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Inferno: The World at War, 1939-1945

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From one of our finest military historians, a monumental work that shows us at once the truly global reach of World War II and its deeply personal consequences.

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.

729 pages, Hardcover

First published January 1, 2011

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About the author

Max Hastings

117 books1,328 followers
Sir Max Hugh Macdonald Hastings, FRSL, FRHistS is a British journalist, editor, historian and author. His parents were Macdonald Hastings, a journalist and war correspondent, and Anne Scott-James, sometime editor of Harper's Bazaar.

Hastings was educated at Charterhouse School and University College, Oxford, which he left after a year.After leaving Oxford University, Max Hastings became a foreign correspondent, and reported from more than sixty countries and eleven wars for BBC TV and the London Evening Standard.

Among his bestselling books Bomber Command won the Somerset Maugham Prize, and both Overlord and The Battle for the Falklands won the Yorkshire Post Book of the Year Prize.

After ten years as editor and then editor-in-chief of The Daily Telegraph, he became editor of the Evening Standard in 1996. He has won many awards for his journalism, including Journalist of The Year and What the Papers Say Reporter of the Year for his work in the South Atlantic in 1982, and Editor of the Year in 1988.

He stood down as editor of the Evening Standard in 2001 and was knighted in 2002. His monumental work of military history, Armageddon: The Battle for Germany 1944-1945 was published in 2005.

He is also a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.

Sir Max Hastings honoured with the $100,000 2012 Pritzker Military Library Literature Award for Lifetime Achievement in Military Writing.

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Profile Image for Matt.
918 reviews28.2k followers
July 26, 2018
When my daughter Emilia was just starting to move around, I’d bring her into my office and let her crawl around while I worked. And by work, I mean “play spider solitaire obsessively on the computer.” That was a certain, magical age, in which Emilia was satisfied by simply holding a softball in her hands, or playing with a camera that hadn’t worked in years. I got a lot of work spider solitaire playing done in those days.

Sometimes, during the course of my important work (maintaining a 60% win total) I’d glance away from the computer and see her doing something adorable. Like every other parent in the world (sorry non-parents who are Facebook friends with us), I’d take a picture and post it online.

One of the more memorable images I captured depicts Millie standing up and gripping a chair for support. Behind her is a bookshelf. On those books are swastikas. A lot of swastikas. It looked like my daughter was taking her first steps…down the road to being a neo-Nazi.

The point of this story is that I have read a lot of books on World War II. They dominate almost an entire bookcase. There are books on Hitler, Himmler, Heydrich, and the Third Reich. There are books on the Auschwitz, the air war, and the Battle of the Bulge. There are books on Pearl Harbor, Okinawa, and the Bomb.

Yes, I have read a great deal about World War II. Some would say too much. My wife would definitely say too much. My therapist would concur. But I have never, until now, actually read a single-volume overview of the entire colossal conflict.

It occurred to me, recently, that my approach to studying World War II has been rather ad hoc and unsystematic. I know a ton about certain aspects – Hitler’s monorchism, for instance – but not a lot about others, such as the Fall of France. I determined that the best quick fix would be to read what I’d always avoided: a one-volume history to tie it all together.

Choosing Inferno was a no-brainer. Max Hastings is a widely-respected historian who has written two exceptional volumes – Armageddon and Retribution – covering the endgames in both the European and Pacific Theaters of Operation. He is known for being a bit of a contrarian, for going against the grain. His judgments are sharp. Even if you don’t agree with them, they get you thinking.

Hastings starts Inferno in 1939, with Germany’s invasion of Poland, and ends it with the dropping of the atomic bomb and the surrender of Japan in 1945. (Hastings clearly does not believe, as some do, that WWII began at the Marco Polo Bridge, with the opening of the Sino-Japanese War). As you would expect, he covers the unfolding war in chronological chapters that encompass both the large stuff (the Battle of Britain, Stalingrad, Midway, and the Bulge), and the lesser-known actions (Italy’s invasion of Greece, Yugoslavia).

Obviously, there is far too much happening in World War II to fully cover in one book (or a hundred, really). Depth is necessarily sacrificed for scope. The best thing that a one-volume history can do – and Hastings accomplishes this – is to show how all the different theaters connected like a web. How manpower needs over here, effected the campaigns over there. The great and decisive contrast occurs at this macro juncture. The Allies – chiefly the U.S., Great Britain, and Russia – acted in concert with each other. They planned and plotted their moves. They did not always agree (often, indeed, they disagreed vehemently), but they attempted coordination. The Axis – chiefly Germany, Italy, and Japan – acted just the opposite. They never did anything in concert. Italy went off on her own misadventures, requiring German intervention and rescue. Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and Germany leapt into the war with America, without ever assuring Japanese assistance in Manchuria. The Axis acted independently of one another, and that’s how they fell, one by one.

The chronology of the war is helpful, but it isn’t the reason to read this book. You can get a chronology from any internet timeline. And if you’re looking for a battlefield history, this is definitely not the place to get it. There is not enough room for any serious tactical discussion of any part of any battle, save its ultimate strategic consequences. Frankly, I was fine with this. Hastings does a lot of things well, but I’ve always found his tactical descriptions of battles unfulfilling.

