Touching the extremes: A mother and son at Hiroshima, August 1945
For many years — indeed since the close of the event itself — the Second World War has been the gift to the publishing industry that keeps on giving. It was thought for a while that the new millennium might mark a cut-off point in the public appetite for World War II history. Not a bit of it. The fascination continues. As I write, the number one bestseller on the list of Random House, the world's biggest English-language publisher, is Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand of Seabiscuit fame, about a US flier shot down in the Pacific. Another war-themed book, In the Garden of Beasts, is at number three.
The trend is not confined to nations which had a good war. Last year a polemic by a 93-year-old Resistance hero, Stéphane Hessel, topped the French charts and in Germany readers have lapped up the republication of Hans Fallada's Alone in Berlin.
It is in the English-speaking world, though, where the interest is strongest. British and American readers cling to the war like a spiritual comfort blanket. For Britons, it was our last great achievement before the onset of moral and economic decline; for Americans, a reminder of an age of innocence and simple choices. It was, of course, more complicated than that, but no amount of revisionism can erode the popular belief that war brought out the best in us, setting a standard of national conduct that we will never match again. Familiarity does not breed indifference. As time passes, the stories of those who endured the war seem to gain in remarkableness and their achievements appear more extraordinary.
One of the main beneficiaries of this trend is Max Hastings, whose nine books on aspects of the conflict have given him a claim to be our pre-eminent military historian. In All Hell Let Loose he attempts to tell the whole story in a single volume, and succeeds triumphantly, combining fluid narrative with some piercing insights and unsentimental judgments. The French are not going to like this book, nor too perhaps the British Army, whose performance "seldom surpassed adequacy and often fell short of it".
This is above all, though, a book about how individuals experienced war, an answer to the question, "What was the Second World War like?" Over the years Hastings has moved away from the traditional military-historical preoccupation with leadership, strategy, tactics and materiel to take a more humanistic slant. Here, the nigh-on 750 pages are crammed with thousands of nuggets of testimony from all corners of the conflict that horrify, inspire, touch and dismay.