Ian Kershaw: Past master





Almost anything can look inevitable in hindsight. The rise of Hitler, the Iraq war, even this interview. As one event follows another, the public and the private appear to interconnect in a seamless arc of mechanistic determinism, such that the only thing left for a historian to do is attribute the correct degrees of causality. It's an attractive way of making sense of the past, but what seems predictable now rarely looked that way when it happened.

This is the starting point for Fateful Choices, the new book by Ian Kershaw, the UK's, if not the world's, premier historian of the Nazi era. He looks at 10 critical decisions between May 1940 (when Britain decided to fight on, rather than surrender, at Dunkirk) and late 1941 (when Hitler declared war on the US and set in place the extermination of the Jews) that shaped the outcome not just of the second world war but of the rest of the 20th century.

"We get used to thinking of events in a certain way," he says, "and I wanted to re-examine key moments to show they weren't as straightforward as we imagine. The book is not an exercise in counter-factualism ... but you can't avoid a certain amount of short-term 'what-if-ism', simply because the decisions were so pivotal.

"Churchill had not yet become the bombastic war leader in May 1941. Becoming prime minister had been far from an inevitability. So the decision to fight on, when it was not even certain that Britain would still have an army, was on a knife edge for some days. And it's not hard to imagine it having gone the other way. Any academic who says he never has an alternative history in mind isn't being entirely honest."...

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