on 1 July 2008
An impressive panoramic narrative of the battle for Germany, "Armageddon" combines a wide range of sources (including many veterans) with Hastings's sharp, often iconoclastic judgement. His criticism of the military folly of Operation Market Garden, the Ardennes offensive, and Zhukov's Oder crossing is hard-hitting, but frequently deserved. Hastings is no apologist for military failings, although he frequently gets moralistic: discussions of the justice of the allied cause or the tyranny of Stalin, which is perceived in downright Manichean terms, should not be part of a work of history. This is not to deny the reality of good and evil, or to say that tales of atrocity should not be included: of course they should, especially in a book that intends to provide a comprehensive narrative. It's just that anti-communist and anti-Nazi polemic should not be part of a work of history; it should be left to philosophers and politicians.
Apart from that criticism, Hastings provides a compellingly readable and frequently heart-wrenching account of the final months of the war, paying almost equal attention to the topics usually ignored in the west, such as the sheer magnitude and ferocity of the war on the eastern front. In "Armageddon", the catastrophic climax of the Second World War comes to life, and although we probably can't imagine accurately that awful time, Hastings comes pretty close.
Two minor criticisms. The first is that Hastings argues that the allied carpet bombing of German civilian homes is justified on the grounds that the workers who got bombed were supporting the German war effort through their labour. This is of course correct, but it's a very slippery slope. Taken to an extreme, this argument completely removes the distinction between civilian and military targets: after all, enemy women are also working and supporting their working husbands, thus contributing to the war effort, and children will grow to become enemy soldiers.
Secondly, the maps Hastings includes (e.g. pp.4-5) are extremely strange, inasmuch as they show Europe in the borders of 1937 (except for Luxemburg, which Hastings for some reason considers a part of Germany). As a consequence, Hastings's maps feature a number of countries which did not in fact exist in 1944-5, such as Austria, Czechoslovakia, or Estonia, and simply do not show several countries which did exist, such as Slovakia and Croatia. Of course, the borders of 1937 are broadly those accepted by the Western allies, but they have nothing to do with the political realities of 1944-5; Austria, for instance, was not an independent country, as "Armageddon" suggests, but an integral part of Germany. The problem is sometimes compounded in the text. What is the reader to imagine when told that a certain regiment was moved "to the Czech border"? What Czech border? The pre-1938 Czech border did not exist in 1944-5 either politically or ethnographically. Thus Hastings causes considerable confusion, as there is no clear sense where exactly the "frontiers of Germany" are, or anything else for that matter.
on 23 January 2015
Having previously read Clive Ponting's account of the beginning of WWII and how we nearly came to lose it, I decided that it might be useful to take a look at the other end of WWII, the bit where we won it (or did we?)! Accordingly, as it was on offer, I downloaded Max Hasting's 'Armageddon: The Battle for Germany 1944-1945'. Now I know, from the title, that I shouldn't have expected this to be particularly cheery reading, but it plunged new depths for me. The story is cleverly told from the perspectives of each of the warring nations but the lurch from one atrocity to another is quite demoralising. The Russian advance was particularly grim - I never thought I would find myself feeling sympathetic toward the Nazi defenders, but I did in these chapters.
on 6 February 2016
I'm not going to write a lot here. For a more in depth review, read Wellread's. Says it all really. I'm just going to make some pertinent bullet points.
Hastings, in writing this book has gone to great lengths to not only gather information for this book, but to give it the correct gravitas and interpretation. Despite being British, he is careful to praise and criticise actions in this last year of the war arbitrarily and fairly.
Some reviewers criticise his anecdotal approach, saying that that is not a good method on which to reach conclusions. However, in most cases, Hastings makes his case with the available information and statistics where available and then illustrates those conclusions. This makes the book more readable and certainly impresses on the mind the story he is portraying.
Hastings is able in this book to press forward his own viewpoints on the subject in question very well, often without alerting the reader that is what is happening. However, his views are, in general, ones to which the vast majority would subscribe.
Another criticism levelled is that much of this book is not new. Many of the facts are a matter of public record and often the views of people quoted have been published elsewhere. Hastings doesn't seem to deny this. As with any history of such events, this is always going to be the case. In some ways, Hastings is simply putting the fractured information in one place.
