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All Hell Let Loose: The World at War 1939-45 Paperback – April 1, 2012
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"This is the book he was born to write: a work of staggering scope and erudition, narrated with supreme fluency and insight, it is unquestionably the best single-volume history of the war ever written..... he writes with a wonderfully clear, unsentimental eye......and has a terrific grasp of the grand sweep and military strategy......But what makes his book a compelling read are the human stories......at the end of this gruesome, chilling but quite magnificent book, you never doubt that the war was worth fighting". Sunday Times "No other general history of the war amalgamates so successfully the gut-wrenching personal details and the essential strategic arguments. Melding the worm's eye view and the big picture is a difficult trick to pull of - but Hastings has triumphed". The Times "majestic...it is impossible to emerge without a sense of the sheer scale of human tragedy.....To gather all these anecdotes together is a task in itself, but to assemble them in a way that makes sense is something entirely different....Hastings shapes all these stories, almost miraculously, into a single coherent narrative". Daily Telegraph "In this massive work, the crowning volume of the 10 impressive books he has written about the Second World War, Sir Max Hastings spares us nothing in portraying the sheer bloody savagery of the worst war that the world has yet seen....this magnificent book....is hypnotically readable from the first page to the last". Sunday Telegraph "A fast-moving, highly readable survey of the entire war...Hastings combines a mastery of the military events with invariably sound judgment and a sharp eye for unusual telling detail....this is military history at its most gripping. Of all Max Hastings's valuable books, this is possibly his best - a veritable tour de force". Evening Standard
About the Author
Max Hastings is the author of twenty-six books, most about conflict, and between 1986 and 2002 served as editor-in-chief of the Daily Telegraph, then editor of the Evening Standard. He has won many prizes both for journalism and his books, of which the most recent are All Hell Let Loose, Catastrophe and The Secret War, best-sellers translated around the world. He is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, an Honorary Fellow of King's College, London and was knighted in 2002. He has two grown-up children, Charlotte and Harry, and lives with his wife Penny in West Berkshire, where they garden enthusiastically.
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Read it for the human interest contributions. Don't take Hastings judgments of the worth of various military campaigns or officers too seriously.
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.