on November 1, 2011
What is the reason that the Second World War is still a magnet for readers, laymen or professional historians? According to Mr. Hastings, this is so because it was the most
disastrous event in the human history. Did you know, for example, that 27000 people perished daily between September 1939 and August 1945?
This book is mainly about the human experience, in what is called the bottom-up approach to history. Although the military theaters are not neglected at all, they appear here and are described through the lens of the common people or the soldiers who took part in the various scenes of this conflict. The main question posed by Mr. Hastings is: what was the Second World War all about? The answer is grim and, in the words of Arthur Schlesinger, it "concerned mainly stupidity, lies, arrogance and pomposity". Take into consideration the fact that 168000 Russian
Civilians were executed during the war because of cowardice or desertion. Many more thousands suffered the same fate without due process.
Hunger was rampant in many parts of the world, especially throughout the British Empire, where one million were to die in Bengal, and many other famines would break out in Kenya or Egypt. Cannibalism cases which happened in Russia are as well described and it is the author's conclusion that the German army lost because its aims were unrealistic and its forces overstretched. One Russian soldier, Stepan Kuznetsov, wrote that in during the Leningrad siege," all out soldiers on the front look like ghouls-emaciated by hunger and cold. They are in rags, filthy and very, very hungry".
The Wermacht's combat performance remained superior to that of the Red Army until the end of the war, in almost every local action the Germans inflicted more casualties than they received. But their tactical skills no longer sufficed to stem the Russian tide. Stalin was identifying good generals, building vast armires with formidable tank and artillery strength, and at last receiving large deliveries from the Western Allies, including food, vehicles and communications equipment. As Mr. Hastings writes, "the five million tons of American meat that eventually eached Russia amounted to half a pound of rations a day for every Soviet soldier".
There are some myths which are demolished by this book. One of them concerns the so-called exuberant enthusiasm of kamikaze pilots who fought the Americans. Another myth concerns the question-or reason-why the Allies did not bomb the concentration camps during the Holocaust. The guerrilla war against the Axis occupiers, promoted by Allied secret organizations, which has been romanticized in post-war literature, had small strategic impact and resistance groups were seldom homogeneous. Combatants fared better than civilian: around three-quarters of all those who died were unarmed victims rather than active participants in the struggle, and the peoples of western Europe escaped more lightly than those of eastern Europe. Unfortunately, only a fraction of those guilty of war crimes were ever indicted, partly because the victors "had no stomach for the scale of executions, numbering several hundreds of thousands, that would have been necessary had strict justice been enforced against every Axis murderer".
The US Navy found the experience of combating the kamikazes among the bloodiest and most painful of its war and Japanese airmen carried out almost 1700 sorties to Okinawa between 11 March and the end of June 1945. Again, only a limited number of Japanese war criminals were prosecuted.
This is a gem of a book, giving both a macroscopic and panoramic view of the major episodes of the war, and a microscopic examination of many instances of it. To a large extent, this is 'everyman's story'. You will enjoy each page of this long and fascinating book.
Do we really need another general history of World War II? In recent years we have seen new studies by Evan Mawdsley, Martin Gilbert and in particular Andrew Roberts excellent populist history "The Storm of War" to name but a few. The years 1939 to 1945 are a very crowded field for historians and yet there is always a warm welcome for an historian of the calibre of Sir Max Hastings, recent chronicler of Churchill as a wartime leader and political commentator. Hastings is a conservative historian but what is interesting about "All hell let loose - the World at War 1939-45" is that employs the approach of producing an history from below drawn from eyewitness accounts of events. Accounts which in turn demonstrate and confirm William Tecumseh Sherman's maxim "that war is all hell" since we see an overwhelming view of very brave participants who are nonetheless generally terrified, demoralized and often beaten into a fossilised torpor. One British solider reflected in a letter to his wife that `I am absolutely fed up with everything. The dirt and filth, the flies - I'm having a hideous time and I wonder why I'm alive'. Another British soldier William Chappell "never ceased to ache for the civilian world from which he had been torn. He missed his home and his friends and bemoaned the loss of his career. His feet hurt, he was `sick of khaki, and all the monotonous, slow, fiddle-de-dee of Army life.' The fatalistic will of Russian soldiers is particularly well described not least the experience of Private Ivanov, of the 70th Army, who wrote despairingly to his family. `I shall never see you again because death, terrible, ruthless and merciless, is going to cut short my young life. Where shall I find strength and courage to live through all this?'
