World War II involved tens of millions of soldiers and cost sixty million lives—an average of twenty-seven thousand a day. For thirty-five years, Max Hastings has researched and written about different aspects of the war. Now, for the first time, he gives us a magnificent, single-volume history of the entire war.
Through his strikingly detailed stories of everyday people—of soldiers, sailors and airmen; British housewives and Indian peasants; SS killers and the citizens of Leningrad, some of whom resorted to cannibalism during the two-year siege; Japanese suicide pilots and American carrier crews—Hastings provides a singularly intimate portrait of the world at war. He simultaneously traces the major developments—Hitler’s refusal to retreat from the Soviet Union until it was too late; Stalin’s ruthlessness in using his greater population to wear down the German army; Churchill’s leadership in the dark days of 1940 and 1941; Roosevelt’s steady hand before and after the United States entered the war—and puts them in real human context.
Hastings also illuminates some of the darker and less explored regions under the war’s penumbra, including the conflict between the Soviet Union and Finland, during which the Finns fiercely and surprisingly resisted Stalin’s invading Red Army; and the Bengal famine in 1943 and 1944, when at least one million people died in what turned out to be, in Nehru’s words, “the final epitaph of British rule” in India.
Remarkably informed and wide-ranging, Inferno is both elegantly written and cogently argued. Above all, it is a new and essential understanding of one of the greatest and bloodiest events of the twentieth century.
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On the outbreak of war: ‘France, Britain and its dominions were the only major nations to enter World War II as an act of principle, rather than because they sought territorial gains or were themselves attacked. Their claims upon the moral high ground were injured, however, by the fact that they declared support for embattled Poland without any intention of giving this meaningful military effect’.
On Stalin’s ‘devil’s bargain’ with Hitler: ‘If Stalin was not Hitler’s co-belligerent, Moscow’s deal with Berlin made him the co-beneficiary of Nazi aggression. From 23 August 1939 onwards, the world saw Germany and the Soviet Union acting in concert, twin faces of totalitarianism. Because of the manner in which the global struggle ended in 1945, with Russia in the allied camp, some historians have accepted the post-war Soviet Union’s classification of itself as a neutral power until 1941. This is mistaken. Though Stalin feared Hitler and expected eventually to have to fight him, in 1939 he made a historic decision to acquiesce in German aggression, in return for Nazi support for Moscow’s own programme of territorial aggrandisement. Whatever excuses the Soviet leader later offered, and although his armies never fought in partnership with the Wehrmacht, the Nazi-Soviet Pact established a collaboration which persisted until Hitler revealed his true purposes in Operation Barbarossa’.
On the Battle of Britain: ‘The latter months of 1940 were decisive in determining the course of the war: the Nazis, stunned by the scale of their triumphs, allowed themselves to suffer a loss of momentum. By launching an air assault on Britain, Hitler adopted the worst possible strategic compromise. As master of the continent, he believed a modest further display of force would suffice to precipitate its surrender. Yet if, instead, he had left Churchill’s people to stew in their island, the prime minister would have faced great difficulties in sustaining national morale and a charade of strategic purpose. A small German contingent dispatched to support the Italian attack on Egypt that autumn would probably have sufficed to expel Britain from the Middle East; Malta could easily have been taken. Such humiliations would have dealt heavy blows to the credibility of Churchill’s policy of fighting on.
As it was, however, the Luftwaffe’s clumsy offensive posed the one challenge which Britain was well-placed to repel. The British army and people were not obliged to confront the Wehrmacht on their beaches and in their fields- a clash which would probably have ended ignomiously. The prime minister merely required their acquiescence, while the country was defended by a few hundred RAF pilots and- more importantly though less conspicuously- by the formidable might of the Royal Navy’s ships at sea. The prime minister’s exalting leadership secured public support for his defiance of the logic of Hitlerian triumph, even when cities began to burn and civilians to die’.
