Inferno: The World At War, 1939-1945
By Max Hastings
(Knopf, 729 pages, $35)
“At 3:15 A.M. Berlin time on 22 June 1941, Russian border guards on the Bug River Bridge at Kolden were summoned by their German counterparts ‘to discuss important matters,’ and machine-gunned as they approached,” writes Max Hastings on the commencement of Hitler’s Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union.
This routine bit of duplicity and disregard for human life began “the defining event of the war” and, ultimately, the complete destruction of Hitler’s Germany, as described by Hastings in his Inferno: The World At War, 1939-1945 (recently released in paperback).
This volume is the culmination of Hastings’ long career as a historian of the Second World War, “this greatest and most terrible of all human experiences,” beginning with Bomber Command (1979) and followed by seven other books on all aspects of the conflict, including one on the defeat of Japan. Avoiding the detailed military narrative of the author’s other works, Inferno takes a synoptic view of the war and surveys the “big picture, the context of events” in order to “illuminate the conflict’s significance for a host of ordinary people of many societies…” To accomplish this, Hastings draws on eyewitness accounts of soldiers, civilians, journalists, peasants, and wartime victims that were contained in letters, diaries, journals, and news accounts in numerous languages.
“Many people witnessed spectacles comparable with Renaissance painters’ conception of the inferno to which the damned were consigned; human beings torn to fragments of flesh and bone; cities blasted into ruble; ordered communities sundered into dispersed human particles,” says Hastings. “Almost everything which civilized peoples take for granted in time of peace was swept aside, above all the expectation of being protected from violence.”
Yes, the violence was unimaginable then and now. Hastings reckons that “at least 60 million were terminated by death.” An average of 27,000 people perished each day between September 1939 and August 1945. Between 1937 and 1945, China lost 15 million lives. Yugoslavia suffered 1 million dead, including those lost in a concurrent civil war. Even on the American home front, 100,000 wartime workers lost limbs in accidents, compared to 17,000 combat amputees.
Hastings provides a panoramic tour of the war, from the invasion of Poland, Norway, and France, through the final collapse of Japanese resistance after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But he deftly combines this with very personal and wrenching stories of human beings caught up in an evil they do not — cannot — comprehend. During the final battle for Berlin, with the victorious Soviet army “embarking on an orgy of celebration, rape and destruction on a scale such as Europe had not witnessed since the seventeenth century,” he offers this report from a Berlin woman regarding her neighbor, a baker who “comes stumbling towards me down the hall…white as his flour, holding out his hands: ‘They have my wife…’ His voice breaks. For a second I feel I’m acting in a play. A middle-class baker can’t possibly move like that, can’t speak with such emotion, put so much feeling into his voice, bare his soul that way, his heart torn. I’ve never seen anyone but great actors do that.”
When Singapore fell to the Japanese, 22 Australian nurses escaped, only to be captured on a Dutch Island. “As they were driven into the sea to be machine-gunned, the last words of their matron Irene Drummond were recorded by the sole survivor: ‘Chin up, girls. I’m proud of you and I love you all.'”
These moving, grim tales, laced throughout the text of Inferno, make a sad story even more human, tragic, and forlorn.
There are several cruel and ironic themes that Hastings articulates throughout the book. The invasion of Poland was the casus belli for the French and British to declare war on Germany. Yet, Poland was the price Stalin demanded for waging a merciless war on the Eastern Front, a monumental one at that. French ambivalence regarding the Allied cause is another theme, especially given the romanticized role of the Resistance in post-war memories.
Most cruel of all, given the years of blood and steel that followed, was the realization on the part of both the Japanese and German high commands — very early in the war — that neither could actually win the struggle. For instance, once the Germans failed to take Moscow in 1941, the Wehrmacht generals understood that the best they could hope for was to hold out for favorable terms from the Americans and British. Hitler also understood this reality but had no choice but to fight on to the death.
The most significant theme emphasized throughout Max Hastings’ compelling history is the overwhelming nature of the savage war on the Eastern Front, which dwarfed Allied military efforts in Italy and France. So vast was the spilling of Soviet and German blood and treasure that Hastings makes this unequivocal judgment in the concluding chapter of the book:
The Soviet Union revealed an industrial and military capability that would have enabled it to complete the destruction of Hitler’s war machine even had the Western Allies never landed in Italy or France, though their interventions hastened the end. There is a powerful argument that only a warlord as bereft of scruples or compassion as Stalin, presiding over a society in which ruthlessness was even more institutionalized than in Germany, could have destroyed Nazism. Stalin proved a supremely effective tyrant, as Hitler was not.