Those who have read Hastings previously on World War II will detect the ongoing preoccupations which he has developed over many years that have gradually become historical orthodoxy. He maintains in all his works that the best troops throughout the course of hostilities were Germans who were nevertheless effectively outdone by the crazed ambitions of a totalitarian monster particularly in sheer lunatic ambition of the Eastern theatre. Even as the German Army swept all in front of it during Operation Barbarossa key Generals like Halder and Hoepner were unnervingly aware that a nation with an almost limitless supply of manpower was stirring. Thus the war was won and lost in Stalin's Russia which despite the unbelievable ineptitude of its own leader particularly in almost destroying the whole of his own officer corps in purges had the crucial element of numbers on its side. This fact was readily accepted by Churchill at the time which in turn and his relationship to "Uncle Joe" has recently been chronicled with great detail by another British historian David Reynolds. Perhaps the most brutal statistic in the whole book is the fact that 750,000 Russians were shot by their own comrades for cowardice, desertion or simply to maintain army discipline, as it turns out this exceeds the total number of British dead in the entire war. The brutality of the Soviet invasion has been captured in a range of books not least Anthony Beevor's epic "Stalingrad" and the central thesis of Hastings book is equally located in the Soviet Union with its "hierarchy of cruelty" elevated beyond all other conflicts.
That said other pivotal events are not skimped on. The sheer horror of the "Rape of Nanking" in 1937 is vividly captured with its terrifying litany of mass murder, genocide and war rape. The treatment of non combatants prefigured the latter outrages of the war and with estimates of nearly 200,000 Chinese killed by marauding Japanese soldiers. As such Hastings is right to see this as a kind of appalling racist overture to the main act. Unsurprisingly Hastings also uses more well worn sources like the great Eugene Sledge's "With the old breed" his visceral account of the Pacific War as a primary source. The sights and the smells of battle also infuse the book and the everyday acts of living are elevated into small horrors in their own right. As Hastings points out "Excretory processes became an obsession. In battlefield conditions, many never made it to a latrine. But as one soldier recalled: `No one said anything about how you smelt, because everyone smelled bad.'
At over 700 pages this is a long book and your reviewer deliberately avoided the Kindle edition because of this since there were pages of text that needed to be reread and referred to for continuity purposes. Hastings however has the gift of writing an often-complex story in clear and understandable prose. He also cares deeply about the participants in his history and that humanity and gift for narrative shines through this excellent book.
on November 11, 2011
Max Hastings has spent the past 35 years studying in depth the horrors of World War II (1939-1945). Among his bestselling volumes are Armageddon and Retribution. In Inferno the author gets personal. All of the major military campaigns are covered but the real strength of the book lies in the comments included in the text by participants in the war. We hear from Russian housewives, Werhmacht troops; American Marines; Japanese, Indian and Chinese persons. We feel as if we were there amid the horrors of the worst event in the history of humanity. Just consider the following horrible statistics:
a. Every day from 1939-45 over 27,000 men, women and children died as a result of the war.
b. Over 60 million persons lost their lives during the war due to battle, starvation, executions and disease.
c.90% of the over 7 million German soldiers who died in the war did so in the fight against Stalin's Soviet Union empire.
d. Japan and Germany were cruel dictatorships which treated their own people as cruelly as they did their enemies.