On France’s role in the war: ‘Even allowing for the significant role of French troops in the final campaigns in north-west Europe, the statistical fact remains that Vichy’s armies and domestic security forces made a more numerous contribution to Axis interests than those Frenchmen who later joined the Gaullists, other Resistance groups or Eisenhower’s armies provided to the allied cause. Most French people persuaded themselves in 1940 that the Petain regime constituted a lawful government; however uncomfortably, they indulged its rule until the eve of liberation. Once defeat in 1940 had denied the French a heroic role in the struggle against Nazism, many remained confused for the remainder of the war about the least ignoble part their nation might play’.
On Britain’s war with Rommel in the desert: ‘the war in North African engaged only a handful of British and imperial divisions, while most of Churchill’s army stayed at home. This was partly to provide security against invasion, partly for lack of weapons and equipment, partly owing to shortage of shipping to move and supply troops overseas. The clashes between desert armies were little more significant in determining the outcome of the global conflict than the tournaments between bands of French and English knights which provided entre’actes during the Hundred Years’ War. But the North African contest caught the imagination of the western world, and achieved immense symbolic significance in the minds of the British people. It became what will surely prove to have been history’s last campaign fought overseas between European powers attempting to advance European objectives’.
On the 1941 invasion of Russia: ‘It did not occur to Hitler, after his victories in the West, that it might be more difficult to overcome a brutalized society, inured to suffering, than democracies such as France and Britain, in which moderation and respect for human life were deemed virtues’.
On the allied relationship: ‘The Grand Alliance, the phrase with which Churchill ennobled the wartime relationship of Britain, the United States and Soviet Union, was always a grand charade; it was a necessary fiction to pretend that the three powers fought the war as a shared enterprise directed towards common purposes.
‘In Britain and America, confidence that our parents and grandparents were fighting ‘the good war’ is so deeply ingrained that we often forget that people in many countries adopted more equivocal attitudes; colonial subjects, and above all India’s four hundred millions, saw little merit in the defeat of the Axis if they continued to endure British suzerainty. Many Frenchmen fought vigorously against the allies. In Yugoslavia, rival factions were far more strongly committed to waging civil war against each other than to advancing the interests of either the allies or the Axis. Large numbers of Stalin’s subjects embraced the opportunity offered by German occupation to take up arms against a hated Moscow regime. None of this implies doubt that the allied cause deserved to triumph, but should emphasise the fact that Churchill and Roosevelt did not have all the best tunes’.
On the Soviet war effort: ‘It was probably true that only Russians could have borne and achieved what they did in the face of the 1941 catastrophe; it was less plausible to attribute this to the nobility of communist society. Until Barbarossa, Stalin sought to make common cause with Hitler, albeit to attain different objectives. Even when Russia became joined with the democracies to achieve the defeat of Nazism, Stalin pursued his quest for a Soviet empire, domination and oppression of hundreds of millions of people, with absolute single-mindedness and ultimate success. Whatever the merits of the Russian people’s struggle to expel the invaders from their country, Stalin’s war aims were as selfish and inimical to human liberty as those of Hitler. Soviet conduct could be deemed less barbaric than that of the Nazis only because it embraced no single enormity to match the Holocaust. Nonetheless, the Western allies were obliged to declare their gratitude, because Russia’s suffering and sacrifice saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of young British and American soldiers. Even if no exalted assertion of principle- instead, only a breach between rival monsters- caused Russia to become the principal battleground of the war, it was there that the Third Reich encountered the forces that would contrive its nemesis’.
On the confusion of loyalties around the world: ‘The leaders of the Grand Alliance depicted the war as a struggle for freedom against oppression, good against evil. In the 21st Century, few informed people even in former colonial societies doubt the merit of the allied cause, the advantage that accrued to mankind from defeat of the Axis. But it seems essential to recognise that in many societies contemporary loyalties were confused and equivocal. Millions of people around the world who had no love for the regimes of Hitler, Mussolini or Hirohito felt little greater enthusiasm for allied powers whose vision of liberty vanished, it seemed to their colonial subjects, at their own front doors’.