The extraordinary quality of Inferno comes from the thematic chapters that intersperse the chronological narrative, and the tone which he brings to the endeavor. There are sections on the war at sea, the war in the air, the Holocaust, and a blisteringly good chapter that covers what it meant to live with the war, for soldiers at the front, and civilians on the home front.

The first lines of Hastings’ introduction states his intention to write about the “human experience” of World War II. He best fulfills this purpose in these thematic chapters. He is able to utilize his incredible skill at finding profound, moving, and pungent primary accounts of war that escape the usual clichés (“it was hell”) to find the gritty, memorable details that tend to stick with you. For example, Hastings quotes British Sergeant Norman Lewis who watched women in Naples prostituting themselves to avoid starvation:

“By the side of each woman stood a small pile of tins, and it soon became clear that it was possible to make love to any one of them in this very public place by adding another tin to the pile. The women kept absolutely still, they said nothing and their faces were as empty of expression as graven images. They might have been selling fish, except that this place lacked the excitement of a fish market. There was no solicitation, no suggestion, no enticement, not even the discreetest and most accidental display of flesh…One soldier, a little tipsy, and egged on constantly by his friends, finally put down his tin of rations at a woman’s side, unbuttoned and lowered himself onto her. A perfunctory jogging of the haunches began and came quickly to an end. A moment later he was on his feet and buttoning up again. It had been something to get over as soon as possible. He might have been submitting to a field punishment rather than the act of love.”

Roger Ebert once quoted the filmmaker Francois Truffaut for the proposition that it was impossible to make an anti-war film. The virtues of war – courage, brotherhood, sacrifice, the kinetic action – overwhelm the near-infinite vices of war, especially on film, where those things translate so much better than suffering and despair.

Truffaut’s dictum often holds true for books as well, especially when those books are not written by the participants. Historians cling, understandably, to the tales of nobility and bravery (especially if the author has interviewed the participants personally). Many WWII books are almost paeans to warriors and their craft. After reading a Stephen Ambrose title, for example, you almost feel like you missed out on World War II.

Max Hastings won’t let you feel that way. War is suffering, and as Sherman once noted, you cannot refine it. Sixty million people died in the war, working out to an average of 27,000 people per day from September 1939 to August 1945. That is calamity on a grand scale. Titanic battles and air-dropped firestorms and the Holocaust. But it’s not just the death. It’s the shattered cities and burned out farms. It is starvation. It is displacement. It is lost treasure and wealth. It is rape. It is shattered families, bodies, psyches. When I read history, I generally have a neutral emotional reaction. I sympathize and empathize with the story being told, of course, but it doesn’t actually alter my mood. There is, after all, the anesthetizing effect of the passage of time. Inferno broke through that. It is a powerful litany of sorrows that reshaped any maudlin notions I still have of “the good war.”

There were certain niggling things I didn't care for. Hastings is pretty good at bucking conventional wisdom. In a couple matters, however, he is as mainstream as every other modern WWII scribbler. First, he is constantly on about how much better the German generals were than the Allied generals, and how the Wehrmacht was the far superior fighting force. Hastings can’t spare a kind word for any of the Allied command. The closest he can muster is to say that Eisenhower was a good politician. The Anglo-American soldiers, meanwhile, are mostly risk averse minor leaguers.

History is a pendulum, and the immediate postwar glorification of the Allies has swung back the other way. It has swung too far. After Hastings’ grimacing account of the Anglo-American effort, you’ll be surprised to learn the Allies won. Eisenhower, Bradley, Patton, et. al. were all competent men. Their soldiers, in the battles after D-Day, consistently thumped the Wehrmacht in conflicts that equaled those in the East. The logistical and material advantages of the Allies, which Hastings blithely treats as a trick of fortune, was in reality a monumental martial achievement. (This isn’t Game of War, after all, where you can stockpile armaments by charging your credit card).

The other thing that got tiresome is the constant reminder that Russia won the war. Russia, Russia, Russia. It’s about all I could take. It can’t be repeated enough that Russia invaded Finland, made a pact with Hitler, carved up Poland, and was quite content to share rule with the Third Reich. They aren’t the good guy in this story; they are the less-bad guy. If Hastings wants me to thank Stalin’s ghost, he’s got another thing coming.

Furthermore, Stalin’s victory did not occur in a vacuum. Hastings evidently believes that the USSR alone could have defeated Hitler. I find this doubtful. If Britain had made a separate peace; if America hadn’t flooded the Soviets with Lend-Lease materiel; if the Anglo-Americans hadn’t opened up fronts in North Africa, Italy, and France, I think that the Russian steamroller never would have started west after Barbarossa.

Agreeing or disagreeing with Hastings, however, is not the point. The point is, his writing starts this dialogue in your head. He has strong opinions and an air of absolute certainty that is both infuriating and endearing. A book on World War II has a higher likelihood of pedestrianism than a book on any other historical topic. You don’t get that with Max Hastings. He always makes you think, ponder, and reframe.
Profile Image for Paul Bryant.
2,194 reviews9,455 followers
May 28, 2012


Hell is empty and all the devils are here.

A fast ride through World War Two. This will be unspeakable, but we must speak.

Here goes.

