Why WWII Happened the Way It Did

In The Nation, Richard J. Evans reviews Ian Kershaw’s Fateful Choices: Ten Decisions That Changed the World, 1940-1941, on the key decisions that led to the specific unfolding of WWII.

If Britain sued for peace, he said, it would be forced to disarm and become a slave state, under a puppet government run by British Fascist leader Sir Oswald Mosley. In the event, the French decided to go it alone; their peace feelers were rudely rebuffed by Mussolini, who did indeed want to “take his whack.” Nearly 225,000 British troops were evacuated from the Continent at Dunkirk, an event that Churchill’s stirring rhetoric remarkably turned from a calamitous defeat into some sort of victory. And Britain fought on.

What would have happened if Halifax and his allies had carried the day in the Cabinet? Here, following Churchill’s lead, Kershaw engages in some fascinating counterfactual speculation. Certainly, he argues, in the event of a peace between Britain and Germany in May or June 1940, Hitler would have demanded the sacking of the Churchill administration. But more likely as a successor than the unpopular and discredited Mosley would have been a widely admired politician such as David Lloyd George, Britain’s prime minister in World War I and a self-professed admirer of Hitler. Lloyd George indeed envisaged a role of this sort, possibly under a restored King Edward VIII, whose sympathies with Nazi Germany and belief in the need for a separate peace with Hitler were also on record. This would have been something like the regime installed in France in 1940 under the hero of France’s army in World War I, Marshal Philippe Pétain, though initially at least without its Fascist leanings. A rival government, possibly under Churchill, might have been set up in Canada. But with Britain effectively on Germany’s side, the swelling tide of American aid would have been stopped, and Hitler would have been free to marshal all his forces, whenever he wanted to, for the long-desired invasion of the Soviet Union.