Review: All Hell Let Loose: The World at War, 1939-1945 – Max Hastings

All Hell Let Loose Max HastingsMy version: Hardback
Genre: Non Fiction History, World War II
Publisher: Harper Press (Harper Collins)
First published: 2011
Pages: 748
ISBN: 978-0-00-733809-2

From the cover:
This is a study of the greatest and most terrible event in history, which shows its impact upon hundreds of millions of people around the world – soldiers, sailors and airmen; British housewives and Indian peasants; SS killers and the citizens of Leningrad, some of whom resorted to cannibalism during the city’s two-year siege; Japanese suicide pilots and American carrier crews.
Reflecting Max Hastings’ thirty-five years of research on the Second World War, All Hell Let Loose describes the course of events during the war, but focuses chiefly on human experience, which varied immensely from campaign to campaign, continent to continent. Hastings emphasises the Russian front, where more than ninety percent of all German soldiers who perished, met their fate. He argues that, while Hitler’s army often fought its battles brilliantly well, the Nazis conducted their war effort with ‘stunning incompetence.’ He suggests the Royal Navy and US Navy were their countries’ outstanding fighting services, while the industrial contribution of the United States was much more important to Allied victory than that of the US Army.
The book ranges across a vast canvas, from the agony of Poland amid the September 1939 invasion, to the 1943 Bengal famine, in which at least a million people died under British rule – and British neglect. Among many vignettes, there are the RAF’s legendary raid on the Ruhr dams, the horrors of Arctic convoys, desert tank combat, jungle clashes. Some of Hastings’ insights and judgements will surprise students of the conflict, while there are vivid descriptions of the tragedies and triumphs of a host of ordinary people, in uniform and out of it. ‘The cliché is profoundly true,’ he says. ‘The world between 1939 and 1945 saw some human beings plumb the depths of baseness, while others scaled the heights of courage and nobility.’
This is ‘everyman’s story.’ It is an attempt to answer the question: ‘What was the Second World War like?’ and also an overview of the picture. Max Hastings employs the technique which has made many of his previous books bestsellers, combining top-down analysis and bottom-up testimony to explore the meaning of this vast conflict both for its participants and for posterity.

A huge and hugely impressive and moving book, All Hell Let Loose is a concise and precise, but detailed and passion-filled history of the war years of the Second World War. The book is a rivetingly fresh look at a period I thought I knew something about. It challenged me and it has – certainly –  rewarded me with increased understanding both of the situation and for those who had to try and survive it. On both sides.

Max Hastings never loses sight of his objective; to put into words an experience that which most ordinary people found indescribable. Explaining how the title came about, he writes;

Many resorted to a cliché: ‘All hell broke loose.’ Because the phrase is commonplace in eyewitness descriptions of battles, air raids, massacres and ship sinkings, later generations are tempted to shrug at it’s banality. Yet in an important sense the words capture the essence of what the struggle meant to hundreds of millions of people, plucked from peaceful, ordered existences to face ordeals that in many cases lasted for years, and for at least sixty millions were terminated by death.

As hinted at above, you will get a thorough and nuanced idea of what the Second World War was actually like to live through for people like you and me. The leaders do get a look in here, and grand stratagems are discussed and illustrated, but it is the even-handed perspective with which he discusses how the war irreversably affected the lives of the ordinary person that shines through. Everyone who was forced to endure it, suffered. Some more than others, some like to say, but thankfully Max Hastings has the rationality to see through the modern cynical smokescreen:

It would have been insulting to invite a hungry Frenchman, or even an English housewife weary of the monotony of rations, to consider that in besieged Leningrad starving people were eating each other, while in West Bengal they were selling their daughters. Few people who endured the Luftwaffe’s 1940-41 blitz on London would be comforted by knowledge that the German and Japanese peoples would later face losses from Allied bombing many times greater, together with unparalleled devastation.

We mostly all know the rough outline of the conflict. Our background and up-bringing makes us think we know who the good guys were, who the bad guys were. This book doesn’t attempt to change that overall ‘big picture’, but by giving us provocative examples of how it was to be a participant or an ‘active participant’, willingly or un-willingly, we are challenged to come away with a much more thought-provoking image of what really went on.

But my over-riding impression from the first two-thirds and one of the main impressions I came away from the book with; is how un-prepared, amateurish and even cynical we ‘victors’ were before and during the first phases, wherever in the world ‘we’ were at the outbreak of conflict. Then even going towards the eventual victory over Nazi Germany and Japan, we often did our best to attempt the snatching of defeat from the jaws of victory. Rather than entering the conflict determined, sure and with a grand strategy that would lead us inexorably on the path to justice and victory, I got the impression we could be said to have often relied on the other side making worse lash-ups of it than we did.

History and histories will always be written by the victors, but this book is a lot more objective than that might lead you to expect. Arrogance, broken promises, cynicism, fumbling, bumbling, incompetence, unreliability, naivity, it’s all here and revealed in detail – on both sides. And who had to deal with all the shit? People like your parents and mine. As he points out: “Combatants fared better than civilians: around three-quarters of all those who perished were unarmed victims rather than active participants in the struggle.”

The final chapter is brilliantly perfect. One of the best pieces of concise writing I can ever remember reading. It gathers together most of the big themes explored throughout the book and discusses them in a riviting and incredibly moving way:

It is impossible to dignify the struggle as an unalloyed contest between good and evil, nor rationally to celebrate an experience, and even an outcome, which imposed such misery on so many.

I never thought I would be so moved by a history of something I thought I knew so much about. I cannot recommend it highly enough. It’s a brilliant book, I’m sorry I came to the end of it, I’m glad I didn’t have to live through it.

Speesh on Goodreads

You can buy All Hell Let Loose from The Book Depository

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