Poland – the only nation in which there was no collaboration with the Nazis…

when the Soviets invaded Finland the Finns joked "There are so many and our country is so small, where shall we find room to bury them all?"…

A Norwegian officer reported that one British unit was composed of "very young lads who appear to come from the slums of London. They have taken a very close interest in the women of Romsdal and engaged in wholesale looting of shops and houses"…

Eight million French people abandoned their homes in the months following the German assault, the greatest mass migration in west European history…

the London Blitz lasted about nine months. Some 43,000 British civilians were killed and a further 139,000 injured (160 deaths every day for 9 months)…

for almost a year following France's surrender, scarcely a single German soldier fired a shot… …

Germany was not an advanced industrial country by comparison to the USA which it lagged by perhaps thirty years…

while fighting the Italians in Albania a Greek soldier has to abandon his horse : "Starving, soaked to the bone, tortured by endless movement on rocky ground, he was doomed to stay there. I emptied my saddlebags to follow the others on foot, then stroked the back of his neck a little and kissed it. He might be an animal, but he had been my comrade in war. We had faced death many times together. We had lived through unforgettable days and nights. I saw him looking at me as I walked away. What a look that was, my friends. It revealed so much anguish, so much sadness. I wanted to cry but the tears did not come. War leaves no time for such things. Momentarily I thought of killing him but I could not bear to do so. I left him there, staring at me until I disappeared behind a rock"……

"I came to realise that for every man sweating it out in the muck and dust of the Western desert, there were twenty bludging and skiving in the wine bars and restaurants, night clubs and brothels and sporting clubs and race tracks of Cairo"…

"the gunner was smiling at me cheerfully though his right arm was smashed to bits beneath the elbow"…

A total of around 300,000 Russian soldiers are believed to have been killed by their own commanders for alleged cowardice and desertion – more than the entire toll of British troops killed by enemy hands during the course of the war…

Since the 1917 revolution the population of the Soviet union had endured the horrors of civil was, famine, oppression, forced migration, and summary injustice. But Barbarossa transcended them all in the absolute human catastrophe that unfolded in its wake and eventually became responsible for the deaths of 27 million of Stalin's people, of whom 16 million were civilians….

War correspondent Vasiliy Grossman met a peasant carrying a sack of frozen human legs, which he proposed to thaw on a stove in order to remove the boots…

The ruthlessness of the Soviet state was indispensible to confound Hitler. No democracy could have established as icily rational a hierarchy of need as did Stalin, whereby soldiers received the most food, civilian workers less, and "useless mouths", including the old, only a starvation quota. More than two million Russiams died of starvation during the war in territories controlled by their own government…

at the end of 1940 only 16% of Americans wanted the USA to join the war…in the absence of Pearl Harbor it remains highly speculative when, if ever, the USA would have fought…

"I couldn't see anything for the swirling spray. The wind shrieked through the rigging and superstructure. It looked as though we were sailing through boiling water as the wind whipped the wave tops into horizontal spume, white and fuming, which stung my eyes and face. Now and again I caught a glimpse of one of the big merchant ships being rolled on its beam ends by the huge swells sweeping up"…

"The Russians attach little importance to what they eat or wear. It is surprising how long they can survive on what to a western man would be a starvation diet…[they] move freely by night or in fog, through woods and across swamps. They are not afraid of the dark, nor of their endless forests, nor the cold" (Lt Gen Gunther Blumentritt)…

Gen Vasiliy Chuikov said "Time is blood…you send off a liaison officer to find out what's happening, and he gets killed. That's when you shake all over with tension"…

Stalin's orders were simple and readily understood : the city must be held to the last man or woman. …

"We have fought for fifteen days for a single house…the front is a corridor between burnt-out rooms. Stalingrad is no longer a town. By day it is an enormous clud of burning, blinding smoke… animals flee this hell, the hardest stones cannot bear it for long. Only men endure."…

the NKVD report from Leningrad was optimistic: In connection with the improvement in the food situation in June, the death rate went down by a third… the number of incidents of use of human flesh in food supply decreased. Whereas 236 people were arrested for this crime in May, in June it was just 56."…

An Italian general asserted in 1942 that 99 per cent of his fellow countrymen not merely expected to lose the war but now fervently hoped to do so as soon as possible…

Half the British population moved home in the course of the war…

"On that particular day the butcher let me have some rabbit. I didn't want the rabbit cause I'd rather give my small children an egg. So I took the rabbit round to my neighbour. She was so thrilled. On that particular day her son was killed."…

"In this place one's mind returns continually and dwells longingly on food… I think of duck and cherry casserole, scramled eggs, fish, scallops, chicken stanley, kedgeree, trifle, summer pudding, fruit fool, bread and butter pudding".

When American machine-gunner Donald Schoo's driver had a hand blown off, the man ran in circles laughing hysterically "I'm going home! Thank you, God! I'm going home!"…

I should add that this is a brilliant book, recommended to all. I think you probably got that.
Profile Image for Emma.
974 reviews974 followers
August 7, 2016
I finish this book with the same thought i've had all along: that this is how modern history should be written.