On British wartime rule of India: ‘Britain’s wartime treatment of its subject races remained humane by German or Japanese standards; there were no arbitrary executions or massacres. But it was among the ugliest aspects of British conduct of the war, that in order to hold India, it was necessary not merely to repulse external invaders, but also to administer the country under emergency powers, as an occupied nation rather than as a willing co-belligerent. Some of the repressive measures adopted in India were similar in kind, if not in scale, to those used by the Axis in its own subject societies.
On the revelation that the German economy was too weak to overcome Russia: ‘In 1942, the Axis would enjoy spectacular successes. But it is a critical historical reality, that senior functionaries of the Third Reich realised as early as December 1941 that military victory had become unattainable, because Russia remained undefeated. Some thereafter sustained hopes that Germany might negotiate an acceptable peace. But they, and perhaps Hitler also in the innermost recesses of his brain, knew the decisive strategic moment had passed’.
On the war crimes of Britain’s Soviet ally: ‘Stalin deported eastwards vast numbers of Soviet citizens from minorities whose loyalties he deemed suspect, notably Chechens and Crimean Tatars, some 3.5 million in all. An unquantified but large proportion of these peoples died in consequence, some from typhus which broke out during their transportation. Their sufferings, unlike those of Hitler’s victims, are scarcely recorded, but it is known that four Heroes of the Soviet Union were among the deportees; Beria’s purges spurned discrimination. Among other victims of the Soviets were 1.5 million Poles deported to Siberian exile or the gulag in 1940-41, in furtherance of Stalinist ethnic cleansing policies; at least 350,000 perished of starvation or disease, and a further thirty thousand were executed’.
On The U-Boat war: ‘Perhaps the most vivid statistic of the Battle of the Atlantic is that between 1939 and 1943 only eight per cent of slow and four per cent of fast convoys suffered attack. Much has been written about the inadequacy of allied means to respond to the U-boat threat in the early war years; this was real enough, but German resource problems were much greater. Hitler never understood the sea. In the early war period, he dispersed industrial effort and steel allocations among a range of weapons systems. He did not recognise a strategic opportunity to wage a major campaign against British Atlantic commerce until the fall of France in June 1940; U-boat construction was prioritised only in 1942-43, when allied naval strength was growing fast and the tide of the war had already turned. Germany never gained the capability to sever Britain’s Atlantic lifeline, though amid grievous shipping losses it was hard to recognise this at the time’.
On Guadalcanal: ‘the myth of the invincibility of the Japanese Army was shattered on this island just sixty miles by thirty. The Japanese laid bare their limitations, especially a shortage of competent commanders. Even during Japan’s victory season, while Yamashita conducted operations in Malaya with verve and skill, the campaigns in Burma and the Philippines suggested that some of his fellow-officers lacked initiative. When defending a position, their ethic of absolute conformity to orders had its uses; but in attack, commanders often acted unimaginatively. Man for man, the Japanese soldier was more aggressive and conditioned to hardship than his allied counterpart: British Gen.Bill Slim characterised the enemy condescendingly as ‘the greatest fighting insect in the world’; until 1945, Hirohito’s men displayed exceptional night-fighting skills. Collectively, however, the Japanese Army had nothing like the combat power of the Wehrmacht, the Red Army- or America’s ground forces.
On The Holocaust: ‘The edifice of Holocaust literature is vast, yet does not satisfactorily explain why the Nazis accepted the economic cost of embarking upon the destruction of the Jewish people, diverting scarce manpower and transport to a programme of mass murder, while the outcome of the war still hung in the balance. The answer must lie in the deranged centrality of Jewish persecution not merely to National Socialist ideology, but to Germany’s policies throughout the global conflict. The Nazis were always determined to exploit the licence granted to a government waging total war to fulfil objectives that otherwise posed difficulties even for a totalitarian regime.
‘Even when Hitler embarked on his rampage of hemispheric conquest, the democracies found it difficult to conceive that the people of a highly-educated and long-civilised European society could fulfil their leaders’ extravagant rhetoric and implement a genocide. Despite mounting evidence of Nazi crimes, this delusion persisted in some degree until 1945 and even for some time afterwards’.
