that alternate courses begin to close up.

In his latest book, Fateful Choices, British scholar and teacher Ian Kershaw, who won a Wolfson Literary Award for History for the second volume of his study of Adolf Hitler, examines 10 crucial decisions made by national leaders at the outset of World War II, choices that, he maintains, caused that global conflagration to evolve as it did. Those fateful choices all made between the spring of 1940 and the autumn of 1941 were England's decision to fight Germany rather than make concessions; Hitler's decision to fight the Soviet Union; Japan's decision to invade British, French and Dutch colonial possessions in Southeast Asia and to ally itself with Germany and Italy; Mussolini's decision that Italy must invade Greece; Roosevelt's decision that the U.S. would provide material support to England's war efforts without actually joining the war; Stalin's decision to ignore the evidence that Germany was going to attack Russia; Roosevelt's subsequent decision to wage an undeclared war against Germany; Japan's decision to declare war on the U.S.; Hitler's decision to follow Japan's lead against the U.S.; and Hitler's decision to exterminate the Jews. (This final chapter is heartbreaking to read because there is so little real-world context to make the slaughter seem even remotely rational.) As weighty as Kershaw's agenda is, he lightens it considerably by compacting each decision into a relatively fast-paced and stand-alone chapter. The number of principal players in the six nations involved is quite daunting, but the author provides a vital dramatis personae (complete job titles, responsibilities and dates) to simplify the matter.

Explaining the urgency under which these crucial decisions were made, Kershaw observes, 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 imperatives of expansion to acquire empire and overcome their status as perceived have not' nations. The imperialist dominance of Great Britain and the international power (even without formal empire) of the United States posed the great challenge. Whether history teaches anything useful and, if so, what it teaches, is not resolved here. But the study is, apart from its other virtues, a fascinating examination of the differences between how sweeping decisions are made within democracies and within dictatorships. Edward Morris reviews from Nashville.

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