It's a good book. It's readable, something you can't always say about this type of thing. For someone who knows little about the subject matter, it's ideal. One thing Hastings does successfully is to impress the awful death, destruction, despair and destitution that war brings, giving many stories of loss, death and utter devastation. Hopefully this will be a lasting monument not only to those who took part, but to the awfulness of war and the need to avoid it in the future wherever possible. A lesson that not all mankind has learnt, although the seventy years since this war has finished has not, thankfully seen anything on the same scale. So some reason to be optimistic, perhaps.
on 27 January 2016
Max Hastings at his best, combines trenchant opinions, insight and a very engaging style to produce a masterful work.
The story of the last few months of the second world war in Europe is one which is relatively unknown save from a few high profile episodes such as Arnhem and the Battle of the Bulge in Britain. The hunger winter of the Netherlands, the rape of East Prussia, the savage fighting on the German frontier in areas such as the Hurtgen Forest and even the Battle of Berlin have been shamefully neglected in this country with the result that few realise just how savage the final few months of the war were. Whenever reading about the tragedy of Market Garden/Arnhem it is bizarre to think that the battle took place a month after the slaughter of Falaise when it seemed that the German army in the West had been smashed and that the war was almost over.
The story is a series of episodes and moves around. So it moves between the Western and Eastern fronts, considers the final months of the strategic bombing offensive, the tragic fate of prisoners of the Nazis and the German home front. Whilst the book gives due attention to the better known episodes such as the Battle of the Bulge, Warsaw uprising and the fall of Berlin I suspect many British readers will discover a great deal about battles such as the Hurtgen Forest and the fighting on the Oder and Vistula. Many British readers may be surprised to learn that Montgomery made perhaps the singularly greatest blunder of the war in Europe post D Day in his failure to clear the Scheldte estuary and so open up the Port of Antwerp. The book considers many of the great personalities of the war, whilst Montgomery is presented as you might expect, an insufferably vain, self serving and plodding general who was nevertheless highly competent when commanding set piece battles it may surprise readers to see that Patton was far from the great genius sometimes portrayed. Whilst the book shows Patton had flair and aggression in pursuit and manoeuvre it presents him as unimaginative and far from great when forced to fight attritional battles whilst the taskforce Baum incident was shocking. Hastings view of Eisenhower is rather conventional, far from a great strategist but a masterful diplomat who deserved the appreciation of history for being able to hold a coalition which was nothing like as amicable as often presented together.
Of the political figures, one figure overshadows all of the others in this book and that is Stalin. Hastings paints a picture of an incredibly vile, ruthless and evil man who was nevertheless a masterful political strategist.
The story of fighting men is an interesting one. Hastings may appear less than flattering about British and American soldiers yet his opinions are not unfair and he makes the valid point that in many ways the less flattering aspects of Western troops was the flip side of the very reasons the Western Allies came out of the war with a much cleaner record than the German or Soviet Armies. The German and Soviet armies are presented as being far superior in many martial aspects but at a cost of brutality and moral debasement. If Hastings is less than flattering about British and American troops he is scathing in his observations of the brutality of German and Soviet troops and their commanders and the managed indiscipline and drunkenness of the Red Army.
Hastings devotes a lot of space to the tragedy suffered by the German people, particularly in East Prussia and is clearly (and rightly) sympathetic to their pain and suffering whilst also avoiding the trap of equating this with the truly heinous policies of Germany towards their conquered territory in the East and those not deemed worthy of life by the Nazis. To be sympathetic to the suffering of German civilians is not the same as absolving Germany of responsibility for that suffering and Hastings navigates a moral minefield very effectively.
Overall the book highlights just what a tragedy the final few months of the war were, the suffering of those few months was dreadful. This is a book which deserves to be read widely, superb.
Hastings does not back away from offering judgements and it is the trenchant nature of his observations which makes the book so refreshing in many ways.
I was looking for a fairly modern, comprehensive study of the battle for Germany so I picked up “Armageddon”. Good choice! Unlike many volumes it includes both the Eastern and Western fronts. Beginning in September 1944 it covers Market Garden before shifting to the Vistula then taking the reader step by step to victory and the return home. Author Max Hastings has provided us with an excellent overview of the closing events of the War in Europe.
