The second world war
Counting the cost
Two British historians analyse the 20th century’s worst conflict
Jun 9th 2012 | from the print edition
All Hell Let Loose: The World at War 1939-1945. By Max Hastings. HarperPress; 748 pages; £30. Buy from Amazon.co.uk
HISTORY is full of wars that were bloodier than the second world war. As a proportion of the population, more people were killed during the An Lushan rebellion in eighth-century China, for example, or by the Thirty Years War in 17th-century central Europe. But the sheer magnitude of the human tragedy of the second world war puts it in a class of its own, and its relative closeness to the present day makes claims on the collective memory that more remote horrors cannot.
The statistics of the war are almost mind-numbing. Estimates differ, but up to 70m people died as a direct consequence of the fighting between 1939 and 1945, about two-thirds of them non-combatants, making it in absolute terms the deadliest conflict ever. Nearly one in ten Germans died and 30% of their army. About 15m Chinese perished and 27m Soviets. Squeezed between two totalitarian neighbours, Poland lost 16% of its population, about half of them Jews who were part of Hitler’s final solution. On average, nearly 30,000 people were being killed every day.
Partly because it is so hard to grasp what these numbers mean, recent historians have tended to concentrate on particular theatres or aspects of the war with an emphasis on trying to describe what it was like for the human beings caught up in it. Both Antony Beevor and Max Hastings are distinguished exemplars of this approach. Mr Hastings has written books on Britain’s strategic bombing campaign, the Allied invasion of Normandy and the battles for Germany and Japan in the closing stages of the war. With several books already under his belt, Mr Beevor became known in 1998 for his epic account of the siege of Stalingrad, and went on to produce accounts of D-Day and the fall of Berlin. Now both writers have tried something different: single-volume narrative histories of the entire war. In doing so, they are following in the footsteps of Andrew Roberts and Michael Burleigh, who made similar attempts in, respectively, 2009 and 2010.
Mr Hastings got there before Mr Beevor. “All Hell Let Loose” was published seven months ago (it is now out in paperback) to justifiably rave reviews. Mr Hastings’s technique is to mine the written record of those who took part both actively and passively. His witnesses range from the men whose decisions sent millions to their deaths to the ordinary soldiers who carried out their orders and the civilian victims who found themselves on the receiving end. Cynicism and idealism, suffering and euphoria, courage and terror, brutalisation and sentimentality—all find expression through their own testimony. From the Burma Road to the Arctic convoys, the killing fields of Kursk and the London Blitz, their voices are heard. Mr Hastings’s achievement in organising this unwieldy mass of material into a narrative that sweeps confidently over every contested corner of the globe is impressive.
Less so are some of his judgments. Although delivered with verve and economy (Mr Hastings is, above all, an accomplished journalist), they are often unfair. For example, he argues that the decision by Britain and France to declare war because of the German attack on Poland was an act of cynicism because they knew they could do nothing to help the Poles. That was never in doubt, but the Allies hoped the stand against Germany’s naked aggression would persuade Hitler to step back from the brink of all-out war, a motive that was neither base nor ridiculous.
Mr Hastings’s repeated admiration for the fighting qualities of German, Japanese and Soviet soldiers compared with British and American forces is especially trying. Germany and Japan were militarised societies that glorified war and conquest, held human life to be cheap and regarded obedience to the state as the highest virtue. Russian soldiers were inured to the harsh brutalities of Soviet rule and driven on by the knowledge that they were fighting “a war of annihilation” against an implacable enemy. If they wavered, they knew they would be shot by NKVD enforcers. More than 300,000 were killed pour encourager les autres.
The majority of the civilian soldiers of the Western democracies, by contrast, just wanted to survive and return to normal life as soon as possible. That also meant that American and British generals had to eschew the dashing aggression of their Russian and German counterparts, who could squander lives with impunity. Thanks to the bloodbath in Russia, where the Wehrmacht was broken and nine out of ten German soldiers who died in the war met their end, they could permit themselves to be more cautious.
Mr Hastings excessively admires two German field-marshals: Gerd von Rundstedt and Eric von Manstein, whereas only Bill Slim and George Patton rise above the general mediocrity of Allied field commanders. Luckily, the tactical virtuosity of the Germans and Japanese was more than matched by their strategic incompetence in declaring war against Russia and America. Less hubristic and more informed leaders would have realised that both countries had the manpower and industrial resources to prevail in a war of attrition.
