Inferno: The World at War, 1939-1945

By Mullen, Thomas | America in WWII, February 2012 | Go to article overview

Inferno: The World at War, 1939-1945


Mullen, Thomas, America in WWII


Inferno: The World at War, 1939-1945, by Max Hastings, Alfred Knopf, 752 pages, $35.

MAX HASTINGS IS NO STRANGER to most of us, having written not only the superb Bomber Command and Overlord, but also the epic Armageddon and Nemesis, about the ends of the war in Europe and Asia, respectively. Not content with these thousands of pages, he has now written a majestic single-volume treatment of the entire war--Inferno: The World at War, 1939-1945--weaving together a strategic overview of every field of wartime activity with compelling accounts from all sides.

Hastings accomplishes this through a supple style, pointillist attention to the telling or intriguing incident or anecdote and interpretive insight from a lifetime of research and reflection. There are hundreds of pages of firsthand experiences in Inferno, few of which will be familiar to you, including some delightfully improbable accounts, as when heavily armed German soldiers in Italy disembark from their truck to ask a teacher and her refugee children for some Christmas songs.

Through such stories, Inferno consistently reminds us of the complexities of the war, removing it from the simplistic good-versus-evil framework. We see this complexity early in the war, as Finland first struggles to survive Soviet invasion and subsequently allies for a time with Nazi Germany. Later, Hastings explores the complicated relationship between Japan and the residents of its so-called Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. He also covers the varying relationships between dictators; the miniscule significance, by wartime Allied calculations, of the Holocaust; the widespread absence of empathy in the West for the invaded Soviet Union, and more. Hastings does something we seldom see: he makes the history seem new again.

For most American readers, World War II started on December 7, 1941. One of the great values of Inferno is how well it covers the preceding years of war. The German-Soviet vivisection of Poland, the invasion of Norway, the Phoney War (the period when the European Allies had declared war against Germany, but had not yet taken military action), and the Battle of Britain are all covered. The coverage includes firsthand accounts and the context of the events' larger strategic dimensions, which are often non-intuitive. Hastings argues, for example, that the strategic factors of fighting in the skies over Britain made London's victory in this air war almost inevitable, despite the drama and desperation on the ground.

Inferno shows many familiar players in different lights. The French experience is a melancholy example. Hastings recapitulates France's defeat at the hands of numerically inferior German forces and goes on to document its unhappily cooperative relationship with the victors. …

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