The great contribution of this book to World War II literature is its depth of analysis. Hastings assesses battles, performance of armies and their leaders as well as the relative efforts on the Eastern vs. Western Fronts. He tends to be critical of American, British and Canadian forces, both brass and GIs as compared to their German and Red Army counterparts. Western caution after The Bulge is contrasted with Soviet aggression and ruthlessness. Comparisons are often made to the conclusions of other historians who have evaluated the same topics. Drawing heavily of quotations from many participants he pictures of the war as seen by those who fought it. I took particular interest in quotes from later public figures such as Helmut Schmidt and Henry Kissinger. While “Armageddon” does cover both fronts, I found it to be more heavily weighted toward the West, even while repeatedly reminding readers that most of the fighting was done in the East.
This is an excellent book for the mature student of World War II in Europe. It challenges the myths in which American, British and Canadian readers have been immersed while putting the contributions of the contending armies into perspective. I recommend that we read other historians to get the fasts then turn to “Armageddon” for the reality check.
on 12 June 2015
I decided to read this (lengthy) book before returning to the Stations series (David Downing) since it seemed to be a scene setter (it is). It looks in great detail at the final months of World War II. After the success of the 1944 Normandy landings it was expected that the advance to Berlin and final victory could be achieved fairly quickly, possibly by Christmas. It was not, and this book gives a worrying picture of division and even incompetence amongst the Allies, in contrast to skilled, dogged and even fanatical resistance from the Germans. This inevitably leads the book to Arnhem, justly described as "the Debacle". The author gives a description of great gallantry but also of the operation being messy and botched: a "fiasco".
The book then turns to the Eastern Front, including the tragically ill-fated Warsaw uprising. It also addresses Stalin's ambition to spread communism in counties "liberated" by his forces, though it is worth noting that the Americans were keen to spread their (preferable) way of life, and the British had their tradition of colonialism (as enunciated in "Land of Hope and Glory").
Back at the Western Front, the winter of 1944/45 seemed to have touches of a First World War stalemate and I was surprised at the levels of desertions and pilfering by both British and American troops. Meanwhile back in Germany the inhabitants were suffering grievously for their support of Hitler, but had very few feelings of guilt. As for Hitler himself, his grotesque "rejection of rationality" frustrated no end the abilities and strategies of his armed forces. This was particularly evident in the Battle of the Bulge, described in some detail.
Returning to the Eastern Front, the descriptions of the very mixed bunch that made up the Soviet armies are most interesting. As for the East Prussian tragedy, this is illustrated (as are other events) by some harrowing personal accounts. But the author stresses that the massive so-called "German Holocaust" (ie the huge and often bloody displacement of millions of ethnic Germans) was caused to a marked degree by their own (in)actions, which could not be said of the Jews and many others who died in concentration camps. "Wilfully or not, (the Germans) had brought a terrible evil on the world".
The chapter on the war in the air is possibly unduly detailed, though the author looks at the morality and effectiveness of mass bombing. Also the casualty rates among the air crews was frighteningly high, though there was no shortage of volunteers. The section concludes with vivid first hand accounts of the Dresden bombing.
The author goes on to consider the final breakthrough into Germany along with the distressing "animal subjection" of the millions of prisoners in the Third Reich: a terrible evil indeed. This is reinforced not only by harrowing descriptions of the concentration camps but also of the dreadful treatment of the Dutch in the closing months of the War. And to this list you can add many others, not least the Russians and the Poles. As the book says, "Adolf Hitler had led one of the most educated and cultured societies on earth to a moral, political and military abyss".
Finally the book describes the hard fought battle for Berlin, a subject already well documented. Less well documented though are the harrowing stories of survivors, not least in Russia and Hastings records these. Stalin of course seems as bad as Hitler, though the atrocities have not been as greatly researched.
Max Hastings is, of course, an accomplished writer and historian, very interested in the military. Indeed some of this book is possibly unduly detailed in its analysis of military strategy and tactics, not always directly related to the action. I don't think that this added to my appreciation of what is generally a very good book. Added to this, the author is close to becoming a Grand Old Man and we get a fair amount of philosophising. Also, although the reminiscences of people who were there add considerably to the subject matter, I'm not sure why Sir Max decided to write a book on something already well documented, for example by Anthony Beevor, Robert Key and Robin Neillands. It is interesting that he chose to avoid the Italian campaign, about which less has been written, and perhaps this might be the subject of his next book.