The chief mistakes made by Hitler leading to his downfall were:
a. The foolish attack on the Soviet Union in June 1941.
b. The failed plan to defeat England in a cross channel invasion which never transpired.
c.The declaration of war against the United States. America had unlimited wealth and might to produce the weapons of war which led to victory over the Axis powers
d. The holocaust killed over 6 million Jews and in addition 3 million Russians were murdered by the Nazi war machine. The slaves of the Nazis could have been better utiilized as workers for the Reich rather than being killed in senseless slaughter.
Germany was defeated by a two front war with the western allies attacking from the West and the Soviet hordes charging into Germany from the east. The Japanese were ill equipped to beat the better armed Americans. They failed to conquer China.
The book is 651 close typed pages which fascinate and shock. We Westerners have no idea how fortunate we are to live in demnocracies rather than in dictatorships ruled by such horrible monsters of evil as Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini and Hirohito.
Anything written by Max Hastings is worth reading. This book is a sine qua non for anyone wanting a good one volume account of the war. Man's inhumanity to man is manifest in these grim pages of a worlwide tragedy of unprecedented proportions. Dante's inferno pales in horror before the real life inferno ignited by the fires of totalitarianism and racial hatred.
Inferno contains many maps which are included to aid understanding of the absorbing text. Hastings shows his research skills with an extensive bibliography. The author has mined little known sources to strengthen the narrative. Though the book is lengthy I found it to be engrossing. World War II was a horrible tragedy which has never been equalled for its cruelty and terror. May humankind never descend in such an abyss as transpired seventy years ago. Highly recommended for all World War II buffs and general readers seeking a good understanding of the war.
It is an obvious truism that WW-II was the single most destructive event in human history. It is also self-evident that, never in the future, will mass encounters between opposing armies of the scope and scale of WW-II occur again: nuclear weapons have rendered clashes of this sort technically obsolete. In the modern imagination, however, WW-II represents the last "good war" and, indeed, it pretty closely approximates that summation. The Axis Powers (essentially, Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan) were a nasty bunch and the Allies (at least excluding the USSR) were self-evidently better. In between were the French (in many ways active collaborators), various overseas "dominions" of Empire (the Dutch East Indies, India, Southeast Asia), European nations (complicit "neutrals", such as Sweden and Switzerland; over-run and overwhelmed countries such as Belgium), the Far East (China), Near East (Egypt, Libya, etc) and the relatively "uninvolved" (e.g. Latin America). The USSR seems to stand alone, not only in terms of material and human sacrifices incurred battling the Nazis, but also in terms of moral culpability.
So, how can such a complex canvas possibly be adequately addressed in a single-volume work? Clearly, there are enough books on WW-II to fill many a library and more fine studies than could possibly be accommodated (much less read and understood) by any single reader. By my probably incomplete count, least 9 major single-volume studies of the combined Pacific-European Theaters have been published since 1971, beginning with B.H. Liddell-Hart's "History of the Second World War" and most recently in, "Inferno" by Max Hastings. It would be audacious to pronounce which these "complete" histories is "best", as they are all different in emphasis, breadth, historical accuracy (partly reflecting archives accessible at the time of publication), writing skill and perspipacity of judgments. Based on those criteria, my "top 3" are Martin Gilbert's "The Second World War: A Complete History", "A World at Arms: A Global History of World War II" by Gerhard Weinberg and "Inferno".
Max Hastings is a highly distinguished and incredibly prolific military historian (in addition to his journalistic and editorial obligations). He synthesizes his most recent works ("Armageddon" about the concluding chapter of the European conflict; "Retribution", dealing with end-stage Imperial Japan; "Winston's War", dealing with its eponymous subject during the war years) into a single panoptic super-work. "Inferno" encapsulates a wealth of data (statistics, military maneuvers, biographical information on civilian and military leaders) with generous samplings from memoirs, comments and observations proffered by soldiers and civilians on both sides.
