“War is prodigiously wasteful, because much of the effort made by rivalcombatants proves futile, and the price is paid in lives.”
“Among citizens of modern democracies to whom serious hardship andcollective peril are unknown, the tribulations that hundreds of millionsendured between 1939 and 1945 are almost beyond comprehension.”
“An average of 27,000 perished each day between September 1939 andAugust 1945 as a consequence of the global conflict.”
- Max Hastings, Inferno: The World at War, 1939-1945
It seems that seventy years after the events of World War II – thegreatest calamity in human history – historians have gained a betterunderstanding of the facts and effects of the conflict than anyone, be they leaders,generals, soldiers, civilians, or victims, had during the war or in theimmediate post war period. Max Hastings is one of these historians and his manyworks on World War II stand out among the best histories of the conflict. Tothis list can be added his latest work, Inferno:The World at War, 1939-1945, an ambitious single-volume overview of thewar.
Readers of this blog may remember an earlier post where I praised Hastings’ previous two books, Armageddon and Retribution, which respectively coveredthe final year of the war in Europe and the Pacific. As with those works,Hastings focus in Inferno is not onthe Allied and Axis leadership, notable generals, or even the broad goals andwar strategy. Instead, he provides a “bottom-up” approach that conveys theexperience of war, what it was like to be a rifleman in battle, a civilianunder aerial bombardment, or victim of pillage and rape (a ubiquitous civilian experiencein many theaters of the war), to provide a few examples.
As Hastings notes it is impossible to present a blow-by-blow account ofWorld War II, an immensely large and far-reaching subject, in 800-odd pages. Infact, a work ten times as long would be insufficient. Instead, he set out toprovide an impression of events as they unfolded starting with the Germaninvasion of Poland in September 1939 and ending with the Japanese surrender inTokyo Bay six years later. He has succeeded. The quotations provided at the topof this post give a sense of the massive horror of the war, and indeed for amodern reader it’s very difficult to understand how such a large proportion ofthe world’s people could have endured under the stress of war for so long. Nobook can fully capture this reality, but Infernodoes it as well as any. And it does this through largely new or never before usedfirst-hand accounts, diaries, letters, etc. These sources add a gratifying freshnessto the book.
Hastings also manages to provide some new insights that have beenrevealed through decades of studying World War II. There are no sacred cows inHastings’ telling of the war and he expertly separates fact from myth andlegend. This is useful and appropriate. Wars gather their own momentum and thiswas especially true for World War II. History (with a capital H) has largelyidentified the correct decisions from the terrible blunders, the necessarysacrifices from the useless wastes, the effective leaders from the incompetent,and the victims and criminals. But Hastings goes one step further, correctlyassigning evil to those to which it belonged and separating it from theterrible logic of war, where horrible things happen to many people by allsides. There no moral equivocation with Hastings, only clarity.
I recommend this work highly, it presents the war as well as any single-volumehistory is likely to. Hastings book is both concise and comprehensive, but to betterpresent Hastings’ mastery of the subject, I’ve provided a series of quotationsand passages below that demonstrate two aspects of the book: the actual experienceof the war – the bottom-up view, and the many blunders made by the Germany –the broad evolution of the War.
For me, the only real counter-factual worth pondering about World War IIis this: Could Germany have won the war? That’s an important question mostlybecause such an outcome would have been catastrophic for most of Europe’spopulation and would have set subsequent history in a radically different direction (andthinking from a modern perspective, a very loathsome and bizarre direction).There is much debate about this issue, the forces arrayed against the Axis wereenormously powerful, but surely the many and massive mistakes made by Germany(and Japan) contributed substantially to the Axis defeat.
Of course it was the Axis that plunged the world into war. Over 60million people died between 1939 and 1945, tens of millions of men (and women)were pulled into the war machine and shuffled all over the globe. Whole nationssuffered from battle, massive population displacements, shortages, and otherprivations; the effects ranging from minor inconveniences, to major disruptions,and often the total disintegration of normal pre-war life.
But here are these aspects of the War in Hastings’ words:
The Fatal Blunders of the Axis
On the overall war plans:
“From June 1940 onwards, both Berlin and Tokyo made strategy withawesome incompetence.”
“Once the British and American war efforts gained traction, the WesternAllies conducted their affairs much better than the Germans and Japanese atevery level save local ground combat.”