Hastings has put together one of the most comprehensive, detailed, and moving books on the Second World War that i've ever read. Most importantly, he has addressed the issue of it being a WORLD war in a way that few manage. From Burma to Australia to Egypt to India, he includes information and reflections from combatants on both sides and from all the arenas of the conflict. His use of sources was fascinating, upsetting, and piercingly effective. While statistics and numbers have shock value when heard/read, the details quickly fade from memory, yet the pictures created by personal memories, written in the words of people who experienced them...well, this book has revealed to me images that I will never forget. If we are to teach people about what war really is, it is books like this that need to be used. Hastings never shies away from the inglorious; frozen babies in the snow, canibalism, men fighting with trousers filled with excrement, having to scrape body parts from the bottom of your vehicle to continue, starvation, rape...on and on and on these images batter you with their truth. At points, simply listening to the narrator retell these horrors gave me a physical reaction, shocked stillness, shudders of disgust, an urge to vomit.

This book is not simply about winning the 'good war', it is about the destructive power of violence in all its forms. While Hastings makes clear that should Nazi Germany have won, many people would have suffered a much a worse situation, he rejects the easy delineation between good and evil. One of the most interesting sections of the book was on this idea of the Allies fighting for freedom and justice. Yet, in the US black men and women were considered second class citizens, or worse, and the British Empire refused to let go of its Indian colony, using brutal oppression to prevent it. Never has it been so clear as when reading this book that violence begets violence. And that ideals, or ideology, are not always the same as reality. Atrocities committed by the Axis powers may have been on a unprecedented scale (the Holocaust obviously stands out as one of the worst actions in history), but nobody came out of this war with clean hands. People may talk of scale, and it is important of course, but perhaps the lesson has always been that in war, everybody loses. If nothing else, this book makes you think, really think about what war is, what it does, when or if it is necessary, how it should be conducted, what happens to the people who fight and the people who don't... At the very least, reading about this war should lead to this kind of consideration and evaluation. What else is history for, except to make us think about who we are and how we should live?

Truly an unmissable piece of historical research from Hastings.

Profile Image for Jill Hutchinson.
1,459 reviews105 followers
June 11, 2021
I have put off trying to write a review of this simply outstanding book. I totally agree with The Washington Post review.....The best one-volume history of the war yet written.......in all ways a masterful achievement,.

It is so all-encompassing that it is almost impossible to do it justice with a review without writing a long essay about the contents and the talent of the historian, Max Hastings. He covers both theaters of war in depth but does give particular attention to Operation Barbarossa, which marked the beginning of the end for the Nazis. He does not stint on the details of the horrors committed by the Nazis and the Russians and the mistakes made on both sides.

He moves back and forth between Europe and the Pacific and the differences in how the war was conducted, especially since the war with the Japanese involved the mostly naval aspect of warfare. He is not fan of MacArthur and Halsey in the Pacific and Montgomery in Europe but his opinions are factual and not personal. He gives credit to Rommel for his African battles which is not misplaced but calls attention to the misguided and sometimes unbelievable actions of the Nazi military "leadership".

I was particularly moved by his description of the civilians caught in the hell of the war and of the various experiences of the soldiers who were fighting it. He also attempts to explain the attitudes of both the Nazis and the Japanese people who chose to continue following their leaders when all was lost.

Goethe wrote Our modern wars make many unhappy while they last and none happy when they are over. Hastings illustrates this statement in the final chapters of the book. I have barely touched on the expanse of the history of WWII but can only say that if one wants a clear and disturbing look at that world-wide catastrophe, this is the book to read. You won't be disappointed. Very highly recommended.

Profile Image for Mike.
1,115 reviews153 followers
November 14, 2012
Inferno: The World at War, 1939-1945 is a Five Star masterwork, revealing fresh stories and perspective on the many theaters and events of WWII. Hastings brings you into all of the major and many minor battles of the war. A one volume summary of the war could be so broad and high level that it fails to grab attention. Not so with Inferno. I so appreciated how he relates the sweeping events through the eyes of participants, often soldiers on both sides of a particular battle and sometimes the civilians caught in the horror. He is able to convey the clash of vast forces yet he enables you to see it through the eyes of the participants and witnesses. Mr. Hastings does presume you have some familiarity with the course and geography of the conflict. Hastings goes into some major fights with little lead up. Individual stories and vignettes are used to fill in the progress of the battles. There aren’t enough maps to help orient you to the force dispositions, which is a weak point (the maps are often misplaced as well). But there are so, so many strong points:

The bravery and tragedy of the Poles, how they were left holding empty promises from the British and French, and went into battle against the might of the Germans. How the German army was not nearly as efficient and smooth-running as everyone thought at the beginning but improved quickly. The Poles deserve note as the only conquered nation that did not collaborate with the Germans to any extent and were treated as slaves for it. How sad it is at the end as the brave Polish soldiers watch as their country is “sold” to the Russians at Yalta. What did they fight for?

The campaign against France comes to new light, especially the sense of betrayal the French feel after the escape at Dunkirk. This shows up later as Vichy French forces choose to fight the Allies in the Middle East and on the seas. These weren’t just actions for token resistance, but delivered real damage…and many French soldiers and sailors chose to be repatriated to France rather than become part of Free French forces.

The unimaginable scale of the fighting in Eastern Europe and the USSR is brought home through many stories of the attackers and defenders. The incredible victories achieved by the Nazi armies and then the impact of General Winter as the armies fight in front of Moscow. Truly, the Soviet forces bore the brunt of the war, 90% of the German forces were destroyed there. The western theater pales in comparison yet we know so much more about that fight. Hastings view is that the Russians’ cruelty and indifference to massive losses defeated the Germans under Hitler with little contribution, other than materiel, by the western allies. Hastings also points out how the western armies were so reticent in taking casualties and used superior mass/technology/airpower to keep the number of wounded and killed to a minimum.

