My version: Paperback
Genre: Fiction, Second World War
Publisher: Random House USA
First published: 2010
From the cover:
In April 1945, the Allies are charging toward Berlin from the west, the Russians from the east. For Hitler, the situation is hopeless. But at this turning point in history, another war is about to explode. To win World War II, the Allies dealt with the devil. Joseph Stalin helped FDR, Churchill, and Truman crush Hitler. But what if “Uncle Joe” had given in to his desire to possess Germany and all of Europe? In this stunning novel, Robert Conroy picks up the history of the war just as American troops cross the Elbe into Germany. Then Stalin slams them with the brute force of his enormous Soviet army. From American soldiers and German civilians trapped in the ruins of Potsdam to U.S. military men fighting behind enemy lines, from a scholarly Russia expert who becomes a secret player in a new war to Stalin’s cult of killers in Moscow, this saga captures the human face of international conflict. With the Soviets vastly outnumbering the Americans–but undercut by chronic fuel shortages and mistrust–Eisenhower employs a brilliant strategy of retreat to buy critical time for air superiority. Soon, Truman makes a series of controversial decisions, enlisting German help and planning to devastate the massive Red Army by using America’s ultimate and most secret weapon.
The ‘What if?’ premiss of Red Inferno is a good one and given the state of affairs in the final months of WWII, one that was entirely possible.
What if, Conroy wonders, while they rushed to capture Berlin, hopefully capture Hitler alive and at the same time exact the maximum possible revenge for the atrocities committed against them – both real and imagined – the Russians had decided the chance and opportunity was there to continue on past Berlin? What if they had decided to continue the war past the shut-off date we all know and continue onwards to take the whole of Germany, then continue on even further into Holland, Belgium and ultimately France? What if they had decided the Eastern European countries they captured were not enough of a buffer zone and that the chance was actually there to ‘export’ the Communist revolution to the whole of Europe? How might that have unfolded? What might have happened to the (mostly) US forces who were already a long way in to Germany at the time (even though their leaders were duped by Stalin into holding back from a full-power rush to Berlin themselves)? How might the US have reacted and how might the Russians have been stopped (presuming of course, our sympathies lie with the West here, shall we say)?
That’s the set-up and a good one it is at that.
However, while I enjoyed reading the book and at no time found it poor reading, I did feel that it was one of missed opportunities. One which, in better hands could have been a lot more satisfying. Conroy is an entirely competent writer, it seems, but the story deserved someone better. He shows the broad picture, the big plans, the leaders and the generals deciding policy, but he also manages to focus in on the soldiers and the (German) civilians caught at the sharp end and paying in their own blood, the price of the generals’ broad strategic sweeps.
As I say, there’s no shortage of interesting ideas, but perhaps my problems with the book can be pretty much traced back to the fact that it just isn’t long enough. This can’t be a short story and with so many different elements necessarily having to be involved, it really needed to be (at least) twice as long to fully do the story justice. To fully develop the ideas, possibilities (and not least) the characters, but also the ethical questions raised and the psychological possibilities he begins, but hasn’t space or possibly ability, to develop properly. So, not deep enough, not broad enough and not long enough. A ‘what if?’ alternative history that was entertaining enough, but left me wondering ‘what if, it’d been written by Max Hastings or Antony Beevor?’