Read All Hell Let Loose: The World at War 1939-1945 by Max Hastings Free Online
Book Title: All Hell Let Loose: The World at War 1939-1945|
The author of the book: Max Hastings
ISBN 13: 9780007450725
Format files: PDF
The size of the: 829 KB
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Reader ratings: 7.8
Date of issue: April 26th 2012
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When my daughter Emilia was just starting to move around, I’d bring her into my office and let her crawl around while I worked. And by work, I mean “play spider solitaire obsessively on the computer.” That was a certain, magical age, in which Emilia was satisfied by simply holding a softball in her hands, or playing with a camera that hadn’t worked in years. I got a lot of work spider solitaire playing done in those days.
Sometimes, during the course of my important work (maintaining a 60% win total) I’d glance away from the computer and see her doing something adorable. Like every other parent in the world (sorry non-parents who are Facebook friends with us), I’d take a picture and post it online.
One of the more memorable images I captured depicts Millie standing up and gripping a chair for support. Behind her is a bookshelf. On those books are swastikas. A lot of swastikas. It looked like my daughter was taking her first steps…down the road to being a neo-Nazi.
The point of this story is that I have read a lot of books on World War II. They dominate almost an entire bookcase. There are books on Hitler, Himmler, Heydrich, and the Third Reich. There are books on the Auschwitz, the air war, and the Battle of the Bulge. There are books on Pearl Harbor, Okinawa, and the Bomb.
Yes, I have read a great deal about World War II. Some would say too much. My wife would definitely say too much. My therapist would concur. But I have never, until now, actually read a single-volume overview of the entire colossal conflict.
It occurred to me, recently, that my approach to studying World War II has been rather ad hoc and unsystematic. I know a ton about certain aspects – Hitler’s monorchism, for instance – but not a lot about others, such as the Fall of France. I determined that the best quick fix would be to read what I’d always avoided: a one-volume history to tie it all together.
Choosing Inferno was a no-brainer. Max Hastings is a widely-respected historian who has written two exceptional volumes – Armageddon and Retribution – covering the endgames in both the European and Pacific Theaters of Operation. He is known for being a bit of a contrarian, for going against the grain. His judgments are sharp. Even if you don’t agree with them, they get you thinking.
Hastings starts Inferno in 1939, with Germany’s invasion of Poland, and ends it with the dropping of the atomic bomb and the surrender of Japan in 1945. (Hastings clearly does not believe, as some do, that WWII began at the Marco Polo Bridge, with the opening of the Sino-Japanese War). As you would expect, he covers the unfolding war in chronological chapters that encompass both the large stuff (the Battle of Britain, Stalingrad, Midway, and the Bulge), and the lesser-known actions (Italy’s invasion of Greece, Yugoslavia).
Obviously, there is far too much happening in World War II to fully cover in one book (or a hundred, really). Depth is necessarily sacrificed for scope. The best thing that a one-volume history can do – and Hastings accomplishes this – is to show how all the different theaters connected like a web. How manpower needs over here, effected the campaigns over there. The great and decisive contrast occurs at this macro juncture. The Allies – chiefly the U.S., Great Britain, and Russia – acted in concert with each other. They planned and plotted their moves. They did not always agree (often, indeed, they disagreed vehemently), but they attempted coordination. The Axis – chiefly Germany, Italy, and Japan – acted just the opposite. They never did anything in concert. Italy went off on her own misadventures, requiring German intervention and rescue. Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and Germany leapt into the war with America, without ever assuring Japanese assistance in Manchuria. The Axis acted independently of one another, and that’s how they fell, one by one.
The chronology of the war is helpful, but it isn’t the reason to read this book. You can get a chronology from any internet timeline. And if you’re looking for a battlefield history, this is definitely not the place to get it. There is not enough room for any serious tactical discussion of any part of any battle, save its ultimate strategic consequences. Frankly, I was fine with this. Hastings does a lot of things well, but I’ve always found his tactical descriptions of battles unfulfilling.
The extraordinary quality of Inferno comes from the thematic chapters that intersperse the chronological narrative, and the tone which he brings to the endeavor. There are sections on the war at sea, the war in the air, the Holocaust, and a blisteringly good chapter that covers what it meant to live with the war, for soldiers at the front, and civilians on the home front.
The first lines of Hastings’ introduction states his intention to write about the “human experience” of World War II. He best fulfills this purpose in these thematic chapters. He is able to utilize his incredible skill at finding profound, moving, and pungent primary accounts of war that escape the usual clichés (“it was hell”) to find the gritty, memorable details that tend to stick with you. For example, Hastings quotes British Sergeant Norman Lewis who watched women in Naples prostituting themselves to avoid starvation:
“By the side of each woman stood a small pile of tins, and it soon became clear that it was possible to make love to any one of them in this very public place by adding another tin to the pile. The women kept absolutely still, they said nothing and their faces were as empty of expression as graven images. They might have been selling fish, except that this place lacked the excitement of a fish market. There was no solicitation, no suggestion, no enticement, not even the discreetest and most accidental display of flesh…One soldier, a little tipsy, and egged on constantly by his friends, finally put down his tin of rations at a woman’s side, unbuttoned and lowered himself onto her. A perfunctory jogging of the haunches began and came quickly to an end. A moment later he was on his feet and buttoning up again. It had been something to get over as soon as possible. He might have been submitting to a field punishment rather than the act of love.”
