The World at War, 1939-45Book - 2011
World War II involved tens of millions of soldiers and cost sixty million lives--an average of twenty-seven thousand a day. For thirty-five years, Max Hastings has researched and written about different aspects of the war. Now, for the first time, he gives us a magnificent, single-volume history of the entire war.
Through his strikingly detailed stories of everyday people--of soldiers, sailors and airmen; British housewives and Indian peasants; SS killers and the citizens of Leningrad, some of whom resorted to cannibalism during the two-year siege; Japanese suicide pilots and American carrier crews--Hastings provides a singularly intimate portrait of the world at war. He simultaneously traces the major developments--Hitler's refusal to retreat from the Soviet Union until it was too late; Stalin's ruthlessness in using his greater population to wear down the German army; Churchill's leadership in the dark days of 1940 and 1941; Roosevelt's steady hand before and after the United States entered the war--and puts them in real human context.
Hastings also illuminates some of the darker and less explored regions under the war's penumbra, including the conflict between the Soviet Union and Finland, during which the Finns fiercely and surprisingly resisted Stalin's invading Red Army; and the Bengal famine in 1943 and 1944, when at least one million people died in what turned out to be, in Nehru's words, "the final epitaph of British rule" in India.
Remarkably informed and wide-ranging, Inferno is both elegantly written and cogently argued. Above all, it is a new and essential understanding of one of the greatest and bloodiest events of the twentieth century.
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Another Berlin woman wrote likewise: You see very young boys, baby faces peeping out beneath oversized steel helmets. It’s frightening to hear their high-pitched voices. They’re fifteen years old at the most, standing there looking so skinny and small in their billowing uniform tunics. Why are we so appalled at the thought of children being murdered? In three or four years the same children strike us as perfectly fit for shooting and maiming … Up to now being a soldier meant being a man … Wasting these boys before they reach maturity obviously runs against some fundamental law of nature, against our instinct, against every drive to preserve the species. Like certain fish or insects that eat their own offspring. People aren’t supposed to do that. The fact that this is exactly what we are doing is a sure sign of madness.
A Berlin teenager named Dieter Borkovsky was riding the city’s S-Bahn on 14 April, amid a throng of passengers loudly venting their anger and despair. Suddenly a soldier, adorned with medals which seemed absurdly incongruous on his small, dirty figure, shouted, “Silence! I’ve got something to tell you. Even if you don’t want to listen to me, stop whining. We have to win this war. We must not lose our courage. If others win the war, and they do to us only a fraction of what we have done in the occupied territories, there won’t be a single German left in a few weeks.” Borkovsky wrote: “It became so quiet in that carriage one could have heard a pin drop.”
Farley Mowat wrote in August 1943 with the gaucherie of his twenty-two years: “It’s hard for guys my age to grasp that nobody lives forever. Dying is just a word until you find out differently. That’s trite but horribly true. The first few times you almost get nicked you take it for granted you are almost immortal. The next few times you begin to wonder. After that you start looking over your shoulder to make sure old Lady Luck is still around.”
Chuikov remarked later of Stalingrad, “Approaching this place, soldiers used to say: ‘We are entering hell.’ And after spending one or two days here, they said: ‘No, this isn’t hell, this is ten times worse than hell.’ A young woman soldier said: ‘I had been imagining what war was like—everything on fire, children crying, cats running about, and when we got to Stalingrad it turned out to be really like that, only more terrible.’ ” She had joined the service with a group of friends from her home town of Tobolsk, in Siberia. Most were posted to the embattled city, and few left it alive.
“After Pearl Harbor,” Lt. Gen. Frederick Morgan, the British chief planner for D-Day, said of the Americans, “they decided to make the biggest and best war ever seen.” The secretary of the American Asiatic Association wrote to a friend in the State Department, “It will be a long, hard war, but after it is over Uncle Sam will do the talking in the world.” The federal budget soared from $9 billion in 1939 to $100 billion in 1945, and in the same period America’s GNP grew from $91 to $166 billion.
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