The fight in Southwest Asia is interesting for how relatively small Japanese forces are able to overcome much larger forces and cover huge distances. The incompetence of the colonial rulers and forces are revealed and the natives look for their freedom. Yet the Japanese are just as racist, if not more, as the white rulers, squandering opportunities to have native allies by their side. Hastings puts the issue of colonialism and empire in context, with the US vs. British/French/Dutch desires in the conduct of the war against Japan.

The victims of the war are covered in greater detail than I expected for a single volume on the war. Hastings writes in a way to make you understand the daily impact of the war, simple things like being unable to buy a birthday present for a wife or child. I was transfixed by the description of the transition from an environment where the rule of law and societal restrictions held sway to one where the conqueror had no compunctions on whom to kill, imprison or condemn to slave labor. The Holocaust is covered as well as the extent of anti-Semitism in all the major players. But he also brings out how many others were caught up in the excesses of the Axis conquests. The scale of killing is enormous.

The role of the USA as the arsenal of “democracy”, as well as, the arsenal of “communism” is brought forth clearly. The Allies allowed the Soviets to bear the heaviest burden for a long time but assuaged their embarrassment at the failure to engage the Germans early by shipping immense amounts of equipment and supplies to the USSR. The convoys to Murmansk, a terrible mission that chills the soul, were demanded by Churchill as a way to help the Soviets stay in the war and not sue for peace, are covered well. Germany and Japan were simply not able to carry on an extended war and failed to come to terms with their weakness.

Be forewarned, if you have some high opinions of your nations’ forces performance, be ready for some clarity. Hastings does not spare any nation from criticism and exposes the bad with the good. He says, with some backup, that the Germans and Japanese were superior at the tactical level, while the allies were better at the operational and strategic level.

I feel this book is more easily read by someone already familiar with the major theaters and chronology of the war. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t start with this book if you aren’t familiar with the various theaters of the war. Just have a pad of paper handy to jot notes because you are going to have to go look up many episodes to get a better understanding. Also a source of maps would be good to have around unless you are familiar with the territory on which the war was fought. If you are familiar with the major events and theaters of WWII, you will like this book for a refreshing and candid look at the times. Highest recommendation.
Profile Image for Mikey B..
983 reviews363 followers
August 12, 2016
For a one-volume history (over 600 pages) of the Second World War this book is quite all encompassing and thorough. I felt there were two strengths to this book. One was the brilliant eloquence. Mr. Hastings can summarize events succinctly with a remarkable poignancy.

The other asset is the authors’ ability to bring us to the ground level – to view situations from the perspective of the common soldier – whether from Britain, Russia, the U.S., Japan... The same for the civilians who suffered and endured so much during the war years – whether in a bombed city, or as a refugee, as a captive to the occupying forces... Mr. Hastings brings the horror and the total dismemberment of society to the reader. This book does not merely recite statistics or troop movements.

One of the themes of the book, and Mr. Hastings is correct, is the distinction between the way war was waged by the democracies (Britain, U.S., Canada) and the non-democratic countries (Germany, Japan and especially the Soviet Union). Soldiers, for the Soviet Union, were an expendable item. If victory was attained at a 25 percent casualty rate, so be it. Not so for the Western democracies, where troops were treated far more humanely. One reason why the Normandy landings were delayed until 1944 was because causalities would have been prohibitive in the years before, when the Allied air forces were not controlling the skies over Europe. The Western democracies relied far more on their technology and mass production to defeat the enemy. As another example, Patton was publicly reprimanded for slapping a soldier; this would have been inconceivable in the Soviet, Japanese and German armies.

There are a few omissions in this book – the Japanese occupation of China is scarcely mentioned. Neither is the tragedy of the use of sex slaves (sometimes denoted by the euphemism “comfort women”) by the Japanese.

The author discusses more of the war as fought by the Western Allies than from the Soviet Union. To his credit Mr. Hastings does emphasize that it is the Soviet Union that primarily defeated Nazi Germany – the Western Allies only major contribution was in the last ten months of the war after the landings in France. At that stage the Germany had really lost the war.

Sometimes I found that when the author shifts to the top-level commanders and decision-makers the writing is somewhat perfunctory. There is not a strong sense of prelude to many of the dire circumstances brought forth in this book. This is an inherent short-coming to a one-volume book on World War II. One just glimpses, from time-to-time, the agonizing decisions that the major players, like Churchill, were undergoing.

Nevertheless this book does capture this epochal era. We get a remarkable view of the context of these turbulent times. As Winston Churchill remarked: “all things are always on the move simultaneously”.
Profile Image for Tony.
149 reviews32 followers
November 7, 2021
This gives a real sense of the global nature of WW2: both geographically (Russia/Eastern Europe, the Pacific & North Africa are covered in as much detail as Western Europe) and in terms of its impact on people (with as much emphasis given to civilians and "ordinary" soldiers as to Presidents, Prime Ministers and Generals).