On war crimes trials in 1945: ‘Only a tiny fraction of those guilty of war crimes were ever indicted, partly because the allies had no stomach for the scale of executions, numbering several hundreds of thousands, which would have been necessary had strict justice been enforced against every Axis murderer. Less than a thousand retributive executions took place. Many convicted mass killers served jail sentences of only a few years, or even escaped by paying a fine of fifty almost worthless Reich marks. The Germans and Japanese were not entirely mistaken in regarding the international war crimes trials which took place in 1945-46 as ‘victors’ justice’. Some British and Americans, and many Russians, were guilty of offences under international law, the killing of prisoners notable among them, yet very few faced even courts martial. To have been on the winning side sufficed to secure amnesty; few allied war crimes were even acknowledged. British submarine commander ‘Skip’ Myer, for instance, who in 1941 distressed even some of his own crew by insisting that German soldiers struggling in the Mediterranean after the sinking of their caiques should be machine-gunned, was awarded a Victoria Cross and eventually became an admiral. American, Canadian and British troops who routinely shot snipers and Waffen SS prisoners on the battlefield, usually in supposed retaliation for similar enemy actions, went unindicted. The Nuremburg and Tokyo trials and sentences represented not injustice, but partial justice’.
On casualties: ‘An average of 27,000 people perished each day between September 1939 and August 1945 as a consequence of the global conflict. The Soviet Union suffered 65% of all allied military deaths; China 23%; Yugoslavia 3%; the US and UK 2% each; France and Poland 1% each. About 8% of all Germans died, compared with 2% of Chinese, 3.44% of Dutch people, 6.67% of Yugoslavs, 4% of Greeks, 1.35% of French, 3.78% of Japanese, 0.94% of British and 0.32% of Americans. ‘95% of all German soldiers killed in the war perished on the Eastern front or in Soviet captivity’.
My story emphasises bottom-up views and experiences, the voices of little people rather than big ones; I have written extensively elsewhere about the warlords of 1939-45.
On the outcome of the Second World War: ‘Within the vast compass of the struggle, some individuals scaled summits of courage and nobility, while others plumbed depths of evil, in a fashion that compels the awe of posterity. Among citizens of modern democracies to whom serious hardship and collective peril are unknown, the tribulations which hundreds of millions endured between 1939 and 1945 are almost beyond comprehension. Almost all those who participated, nations and individuals alike, made moral compromises. It is impossible to dignify the struggle as an unalloyed contest between good and evil, nor rationally to celebrate an experience, and even an outcome, which imposed such misery upon so many. Allied victory did not bring universal peace, prosperity, justice or freedom; it brought merely a portion of those things to some fraction of those who had taken part. All that seems certain is that allied victory saved the world from a much worse fate that would have followed the triumph of Germany and Japan. With this knowledge, seekers after virtue and truth must be content’.
Table of Contents
List of Illustrations ix
List of Maps xiii
Chapter 1 Poland Betrayed 3
Chapter 2 No Peace, Little War 26
Chapter 3 Blitzkriegs in the West 43
1 Norway 43
2 The Fall of France 52
Chapter 4 Britain Alone 77
Chapter 5 The Mediterranean 102
1 Mussolini Gambles 102
2 A Greek Tragedy 113
3 Sandstorms 121
Chapter 6 Barbarossa 137
Chapter 7 Moscow Saved, Leningrad Starved 162
Chapter 8 America Embattled 180
Chapter 9 Japan's Season of Triumph 198
1 "I Suppose You'll Shove the Little Men Off" 198
2 The "White Route" from Burma 214
Chapter 10 Swings of Fortune 224
1 Bataan 224
2 The Coral Sea and Midway 232
3 Guadalcanal and New Guinea 249
Chapter 11 The British at Sea 264
1 The Atlantic 264
2 Arctic Convoys 279
3 The Ordeal of Pedestal 288
Chapter 12 The Furnace: Russia in 1942 293
Chapter 13 Living with War 316
1 Warriors 316
2 Home Fronts 328
3 A Woman's Place 342
Chapter 14 Out of Africa 351
Chapter 15 The Bear Turns: Russia in 1943 369
Chapter 16 Divided Empires 387
1 Whose Liberty? 387
2 The Raj: Unfinest Hour 404
Chapter 17 Asian Fronts 414
1 China 414
