The Human Experience of Hell

This is my review of All Hell Let Loose: The World at War 1939-1945 by Max Hastings.

Is there a need for another book on the Second World War? For those yet to read one, this will be a good choice, since it provides a synthesis of more than three decades of investigation, research and writing on this theme. Also, as a journalist, Max Hastings writes in a more engaging style than many academic historians.

Although the chapters trace the facts systematically from the invasion of Poland to the fall of Japan, Hastings's main focus is on human experience. The plentiful, often dramatic and moving photographs are of civilians rather than generals and political leaders. He also quotes movingly from the correspondence of ordinary people whose lives were cut short by the war, from the lieutenant who mused how the experience of commanding a battleship, even if it ended in death, was far more fulfilling than slaving in a dull London office, to the seventeen-year-old boy, begging his mother to do her utmost to get him released from service back into a safe job at home.

Hastings reminds us of the full extent of the war, in which fifteen million Chinese died at the hands of the Japanese, and a surprising range of countries suffered heavy casualties. He points out how the Germans lost far more soldiers to the Russians than to the other Allies, and how the demands made by soldiers for food from the civilian population added to the intense hardship of ordinary people. The unimaginable horror of war, until one has experienced it, the fear, fatalism and futility are demonstrated too powerfully for anyone to overlook. For instance, he describes how soldiers were forced to walk on the faces of dead colleagues squashed into the trench floor.

In what he sees as a just war, Hastings focuses on the fact that it was only partly won, since the price of victory was that Eastern Europe (including the Poland which ironically triggered the debacle), although wrested from Nazi control, remained in Soviet hands at the end. He provides fascinating evidence of Churchill's unrealistic desire to continue the struggle, even using defeated Wehrmacht soldiers, but the Russians simply had too many troops on the ground.

I was interested in the ambivalence of the Imperial subjects in India and the Far East, who only supported the British with reluctance since they knew that a Fascist victory would be even worse.

The one "imbalance" may be relatively too little space given to those who suffered in the Holocaust.

Overall, I am not sure that Hastings provides much that is not already known, but he succeeds in arousing our sympathy and respect for those forced to endure the War. Although he is now turning his attention further back to the First World War, it might be more beneficial if he were to apply his forensic skills to the issues of today, say the crisis in Europe, but perhaps there is a strange comfort in reviewing the past through modern eyes.

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ 5 Stars

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