Hastings moves seamlessly from grand strategy to individual eye-witness accounts, using a multitude of letters, diaries and interviews with combatants and civilians on all sides. This is less of a military history than Beevor's Second World War, but it's a much better account of the human impact of war.

Hastings is also happy to share his opinions, and is equally critical of all sides (and occasionally even the Wehrmacht). He doesn't shy away from uncomfortable truths, such as allied war crimes or British treatment (i.e. abandonment) of its colonial subjects in South East Asia.

The final chapter Victors and Vanquished is an excellent summing-up, worth reading on its own, and ends, fittingly, with the holocaust.
Profile Image for Evan.
1,072 reviews739 followers
April 21, 2021
"‘I am going to die here, 21 years old, in the snow before Moscow.’”

Many young men and women on all sides of the conflict in World War II assumed this inevitability. They posted letters home to their families predicting their deaths; sending these prescient obituaries and fulfilling those prophecies while their letters were still in transit. Sir Max Hastings, as he so often does in this book, brings us intimately close to this human dimension of war.

I'm going to keep this straight and simple. This is the best single book I've ever read on World War II. It's certainly the best among the several overall surveys of the war I've read. This review, I think, is not aimed at those readers who already have an enthusiasm for history or, specifically, war-histories. Those readers will already have either read, or will already be well aware of, this book. The consensus of its greatness is well known and established. Those people are not lying. I'd already awarded this book my personal Golden Holy Grail Award only a quarter of the way into it, and Hastings never gave me a reason to take it back; he never faltered, disappointed or flagged over the course of the narrative. Somehow, he managed to become even more poetic, more insightful, and more assured as the book proceeded through its litany of the unspeakable.

The book is known by two different titles, depending on where you are. It's either called Inferno or All Hell Let Loose. It's the same book, and, either way, it's essential. If you're a neophyte and have always been curious about the war that has defined all of our lives and histories, but have been intimidated by not knowing where to start, this is your place.

Hastings has gathered a massive cast of characters across a vast span of time and place and threaded them together with a narrative assurance that only someone with absolute mastery of the material could muster.

It's a truly great and magisterial achievement. The problem is, that after you read it, other books on the subject may seem wanting.

The book is not concerned overmuch by the dry strategy, tactics and logistics of battle, though Hastings does not skimp on this when necessary for context. What Hastings offers is a sweeping, balanced, overarching view of what the war meant to civilians, combatants, as well as the leaders. There is much nuance in here, including the conflicting loyalties of colonial people who were opposed to both the Allied and Axis colonial powers -- people whose only care was to throw off all colonizers and make their own way. This is just one of many of the aspects of the war often overlooked in books on it, and Hastings covers his bases with a sense of unerring totality. What was it like trying to go to the bathroom in the fury of battle, while stuffed inside a tank, while hunkered behind a tree with the enemy all 'round. Hastings tells us. He tells us a million things that need to be told.

It's an amazing reading experience, one of my life-goal reading events as a book lover.

As usual, I took a ton of notes, intending to litter the review with amazing quotes from the book, but let's keep it short. I think I've made my opinion perfectly clear here.

EG-KR@KY 2021
Profile Image for Chrissie.
2,734 reviews1,469 followers
January 3, 2019
Inferno: The World at War, 1939-1945

The author of this book, Max Hastings, is a military author and historian. In 2012 he received the Pritzker Military Library Literature Award for Lifetime Achievement in Military Writing. Don't for an instant think that an author with such credentials is going to deliver anything but a book that focuses primarily on military aspects of the Second World War. He writes about the war from a global perspective. The emphasis is not on politics nor the genocide of the Jews.

I thought the book would focus on the soldiers’ experiences. The book does not really do that, even if there are numerous quotes from combatants.

The book moves forward chronologically. It covers the air force, the army and the navy, the Allies and the Axis powers. Battle after battle is related.

For me what made the book most outstanding is its global perspective. The book is comprehensive. It covers not only land, sea and air battles, but also food deprivation, cannibalism, and civilian suffering in countries all over the world. The barbarism and savagery committed on both sides is not shied from. The author draws the reality of war. What is drawn is not pretty. The Baatan Death March in the Philippines. Indonesian atrocities. The starvation and hunger in Greece. The consequences of war for women--not only their becoming part of the labor force, but as well the prevalence of rape and being pushed into prostitution for food. The Bengali Famine of 1943-1944. Half of China was occupied by Japan, and they used biological weapons, dropping cholera, dysentery and the plague by air. There were 15 million wartime dead in China alone. The war lasted for 71 months. The book shows the biting, ugly reality of war.

I would like to recommend one other book-- A Woman in Berlin: Eight Weeks in the Conquered City: A Diary.

The narrator of the audiobook is Cameron Stewart. The tempo varies; some sections he reads way too fast other sections are fine He articulates words clearly. I have given the narration as well as the book four stars.
Profile Image for Anthony Taylor.
165 reviews30 followers
May 15, 2023
From the Voices of Those Who Were There.

This book is typical Sir Max Hastings. Sharpe use of prose and journalistic style of writing. This is not a full comprehensive history of the war, but a ‘bottom up’ view from those who were there, it’s almost like an interview to build a story for a newspaper. This of course brings home their experiences and makes the war more ‘real’ as these are ordinary people caught up in extra ordinary times. It keeps alive the voices of those who survived and more poignantly those who died. This of course gives a ‘worms eye view’ of the conflict with pockets of events occurring independently from one another.