Overall, however, Mr Hastings does an admirable job of weaving together deeply personal stories with great events and high strategy. This raises the question of whether another book covering essentially the same ground is necessary. The answer depends on what the reader is looking for. Mr Beevor, who is known for using the sometimes unbearably moving diaries and letters of ordinary soldiers to shed new light on old battles, is otherwise less generous than Mr Hastings in the space he gives to primary sources. He has written what is in many ways a more conventional military history. But where he is good, he is very good.
Mr Beevor is full of insight about the connections between things—he sets out “to understand how the whole complex jigsaw fits together”. Thus the relatively little-known Battle of Khalkhin-Gol, in which Japan’s plans to grab Soviet territory from its base in Manchuria were undone in the summer of 1939 by the Red Army’s greatest and most ruthless general, Georgi Zhukov, had profound consequences. The Japanese “strike south” party prevailed over the “strike northers”, ensuring that Stalin would not have to fight a war on two fronts when the Germans launched Operation Barbarossa in 1941. Mr Beevor decries the rebarbative “Bomber” Harris’s attempt to win the war by bringing death and destruction to every major German city as a moral and strategic failure. But he also points out that by forcing the Nazis to move squadrons of Luftwaffe fighters from Russia to defend the Fatherland, Harris’s campaign allowed the Soviet air force to establish vital air supremacy.
Mr Beevor also has a surer hand than Mr Hastings in describing how the great land battles of the war unfolded. Although his judgments are less waspishly entertaining than his rival’s, they are also more measured. He is notably more generous about Britain’s contribution to defeating Hitler, which Mr Hastings at times appears to think was mainly confined to the code-breaking centre at Bletchley Park and, after defeating the Luftwaffe in 1940, providing an “unsinkable aircraft-carrier” for the build-up of American military power.
Mr Beevor is keener than Mr Hastings on detailing the horror. He is particularly vivid in describing the barbarities that became commonplace during the carnage on the Eastern front. Frozen German corpses littering the battlefield were frequently missing their legs, not because they had been blown off, but because Red Army soldiers wanted their boots and could only pull them off after the legs had been defrosted over camp fires. Outside the besieged city of Leningrad, amputated limbs were stolen from field hospitals and bodies snatched from mass graves as a source of food. Within the city, 2,000 people were arrested for cannibalism. Those most at risk were children, who were eaten by their own parents.
The cruelties perpetrated by the Japanese against civilians in China (Mr Beevor sees the Sino-Japanese conflict that began with the Nanking massacre in 1937 as the true opening chapter of the second world war) and any of the countries unfortunate enough to come within the “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere” were nearly as systematic as any of the crimes committed by the Nazis. Japanese commanders actively encouraged the dehumanization of their troops in the belief it would make them more formidable. Prisoners were burned on huge pyres in their thousands and killing local people for meat was officially sanctioned.
Mr Beevor also gives more attention than Mr Hastings to the appalling acts of violence suffered by women when invading armies arrived. Again, it was the Japanese who set about mass-rape with methodical zeal. Hundreds of thousands of Chinese and Korean girls were press-ganged into becoming “comfort women”; 10,000 women were gang-raped after the fall of Hong Kong. But revenge-fuelled Red Army soldiers were little better. Soviet forces looting and pillaging their way through East Prussia on their way to Berlin raped around 2m women and girls.
This is, however, a less satisfying book than Mr Beevor’s earlier, more focused works. There is an unevenness of quality. The author has a tremendous grasp of the things he has written about before, in particular the titanic struggle between Hitler and Stalin. But he is dutiful rather than exhilarating when dealing with some other passages and theatres of the war. The account of the campaign in north Africa plods, and American readers may be disappointed by his handling of the war in the Pacific. The battle of Midway, arguably the defining naval engagement between Japan and America, gets two pages. At other times, there is too much detail: a succession of generals, armies and battles come and go. Second world war anoraks and students of military history will get more of what they are looking for from Mr Beevor, but less committed readers will find Mr Hastings’s work easier to get to grips with and a better read. Is there room for both books? Absolutely.