published 17/11/2011 at 19:30 AM by Richard J. Evans
Do we really need another history of World War II? The book market is overflowing with them, and new ones seem to appear at almost weekly intervals. Vast though the conflict was, we probably know more about it than any other war in history. Sir Max Hastings, author of this latest survey, has already written no fewer than eight books about key campaigns and personalities of the war. Has he got anything new to say?
The answer is, emphatically, yes. “Inferno: The World at War, 1939-1945” sums up and surpasses all his previous publications: a new, original and necessary history, in many ways the crowning of a life’s work. A professional war correspondent who has personally witnessed armed conflicts in Vietnam, the Falkland Islands and other danger zones, Hastings has a sober, unromantic and realistic view of battle that puts him into a different category from the armchair generals whose gung-ho, schoolboy attitude to war fills the pages of a great majority of military histories. He writes with grace, fluency and authority. “Inferno” offers an account of the war that concentrates on the lived experience of the men and women who took part in it. On almost every page there is memorable and arresting material from interviews, diaries, letters, memoirs and personal documents of many kinds. The huge cast of characters and witnesses gives the book an almost Tolstoyan sweep, as it ranges across the world, from Dunkirk to Iwo Jima, Stalingrad to Guadalcanal.
Hastings is at his absolute best when he is describing battle scenes, both on land and at sea. Deftly chosen quotations are effortlessly integrated into the narratives, providing color and making the action come alive. They are supplemented where appropriate with clear and informative maps and easily digestible statistics. This is at its core very much a military history, despite the space devoted to the experiences of civilians. Brisk assessments are delivered on the competence or (mostly) incompetence of leading generals and the performance of their troops; in the book’s concluding chapter, Hastings pronounces his verdicts, rather like a senior general handing out medals at the end of a campaign: Montgomery was a highly competent professional who lacked the touch of genius needed for him to be numbered among the great commanders; MacArthur was a brilliant self-publicist, but outclassed as a general by the now-forgotten Lucian Truscott; Rommel was fatally compromised by his disregard for logistics; Georgi Zhukov was a superb commander in 1944, but his storming of Berlin the following spring was brutish and clumsy.
Hastings argues that the navies of the United Kingdom and the United States were their best fighting forces; he thinks the armies of the two Allied powers were mostly no match for the ruthless fighting prowess of the Germans and Japanese, whose willingness to sacrifice themselves contrasted with the care taken by Allied generals to minimize casualties among their own men. Red Army troops behaved in a manner not unlike that of the Germans, their reckless disregard for their own safety driven on by the knowledge that the Soviet secret police would shoot them if they hesitated. What shifted the balance in favor of the Allies in the end was America’s industrial might, which by 1943 was supplying enormous quantities of munitions and equipment without which the Red Army’s victory would have taken far longer to achieve.
Germans, Russians and Japanese soldiers and civilians get their say in this book as well as Americans and British. Ninety percent of German troops killed in the war died on the Eastern Front, and Hastings gives this fact appropriately expansive treatment. He is as hard on the racism, complacency and incompetence of the British in the face of the Japanese invasion of Malaya and Singapore as he is on the cruelty and brutality of the Japanese Army as it tortured, raped and massacred its way across China, Indonesia and Malaya. As the British fled, denying Asians access to evacuation ships to make room for themselves, the young Singaporean politician, Lee Kwan Yew, exclaimed: “That is the end of the British Empire.” Millions of people died of hunger, disease and mass murder under German rule in Europe, but millions died too from starvation in India under British rule.
Yet Hastings is not always so evenhanded in his coverage. In describing the invasion, conquest and division of Poland by Hitler and Stalin in 1939, for example, he devotes considerable space to the Soviet arrest, deportation and murder of Poles in their zone of occupation, but says little about the mass imprisonment, deportation, enslavement and murder of hundreds of thousands of Poles by the Nazis. His brilliant and evocative account of the “winter war,” in which Finland defended itself with surprising effectiveness against Stalin’s invasion in 1939-40, outclasses his somewhat perfunctory narrative of the Polish campaign. And his skillful touch can fail him when it comes to dealing with nonmilitary aspects of the war. There are too many sweeping generalizations about national character. The Poles have a “propensity for fantasy,” for example, while “Britain’s antimilitarist tradition was a source of pride to its people.” Neither claim is true; indeed, British national culture in the 1930s was suffused with celebratory memories of national military victories in Europe and across the British Empire, while pacifism was the province of only a tiny minority.
On occasion, too, the military historian’s propensity to judge everything in terms of military effectiveness can lead Hastings astray. “One of Hitler’s greatest mistakes,” he writes, “from the viewpoint of his own interests, was that he attempted to reshape the eastern lands that fell under his suzerainty in accordance with Nazi ideology while still fighting the war.” Nazi brutality certainly alienated many Ukrainians and others whose resentment at years of murderous Soviet exploitation made them ready to welcome the Germans when they arrived in 1941; but for Hitler, of course, the exploitation and extermination of Slav “subhumans” was one of the major purposes of the war.
And the chapter on the Holocaust is among the weaker ones in the book. Hastings sees the annihilation of the Jews as a military mistake, but in fact it did not entail “diverting scarce manpower and transport to a program of mass murder while the outcome of the war still hung in the balance,” at least not on any significant scale. The “euthanasia” campaign in which Hitler ordered the murder of 70,000 mentally ill or handicapped Germans was not directed exclusively against “inmates of psychiatric units,” but actually began with the forcible removal of thousands of children from their parental homes. These are minor objections, however. As military history in the round, conveying to a 21st-century readership the human experience of this greatest and most savage of human conflicts in history, “Inferno” is superb.
Richard J. Evans is the Regius professor of history at the University of Cambridge and the president of Wolfson College, Cambridge. He is the author of “The Third Reich at War.”
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction : Correction: November 23, 2011. Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this article misspelled Gen. Lucian Truscott’s given name. It was not Lucien.
published 17/11/2011 at 19:30 AM by Richard J. Evans