Fateful Choices: Ten Decisions that Changed the World, 1940‐1941

Jacques Richardson ((member of foresight's editorial board))


ISSN: 1463-6689

Article publication date: 11 April 2008



Richardson, J. (2008), "Fateful Choices: Ten Decisions that Changed the World, 1940‐1941", Foresight, Vol. 10 No. 2, pp. 70-72. https://doi.org/10.1108/14636680810869707



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2008, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Looking back on going ahead, but directly to war

Any manager or leader bearing the responsibility of making the decision of a lifetime will be mesmerised by historian Ian Kershaw's systematic analysis of the origins of the Second World War – and exactly who decided what about the beginnings of a formidable, global struggle.

Author Kershaw has profited from more than six decades of careful documentation emanating from all sides, including his own earlier detective work. In a hefty text of nearly 500 pages Kershaw pinpoints the pros and cons of launching armed conflict as they were pondered in Moscow, Berlin, London, Rome, Tokyo and Washington. The decisions made were not only critical, they determined future history. Kershaw analyses ten such determinants of an increasingly deteriorating international condition, one sliding irrevocably into war. These were (using the historical present):

  1. 1.

    After France's surrender to Germany in June 1940, Britain decides to fight on.

  2. 2.

    Hitler then attacks the Soviet Union, despite a mutual non‐aggression pact.

  3. 3.

    Japan seizes her own golden opportunity, autumn 1940.

  4. 4.

    Mussolini decides to grab his share, same year.

  5. 5.

    Roosevelt offers a strong lending hand to Britain, 1940‐1941.

  6. 6.

    Stalin is determined to know best, spring‐summer 1941.

  7. 7.

    Roosevelt slips into undeclared war, summer‐autumn 1941.

  8. 8.

    Japan decides on war against the West, autumn 1941.

  9. 9.

    Hitler opts for war against the USA, end of 1941.

  10. 10.

    Same season, Hitler decides on elimination of Europe's Jews.

Space does not permit a review of all ten of these determining events, so we shall limit ourselves to the first three and the last listed.

Four decision processes


After the fall of France in early summer 1940, Hitler's strategic planning called for an assault on Britain. The British were by then in a position weakened by a traditionally small land force, considerable losses incurred by the successful repatriation at Dunkirk of a beaten army, and German intentions to invade the British Isles. But a resurgence of British will and determination enabled the country to obtain the upper aerial hand during the Battle of Britain that followed Dunkirk, profit from incontrovertible signs that Germany was giving up an assault on British territory, and follow the resolute leadership of the wartime prime minister, Winston Churchill.

While Hitler was sure that a thoroughly enfeebled Britain would sue for peace, Britain acted otherwise. The British held; they incorporated fighting elements from their own empire and those of “free” Poland, Czechoslovakia, Norway, France and the Low Countries; and Churchill increased uncompromising pressure on the American president (Franklin Roosevelt) for moral and then material support of the war effort against the Third Reich.


Despite a treaty signed (to the world's astonishment) in August 1939 by National‐Socialist Germany and the Marxist‐Leninist Soviet Union, Hitler and his generals spend the final months of 1940 in war‐planning an attack against the USSR the following Spring. “Hitler had for nearly twenty years seen war against the Soviet Union at some point as vital for Germany's future. This was his war” (p. 472). Hitler's intentions, lucidly plain since the publication of his Mein Kampf, were to take by force as much territory in eastern Europe and the adjacent Soviet areas as required to provide living space for a constrained German population coping with insufficient natural resources.

A far grimmer, obscured part of Hitler's agenda at the time combines the Second with the Fourth decision‐scenarios: the “massive implications for the attainment of racial objectives … [M]illions more Jews would fall into Nazi hands, at a time when no solution had been found to the problem of deporting the [almost six million Jews within] the German sphere. And whichever routes the Wehrmacht might take, large numbers of Jews would lie within their path” (pp. 447‐8). The original planning called (vaguely) for Jewish expellees to be resettled in the USSR, which unfolding battle made impossible. The sequel, alas, would become part of the twentieth century's profoundly tragic history.

But back to the German‐Soviet confrontation. Stalin adamantly rejected as “disinformation” all reports regarding a German build‐up in occupied Poland and innumerable Luftwaffe overflights of the Soviet Union itself preparatory to assault. He did not wish to “antagonise” the Germans; he believed his purged military leadership would not be war‐ready until 1942. Thus “Stalin's options were drastically narrowed by his own staggering misjudgement of German intentions” (p. 474). War came, and the German advance on Soviet soil was spectacular. But the Russian winter of 1941‐2 began the undoing of Germany's victorious invasion force. Hitler had severely miscalculated his potential, as had Stalin his own country's capacity to resist and repulse.


The decision process followed by the Japanese to expand their war in China to far wider horizons has been examined thoroughly by both Japanese and foreign historians. Kershaw's review is the most coherent synthesis seen so far by this reviewer, and is worth the careful attention of anyone faced with multiple – and fast‐shifting – variables when dealing with decisional complexity.

By 1940, a newly modernizing Japan under increasingly military and jingoist control was still living on the glories of its 1904 victory over the Russian fleet. Since then, however, Japan had undergone severe economic strain as a result of the world depression of the 1930s and come to realise the full significance of its lack of natural resources. Japan grew increasingly sensitive to pressure from the Anglo‐American bloc because of her aggression against China, the creation of the puppet state of Manchukuo, and her designs to create a “Greater East Asian Co‐Prosperity Sphere” that would ensure greater resource supplies in southeastern Pacific‐Asia.

The breaking point came with Japan's move into French Indo‐China after the capitulation of the French to the Germans in Summer 1940. Washington and London raised the pressure on Japan, the Americans refusing further sale of critically needed petroleum and scrap iron to Nippon. Author Kershaw reconstructs for the reader the diversity of views prevailing in the Japanese leadership, where unanimity was seldom certain. Finally, months of growing politico‐economic tension culminated in Japan's dazzling attack on the US naval base at Pearl Harbor.

Other connotations of decision analysis

The processes involved in coming to a decision may inevitably depend in other situations on variables – such as those existing early in the 1940s – for instance, whether the problem is to decide on a new design or product, institute a new university course or an entire institute, begin a new line of laboratory research, adopt new banking or agricultural law, or more simply opt for a new course of action in everyday life. It is the variable factors that complicate, furthermore, the decision to be taken, often prolonging the time required to arrive at a conclusion.

What Ian Kershaw has done in his remarkable analysis of critical, determining decisions of the last century is to show how hard choices endemically tend to drag on: for days, weeks, months, even years. The man or woman of “instant decisions” is not to be found among this author's well‐chosen examples of optional opportunity. The great deciders of the mid‐twentieth century were relatively circumspect actors, even Hitler. It is a fact that we have since witnessed the same hesitancy repeated in more recent major‐decision efforts. Among these have been (to name but a few):

  • constraining accords on the proliferation of nuclear arms;

  • conception and growth of the European Union and its charter;

  • adopting legislative and ethical codes for the internet;

  • combatting pollution of the natural and man‐made heritage;

  • promoting sustainable development.

Kershaw has joined other analysts to demonstrate that the processes that deciders call on – whether their finalities are constructive or not – are often not those of snap judgement. Deciding correctly can be on the side of those who persist in taking the time to select the “right” step(s) to be taken, or not to be taken in a given situation.

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