Imagine, for a moment, living in a world where, among other things, 27,000 human beings die violently every 24 hours, most of the Eurasian landmass is either a battlefield or under brutal occupation, the seas – particularly the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans – are viciously fought over by the navies of several world powers and death rains down from the skies in an almost indiscriminate manner, killing or maiming thousands of persons – most of whom have never worn a uniform or carried so much as a handgun to protect themselves.
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Dystopian science fiction? The plot of the latest Tom Clancy novel? Hardly; this is a thumbnail portrait of planet Earth as depicted in Sir Max Hastings’ Inferno: The World at War 1939-1945, a one-volume history of the Second World War written by the author of Overlord: D-Day and the Battle for Normandy and (among many other history books) The Battle for the Falklands, which he co-wrote with Simon Jenkins.
Published late in 2011 in Great Britain as All Hell Let Loose, Inferno may be considered Hastings’ summation of his examination of the darkest period of modern history: World War II. As a historian and war correspondent – he covered the British-Argentinian conflict over the Falkland Islands when he was a reporter in 1982 – Hastings has chronicled selected aspects of military history, including the air war over Europe, the Normandy campaign, the battle history of a SS Panzer division and the final campaigns in Germany and the Pacific, but Inferno is his first attempt to give readers a Big Picture look at the war which snuffed out an estimated 60 million lives – most of them civilians.
There are, of course, many one-volume histories of World War II in print, but quite a few of them were written between the end of major hostilities and the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, so (a) some books written before 1974 – when the “Ultra Secret” was officially revealed – lack insights into how Allied intelligence could read Axis codes and (b) many new facts about the conduct of the war, particularly from the Soviet perspective, have become available to the current crop of active historians who want a clearer, less propagandized view of World War II.
The book covers, in its 26 chapters, the global conflict which commenced on Sept. 1, 1939 with Adolf Hitler’s invasion of Poland and ended with the nuclear attacks – the first and, hopefully, only use of atomic weapons – on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August of 1945 which led to Japan’s surrender on Sept. 2, 1945.
Obviously, readers who are familiar – and comfortable – with the “first generation” of World War II history books, I.e., those works which were published between 1945 and 1960, might read Inferno as yet one of those “horrible revisionist works” which don’t jive with the sometimes jingoistic and “winners write history” narratives they grew up with. Hastings is a historian from the “new generation” of authors which came of age in the mid- to late 1960s and have a less idealistic view of the war from that of their immediate precursors and thus are not adverse to either explode cherished myths about Allied unity or reveal unsavory truths papered over during the war, including the inherent contradictions between Winston Churchill’s embrace of the self-determination clause of the Atlantic Charter and his insistence that the British Empire not grant independence to its overseas colonies in Africa, Southeast Asia, the Middle East and India.
Although Inferno might seem – to the casual reader, anyway – yet another dry, statistics-filled and scholarly work about a war that is now (as I write this) 70 years in our past and receding from the national memory as the generation that lived through it passes away, it’s actually the opposite.
As Hastings writes in his introduction, Inferno “is a book chiefly about human experience. Men and women from scores of nations struggled to find words to describe what happened to them in the Second World War, which transcended anything they had ever known. Many resorted to a cliché: ‘All hell broke loose.’ Because the phrase is commonplace in eyewitness accounts of battles, air raids, massacres and ship sinkings, later generations are tempted to shrug at its banality. Yet in an important sense the words capture the essence of what the struggle meant to hundreds of millions of people, plucked from peaceful, ordered existences to face ordeals that in many cases lasted for years, and for at least 60 million were terminated by death. An average of 27,000 people perished each day between September 1939 and August 1945 as a consequence of the global conflict. Some survivors found that the manner in which they had conducted themselves during the struggle defined their standings in their societies for the rest of their lives, for good or ill. Successful warriors retained a lustre which enabled some to prosper in government or commerce. Conversely, at the bar of a London club thirty years after the war, a Guards veteran murmured about a prominent Conservative statesman: ‘Not a bad fellow, Smith. Such a pity he ran away during the war.’ A Dutch girl, growing up in the 1950s, found that her parents categorized each of their neighbors in accordance with how they had behaved during the German occupation of Holland.”
Drawn primarily from official and non-official sources such as contemporary news reports, personal letters, diary entries and other accounts, Inferno gives 21st Century readers a vividly indelible glimpse into how ordinary people – some of them warriors, most of them not – lived, suffered and died during the six years of World War II. Hastings ties the small telling details – such as a description of a Polish cavalry unit’s doomed charge (on horseback and with sabers drawn) against invading German infantry soldiers backed by armored vehicles – into the Big Picture with deft use of a strong and sure narrative voice.
In the past, Hastings has come under fire from American readers and critics who charge him with looking down on some aspects of the Allied armies (especially the Anglo-American contingents) and giving the German military unwarranted “praise” for having better kill-ratios and fighting skills than its Western and Soviet antagonists. Hastings, however, points out that his point of view is not revisionism for revisionism’s sake or that he praises Axis – or Soviet – military doctrines or tactics, but is based on statistics recorded by the combatant nations during and immediately after the war. Soldiers indoctrinated in totalitarian regimes tend to fight more tenaciously in battle than those who have been drafted in more liberal and democratic societies.
In such contests, Hastings points out, the former can only be defeated by the latter’s use of superior firepower, manpower and mobility.
Although Inferno covers a great deal of territory that has been covered in previous one-volume histories of the war – the transformation of the war from a purely European conflict into a global one, the well-known campaigns and battles in France, the Balkans, North Africa, Russia and the Pacific, the air war, the war at sea and life under occupation – Hastings also delves into the seldom-discussed role of Italy during World War II and the little known Bengal famine in 1943 and 1944, which resulted in over one million deaths and irrevocably spelled doom for British rule in India and Southeast Asia.
Hastings, whose father Macdonald Hastings had been a war correspondent for Britain’s Picture Post, has a journalist’s passion for uncovering fact and a finely honed ability to make complex stories graspable by the general reader. His prose is clear and full of descriptive detail, and his tone is authoritative without being overly dry or didactic, thus making Inferno accessible to everyone and not just to World War II or military history buffs.
This reviewer wishes to thank Books Category Lead dramastef for adding this book to the database; without her assistance, this review would not have been possible.
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