on 29 March 2006
This is quite simply one of the best history books available dealing with this subject matter. In terms of the quality of the writing it simply stands head and shoulders above the rest. I often find that books of this type can get bogged down in excessive detail particularly when relating to the movement of armies across Europe. Hastings' writing style ensures that this is a book for anyone: it is well written, nicely balanced and full of interest. It is perfectly interspersed with anecdotes from servicemen of the period, allowing the reader to understand the reality of the conflict. The other agreeable aspect of this book is that the author is not afraid to give his own thoughtful and reasoned opinions - setting it aside from many other books on the Second World War that seek to relate just facts, without meaningful interpretation.
on 29 March 2012
This is a great book on many levels and filled with interesting information on many neglected parts of the 1944-45 story. I heartily recommend it to anyone.
One point I must make. I did come away filling slightly uneasy on what I read as Max Hasting's views on the Germans and the Soviets. He does make reference back to the terrible things that the German forces carried out within the Soviet Union, but always follows it with a comment about what Stalin did to his own, as if to somehow reduce the impact. I began to feel that Mr Hastings has a grudging respect for the German forces, and sees the Soviets forces as bringers of destruction and barbarity. I found that disturbing, and feel that he really did not spend enough time explaining the context of the final year of the war in the East. Just taking a simple example of the Ukraine, he could have easily talked about the state of the region pre Barbarossa and after. Once a reader has that in their minds, what horrors happened in Prussia and other parts of Germany can be seen in the context of the horror of the eastern front. What happened in Prussia cannot be viewed in isolation.
In no way am I making excuses for the Soviet actions, the same as the actions of the Germans in 1941-44 cannot be excused. It was a war of annihilation, where rules of war no longer existed.
I really feel that Max Hastings has to now write a book on the German-Soviet War and confront the horrors visited on the USSR by the German forces which were on a scale hardly imaginable for those of us who read about the war in the West. I really look forward to such a project as I find all of his work readable and of great quality.
on 23 September 2009
For this outstanding book, military historian Max Hastings researched in the archives of four countries and conducted 170 interviews with survivors of the war. Brilliantly written, it conveys the horror of war, without idealisation. Throughout, he makes realistic judgements.
For example, he writes of the Warsaw uprising, "the Polish commander wanted it both ways: the success of his revolt hinged upon recognising Russian military support, while its explicit objective was to deny the Soviet Union political authority over his country."
Hastings asserts, "the British Joint Intelligence Committee had concluded that, if the Poles carried out their long-planned uprising, it was doomed to failure in the absence of close co-operation with the Russians, which was unlikely to be forthcoming. It seems lamentable that, after making such an appreciation, the British failed to exert all possible pressure upon the Poles to abandon their fantasies."
He points out, "Despite some historian's idealisation of those who were ruthlessly returned to Stalin, the murderous record of Cossacks who served the Wehrmacht in northern Italy and Yugoslavia deserves more attention than it has received."
He observes, "Stalin's people were overwhelmingly responsible for destroying Hitler's armies." He cites American historian Forrest Pogue who wrote that the Soviet forces "broke Germany and made the [D-Day] landing possible." Hastings judges, `the single most impressive ground operation of the war' was Operation Bagration of July-August 1944, and Stalin was `the most successful warlord of the Second World War'.
The key dilemma at the end of the war in Europe was whether the Anglo-American forces should try to take Berlin, which was a hundred miles inside the agreed Soviet occupation zone. Hastings applauds Eisenhower's decision not to try, and shows that no Anglo-American action in spring 1945 could, or should, have undone the agreements reached at the Teheran and Yalta conferences.
on 7 May 2011
On the whole I enjoyed ths book. Hastings tells the story of the collapse of the Third Reich, from the successful D-Day landings to the fall of Berlin. Hastings is to be commended for the many first-hand accounts and memories he has researched and dug up. As a result, this book is full of accounts from those who were there and witnessed (or took part in) the horrors of the struggle for Germany. We have accounts from the British and American soldiers, Russian trops and those of the Wehrmacht, complete with the bombers. What I found riveting, and completely horrifying, was the testimony of the civilians - from the Jews, the endless raping of German women (by many Allied soldiers, not just the Soviets), countless suicides, and the general misery of the human condition during the death throes of Hitler's empire.
By no means a palatable read (in the sense of the atrocities), I would recomend this as an essential read for those interested in World War Two.