2 Jungle Bashing and Island Hopping 419
Chapter 18 Italy: High Hopes, Sour Fruits 427
1 Sicily 427
2 The Road to Rome 436
3 Yugoslavia 449
Chapter 19 War in the Sky 455
1 Bombers 455
2 Targets 464
Chapter 20 Victims 480
1 Masters and Slaves 480
2 Killing Jews 490
Chapter 21 Europe Becomes a Battlefield 508
Chapter 22 Japan: Defying Fate 540
Chapter 23 Germany Besieged 557
Chapter 24 The Fall of the Third Reich 577
1 Budapest: In the Eye of the Storm 577
2 Eisenhower's Advance to the Elbe 584
3 Berlin: The Last Battle 592
Chapter 25 Japan Prostrate 611
Chapter 26 Victors and Vanquished 630
Notes and References 655
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Max Hastings has enhanced his reputation as one of the foremost historians of the Second World War with his newest book, Inferno. I would rate this book as the best single volume history of the war to date. In addition to being a great read, Max Hastings makes a strong case for his overall assessment of the predominant lessons we, as citizens of the Western democracies, should learn from the cataclysmic events of 1939-1945, especially, that Western style liberal democracy did not necessarily triumph over the forces of repression and barbarism. In fact, the story of World War II often turns out to be the story of the Western Allies and their Soviet Russian ally fighting fire with fire during their war with the Axis powers. Strong stuff, but well worth reading.
Having read several texts on the Second World War, I was unsure if I wanted to read another sprawling narrative that purports to take a soup to nuts approach to the conflict. That being said, Sir Hastings integration of journal entries, letters, etc. is masterful. By using this approach, there is plenty of new material, even for those who have read extensively on the conflict. As good as this text is at weaving stories together in a way that brings value to the entire narrative, Sir Hastings' running commentary is disappointing. Not because I expect his views to align with my own, certainly my knowledge on the subject matter is vastly inferior; more so because I was surprised at the simplicity of his perspectives. There is a generalization made about each of the primary belligerents; and Hastings does not sway too far from these viewpoints, no matter the context. As an American, it is easy to focus on Sir Hastings' perspective that the US contributed little on the battlefield (perhaps most disappointing is the marginalization of the Marines, who are viewed as good soldiers fighting a poorly planned war against a marginal opponent). However, in truth, Hastings gives scarcely more credit to his own nation. Hastings instead seems to view the conflict in black and white, reserving most of his praise for the Soviets, eschewing (although recognizing) the criticism which should accompany a nation's willingness to sacrifice millions, even when doing so was no longer the only option. The Germans, in a military sense, are viewed as superior to all combatants, limited only (and I use 'only' in a nearly literal sense) by the ineptness of Hiter as a military commander. While each of these perspectives certainly has merit, their pervasiveness throughout the text suggests an effort to simplify the War as a conflict of nations. By doing so, Hastings simultaneously attempts to focus on, and then ignores, the human elements of the conflict. A well written narrative yes. But Sir Hastings' genius at weaving together individual stories, is unfortunately mitigated by his inability to deconstruct the strengths and weaknesses of the nations whose citizens produced these stories.
Inferno is a superbly well written book full of facts I did not previously know. While it is chiefly euro focused so too was the war itself. I strongly recommend this book to anyone looking for an unvarnished understanding of World War II.
The author attempted in one volume to cover the whole of WWII. This was very ambitious. While it did lend some insights to less known areas of the events, it seemed shallow.
tells w w 2 through the lenes of real people and the impact the war had on them A very complete survey with areas of war usually not covered in text books. very insightful
I've read many books about WWII, written from many different perspectives. I rank this as one of the best. It emphasizes the human aspect of the conflict and does it extremely well. A must read for all WWII history buffs.