Hastings set about wanting to provide a book where people would say ‘oh I didn’t know that’ and this is definitely achieved. These are more comprehensive histories of the war, which cover grand strategy or the battles and this should be read alongside them. What Hastings has done so masterfully is that it takes the reader back away from the millions of deaths in the conflict simply becoming statistics and provides a human and emotional background to them. All causalities whether civilian or soldier had a home, family and a story. For that appreciate Hastings’ work here.

The book is a truly global study and adds equal attention to the war in the Pacific as that in Europe. This is brought home with hard hitting statistics from Hastings, such as nine in every ten Germans who died, died fighting the Soviets and that 25 per cent of all allied deaths were Chinese. All sides provide voices and this is completely necessary to really understand what WWII was like.

Hastings in my eyes does have his faults, but he is easy to read. I saw in an earlier review that criticises Hastings for ‘Tommy bashing’. I find this unjust, it is widely believed that in the Second World War the Wermacht solider was the best, well equipped and trained, whilst the British Solider performed very badly and didn’t have that fighting spirit. This is something that Winston Churchill himself thought and feared throughout the war. On the back of this book I will read more Hastings, however he just not my favourite author.
Profile Image for fourtriplezed .
455 reviews96 followers
September 26, 2019
Under normal circumstances this would have received 5 stars as it is as good as Liddell Harts one volume tome I read in my youth. The final chapter has covered various opinion of the author, not that I have an issue with that per se, but to mention the present state of Russia under Putin lets the chapter down somewhat as histories such as this should be of the ages and not this age. A minor quibble in the end maybe?

Ultimately though this was a very good read indeed. The mixture of military and oral history gave this a readability that the average reader would have enjoyed. No dry reading at all and Hastings is to be admired for being able to appeal to a vast audience with a fast paced volume that I would recommend to those that would like an overview of what is already a very dense and highly covered subject.
Profile Image for Creighton.
76 reviews12 followers
May 12, 2021
Max Hastings has done it again with this remarkable book on the Second World War. I personally believe he is a master of the written word, few can match. I finished his book on the Vietnam War before I read this, and it was spectacular; this book was equitable, if not slightly better compared to the Vietnam War book. I felt transported to 1939, and by the time I was at the end of the book I felt like I had been there in 1945, and witnessed too much tragedy and despair because of how much destruction was unleashed in the Second World War. I believe that one thing that must be learned from books like these is just how barbaric war is, and how the world must look towards peace, because war has ruined too many human lives.

I have always been fascinated with this conflict; I used to watch TV shows about the war, and was always intrigued by the European theatre of war. I have read books on the specifics, like the Eastern Front, Tanks, commanders, and armies, but really no concise history of the entire war. Lately, my inclination has been to learn more about the pacific theatre, and I have had an interest in the Mediterranean theatre of operations. This book talked about all of that, however, it was more focused on the European theatre, and I guess that is sufficient, seeing as most of the destruction and casualties were from the European theatre.

Hastings didn't leave any stones unturned, and illustrated the lives of civilians, soldiers, and the bureaucrats, what they thought, felt, and what hardships they endured. It was almost like you could visualize what was being told by survivors, and people who wrote diaries, and left letters. You could feel sadness when you read the quoted letters from soldiers, not expecting to come home, or the story of the soldiers who were mistreated by their government, because they had nervous breakdowns.

There was so much barbarism committed by Hitler, and Stalin, who were both Statists, and while the usual tale is that allied armies were morally superior, they had their fair share of atrocities and barbarism. The tragic tale is how a nation like Poland was destroyed by German and Russian armies, with the promise that the Western allies would liberate the nation, only for it to fall into the hands of the Soviet Union. On top of this, the holocaust committed against the Jewish people is saddening, and horrific. The old order that the Germans had wanted for Europe, was lost by their blind support for Hitler, and allowance of genocide.

It is a shame, how millions of people, blinded by demagogues, propaganda, and bureaucrats were lead to the slaughter, and trained to be animals. European culture was destroyed, and too many good Christians died in this war, and many of those who survived lost faith in morality and god.

Maybe, just maybe, the world will give peace a chance.

I recommend this book for anyone and everyone who wants to study the second world war.
Profile Image for happy.
303 reviews94 followers
July 28, 2017
Very good overall look at WW II. Mr. Hastings has very readable writing style and integrates both the high level strategic threads with the bottom up, what are the privates and civilian feeling, very well. He uses letters, diaries and memoirs of the people involved extremely well giving the reader a glimpse of what it must have been like, both at home and in the trenches with the PBI.

Hastings has very strong point of view and for the most part makes coherent arguments in favor of those POVs. However once in a while he tosses them out in one liners i.e. his statement that Devers, commander of the US 7th Army Group, was one of the best US generals of the war.

He has strong opinions of the generalship of the warring parties (mainly negative) and the necessity of the various ground campaigns (mainly they weren't esp. in the Pacific/Asia after 1944 ) as well as the quality of the various armies - western infantry was not very good, the best infantry was from the totalitarian gov'ts (USSR, Germany, Japan), however he does think that western artillery was very good.

