The Germans Are Coming

Sir Ian Kershaw was once asked why his acclaimed biography of Adolf Hitler took up two thick volumes. "There was so much to say," replied the veteran British historian, who suggested using the two parts of the biography, each of which numbers hundreds of pages, as doorstops.

In his recent book, "Fateful Choices: Ten Decisions that Changed the World, 1940-1941," which was published in English in 2007 and has now been published in Hebrew, Kershaw has a lot to say. The 617 pages of the book offer a profound analysis of 10 major decisions taken in the first stages of World War II. Kershaw believes these choices greatly influenced not only developments on the battlefield, but the very outcome of the war and the shape of the post-war world.

"The course of World War II, which (with the genocide that was central to it) was so fundamental to the shaping of the 20th century, seemed to me to be determined by a number of crucial decisions, that might have turned out differently, in a period of about a year and a half, between May 1940 and December 1941," says Kershaw in an interview conducted via e-mail. "I wanted to understand how those critical decisions came about, and what possible options faced those taking the decisions. The focus is directly on the decision-making process in the six belligerent countries in question. I don't try to invent imaginary scenarios of what might have been, though I do address the direct implications of implementing the alternative political strategies considered by the leading statesmen of the time, and the reasons why these alternative were rejected."

Kershaw methodically examines the factors that led to the decision by Winston Churchill and the British government to reject a compromise with the Nazis and to continue the resistance; the choice by Italian dictator Mussolini and Hirohito, Emperor Showa, of Japan to join forces with the Germans; as well as many critical decisions taken by Stalin, Roosevelt and Hitler. Kershaw focuses in particular on the fact that Stalin ignored the threat of a German attack on the Soviet Union. He also analyzes two complex decisions taken by the American president - made despite the nation's domestic difficulties: the decision to assist the British and the decision to actually join the war. Kershaw also attends to three of Hitler's early decisions: the attack on the Soviet Union, the declaration of war against the United States and the decision to destroy European Jewry.

One of the most dramatic chapters in your book discusses the Nazis' decision to destroy the Jews of Europe; you try to find its "rational" roots. Why was the implementation of the Final Solution "logical" for the Nazis at that point in time, the summer/fall of 1941?

"In this part, as in other chapters, I tried to look at the question not in moral terms (which need no rehearsing), but through the eyes and mentalities of the decision-makers at the time. What I attempted to show was how this decision - more likely, set of decisions - came about through the practical difficulties the Nazi leadership found in trying to implement the ideological aim of 'removing' the Jews.

"Despite horrific brutality, ideas of deporting Jews to a huge reservation in eastern Poland quickly proved illusory. So did notions of a mass deportation to Madagascar. German plans to invade the Soviet Union, worked out in spring 1941, offered a new solution: wiping out 'Jewish Bolshevism' - the Nazi's main phantasm - and deporting European Jews to Russian icy wastes. It would have been genocide by another route. However, failure to bring about swift victory over the Soviet Union meant that this option, too, could not be implemented.

"With all-out genocide raging in the Soviet Union by late summer 1941, but German victory not in sight and therefore no possibility of deporting Jews into the U.S.S.R., meanwhile pressure building in Germany to deport Reich Jews and genocide 'in the air,' the autumn of 1941 brought a number of partial genocides before the beginning of war against the U.S.A. and the Wannsee Conference of January 1942 led to the coordination of policy and rapid moves for the systematic extermination of European Jews, now in specially erected death camps on Polish soil.

"In its nature, this decision, as I point out, was different from all the others I examine, yet an integral part of the German war effort. Not least, it was different since by this time the alternatives were only of a 'logistical' kind: not whether to destroy the Jews, but merely how to bring about the destruction."

You mention in the book that there is no written documentation of how the decision to destroy European Jewry was made, and in particular there is no record of Hitler's order on the matter. Do you believe that there's a chance of discovering such documents?

"No, I think it out of the question that any direct Hitler order for the Final Solution will ever be found. Of course, that does not mean that he was not responsible for it. His direct responsibility (as I show here as well as in my Hitler biography and in numerous other writings) is certain. His fingerprints are all over the Holocaust. But we have to look to a number of verbal 'authorizations' and indirectly conveyed orders rather than an explicit decision on a particular day, and it was not Hitler's style, nor did it fit his obsession with secrecy on this issue, to put anything explicit down in writing."

And still, at least hypothetically: If a colleague of yours were to find a document testifying to Hitler's direct decision regarding the Final Solution, how would you feel?

"If any colleague produced such a document, I should think it a forgery."

Kershaw, who was born in 1943 in Oldham, England, was a scholar of medieval history until he began to study modern history. In the early 1970s, he began to study Nazism and over the years became an historian of international repute and an expert on the history of the Third Reich. He has received many prizes for his scholarly achievements and in 2002 was knighted by Queen Elizabeth.

Kershaw is known to the public for his monumental biography of Hitler: "Hitler: 1889-1936 Hubris" and "Hitler: 1936-1945 Nemesis." But even earlier, he wrote several important studies about the Nazis, most of which focused on public opinion in Germany during that period. Another book he wrote, also published in Hebrew, is "The 'Hitler Myth': Image and Reality in the Third Reich," in which he presents the Nazi dictator as a result of a social structure; he claims that Hitler was not only the ideologue and leader of the Nazi movement and regime, but also a figure shaped by the way in which he was perceived in German public awareness at the time.

In "Fateful Choices," Kershaw's fluency and simplicity never desert him, enabling him to use the darkest chapters in human history as raw materials for demonstrations of good writing.