Roger Ebert once quoted the filmmaker Francois Truffaut for the proposition that it was impossible to make an anti-war film. The virtues of war – courage, brotherhood, sacrifice, the kinetic action – overwhelm the near-infinite vices of war, especially on film, where those things translate so much better than suffering and despair.
Truffaut’s dictum often holds true for books as well, especially when those books are not written by the participants. Historians cling, understandably, to the tales of nobility and bravery (especially if the author has interviewed the participants personally). Many WWII books are almost paeans to warriors and their craft. After reading a Stephen Ambrose title, for example, you almost feel like you missed out on World War II.
Max Hastings won’t let you feel that way. War is suffering, and as Sherman once noted, you cannot refine it. Sixty million people died in the war, working out to an average of 27,000 people per day from September 1939 to August 1945. That is calamity on a grand scale. Titanic battles and air-dropped firestorms and the Holocaust. But it’s not just the death. It’s the shattered cities and burned out farms. It is starvation. It is displacement. It is lost treasure and wealth. It is rape. It is shattered families, bodies, psyches. When I read history, I generally have a neutral emotional reaction. I sympathize and empathize with the story being told, of course, but it doesn’t actually alter my mood. There is, after all, the anesthetizing effect of the passage of time. Inferno broke through that. It is a powerful litany of sorrows that reshaped any maudlin notions I still have of “the good war.”
There were certain niggling things I didn't care for. Hastings is pretty good at bucking conventional wisdom. In a couple matters, however, he is as mainstream as every other modern WWII scribbler. First, he is constantly on about how much better the German generals were than the Allied generals, and how the Wehrmacht was the far superior fighting force. Hastings can’t spare a kind word for any of the Allied command. The closest he can muster is to say that Eisenhower was a good politician. The Anglo-American soldiers, meanwhile, are mostly risk averse minor leaguers.
History is a pendulum, and the immediate postwar glorification of the Allies has swung back the other way. It has swung too far. After Hastings’ grimacing account of the Anglo-American effort, you’ll be surprised to learn the Allies won. Eisenhower, Bradley, Patton, et. al. were all competent men. Their soldiers, in the battles after D-Day, consistently thumped the Wehrmacht in conflicts that equaled those in the East. The logistical and material advantages of the Allies, which Hastings blithely treats as a trick of fortune, was in reality a monumental martial achievement. (This isn’t Game of War, after all, where you can stockpile armaments by charging your credit card).
The other thing that got tiresome is the constant reminder that Russia won the war. Russia, Russia, Russia. It’s about all I could take. It can’t be repeated enough that Russia invaded Finland, made a pact with Hitler, carved up Poland, and was quite content to share rule with the Third Reich. They aren’t the good guy in this story; they are the less-bad guy. If Hastings wants me to thank Stalin’s ghost, he’s got another thing coming.
Furthermore, Stalin’s victory did not occur in a vacuum. Hastings evidently believes that the USSR alone could have defeated Hitler. I find this doubtful. If Britain had made a separate peace; if America hadn’t flooded the Soviets with Lend-Lease materiel; if the Anglo-Americans hadn’t opened up fronts in North Africa, Italy, and France, I think that the Russian steamroller never would have started west after Barbarossa.
Agreeing or disagreeing with Hastings, however, is not the point. The point is, his writing starts this dialogue in your head. He has strong opinions and an air of absolute certainty that is both infuriating and endearing. A book on World War II has a higher likelihood of pedestrianism than a book on any other historical topic. You don’t get that with Max Hastings. He always makes you think, ponder, and reframe.
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Read information about the authorSir Max Hugh Macdonald Hastings, FRSL, FRHistS is a British journalist, editor, historian and author. His parents were Macdonald Hastings, a journalist and war correspondent, and Anne Scott-James, sometime editor of Harper's Bazaar.
Hastings was educated at Charterhouse School and University College, Oxford, which he left after a year.After leaving Oxford University, Max Hastings became a foreign correspondent, and reported from more than sixty countries and eleven wars for BBC TV and the London Evening Standard.
Among his bestselling books Bomber Command won the Somerset Maugham Prize, and both Overlord and The Battle for the Falklands won the Yorkshire Post Book of the Year Prize.
After ten years as editor and then editor-in-chief of The Daily Telegraph, he became editor of the Evening Standard in 1996. He has won many awards for his journalism, including Journalist of The Year and What the Papers Say Reporter of the Year for his work in the South Atlantic in 1982, and Editor of the Year in 1988.
He stood down as editor of the Evening Standard in 2001 and was knighted in 2002. His monumental work of military history, Armageddon: The Battle for Germany 1944-1945 was published in 2005.
He is also a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.
Sir Max Hastings honoured with the $100,000 2012 Pritzker Military Library Literature Award for Lifetime Achievement in Military Writing.
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