At the end of Max Hastings’ delectable new book on World War II, two things linger in the mind.
The first is wonderment. How, year after year, are such excellent books written about the war? What is left to tell? Surely now that you’ve read Cornelius Ryan, Antony Beevor, Anthony Roberts, Winston Churchill, Hastings himself; visited war museums everywhere and walked the beaches at Normandy; and sat through every emotional blockbuster on the war, told from every perspective, including Clint Eastwood’s— surely there is nothing left to say?
Your wonderment is understandable but not, it appears, justified. There are many stories left to tell.
Narrative bullion: World War II’s well of stories is near-inexhaustible. Photo: Keystone/Getty Images
As Robert McCrum wrote in The Observer earlier this month in his column: “There’s also a treasure trove of incredible stories, narrative bullion, locked up in the years 1939-45. As the Great War fades from living memory and becomes part of history, its successor takes its place. The conflicts of 1914-18 were largely European. A genuinely global struggle, the second world war satisfies an international appetite for war stories, some of them now coming to light for the first time.”
In Hastings’ effort to achieve his great goal with this book—“my story emphasizes bottom-up views and experiences, the voices of little people rather than big ones”—he tells dozens of new stories. Stories of the bloody fabric of this great war are told by the wretched threads—soldiers, mothers, children—that sometimes kept it together and sometimes fell apart.
And in their telling—channelled through Hastings’ smooth, measured prose—the stories have new life breathed into them. “I am fascinated,” says the author, “by the complex interplay of loyalties and sympathies around the world.” And then he goes on to say how people in many countries harboured far less polarized views about the good and bad guys than we have been led to believe: “Colonial subjects, and above all India’s four hundred millions, saw little merit in the defeat of the Axis if they continued to endure British suzerainty.”
The book is relentlessly fascinating. Hastings knows that merely giving us greater depth and colour into known stories is not enough. He must shake us with fact and statistic. And this he does regularly.
For instance, during the Battle of Britain, the subject of much post-war mythologizing, one-third of the overall losses were due purely to accidents and non-combat mishaps.
Or in September 1940, after having declared war and made early gains, the Italian ministry of war decided it could revert to the pre-war practice of closing down for business at 2pm. Silvio Berlusconi would have approved.
But the most startling numbers are those of the massive losses suffered by Russia and China in the war. In the process of repulsing Germany’s invasion of Russia, Hastings says, over two million Russians died of hunger in land controlled by the Russian government—Stalin preferred to feed soldiers first and the old and infirm last.
Particularly amusing is his sweeping study of American sentiment prior to that country’s crucial involvement in the war. Hastings quotes William Calvin, the treasurer of Harvard University: “Hitler’s going to win. Let’s be friends with him.”
In a poll conducted in late 1939, 26% of Americans surveyed felt US citizens should have the option to enlist, if it came to that, in the Wehrmacht. Yes, for the same German army they’d be chasing down in Europe in just a few years.
All Hell Let Loose can transform, for many people, their idea of the two sides in the war. What was everyone fighting for? Who was on whose side?
And the more those answers become elusive, the more futile the war seems.
The second thought the book leaves you with is one of dread.
What do we know of the wars raging on in our own lifetimes? If World War II, the first massive human conflict to be recorded and studied in such living detail, can still surprise us with truths, what will happen in 2030 or 2050? Who knows what truths about Kargil, Iraq, Afghanistan or Jaffna we are yet to learn.
But they will be told, no doubt, and everything will no doubt seem futile.
All Hell Let Loose is a riveting work on a period of human history that continues to shirk closure.
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