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4.0 out of 5 stars Sir Max Hastings - "War is all hell", 17 Oct 2011
This review is from: All Hell Let Loose: The World at War 1939-1945 (Hardcover)
Do we really need another general history of World War II? In recent years we have seen new studies by Evan Mawdsley, Martin Gilbert and in particular Andrew Roberts excellent populist history "The Storm of War" to name but a few. The years 1939 to 1945 are a very crowded field for historians and yet there is always a warm welcome for an historian of the calibre of Sir Max Hastings, recent chronicler of Churchill as a wartime leader and political commentator. Hastings is a conservative historian but what is interesting about "All hell let loose - the World at War 1939-45" is that employs the approach of producing an history from below drawn from eyewitness accounts of events. Accounts which in turn demonstrate and confirm William Sherman's maxim "that war is all hell" since we see an overwhelming view of very brave participants who are nonetheless generally terrified, demoralized and often beaten into a fossilised torpor. One British solider reflected in a letter to his wife that `I am absolutely fed up with everything. The dirt and filth, the flies - I'm having a hideous time and I wonder why I'm alive'. Another British soldier William Chappell "never ceased to ache for the civilian world from which he had been torn. He missed his home and his friends and bemoaned the loss of his career. His feet hurt, he was `sick of khaki, and all the monotonous, slow, fiddle-de-dee of Army life.' The fatalistic will of Russian soldiers is particularly well described not least the experience of Private Ivanov, of the 70th Army, who wrote despairingly to his family. `I shall never see you again because death, terrible, ruthless and merciless, is going to cut short my young life. Where shall I find strength and courage to live through all this?'

Those who have read Hastings previously on World War II will detect the ongoing preoccupations which he has developed over many years that have gradually become historical orthodoxy. He maintains in all his works that the best troops throughout the course of hostilities were Germans who were nevertheless effectively outdone by the crazed ambitions of a totalitarian monster particularly in sheer lunatic ambition of the Eastern theatre. Even as the German Army swept all in front of it during Operation Barbarossa key Generals like Halder and Hoepner were unnervingly aware that a nation with an almost limitless supply of manpower was stirring. Thus the war was won and lost in Stalin's Russia which despite the unbelievable ineptitude of its own leader particularly in almost destroying the whole of his own officer corps in purges had the crucial element of numbers on its side. This fact was readily accepted by Churchill at the time which in turn and his relationship to "Uncle Joe" has recently been chronicled with great detail by another British historian David Reynolds. Perhaps the most brutal statistic in the whole book is the fact that 750,000 Russians were shot by their own comrades for cowardice, desertion or simply to maintain army discipline, as it turns out this exceeds the total number of British dead in the entire war. The brutality of the Soviet invasion has been captured in a range of books not least Anthony Beevor's epic "Stalingrad" and the central thesis of Hastings book is equally located in the Soviet Union with its "hierarchy of cruelty" elevated beyond all other conflicts.

The sights and the smells of battle also infuse the book and the everyday acts of living are elevated into small horrors in their own right. As Hastings points out "Excretory processes became an obsession. In battlefield conditions, many never made it to a latrine. But as one soldier recalled: `No one said anything about how you smelt, because everyone smelled bad.' At over 700 pages this is a long book and your reviewer deliberately avoided the Kindle edition because of this since there were pages of text that needed to be reread and referred to for continuity purposes. Hastings however has the gift of writing an often-complex story in clear and understandable prose. He also cares deeply about the participants in his history and that humanity and gift for narrative shines through this excellent boo
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Showing 1-3 of 3 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 9 Feb 2013 15:14:10 GMT
Xavi #6 says:
I did not see any reference to the 'rape of Nanking' in my edition, indeed the war in China before 1939 was not covered at all. Perhaps you had a different edition, which did you have?

Posted on 7 Apr 2014 12:52:34 BDT
AC says:
Haven't come across rape of Nanking yet, but I'm only two chapters in. However, agree with point made about Kindle version - it's difficult to flick back and forward, and you definitely need to!

In reply to an earlier post on 8 Apr 2014 17:18:21 BDT
Red on Black says:
Both -I think i may have juxtaposed some reading from Hastings elsewhere into this review. I have thus taken out the paragraph in questions. Many thanks for pointing out this error. Cheers Rob
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