The war on the Russian front defies belief. The Wehrmacht, on the eve of Operation Barbarossa, assumed the starvation of at least 30 million Russians in order to feed the German army as it penetrated the heartland of the Soviet Union. Most of the 3.5 million Soviet POWs were starved or shot, and this was reciprocated in kind by Stalin’s forces. At any given time, the Russian front extended anywhere from 900 to 1,400 miles, from Leningrad to Odessa. At one point the Soviets were losing 44,000 soldiers per day.
Yet, between June 1941 and May 1944, the month before D-Day, the Germans suffered an average of 60,000 men killed each month in the east.
Hastings describes the fierce battle for Budapest in which the Russians suffered 80,000 dead and a quarter of a million wounded. During the siege, 38,000 civilians died, and tens of thousands more were deported to the Soviet Union for forced labor. Many of them never returned. The German and Hungarian forces lost 40,000 men, and 63,000 more were taken prisoner.
“This savage, futile battle would have been accounted an epic had it taken place on the Anglo-American front,” writes Max Hastings. “As it was, only the Hungarians took much notice of its horrors, then or later.”
Benjamin Schwarz, the literary editor for the Atlantic, wrote a provocative book review of current and emerging scholarship on the Second World War entitled, “Stalin’s Gift,” in which he argued for a reorientation or reappraisal of our understanding of the conflict:
It’s time for those (mostly male) readers interested in the Second World War to put down the umpteenth account of D-Day and turn to the new crop of books on the most colossal conflict the world has ever seen: the German-Soviet clash on the Eastern Front. Since the late 1980s, a historiographical revolution has been underway, as scholars fundamentally alter their understanding of this epic struggle, which killed 27 million Soviet soldiers and civilians and nearly 4 million Wehrmacht troops. They aren’t merely revising an established narrative; they’re discovering new facets of the conflict — even entire battles — that had been lost to history.
Both Schwarz and Hastings comment on the role of the NKVD in maintaining discipline in the Soviet ranks and inflicting harsh punishment for desertion. The Soviets executed more than 158,000 soldiers for desertion.
Citing the British historian Norman Davies, Schwarz observed that, for four years, more than 400 Red Army and German divisions fought over a front of 1,000 miles. “At its most intense, the war in the West was fought between 15 Allied and 15 Wehrmacht divisions,” wrote Schwarz. “Eighty-five percent of the German military dead fell there; in July 1943, in the decisive battle of the war, the Soviets permanently broke the Wehrmacht’s capacity for large-scale attack at Kursk, ‘the one name,’ Davies properly asserts, ‘which all historians of the Second World War should remember.'”
Schwarz continues: “So…the most odious criminal regime in Europe’s history was defeated by an even more murderous regime, if numbers are the yardstick — which significantly tarnishes any notion of the ‘Good War.'” He concludes his essay with a quote from historian Geoffrey Roberts, who ventures to say that “Stalin…saved the world for democracy.”
The reappraisal of the slaughter in eastern Europe is also reflected in Timothy Snyder’s powerful, daunting book Bloodlands (2010), which treats the killing fields between Berlin and Moscow, from 1933 to 1945, as a single, intertwined history of 14 million murdered souls. The story encompasses not just the Holocaust, but also Stalin’s starvation of 3.3 million in the Ukraine, the extermination of Polish elites, and other assorted horrors. “This is a history of political mass murder,” writes Snyder. “A quarter of them were killed before the Second World War even began. A further two hundred thousand died between 1939 and 1941, while Germany and the Soviet Union were not only at peace, but allies.” Again, cruelty and irony present themselves in contemporary histories of these infernal regions.
Max Hastings’ final assessment of the Second World War is very much in line with Benjamin Schwarz and the historians he surveyed.
Hastings recognizes the valor and contribution of the U.S. Navy, Marines, and Army Air Force in defeating the Japanese. He applauds the sacrifices of American, British, and Commonwealth forces in Italy and France. He rightly praises the code breakers at Bletchley Park, the courage of the RAF, the heroism of the Poles and Norwegians, and the skill and fortitude of the Royal Navy.
But, in the end, Max Hastings believes it was the Soviet war of mass rather than maneuver — of brute force, heedless of the loss of human life — that, in the final analysis, broke the back of the German army and with it the Third Reich.
“Whatever the limitations of the Red Army’s weapons, training, tactics and commanders, Soviet culture armoured its forces to meet the Wehrmacht with a resolution the softer citizens of the democracies could not match,” he writes. A more unsettling conclusion to a masterful history of the war can hardly be imagined.
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