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on June 17, 2013
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.
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VINE VOICEon November 25, 2011
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.
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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.
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on March 22, 2015
Interesting take on WWII history. Hastings trolls though forgotten memoirs and letters to give us a personal view of the horror that was the war.

While Hasting starts out with the explicit intent to look at a personal view of the war he does regularly editorialize on the effectiveness of units, commanders and political leaders. He is writing with the benefit of hindsight, it is true, however many of his observations are trenchant and apt.

He explains the Wehrmacht's operational and tactical excellence without admiration. It is a fact and he presents it. He points out the Soviet bloodymindedness in attack, their reliance on mass and willingness to accept incredible casualties without rancor or horror. Just as a fact.

Hasting pokes many holes in the Anglo/American view of the war including the relative power of the Red Army and Allied forces in 1945.

It is a good book, but not a great one. I can't help but think that the narrative could have been polished a bit more.
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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.
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on December 3, 2013
After reading about one-half this book I started comparing it to Winston's War, 1940-1945 also by Max Hastings. I thought Winston's War was a wonderful book, but I was having to plow through Inferno, and it seemed like tough going. What was hard was Mr. Hastings constant referral to the suffering and deaths of WWII. Over half of the book is personal stories from individuals, civilian and military, about how they saw the war and how they suffered during the conflict. Readers of this review will not know I have written a history book: The Super Summary of World History, in which I spend a considerable time discussing WWII. While I did cover the killing and worldwide suffering, I stressed the decision making, economics, and leadership behind the war and its outcome. Mr. Hastings did not. His stress is on the suffering.

But, Max got it right and I did not. After completing Inferno I thought about the book for a few days and then paged through it again. Slowly I started to realize the center of WWII, the heart of the war, was the human toll it took in terms of pain and death inflicted across the globe on millions upon millions of people. That pain still exists, as well as the economic dislocation, even today. I was born in 1947, thus, I was told about the war but did not see its impact. People I knew did not die in combat, and people I knew that had served and survived didn't talk about it. Not that I failed to ask, but the participants did not want to talk. What was said was terse. The pain was just too great for them. I only realized that years and years later.

This book tries to capture some of that pain along with an astute analysis of the fighting. Inferno does not go into detail about the battles. Just enough is covered so the reader can get an understanding of flow of combat. Mr. Hastings also analyzes, brilliantly, the decision making of each side and how and where it went right or wrong. The author's ability to state the foundations of what happened is amazing. However, the substance of the book is taken up in trying to describe what is probably not describable. The pain and suffering inflicted by WWII.

Max Hastings is an excellent writer and analyst and it comes through in this book. Five stars for an excellent book that succeeds in finding the "truth" if any can be found, within the harshest event in modern history.

AD2
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on September 27, 2016
I'm in my 80s and began reading about the War before I grew up and served in the Korean War. Over the years I've read, learned from and admired numerous book about WWII. This book is the best WWII history I've read in over 20 years. The breath of the war that it covers is extraordinary and greater than any other that I've read. Moreover, the author never fails to include individuals both from the military and civilian life and their words help to bring readers like me closer to them, to their achievements and their sufferings. I've never read another WWII book that covers almost all of the countries that fought or suffered during the war.
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on March 13, 2017
I really loved this book. It is not really a narrative history of world war two. It reads like a collection of connected essays. His writing is easy to read. I still remember some of points he made and discuss them from time to time with other people who like to discuss world war two (trey are all old like me). This book does presume at least a minimum grasp of the facts about the war.
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on September 17, 2012
I've read quite a few books about WWII and prior to reading 'Inferno' considered myself fairly knowledgeable about the subject. However, 'Inferno' expanded and greatly deepened my understanding of the war.

In the forward Hastings explains that he is not here to retread over well-trodden ground. Much has already been written about the Wehrmacht's 1940 blitzkrieg of France, Pearl Harbor, Stalingrad and D-Day. Instead Hastings wants to focus on lesser known engagements and to try to show them to the reader from the eyes not of the marshals and generals directing them but from the perspective of the rank and file soldiers and helpless civilian bystanders.

He succeeds quite well in his endeavor. Perforce he must discuss the actions of Hitler, Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt. There's no way around that. But some of the most famous generals, men like Patton, Montgomery, Halsey, MacArthur, Guderian, and Rommel, are barely mentioned at all. And often when they are it is to point out their many shortcomings or their overblown reputations.

He spends what in other books would be a disproportionate amount of time on the Japanese campaign in southeast Asia and the fall of Singapore, often providing the perspectives of Malays and Chinese. A good deal of time is devoted to Burma and India, as well, and he gives equal time to trying to convey the view from its inhabitants eyes.

As my father pointed out in his review, Hastings amply demonstrates that it was the Russians who contributed the lion's share to the defeat of Hitler. And while I had known this, I hadn't quite realized just how lopsided their contribution was. It feels wrong to applaud this contribution, though, because this sacrifice was made only because Stalin and his marshals and generals were so callous in their disregard for their subjects' lives.

France comes across as fickle and venal. In the face of their own failure to repel the German invasion they became almost eager collaborators, often actively resisting the Allies. After reading this, I am shocked that the Allies gave France a seat at the victors' table.

Hastings doesn't recoil from illustrating the monstrosity of the two principal Axis regimes (although at 60,000, I think he underestimates the death toll of the Rape of Nanking; Iris Chang put it well over 200,000). However, he also shows where the Allies failed to live up to their ideals. This is particularly true in the case of the orgy of vengeance undertaken by the Russians as they liberate Russia and pursue the Wehrmacht into Germany and take Berlin.

In showing these failures, he never strays into moral equivalence (such as the Allied bombing of cities such as Dresden or Tokyo, and the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan). I applaud his properly calibrated moral compass.

He also takes on the conventional wisdom of the war, for example, showing that submarine warfare by the Axis in the Atlantic never seriously threatened the war effort. He also takes MacArthur to task for his egotistical and wasteful campaign to liberate the Philippines. In Hastings view, it should have been bypassed since by the time MacArthur returned, the Japanese army there was basically a hostage.

When I first finished this book, I rated it four stars. However, now having set my thoughts down on paper (as it were), I have decided to give it five. The proverbial 'must read' for all WWII enthusiasts.
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on February 17, 2016
Unvarnished history of the violence and futility of war. Graphic in detail of the brutality in the European and Pacific campaigns. Not limited to Japan and Germany but also includes US and British actions during WWII. Interesting slants on why Allies did not make a fuss about entering Berlin first and giving Stalin what he wanted - - Berlin and access to the nuclear scientists developing atomic weapons in that area. Stalin knew that the US was developing an atomic weapon and, looking at his post-war strategies, Stalin had to develop the nuclear card. The author includes letters from combatants to their loved ones relating the horrors of combat. In turn correspondence from civilians in Germany to their front-line loved ones, for instance, regarding the Allied bombing of civilian targets in Europe are included. This correspondence gives this well-researched and written story of WWII a human face and brings home the sadness, fear, and futility of real people facing the nightmare of just trying to survive. I highly recommend this book but reader beware there are graphic descriptions of what hot steel, moving at a high rate of speed can do to the human body, not to mention to the soul. George A., Portland, OR
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