Most especially, Hastings remains true to his prior studies in liberally offering frank (sometimes brutally candid), incisive, compelling and convincing judgments and commentary on leadership, military competence, motives and responsibility. When I first encountered his "revisionist" assessment of Wehrmacht skills in "Overlord", I was offended by his condemnation of British, Canadian and US military proficiency contrasted to those of their German opponents. The Allies were outfought, outmaneuvered and out-performed repeatedly by the German Army. The same forthright pronouncements regarding the strategic incompetence, timidity and cultural arrogance of the Imperial Japanese Government and military (all arms) in "Retribution" surprised me, although it conformed to my prejudices. The blunders of MacArthur ("The Korean War" and in "Inferno") contrasted with the more generous assessment of William Manchester in "American Caesar"). The singularity of purpose, unvarnished realism of Stalin as well as his evolution as a military supremo met expectations. The cynicism of Vichy France, Chiang and Mao; the Imperial indifference of Britian (Bengal Famine); the opportunism of Roosevelt and Churchill all are subject to lacerating exposition in "Inferno". I most especially appreciate his thorough demolition of the "moral equivalence" arguments. These features and extra-fine story telling distinguish Hastings' work from that of his contemporaries.
Hastings wields statistics to devastating effect. Here are some examples: "If all soldiers find it hard to describe to civilians afterwards what they have endured, for Russians it was uniquely difficult. Even in the years of victory, 1943-1945, the Red Army's assault units accepted losses of around 25% in each action, a casualty rate the Anglo-American forces would never have accepted as a constant." As also emphasized by Ian Kershaw ("The End"), "During the last four months of the war, more Germans perished than in the whole of 1942-1943. Such numbers emphasize the price paid by the German people for their army leadership's failure to depose the Nazis and quit the war before its last terrible act." This last point deserves qualification and is one of my salient criticisms of the book. Kershaw repeatedly demonstrates the fealty of the Wehrmacht leadership (and many lower ranks as well) to Nazi ideology, confused and admixed with a warped notion of institutional loyalty. Hastings remains curiously silent on this important issue. On the other hand, Hastings is singularly astringent in his condemnation of Japan and musters a plethora of facts to support his condemnation: Unit 731, Japanese racism, gratuitous brutality to POWs and civilians in occupied countries, stupid, blind fanaticism to the end (and beyond). His treatment of Vichy France is more pungent that Robert Paxton ("Vichy France") and is better conveyed: "Everywhere Vichy held sway, the French treated captured Allied servicemen and civilian internees with callousness and sometimes brutality...Even in November, 1942, when it was becoming plain that the Allies wold win the war, the resistance offered by French troops shocked Americans landing in North Africa." Of course, it also shocked British Navy personnel at Mers-el-Kebir and elsewhere.
Lesser known features of the war also receive necessary treatment. For instance, while I was aware of domestic (US and British) dissent with respect to involvement in the war and casualties incurred in various actions), I had no idea of the extent of the problem. The much vaunted (and mythologized) unanimity of purpose and sense of "Greatest Generation" self-sacrifice was quickly dispelled by Hastings. Of course, the shabby treatment of Polish military volunteers serving the Allies warrants attention as does the crass opportunism of Sweden and Switzerland. One singular insight has relevance to the conundrum facing the modern Middle East. Leaving aside French, German, Romanian, Hungarian, Baltic, Ukranian, Polish and other anti-Semitisms, the involvement of Muslims in the SS and generous moral support (from at least some leadership elements) resonates today: "...Himmler promoted Muslim support by establishing a special mullah military school in Dresden adn the mufti of Jerusalem created an 'Imam School' in Berlin, to educate SS officers about shared Nazi and Muslim ideals." One Nazi commander was quoted to the effect that, "...the Muslims in our SS divisions...are beginning to see in our Fuhrer the appearance of a Second Prophet."
