The Greatest and Most Terrible

Book review of All Hell Let Loose: The World at War, 1939-1945 by Max Hastings

Patrick Bishop

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. 

The awful glee with which so many Germans went to war is revealed in a report from a young German pilot of the fun he had strafing “Ivans”, and the reluctance of their opponents in the resigned, grumbling letters to wives and sweethearts. For the majority, the war meant a loss of whatever small control they exercised over their own fate. This truth is contained, most pathetically, in a letter written from the battle cruiser Hood by homesick, frightened, 17-year-old William Crawford to his mum, asking her if she could persuade the Admiralty to fix him up with a shore job. Nothing came of it and he went down with his ship, sunk by the Bismarck with almost all hands in May 1941. The sense of helplessness in the face of evil is encapsulated in the brilliant aperçu of an Austrian Jewess, Ruth Maier, who had fled from the Nazis to Norway, only for them to follow: “I think of the Germans more as a natural disaster than as a people.”  

Threaded through the personal accounts is a narrative which, by an impressive feat of organisation, manages to connect all the theatres of what was the closest the world has come to a truly global conflict.  British and American interpretations of the war naturally emphasise their own forces’ involvement and therefore focus on the periphery of events over the centre. Hastings makes it very plain that this was essentially a fight between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, two enemies of humanity locked in a struggle from which decency was utterly absent. One of the most eloquent passages is a simple recital of statistics: the Soviet Union suffered 65 per cent of all allied military deaths, the US and Britain 2 per cent each. Within the armed forces, nearly one in three Germans conscripted into the Wehrmacht died, against one in 20 British and Commonwealth combatants and one in 34  American servicemen.

Compared with the ruthlessness of the Russians, the Germans and the Japanese, the democracies’ cautious style of waging war looks relatively benign, but with conflict come hard choices. Hastings does not neglect the blots on the allied record, prominent among them Churchill’s refusal to divert resources to alleviate the Bengal famine in 1943 which caused a million deaths. In the end his verdict is a bleak one that rejects the romantic view of the conflict as a crusade of good against evil. The fruits of victory were sparse and perversely distributed, with the vanquished Germans reaping far greater benefits than the victorious Russians.

None of this will diminish the hold that, nearly 70 years after its end, the war still exerts on our imaginations. It is, perhaps, hardly surprising. It was, as Hastings says, the “greatest and most terrible event in world history”, in which human beings touched the extremes of good and evil as well as enduring suffering and deprivation on a scale unimaginable to modern minds. As such, the story surely merits this constant sifting and retelling. For as this enthralling book shows, in the right hands, the study of the war — like the study of a sacred text — can generate an endless stream of new meanings and insights, illuminating in their turn the wider mysteries of existence. 

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