The Human Experience of War

Article excerpt

The Human Experience of War Inferno: The World at War, 19391945. Max Hastings. Random House. 729 pages; black-and-white photographs; maps; notes; index; $35.

World War II has been over for nearly 67 years, yet interest in the great conflict is still as strong as ever. New books, from small battle studies to large overall accounts, continue to appear and flourish. One of the latter, and certainly one of the best, is Max Hastings' Inferno: The World at War, 1939-1945, an in-depth examination of the human side of the war.

Max Hastings is a British journalist, editor and war correspondent. The author of more than 20 books, half of which cover aspects of World War ?, he synthesizes and caps his earlier works in this volume. Inferno is a spellbinding and beautifully written summary, analysis and unflinching description of the horrendous personal impact of that great struggle.

This book, as he states, is "chiefly about human experience." It focuses on the fears, struggles and trials of those millions of ordinary people - both soldiers and civilians - whose everyday lives were rudely interrupted by the harsh impact of total war. Men, women and children all faced "ordeals that in many cases lasted for years, and for at least 60 million were terminated by death." Hastings graphically describes atrocities on both sides, especially during the savage fighting in the final stages of the war in Eastern Europe.

Inferno thus differs markedly from other fine volumes on World War ? such as John Keegan's The Second World War, with its emphasis on strategy, operations and military leaders; Gerhard Weinberg's A World at Arms: A Global History of World War II, which covers the major high-level aspects of the war; Andrew Roberts' The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War, which focuses on the German side of the war; and other works that analyze strategy and tactics or key decision making. Hastings' long, sweeping panorama covers most events of World War II but concentrates on those ordinary individuals whose specific experiences are often overlooked in more general studies.

The book is by no means a complete history of the war. The author has already covered many aspects of it in his earlier works, notably Overlord: D-Day & the Battle for Normandy; Bomber Command; Armageddon: The Battle for Germany, 1944-1945; and Retribution: The Battle for Japan, 1944-45. So he avoids repeating material that he has previously related in detail. Thus while Inferno describes in general terms the major military campaigns of the war and often, in some detail, the harsh combat, its focus on individual experiences and recollections gives it an episodic, almost impressionistic appearance.

The striking feature of the book is its use of hundreds of vivid personal testimonies to brilliantly illustrate its theme. The opening pages describe the enthusiasm of a young Polish fighter pilot in the first days of war: "We wanted to fight, it excited us, and we . . . didn't believe that something bad could really happen." A euphoric young German expressed this "wonderful feeling" to be marching into Poland, but then, as German bombs killed women and children, a nurse saw a "procession of wounded, .... an unending march of death," and a senior British observer wrote bitterly that "I saw the very face of war change - its glory shorn ... women and children being buried."

Less than a year later, a British soldier, fearing public scorn or worse after his evacuation from Ehinkirk, was surprised to be greeted by "people cheering and clapping [for] us as if we were heroes." Then a British teenager, trapped in Paris, likened the German entry to a "gigantic green snake that wound itself around the heart of the broken city, which waited pathetically to be swallowed up."

It was the fierce struggle for eastern Europe, after Germany invaded the Soviet Union, that exacted the greatest *toll on both soldiers and civilians. …