The concluding chapter ("Victors and Vanquished") contains an important (and pungent) assessment of military leadership, including, "The Germans and Russians proved more successful than the Western Allies in fulfilling the requirement...to empower commanders who fought rather than managed" (a problem Hastings ascribes to US and British generals). Importantly, Hastings qualifies his statement: "The rival claims to greatness of individual commanders are impervious to objective ranking. Circumstances decisively influenced outcomes: no general could perform better than the institutional strength or weakness of his forces allowed. Thus, it is possible that Patton-for instance-might have shown himself a great general, had he led forces with the Wehrmacht's skills or the Red Army's tolerance of casualties."
So, if there is "one best book" on the entire maelstrom of the Second World War, which would it be? Of those I have read, I rank "Inferno" and "World at Arms" at the top. Gilbert's book is more "accessible" and perhaps more anecdotal. Keegan offers most military detail whilst "World" gives the most authoritative background to events. In short, there is no "one best book", but "Inferno" is a fine place to start, especially if finely reasoned, astringent analysis and perspectives on motives, character, performance and morals appeal...as they do to me.
on November 17, 2011
Hastngs does an excellent job of doing what he set out to do - not yet another one-volume history of the Second World War, but a look into all the corners that get overlooked due to space restrictions in standard histories, with heavy reliance on a massive collection of personal commentary - often from letters taken off corpses on the battle fields. He includes the wars in Finland, Greece, and Burma, and describes the experiences and feelings of civilians as well as combatants in each case. He also builds on his revisionist but valid argument, first popularized in his Overlord history of the Normandy invasion, that allied soldiers, leaders, troops and often weapons were not the equal of the German army, but overwhelming given economic resources, tons of artillery, manpower, and air supremacy.
This not the book of choice if you need an overview of the Second World War. It is an engaging companion to add flavor, and a good balance to earlier histories that tended toward the heroic.
But then the really silly errors. How does a British author of Hastings' experience four times refer to Churchill as sea lord in Chamberlain's 1939 government? The Sea Lord was Admiral Dudley Pound; Churchill was the Lord of the Admiralty, the cabinet rather than the professional position. How does he begin the Ardennes Offensive on December 18 rather than 16, and repeatedly refer to it as Operation Autumn Mist, Field Marshal Model's rejected alternative to Hitler's Operation Watch on the Rhine? I hate to say it, but Hastings may have become so prolific, and so entertaining to fans like me, that he has stopped being careful.
on November 23, 2011
A monumental undertaking, but most readable. Of the 60 million who perished in the conflict - a number that could be low by 10 million - 20 million were military, and a quarter of that number died in Russian, German or Japanese POW camps, mostly Russians and Poles. By subtraction, this leaves 40 (or 50) million civilians who perished. While the book devotes sufficient coverage to the war's major battles, the generally untold story of what befell the civilian population, often revealed though letters written at the time, tells a horrific tale of the "collateral damage" done to this population. As a few forinstances he notes, Vietnamese farmers were forced by the Japanese to grow cotton and jute for the Japanese war economy instead of rice. This, plus forced labor schemes, accounted for the deaths of perhaps 5 million in Southeast Asia. The Chinese Kuomingtang, viewed as the "good guys" by the USA, extracted rice taxes when farmers were reduced to eating tree bark. Chang's army never engaged the Japanese in any meaingful fashion, rather it roamed the countryside like a plague of locusts stripping the food supply. These actions, plus the savage acts of the Japanese military against the Chinese population, led to perhaps 15 million Chinese deaths, a number approached in Russia as first the Russian army laid waste to their lands to deny the Germans substanance, and the Germans did the same in their retreat. US and British area bombing of France killed 30% more civilians than the Blitz, and so on.
