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on 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.