5.8.08

WAS THIS WAR NECESSARY? Ian Kershaw's Fateful Choices: Ten Decisions that Changed the World, 1940-1941 places the reader in London (once), Berlin (thrice), Tokyo (twice), Rome (once), Washington, D.C. (twice), and Moscow (once) to provide readers with some understanding of how, given the British Empire's decision to go to war over Poland, a replay of The Great War turned into a global war of annihilation, particularly of Slavs and Jews. Book Review No. 30 is more on-train production. Professor Kershaw suggests that some of the decisions were optional while others were foreordained. Stalin's unwillingness to consider any evidence of hostile German intentions from the suspension of Sea Lion to the occupation of Minsk is clearly the former; Roosevelt's tilt toward Britain comes close to the latter. I wonder, after having read the book, whether the Germans really grasped what they were getting into. Although Britain's decision to fight on, alone, was a closely argued thing, the ability of an insular naval power to stalemate a putatively superior superior power (to a chess player, that is stalemate, an outcome different from a draw due to exhaustion of forces) is formidable, and the Royal Navy did take out the French and Italian fleets and counter the German surface ships. They did not quite have the counter to the German submarines, which provides reason for the U.S. to "lend a garden hose" to the neighbour with the burning house.

The book suggests that international conflict might have been a consequence of faulty economics. Professor Kershaw focuses on the ability of dictators to commit their countries to bad courses of action, something that Hitler and Mussolini and Stalin and Tojo did repeatedly, but their actions were inspired by a desire to catch up with the richer countries. The British Commonwealth and the United States were rich, and the international institutions of the day appeared to be set up in such a way as to keep them that way (a vulgar Marxist would substitute "were" for that "appeared to be" but post-minor-post-Ricardians have their obscurity for a reason) and thus Germany and Italy and Japan had to act on their particular manifest destiny in such a way as to secure sufficient resources to become first-rank powers themselves. Professor Kershaw notes, briefly, that Japan did in fact achieve such a position only after having been militarily defeated, nuked, and occupied. Perhaps politicians, and their court intellectuals, ought have a better understanding of the ways by which people (and the nations they live in, as a side-effect) become wealthy. There are some instructive maps here that illustrate the diffusion of prosperity: whether that is the result of colonisation or of proper rules of trading remains a live research question.

(Cross-posted to 50 Book Challenge).

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