Hastings puts well-known battles in context with those now barely recalled: Montgomery's stupidity in Operation Market Garden is now well known - one doesn't launch a motorized and tank assault up a single lane road surrounded by water. At this juncture of the war the allied advance had stalled because the temporary unloading faclities established after D-Day were insufficient to move the needed material - gaining the Port of Antwerp and its approaches was the key, an offensive left to the First Canadian Army that was essentially unsuported by the Allied high command. The coverage here of the battle for the Scheldt Estuary is excellent. While popular coverage of the war generally features events like El Alamein and the crafty Desert Fox Rommel, left from discussion is what the heck were the Germans doing in North Africa - or Greece for that matter? Why did MacArthur invade the Philippines, a totally unnecesary conflict that led to the complete destruction of Manilla? The atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki may have led to the deaths of 100,000 Japanse, but the March 9, 1945 firebombing of Tokyo that burned 14 square miles accounted for more casualties. Immediately after Nagasaki the US launched an 800-strong B-29 firestorm raid on yet another city with zero plane losses, incinerating the population. In the ten days post Nagasaki Russia launched a massive invasion of Manchuria using 5,500 tanks, capturing it and North Korea. Japanese battle deaths 80,000, plus 300,000 more that died in Russian prison camps. I only cite theses numbers as Hastings goes beyond the flag waving propaganda of the war to tally its true impact on humanity. This is a deeply moral work on the cost of war.
A final aspect of this book that's most interesting is that neither Japan nor Germany stood a prayer of winning their respective conflicts. The reasons are numerous and worth reading about, but, at its most simplistic, neither country had the industrial base to succeed; by November 1, 1941, after the assault on Moscow had been held up for a few weeks by the rains and mud of the Russian autumn, Fritz Todt, head of Germany's war production, told Hitler the war was lost. A similar conclusion should have been accepted by the Japanese early in the war. Why this horror show went on for years more to its inevitable conclusion makes most interesting reading. Finally, from just a military effectiveness point of view, the Wehrmacht was an incredible fighting force that far outclassed anything the allies could throw againt it; the allies just had a lot more to throw, including 11 million Soviet troops that went to their deaths.
As a postscript to this since I can't figure out how to respond to comments made about my review, "Hey guys, don't shoot the messenger - try reading the book first." 1. MacArthur's invasion of the Philippines WAS totally unnecesasry, whether "other sources" have said this or not, but Max makes a rather convincing case. 2. I made no value judgment about the a-bomb attacks on Japan, and personally feel they were not only necessary but were the most humane way to end the war. That the US sent 800 B-29s the day after the second a-bomb attack to fire bomb yet another city to ashes does seem like a bit much. The Japanese military hard-liners who wanted to continue the war did not "rule" or "control" Japan; any decision to continue the war rested soley with the emperor who, by the constitution, had to also consider the inputs of the political and civilian classes. He did, and ended the war, one the militarists wanted to continue. (His radio talk announcing the surrender to the Japanese public, the first time they had heard him speak, was rather a masterpiece of understatement: "The war situation has not developed necessarily to Japan's advantage.") 4. As to the fighting capabilities of the Wehrmact, I can't think of any military historian who would disagree with the conclsion I mentioned. This is not to say individual German soldiers were more suicidally devoted to their cause than the Japanese or the Russians (who were helped along with NKVD machine guns pointed at their backs), but as a fighting force definitely had superior communications nets, command and control organization, an in-depth and capable staff and combat officer and NCO corps, and used combined arms for maximum effect. (The French had more and better tanks than the Germans when invaded; the Germans had FM radios that ensured their tanks were better utilized while French tankers had to open their hatches and wave flags; the BEF was hopelessly organized and couldn't conduct operations beyond batallion size, and so on and so forth.) As for my speling, well, hopeless.
There are extensive reviews of this book already, I'll add just a few comments. What I found to be the unique contributions of the book was its extensive use of the first person accounts of soldiers, ordinary townspeople, lower rank officers, etc. This gave an important flavor of what the war was like for those who experienced it. However, Hastings suffers greatly from hindsight bias. He repeatedly uses phrases such as "it should have been obvious that" for example, Japan had been defeated already and there was no reason for the Philippine campaign. The Japanese didn't seem to know that, as, even after the atomic bombs, large numbers of their generals and soldiers in China wanted to continue the war. The book is filled with such off-hand, judgmental comments taking points of view that could not have been known to the people engaged in the war at the time. Hastings is also dismissive, with one sentence back-hands, of many generals. He is scathing in his treatment of MacArthur, admittedly a troublesome figure, but not the incompetent Hastings makes him out to be. This is one of Hastings "should have knowns..." the US should have known that the campaign through what is now Indonesia was "unnecessary." One can almost hear Hastings sneer. He is similarly dismissive of, for example, Rommel, who he routinely berates as having no interest in logistics. He never provides data to back up these one sentence condemnations. This writer has seen extensive cable traffic from Rommel, in other works, pleading for oil, planes, tanks--the logistical support he needed. Hastings dismisses this in a sentence.