Hastings history of WWII is comprehensive and broad. The book is great for the casual reader who wants to know the ins and outs of the war. I would recommend this book to anyone who likes history and wants a good and up to date history without dry overly academic writing. I will say that if you are a historian or you want academic texts, this is not the way to go.
The accounts and diary entries of those who lived through this most terrible time in history really brings out how awful WWII really was. The accounts of rape and starvation really took me aback and made me think how lucky we in the US are today. It was very educational; it included so much that we never learned in school. I really got a sense of how worldwide it truly was, not just a fight in Europe and with Japan.
Necessary for a good knowledge of WWII.
A superior one volume history of the Second World War, which combines an acurate and unsentimental narrative of events with the personal observations and experiences of those who fought in and those who suffered the horror of the most costly war of all time. Required reading for anyone seeking to understand the modern world.
I am not a reader of military history; not interested at all in deadly battle statistics. And do we really need another WWII book? Don¿t we already have hundreds, maybe thousands of them? But early reviews of Max Hastings¿ magisterial WWII epic piqued my interest because it was described as a book about the people, told in their voices through letters, diaries and other correspondence. So when it landed on the New York Times 100 Best Books of 2011 I knew it was going to be read¿by moi. And when I got into the book, it became clear very quickly, that this was an exceptionally well written narrative that I would have a hard time putting down as I made my way through its 700+ painful pages. It was last summer that I read a book based on another war and realized for the first time (consciously, anyway) that it¿s children who actually fight all the wars, sent there, most often, by old men. And a feeling of isolation is a common thread through all wars.¿Combat opened a chasm between those who experienced its horrors and those at home who did not. In December 1943, the Canadian Farley Mowat wrote to his family from the Sangro front in Italy: `The damnable truth is we are in really different worlds, on totally different planes, and I don¿t really know you any more. I only know the you that was. I wish I could explain the desperate sense of isolation, of not belonging to my own past, of being adrift in some kind of alien space. It is one of the toughest things we have to bear---that and the primal, gut-rotting worm of fear.¿¿ (Page 406)That isolation is a main theme in the book and is even expressed by John Steinbeck:¿Isolation was a towering sensation, even for men serving amid legions of their compatriots. `I see all these thousands of lonely soldiers here,¿ John Steinbeck wrote from the British capital in 1943 about the GIs on its streets. `There¿s a kind of walk they have in London, an apathetic shuffle. They¿re looking for something. They¿ll say it¿s a girl---any girl, but it isn¿t that at all.¿ Although soldiers often talk about women, under the stress and unyielding discomfort of a battlefield most crave simple pleasures, among which sex rarely features.¿If that was the case, it¿s hard to explain the occurrences of violent rape that occurred with almost frightening regularity by servicemen on both sides of the struggle. That was one of the many things I learned about the war. I knew about the rape of thousands of German women in Berlin when the Russians finally occupied the city, (mostly from A Woman in Berlin by Anonymous) but I didn¿t realize that the Allies were also guilty of the crime. I ended up with pages and pages of notes, many delineating topics of which I was woefully ignorant. It would take pages and pages to discuss all these topics but here are the main items I took from the book: most of the other countries involved in the war suffered much more devastating human losses than the U.S. and Great Britain none greater than Russia and (very surprisingly) China. In unoccupied Western nations, some people prospered, especially U.S. farmers who saw their incomes rise by 156%. The Red Army was the main engine of the German defeat (as a matter of fact, they could probably have defeated the Nazi¿s without the aid of the Americans and the British). The U.S. industrial might contributed more to victory than did its armies. Himmler diverted resources that could have been used for winning in Russia for the extermination of the Jews. There was a slow or no response by the Allies to the Jewish extermination. Soviet victories were purchased at a human cost no democracy would have accepted. The blunders of the German and Japanese leaders led to defeat. Truman¿s greatest mistake, in protecting his own reputation, was his failure to deliver an explicit ultimatum before dropping the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And finally, WWII was the greatest and most terrible event in human hi
Fascinating info and a really good read. The method of using the diaries etc of actual people is really fruitful and the author's opinions are just and well researched. JPH
Amazing insights by Max Hastings.