'Inferno' is monumental history of World War II | Inquirer Entertainment

‘Inferno’ is monumental history of World War II

/ 05:30 PM November 03, 2011

“Inferno: The World at War, 1939-1945” (Knopf), by Max Hastings: World War II was “the greatest and most terrible event in human history,” Max Hastings writes, and any doubts are sure to be dispelled by reading his gripping and comprehensive account of that epic struggle.

From Adolf Hitler’s invasion of Poland to the atomic bombs that hastened Japan’s surrender, “Inferno” details all the major campaigns, with vignettes and anecdotes that provide a richly textured picture of what soldiers and civilians on all sides experienced on the battlefield and the home front.


Hastings is a former British newspaperman and renowned military historian who has written more than 20 books, many of them focusing on aspects of World War II.

“Inferno,” the broadest and most ambitious of his books about the war, draws from letters and diaries of ordinary people and even from novels by Pacific war veterans Norman Mailer and James Jones.


There are spellbinding accounts of campaigns too often overlooked: the 1939-40 Winter War sparked by the Soviet attack on Finland, brutal ethnic clashes in Yugoslavia and the bravery of the British-led troops in jungle fighting that recaptured Burma after inflicting the greatest defeat ever suffered by a Japanese army.

Still, according to Hastings, virtually all the combat in the Pacific, the Mediterranean and Western Europe was but a sideshow to the central face-off between the legions of Hitler and Joseph Stalin. Some 40,000 Russian civilians perished — as many as died in the entire London blitz — during a 14-hour Luftwaffe assault on Stalingrad, and 90 percent of all German combat deaths occurred on the eastern front. The Soviets suffered 65 percent of all Allied military deaths, followed by China, with 23 percent; the U.S. and Britain accounted for 2 percent each.

Hastings offers tantalizing “what ifs” and how they might have altered the course of the war. He maintains that Hitler erred in launching his bombers against England rather than sending troops to take Egypt and Malta. He also questions the need for the U.S. campaigns in the Philippines, Iwo Jima and Okinawa when strategic bombing and a naval blockade would have sufficed to bring Japan to its knees.

The author minces no words in his assessments of the war’s top military leaders. Gen. Douglas MacArthur comes off as “a vainglorious windbag” and Gen. George Patton as “increasingly deranged.” Hastings assigns high marks to Adm. Chester Nimitz, British Gen. William Slim and Field Marshal Erich von Manstein, “probably Germany’s best general of the war.”

No major figure looms larger than Winston Churchill, “the towering personality of the forces of light,” in whose absence Hastings questions whether Britain would have continued to defy Hitler after the fall of France.

“Inferno” is a magnificent achievement, a one-volume history that should find favor among readers thoroughly immersed in World War II and those approaching the subject for the first time. As the years thin the ranks of those who fought in the war, Hastings’ balanced and elegantly written prose should help ensure that the bloodshed, bravery and brutality of that tragic conflict aren’t forgotten.

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