There have been several one-volume works on World War II published over the past 40 or so years. Liddell Hart's authoritative History of the Second World War (1970) and Gerhard Weinberg's A World at Arms (1994) readily come to mind. But Max Hastings' searing new work, Inferno: The World at War, while reflecting upon the big military-geopolitical picture, also illuminates the war's lesser-known regions and vividly shows its overpowering effect upon the lives of ordinary civilians and soldiers in a hellish conflict in which at least 60 million people died miserably.
Hastings, previously a foreign correspondent and editor of Britain's Evening Standard and Daily Telegraph, and author of more than 20 books including Overlord, Armageddon and Retribution, begins his assiduously researched work with Hitler's attack on Poland. The author informs us that Germany's immediate "justification" for the attack was the following: At 8 p.m. on Aug. 31, 1939, Alfred Naujocks of the German security service led a party of German troops, including a dozen convicted German criminals — all in Polish military uniforms — in a mock assault on a German radio station at Gleiwitz in Upper Silesia, Poland. SS machine gunners killed the convicts, whose bloody corpses were then displayed to foreign correspondents as "evidence of Polish aggression."
At 2 a.m. on Sept. 1, mounted units of the German Wehrmacht began their strike against Poland. World War II had begun.
Using diary entries as he does throughout this book, Hastings shows us one of the invasion's heartrending casualties. Polish nurse Jadwiga Sosnkowska recalls a 16-year-old girl, a bombing victim, lying on a hospital table. "She had a glorious mop of golden hair, her face was delicate as a flower, and her lovely sapphire-blue eyes were full of tears. Both her legs, up to the knees, were a mass of bleeding pulp … both had to be amputated above the knee. … I bent over … to kiss her pallid brow. … She died quietly … in the morning."
Intimate, moving scenes such as this abound throughout the book.
In the larger historical sphere, Hastings describes in detail how 8 million French citizens abandoned their homes — "the greatest mass immigration in western European history" — in the month following the German invasion (June-July, 1940). How in 1939-40 the Finnish Army, woefully undermanned and underarmed, managed for a time to drive back Stalin's forces consisting of 120,000 troops, 600 tanks and 1,000 large artillery pieces. How Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union, Operation Barbarossa, resulted in 27 million Russian deaths in 1941-43. And how the United States' strategically incredible and bloody "island-hopping" campaign across the western Pacific ultimately defeated Japan.
In the more individual, personal realm, the author shows us clearly what it was like in the cockpit of a Spitfire fighter plane during the 1940 Battle of Britain. Here's RAF pilot Geoff Wellum closing in for a Nazi kill: "Bloody front gunner. My target, concentrate, the target. Looking at him through the sight .... Sight on, still on, steady ... fire NOW! I press the gun button and all hell is let loose."
On the Eastern Front, where starvation always threatened, Stephen Kuznetsov, a Soviet soldier, wrote, "All our soldiers ... look like ghouls — emaciated by hunger and cold." But in Leningrad, which was surrounded by German forces for 2 1/2 years, from 1941 to 1944, things were a lot worse. Hastings tells us that in late 1941, after the pigeons, crows, gulls, rats and household pets were eaten, people resorted to cannibalism.
On Feb. 4, 1942, in hardly an isolated case, one woman, a witness said, "utterly worn out and desperate," told police "that when her husband fainted through exhaustion and lack of food, she hacked off part of his leg to feed herself and her children." She faced execution for her crime, the author writes.
Hastings also examines the infamous Bengal famine in India, exacerbated by the war in 1943-44, and shows how Britain's callous, racist policies, its "final epitaph of British rule" according to nationalist leader Jawaharlal Nehru, ultimately led to India's independence in 1947.
As Hastings brings us toward the Armageddon-like horror of World War II's conclusion — Berlin's fall, Hiroshima, Nagasaki — we are shown the mass of millions of German refugees fleeing westward from the Soviets and certain rape and/or death. The surreal, "snowclad landscape of eastern Europe," Hastings writes, "was disfigured by tens of thousands of corpses." One young German mother with two small children would not give up, however: "I had set myself a task — to take the children to safety and see them grow up. How? I did not know. I just tackled each day as it came."
Bracing in its attention to ordinary human beings, yet comprehensive in historical scope, Max Hastings' revealing Inferno could be considered the definitive one-volume history of World War II.
Chris Patsilelis has reviewed books on military subjects for the New York Times, the Washington Post and the San Francisco Chronicle.