On the missed opportunity to eliminate Britain from the War in 1940-41:
“Yet if, instead, [Hitler] had left Churchill’s people to stew on theirisland, the prime minister would have faced great difficulties in sustainingnational morale and a charade of strategic purpose. A small German contingentdispatched to support the Italian attack on Egypt that autumn would probablyhave sufficed to expel Britain from the Middle East; Malta could easily havebeen taken. Such humiliations would have dealt heavy blows to the credibilityof Churchill’s policy of fighting on.”
On the terribly conceived and administration of the war against theSoviet Union:
“One of Hitler’s greatest mistakes, from the viewpoint of his owninterests, was that he attempted to reshape the eastern lands that fell underhis suzerainty in accordance with Nazi ideology while still fighting the war…Ignoringthe human horror—as of course did the Nazis—these policies imposed enormouseconomic and agricultural disruption on Hitler’s war machine. Some members ofdesignated lesser races enlisted in Nazi service to secure food or pay, orbecause they hated Jews, or because they merely relished opportunities forexercising dominion and indulging cruelty; but oppression embittered millionsof Stalin’s former subjects who might have become willing German acolytes…Allhistory’s successful empires have rested partly on force majeure, but partlyalso upon offering conquered peoples compensations for subjection: stability,prosperity and the rule of law. The Nazis, by contrast, offered only brutality,corruption and administrative incompetence.”
On the relative economic weakness of Germany:
“For the rest of the war, those responsible for Germany’s economic andindustrial planning fulfilled their roles in the knowledge that strategicsuccess was unattainable. They drafted a planning paper in December 1941entitled “The Requirements for Victory.” They concluded that the Reich neededto commit the equivalent of $150 billion to arms manufacture in the succeedingtwo years; yet such a sum exceeded German weapons expenditure for the entireconflict. Whatever the prowess of the Wehrmacht, the nation lacked means towin; it could aspire only to force its enemies to parley, together ofseverally.”
On the effects of Nazi racial policies on the War’s progress:
“It may sound trite to emphasize the centrality of the influence of theSS upon the Holocaust, but it is nonetheless necessary. The most powerfulfiefdom in Nazi Germany pursued the extinction of the Jews almost heedless ofits impact on the country’s war making.”
“The elimination of European Jewry assumed an ever-higher priority onthe Nazis’ agenda: Hitler convinced himself that the August 1941 AtlanticCharter, together with America’s looming entry into the war, were driven byJewish influence on the United States government. This lent a new urgency tohis determination to kill their coreligionists in Europe. During the months andyears that followed, Germany’s leader came to view this as an objective asimportant as military victory, and even as a precondition for achieving it.Attempts to discern rationality in Nazi strategy, especially from 1941 onwards,founder in the face of such a mind-set.”
The Experience of War
On the often inflated accounts of battlefield heroism presented tocivilians on the home front:
“[Lt. Robert] Kelly, like Eisenhower, failed to grasp the importance oflegends, indeed myths, to sustain the spirit of nations in adversity.”
Unnamed British corvette seaman:
“…But we [Atlantic convoy escorts] were young and tough and, in asense, we gloried in our misery and made light of it all. What possibleconnection it had with defeating Hitler none of us bothered to ask. It wasenough to find ourselves more or less afloat the next day with the hope of dufffor pudding and a boiler-clean when we reached port.”
Staff sergeant Harold Fennema, about life in the Pacific theater:
“So much of this war and army life amounts to the insignificant job ofpassing time, and that really is a pity. Life is so short and time so preciousto those who live and love life that I can hardly believe myself, seekingentertainment to pass time away…I wonder sometimes where this is going to lead.”
“Combat opened a chasm between those who experienced its horrors andthose at home who did not. In December 1943, the Canadian Farley Mowat wrote tohis family from the Sangro front in Italy: ‘The damnable truth is we are inreally different worlds, on totally different planes, and I don’t really knowyou any more, I only know the you that was. I wish I could explain thedesperate sense of isolation, of not belonging to my own past, of being adriftin 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.’”
“An American or British rifleman who entered France in June 1944 faceda 60 percent prospect of being killed or wounded before the end of thecampaign, rising to 70 percent for officers.”
“Much depended on local junior leadership, and too many brave juniorleaders died. ‘The spirit of human aggression has a magical tendency toevaporate as soon as the shooting starts,’ wrote Norman Craig, ‘and a man thenresponds to two influences only—the external discipline that binds him and theself-respect within him that drives him on … Courage is essentially competitiveand imitative.’”
“Allied airmen, once deployed to operational fighter or bombersquadrons, until the last eighteen months of the war confronted a statisticalprobability of their own extinction.”