Read it for the human interest contributions. Don't take Hastings judgments of the worth of various military campaigns or officers too seriously.
on November 25, 2011
Like so many of my generation, there is a fascination with the events that transpired in our youth, the Armageddon called World War II. Having read many of the historical accounts of those events, it is surprising to find an account that focuses primarily upon the personal experiences of ordinary people. This "bottom-up" view of the war does not neglect the key architects of the war, the politicians and generals who caused and planned the war. But the emphasis is on the vast numbers of common soldiers, civilians,wives, mothers, and children who bore the brunt of the terrifying global events.
The author is not an unbiased and detached observer. He has plenty of opinions stated openly and emphatically. He has no hesitation in lambasting the British and their empire, Churchill, and the lackluster performance of soldiers accustomed to their role as a lazy protectorate of foreign causes in Egypt, Burma, India and beyond. He does not minimize the evils of Stalin, the foolhardiness of Patton, and many other icons considered heroes of the war. He does not hesitate to charge Macarthur as a vain, self-aggrandizing maniac who sacrificed countless American lives in unnecessary island hopping.
The net impact of this finely detailed account of all the major venues in WWII, is a sense of horror. The numbers of casualties in all theaters of the war are numbing. But the quality of the suffering as much as the quantity of casualties remains the most appalling and reveletory aspect of the conflagration.
This is a long and frightening book. It is like an unending horror movie, frightening in the intensity and extent of human suffering.
on December 12, 2011
Hastings offers a comprehensive, often moving narrative of WW II as a disaster story. The book emphasizes the enormous human toll, particularly in Russia and the East, and that the allies may not have won the war except for the Soviet Union occupying and bleeding Hitler's army for 3+ years.
Hastings makes effective use of ordinary folks' diaries to bring home the terror, tedium, horror, and dislocation caused by a worldwide, perhaps unavoidable disaster. He can be opinionated, but I generally appreciated his clear-eyed view that makes the U.S. and British "greatest generation" more human. This is not a hagiograhic account by any means and most impressive for that. Acknowledging the war's losses and horrors touched all, Hastings nevertheless makes the case the U.S. civilian population got off easy compared to Russia and Europe.
I highly recommend this even for those who know WW II history.
on December 9, 2011
I've only just completed Inferno, and frankly do not yet feel prepared to write a proper review. That will have to wait for more reflection, and quite a bit of re-reading.
But I did want to immediately post something, both to provide another endorsement of this work (I'm kind of shocked that so far there are only 8 reviews) and to share a few very high level impressions.
The scope of the book is extraordinary. In retrospect I can't recall having read another book that covered the entirety of the war as opposed to a battle, a year, a campaign or a theater. Sir Max, in the attached video interview, claims that this is not truly a complete history, but rather a series of impressions and attempts to communicate the impact of the war on those affected. Fair enough, but the fact remains that the book does cover the entire history of the conflict, and this, for reasons I'll discuss below, was important to me.
Stylistically I'd point out two things. First, the author does not shy away from expressing opinions, or passing judgment on the important actors. Interestingly, I don't think this undercuts the authority of the reportage. These opinions are expressed directly, without hesitation, and you are free to agree or disagree. Sir Max does not bury these conclusions or hide competing narratives. He tells you what happened, and he tells you what he thinks about it. This 'point of view' elevated the book from a mere retelling of history to something greater and much more interesting.
