A Fateful Decision Essay

I. Introduction

On January 20, 1942 in a suburb of Berlin known as Gross Wannsee, Reinhardt Heydrich, Head of the Reich Security Main Office (RSHA), following the written orders of Hermann Goring Marshall of the German Empire, hosted a meeting with fourteen high level officials of the Nazi Party and Reich government. This event became known as the Wannsee Conference and its written record detailed the organization and planning for the extermination of European Jews. Although the Third Reich did not reach the decision to exterminate the Jews at this conference, the participants at Wannsee blended extreme anti-Semitism with bureaucratic routines and detailed planning to facilitate genocide on a massive scale.

After reviewing the historiography of Wannsee and the primary discussions at the conference, this essay argues that the conference represented one stage in the Nazi’s planning for the extermination of the European Jews, planning that increased gradually throughout the war with the radicalization of the Nazi government.  

II. Historiography

Since the end of World War II, historians have become preoccupied in defining the role the Wannsee Conference played in the overall planning and organization of the “Final Solution.” The answer to this question is difficult to determine, in part because evidence existed acknowledging the policy of mass exterminations prior to theconference including, for example, Himmler’s order given to a SS Cavalry Brigade regiment stationed near the Pripet marshes north-west of Ukraine on July 31, 1941 to exterminate every Jew in that area. The Protective Squadron (Schutzstaffel [SS]) was initially used as the personal guard to Hitler after he took power in 1934. Under the leadership of Heinrich Himmler, it grew from a small paramilitary force to become the largest security and military organization within the Nazi Party. In 1939, the SS was organized in to four major branches: (1) the General SS, consisting largely of German...

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6) Stalin’s failure in the spring of 1941 to heed numerous intelligence reports warning of an impending German invasion — a mistake that cost the Soviet Union dearly when Germany’s Operation Barbarossa began on June 22. 7) Roosevelt’s initiatives in July-August 1941 to embargo oil shipments to Japan, extend conscription, draw up the Atlantic Charter of war aims with Churchill and provide armed escorts to merchant shipping in the western Atlantic — all steps that drew America into an “undeclared war.” 8) The decision reached by the Japanese cabinet and emperor between September and November of 1941 to embark on the southern strategy of grabbing European colonies in the Pacific, beginning with a pre-emptive strike on the United States Navy. 9) Hitler’s decision, in the days following Pearl Harbor, to declare war on the United States, thus sparing Roosevelt the necessity of persuading his countrymen to fight the Nazis as well as the Japanese. 10) Hitler’s decision in the summer and fall of 1941 to begin the mass extermination of European Jewry, making the Holocaust a major feature of the conflict.

Kershaw’s focus on these areas is defensible but not entirely convincing. Notably downplayed are the major moves that launched World War II in the first place: the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931 and of the rest of China in 1937, and the German invasion of Poland in 1939 and of Norway, Denmark, France, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands in 1940. Kershaw might have chosen other turning points as well — for example, the Nazi repudiation of the Versailles Treaty in 1935, which could have led to Anglo-French military action but didn’t. And there were monumental judgment calls later on that Kershaw fails to examine, like Roosevelt’s decision to invade North Africa in 1942, forgoing a second front in Europe until 1944. It’s not clear why Kershaw slights such important events except that they don’t fit into his questionable conceit that the key decisions of the war were made in 1940-41.

Yet he provides ample room in his own account to doubt how pivotal some of the decisions he does examine actually were. After devoting many pages to Hitler’s declaration of war on the United States on Dec. 11, 1941, he concludes that, even without it, “an American move to full-scale, all-out conflict at some point in the coming months, if not straightaway, would have been well-nigh unavoidable.” But if, as he writes, “Germany and the United States would soon have been at war,” declaration or no declaration, then why does the genesis of the declaration deserve a chapter of its own?

But if his choice of subjects is open to debate (not necessarily a bad thing in a book that presumably seeks to provoke discussion), Kershaw’s treatment of the individual decisions is unquestionably superb. Although he does go on a bit long in some cases, needlessly repeating himself (the phrase “as we have already noted” makes far too many appearances), he offers patient readers a nuanced, sophisticated understanding of how the world looked through the eyes of disparate leaders.

Kershaw expertly explicates the inexplicable — for instance, Hitler’s mad gamble to invade the Soviet Union and Stalin’s equally demented refusal to prepare for the onslaught. He traces the origins of the German plan to a combination of Hitler’s ideological obsessions — gaining Lebensraum to his east while smiting the Bolshevik-Jewish conspiracy that supposedly ran the Kremlin — and his reckless underestimation of Soviet military capabilities. “A campaign against Russia would be child’s play,” the Führer confidently declared.

That his prediction seemed to come true at first, with the Wehrmacht advancing to the gates of Moscow and Leningrad, was due to the foibles of his adversary. Stalin initiated a self-defeating purge of his officer corps in 1937-38, and then refused to mobilize in 1941, even when his secret agents obtained a preview of the German war plan. How to explain a paranoid like Stalin seemingly trusting in Hitler’s assurances of friendship? Kershaw argues that Stalin knew a showdown with Hitler was coming but didn’t want to risk any hostile steps that might precipitate a German invasion before the end of 1942, when Soviet rearmament would be completed.

“Fateful Choices” is not quite as stimulating or engrossing as the best analytical studies of World War II, my personal favorites being Richard Overy’s “Why the Allies Won” (1996) and Eric Larrabee’s “Commander in Chief: Franklin Delano Roosevelt, His Lieutenants, and Their War” (1987). But Kershaw does an excellent job of synthesizing a great deal of scholarship and thereby helping to further our understanding of this epic struggle — as well as of the role of contingency in the making of history.

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