The eminent military historian Sir Max Hastings has already produced several weighty volumes on the Second World War, notably Armageddon, Nemesis and Finest Years: Churchill as Warlord 1940-45. This work, subtitled “The World at War 1939-1945”, completes the record. Hastings himself describes it as a book “chiefly about human experience” in which he tries to show the whole picture, relying as much on civilian reports, letters, memoirs and diaries as on military sources. Warfare, if not a commendable activity for mankind, is a very ancient one and although it routinely shows the darker side of human nature, it clearly fascinates the author; he has set himself to answer the question, what happens when “almost everything which civilised people take for granted in time of peace [is] swept aside, above all the expectation of being protected from violence.”

The figures themselves almost overwhelm the reader: 60 million people died between 1939-45, both combatants and civilians, often in horrifying circumstances. Russia’s sacrifice of lives was immeasurably greater than all the other countries: 65 percent of the total. Hastings shifts his analysis from country to country as one by one they are dragged into the war, either by enemy invasion or in coming to the assistance of allies. Along the way he dispels certain myths that have hovered around the actual historical events; for example, that the German army in Eastern Europe was somehow untainted by the work of the SS death units which followed them. Hastings observes that from 1939, during the Polish campaign, “the officer corps of the Wehrmacht already displayed the moral bankruptcy that would characterise its conduct until 1945.”

He also shows the bungling and incompetence that are a characteristic of war and which often caused most casualties, commenting that in England “before peace came, accidents in the blackout killed more people than did the Luftwaffe.” The magnificent Churchillian rhetoric which Hastings rightly extols in his study of the wartime prime minister could not hide the fact that the British armed forces demonstrated continual “failures of will, leadership, equipment, tactics and training.” Where there was a will to win, as the author points out, it could not compete with the Russian or German brutal acceptance of the inevitability of huge numbers of casualties.

The Allied soldiers on the battlefield behaved like “reasonable men”; their opponents simply wanted to win, at whatever cost and showed “what unreasonable men could do”. There was a limit to what the Allied commanders could demand of their men; under democratic systems there would be a demand for enquiries and investigations, actions denied to the populations under Communism or Fascism.  Unlike Japan, “the concept of self-immolation was beyond the bounds of Western democratic culture” and it would have been “unthinkable” that the British would have eaten each other, as happened in Leningrad, rather than surrender London or Birmingham.

Interestingly, given the intellectual eminence of Germany, the author suggests that Britain’s claim to genuine success lay in the superiority of its application of science and technology.  The best civilian brains were mobilised in the war effort; the work of the boffins at Bletchley Park and the cracking of the German Enigma code were more effective in defeating the enemy than the campaigns in the field.

Germany’s invasion of Russia – Operation Barbarossa – is rightly given much space in the book. As Hastings comments, Hitler’s march into the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941 was the defining event of the War. Hitler had underestimated Russia’s military and industrial capabilities; and as with Napoleon, the sheer size of the country, coupled with the severity of its winters were critical in Russia’s eventual victory. Tellingly, on 28 November 1941, the German armaments chief, Fritz Todt, told Hitler, “This war can no longer be won by military means.” He favoured a political solution. Hitler dismissed the idea and in the four years that followed millions more were to die wantonly and needlessly. The siege of Leningrad and the Battle of Stalingrad are vividly evoked in all their horror.

Yet as the author grimly reminds us, two million Russians also starved to death in territories controlled by their own governments; Stalin was as cynical about human life as was Hitler. His war aims, to grab as much territory in Eastern Europe as he could get away with, were equally selfish and at odds with human liberty. By the end of the war England and America were in no position to protest as the Iron Curtain came down. Hastings states, “The price of having joined with Stalin to destroy Hitler was high indeed.”

He is dismissive of the German defence, “We did not know” when mass atrocities came to light after the War, concluding that it was “impossible” for most German civilians credibly to deny knowledge of the concentration camps or of the slave labour system. Again, referring to the Holocaust, he judges that it was “easy”, in one of the most highly educated societies in Europe, to find people willing to murder “those whom their rulers defined as state enemies, without employing duress.”

His sober conclusion is that WWII was not, as is sometimes thought, a straightforward fight between good and evil. Yet the Allied victory did save the world “from a much worse fate than would have followed the triumph of Germany and Japan.” For those interested in the history of the last War this book provides an excellent summary and overview; detailed, impartial and reflective and including many poignant and eloquent testimonies by ordinary people on both sides, caught up in a seemingly endless nightmare not of their own making. Hastings builds the clearest case possible that war is to be avoided at (almost) all costs.

Francis Phillips writes from Buckinghamshire, in the UK. 

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