“Ernie Pyle wrote: ‘A man approached death rather decently in the airforce. He died well-fed and clean-shaven.’ More than half the RAF’sheavy-bomber crews perished, 56,000 men in all. The USAAF’s overall losses werelower, but among 100,000 of its men who participated in the strategic offensiveagainst Germany some 26,000 died, and a further 20,000 were taken prisoner.”
Ken Own a British bomber pilot:
“If you were coned [by searchlights], you’d fly towards somebody elsein the hope they’d pick them up instead of you. There was a tremendous elementof cynicism and callousness—‘Thank Christ it’s someone else.’ I honestly can’tremember the names of many of the men who got the chop.”
“From 1943 onwards, it was the turn of German and Japanese airmen to domost of the dying: less than 10 percent survived until the end.”
“Service in the Pacific was an experience light-years from that ofEurope, first because of its geographical isolation. The U.S. Marine pilotSamuel Hynes wrote: ‘Out here the war life was all there was; no history wasvisible, no monuments of the past, no cities remembered from books. There wasnothing here to remind a soldier of his other life; no towns, no bars, nowhereto go, nowhere even to desert to.’”
Unnamed American soldier:
“Any guy overseas who says he’s in love with his wife tells a damnlie…He’s in love with a memory – the memory of a moonlit night, a lovely gown,the scent of perfume or the lilt of a song.”
J.R. Ackerley’s poem published in the British newspaper Spectator on the fate of a lost soldier:
“It was more like the death of an insect than of a man.”
“A powerful sensation among hundreds of millions of people was that ofinjustice: they did not believe they merited the plagues of peril, privation,loneliness and horror that had swept them away from their familiar lives intoalien and mortally dangerous environments. ‘I don’t believe I am wicked,’ wrotethe British gunner Lt. John Guest, ‘and I don’t believe the majority of people,Germans included, are either—certainly not wicked enough to have been deservedlyovertaken by this war.’”
German Helmuth von Moltke on taking residence in a requisitioned house:
“The … disgusting thing was the feeling of having entered a stranger’shouse, to sit there like thieves, while the owner, as I knew, sat in aconcentration camp.”
“The Red Army advanced more swiftly than Eisenhower’s forces in1944–45, partly because its soldiers lived off the land and required much lowerscales of supply; they were the least cosseted of the war. Among the long listof comforts and facilities routinely provided to Western Allied troops butdenied their Russian counterparts were razors, delousing chambers, pencils,ink, paper, knives, torches, candles, games. Vodka was the only Red Army–issuestimulant to morale, and some sections pooled their rations, so that men couldtake turns to drink themselves into stupefaction. To the end, many men advancedto attack while suffering hunger, lice, piles, toothache, bleeding gums causedby scurvy, and sometimes tuberculosis.”
An account of a Chinese girl forced into prostitution by the Japanesearmy:
“One of them was an interpreter who told me the others were officersand then left. All three raped me. As I was a virgin, it felt very painful so Iscreamed very loudly. When they heard me cry they said nothing, just continuedto fuck me like animals. For ten days, every evening three, four or five mendid the same. Usually, while one of them raped me the others watched andlaughed.
”…Four other girls were taken to the Japanese camp with me, and in 1946I learned that all of them had died of venereal disease. Later, when thevillagers learned that I’d been raped by Japanese, they too mocked and beat me.I have been alone ever since.”
“The grotesqueries of destruction were boundless. Ursula Gebel wrote ofa November 1943 attack on Berlin, during which many bombs fell on the city zoo.‘That afternoon … I had been at the elephant enclosure and had seen the sixfemales and one juvenile doing tricks with their keeper. That same night, allseven were burnt alive … The hippopotamus bull survived in his basin, [but] allthe bears, polar bears, camels, ostriches, birds of prey and other birds wereburnt. The tanks in the aquarium all ran dry; the crocodiles escaped, but likethe snakes they froze in the cold November air.’”
Hastings is a terrific writer and anaccomplished historian, and he has repeatedly manages to convey the horrors andmistakes, but also the triumphs and breakthroughs of World War II; theday-to-day grind, and the long-term consequences; what the War meant then andwhat it means now. I doubt anyone who reads Infernowill be disappointed or unaffected, and I can almost guarantee that newinsights and details will be learned. Hastings notes in the acknowledgments, jokingly,that his supportive wife might rather have lived through World War II than haveto read anymore of the author’s books on the subject. Hastings is being toohumble. Any student of history would gladly devour his books, Inferno prominently included.