Second, the writing sparkles. His prose is direct and mostly uncomplicated but it is elegant. I think it would be too much to compare on this level with Gibbon's Decline and Fall, but there is a literary fire behind the writing that both helps keep the reader engaged in the narrative, and is pleasurable in its own right.
As to my underlying hesitancy to write a more detailed review, and how that relates to the scope of this work. I am a 50 year old American man who became interested in the war in the Pacific as an adolescent. I don't know why I developed this interest -my father was far too young to have served and except for one uncle who was an Auschwitz survivor I had no particular connection to this period of history. Anyway, over time I've continued to read about and explore the war in a variety of ways.
Not surprisingly I suppose, I viewed the war very much through an American lenses. I think I also understood that this conceit left my perception of the conflict as a whole somewhat off, but so be it. Years ago my dad and I read the Ambrose books together and I found them fun, though even then I had the sense that the story being told was not just myopic, but also likely really misleading. Citizen Soldiers indeed! I say that whilst looking at a collection of medals received by my father in law and his brothers, all of whom served in the European theater, including one who was in the gliders in the 101st Airborne and whose map of Europe looks startling like that taken by Easy Company as portrayed in Band of Brother's.
Today is December 9, 2011 - just 2 days past the 70th anniversary of Pearl Harbor and the starting point of the war as far as most American's are concerned. But what I am chewing over is not just the importance of the war before our engagement (which of course I already knew before the book) but the truly minor role we played in Europe. Intellectually I've known for a long time the extent of the conflict between Germany and the USSR, but I'm a bit shaken by having to reconsider just how primary that was, and how what I had always viewed as the core of the conflict - Omaha Beach, the Buldge, etc. - were, if not side-shows, then supporting players at best
I've also been thinking a lot about the brutality displayed on all fields of battle. I believe that moral equivalence is a fool's game, and one can't fairly compare occasional excesses by western victors with the systematic evil of our enemies. But one can, and really must, compare our enemies with our allies. But for Hitler's specific focus on the Jews of Europe, was he worse, hell - was he nearly as bad as Stalin? What does it mean that we were allied with such vileness?
I don't' know. As I've said, my thoughts are at present molten and I probably sound naive or even incoherent. But my God, what a great book to put me in this state! I've read no less than 50 WW2 histories over the years and most have just been passing time. Inferno is a book that I will undoubtedly come back to over the coming years as I try to construct a sensible understanding of the war.
If I had one criticism for Sir Max, it would be that the closing chapters of the book - post VE and tracking the ultimate defeat of Japan, felt kind of tossed off and less well researched or considered than earlier parts of the book. Okinawa, the firebombing of Tokyo and Japan's other cities, and the nuclear detonations over Hiroshima and Nagasaki come and go much more rapidly than expected. While Sir Max makes it clear that encirclement rather than head-on assault in Okinawa may have been a better, if politically impossible - approach, he gives, imo, short shrift to the process, decisions, and ethical implications of the destruction of the Japanese homeland. I'd have liked more. I'd also have liked a greater discussion of the phenomenon of the Kamikaze. He does address that phase, and presents a different picture than standard (that many or most 'volunteers' were not as gung ho as we have been lead to believe) but I think this deserved greater analysis. If I recall he said that these attacks were 5x as accurate as traditional assaults. While he clearly believes that Japan lost the war with on December 7th (or that loss was inevitable) I do wonder about other scenarios including an early deployment of Kamikaze. It is interesting isn't it that so much of what took place 70 years ago seems unforgivably barbaric now (systematic rape, rampant genocide, summary executions, etc.) but of all things suicide bombing has become a central weapon in modern warfare.
Ok, this has turned into a very long, short review. Let me conclude by recommending Inferno in the strongest possible terms. And not just for WWII 'hobbyists' like myself. Reading a book of this magnitude is a commitment, but I think anyone with an interest in history - particularly those of us from the US, England and Canada - will find Inferno great reading and profoundly provocative.