As in your biography of Hitler, you attempt in your most recent book to understand historical processes by moving from a discussion of the leaders' personalities to a discussion of political and social structures in the countries they governed. What advantages do you find in this approach to historical research?

"What freedom of action powerful individuals have in taking decisions of great magnitude, and under what constraints they are operating, is a question that has always interested me, and is, in fact, a central issue for any historical understanding. Dealing with a key individual, as I did in my biography of Hitler, with this question in mind provides, I think, a useful way of exploring crucial historical developments. I have tried now to apply this approach to looking, not at a single individual through biography but through the interlocking political actions of powerful war leaders in different countries in a short but vital period. In the concluding remarks, I attempt to compare the relationship between the individual and impersonal determinants of action in the six countries examined."

Although Kershaw thoroughly examines the crucial issues related to the events of the period, he does not forget to dwell on side issues, such as how Roosevelt liked to spend his free evenings (he organized his stamp collection) or how Hitler drank wine (he added sugar to it).

As far as Stalin is concerned, Kershaw tells us when exactly the secretary general of the Communist Party understood that he had erred in ignoring the threat of the German invasion of his country: Stalin's illusions were shattered, says Kershaw, at 3:40 A.M. on June 22, 1941, when the phone rang and the voice of Chief of Staff Georgi Zhukov was heard on the other end of the line. Zhukov reported to Stalin that a massive German attack had begun all along the Western Front. Through the receiver, only some heavy breathing could heard before the leader ordered an urgent meeting of the Politburo.

According to your book, Stalin's choice to avoid any action until the German offensive on June 1941 - and not to believe all the indications - was a pivotal error, which was an outcome of his earlier decisions. What brought the Soviet leader to this point, and why didn't he have any real alternatives at that time?

"Stalin's crucial error was to destroy the leadership of the Red Army in the purges of 1937-8. This removed much needed military experience and severely weakened the Red Army at precisely the point where it needed strengthening. The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact bought the Soviet Union time and a frantic rearmament program was carried out in 1940 and 1941, but it was far from complete by the time that Hitler, prompted by the purges and by the poor showing of the Red Army in the 'winter war' of 1939-40 against the Finns to exaggerate Soviet military weakness, was ready to strike. Since he knew the Red Army would not be fully prepared to counter a German attack until 1942 at the earliest, Stalin did everything possible to appease Hitler through economic supplies and was desperate not to provoke him. He discounted the warnings as a genuine invasion threat, thinking that Hitler was trying to blackmail him into more economic, and perhaps territorial, concessions, but that he could hold him off until the Red Army was ready. It was a near fatal mistake."

About half a year ago Kershaw retired from his job as a professor of modern history at the University of Sheffield, but he is continuing with his research. He says that his next book will focus on the last year of World War II, and will be "an attempt to explain how and why Germany fought on to the bitter end, with all the consequences of that continued fight, when it was obvious that the war was lost and Hitler was taking the country to perdition."

In light of the abundance of academic studies of the Third Reich, is there any point in continuing to research this period? Is there any chance of new discoveries or new insights in the field?

"In terms of detailed research, there is, in fact, still important work to be done - for instance, on aspects of the occupation of eastern European countries, on German mentalities during the Third Reich, and even on the concentration camp system (less so on the extermination camps). But it is not a matter of some brand new 'discovery' arising from primary research. Something likely to alter fundamentally how we think about Hitler's regime is, I think, unlikely to emerge.

"Even so, some periods and events in history are so important that, however much primary research is carried out, they never lose their significance, interest and value to a reappraisal of 'the human condition.' Moreover, interpretations change and vary over time. So these crucial junctures in history are constantly being revisited. The Renaissance and Reformation, the French Revolution and the Russian Revolution are among earlier examples, which have profound consequences beyond their own country and time. The Nazi era, and the Second World War and Holocaust of which Hitler was the main author, are, even more so, such a fundamental period of world history that, however much research is done, there will still be more to find out, write about, and debate."

In the past decade the commemoration of the Holocaust has become a widespread international phenomenon, as exhibited in International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Do you believe that there is a danger of "too much discussion" of the Holocaust?

"When we compare the relatively low levels of public awareness of the Holocaust before the 1980s, then I think we have to see the massive increase in attention through a variety of media as welcome and significant. I don't see the dangers that you imply from this development, and have not personally experienced any negative reaction, though it may be that some saturation point is being reached in public consciousness, and that a degree of 'Holocaust fatigue' is beginning to set in. If this is the case, then media output will find its own level over time and the exposure die down somewhat. That, too, would not have to be viewed as a necessarily harmful development."

In an interview with the daily Yedioth Ahronoth (July 25, 2003), you said that there's no question that if we imagine the Israeli-Palestinian conflict without the Holocaust, Israel's position in the world would be much weaker. How do you view Israel's handling of the memory of the Holocaust?

"I don't remember the interview to which you refer. I was certainly not referring to Holocaust remembrance in Israel, which seems to me absolutely appropriate. I think I was simply pointing to the almost incontrovertible fact of the moral capital arising from the Holocaust from which Israel has benefited. The terrible fate of Jews at the hands of the Nazis and their allies helped immeasurably to give moral legitimacy to the newly founded State of Israel and has helped ever since to bolster Western support for Israel. In an historical evaluation of the course of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, that has been an immanent and not insignificant factor. I would think the moral capital has been somewhat eroded by the recent action in Gaza."