In addition to the Axis war crimes (The Holocaust, Japan's experience in China), he does cover Allied atrocities (killing of POWs by US troops in Sicily, the famine in Bengal). While doing this he is careful to note that the Allied atrocities don't come anywhere near the magnitude of what the Axis perpetrated.

For US readers he does a very good job of covering British ops that they might not be overly familiar with (the Malaya campaign, Burma, the situation in India - Britain had 50 infantry Bns deployed to keep the lid on India)

There are some obvious errors in the book that should have been caught, keeps it from being a 5 star book the most obvious one being the Battle of the Bulge beginning on 18 December.

This would be a worthwhile read for both the general audience and those who are familier with WW II.
Profile Image for Chin Joo.
83 reviews27 followers
October 5, 2015
What does one do after years of research, having collected piles of documents from the archives, stacks of scholarly and journalistic articles, gigabytes of interview records on different aspects of the same war? A logical thing to do would be to put them all down in a book that gives the reader an overview of the whole war. This was precisely what two prominent and important British authors have done. Both Sir Max Hastings and Antony Beevor are well-known for their scholarly research and clear and engaging writing. Both published their books on the Second World War in close succession and are therefore bound to attract comparisons.

But in a genre that is already well-served over the past 70 years, what can these authors add notwithstanding their respective knowledge and appreciation of the war? Here they are both clear about what they would bring to the table. Sir Hastings tries to depict the experiences of the common people in the war, be they soldiers or civilians, while Beevor offers a higher level view of the war, in an effort to show how the world was involved and affected in this war, and why it was aptly called the Second World War.

Sir Hasting's books are always interesting to read. As a non-native English speaker, I always find much to learn from his books. Not just in terms of the contents, but also from his command of the English language which is economical and precise. He is always able to find the right words which would lead the reader into the world he is trying to describe, and to feel the emotions he is depicting (unfortunately for the French, in this book they came out the worse for it.)

The author is successful in bringing out the story of the common man, military, civilian or victims. From French soldiers feeling bored as they waited for any kind of action to take place (pg 27), to British soldiers feeling frustrated that nothing seem to go right (pg 55). From the elation of victory felt by the German soldier when they were seemingly invincible (pg 133) to the fear and resignation when they finally got pushed back to the ruins of Berlin (pg 601). From a Japanese soldier's idealism that they were the chosen ones to die for their Emperor (pg 643) to their indifference to cannibalism of their own in order to stay alive. From the American soldier's feeling of extreme loneliness stranded on some Pacific island (pg 260) to the revenge that the Russian soldier is determined to exact in Germany (pg 617).

The civilians had their own experiences, be it the Polish exasperation at why they were rounded up (pg 21), or the British life of deprivation throughout the years as they stood alone. The Leningraders' disillusionment with their leaders while they starved in the middle of the 2-year long siege (pg 173), or the Berliners' enduring nightly bombardment wanting the war to just be over (pg 513).

Antony Beevor succeed equally admirably in his book in giving his readers an appreciation of the geopolitical situations on the different continents which eventually amalgamated into this one big war. However, Beevor would not leave it at this level, this is one big war but at the same time has parts that are related but not necessarily linked, and in some cases, what happened before the war can ultimately have a great impact on the outcome of the war once it is fought.

His introduction of the individual, a Korean by the name of Yang Kyoungjong, fighing in a Wehrmacht uniform, shows the link that spanned across different theatres in that war. Yet his reference to Nomonhan (pg 15) and on the same page, to Polish opportunism bring home the intricate connection of events related to the Second World War across time and space. Despite that, the outcome or the lives lost in one theatre seems almost inconsequential to those in another. The Americans fighting and dying in a brutal battle in the Pacific would find victory in Europe irrelevant (pg 618). The Chinese, dying by the millions, would eventually find their story fitting but tenuously in the grander World War Two narrative (pg 552).

Beevor's approach allowed him to make some generalisations and conclusions about countries and their people (pg 400). Sir Hastings did not aspire to that, he wanted to go down to the individual, many of whose lives appear cheap beyond description, to see how they lived, coped, and in many cases died because of decisions made by people whom they would not get to meet.

Perhaps one way to differentiate between the two books is to say that while Antony Beevor showed his readers that though related, the parts of the Second World War do not form a coherent story all the time, Sir Max Hastings, showed that as different as the ideologies, motivations and terrains in the different regimes and theatres, the individuals' experience is not that different. Everyone involved would suffer deprivation, fear, loneliness, pain, both physical and emotional, elation, and despair. Both books are good companions of each other, even where the same sources or quotations were used, the two authors used them to highlight different aspects of the war. For that, it is not enough for one to say that he or she has read one, and so need not read the other.
Profile Image for Sonny.
430 reviews29 followers
August 14, 2020
I grew up in a remarkable day and time—the 1950s—one of millions of Baby Boomers. Being born just five years after the end of World War II, it was natural to hear stories about the hardships of the war. My mother moved from Nebraska to Norfolk, Virginia to work at the naval base. All of her four brothers served in the war. My father and his two brothers also served in the war—my father in the Pacific theater. I heard how one my father’s transport ships was hit by a kamikaze pilot in the latter stages of the war; he kept a fragment of the Zero’s wing. I also heard about one of my father’s cousins who was killed in the war. Even though my grandfather died during the war, my father wasn’t allowed to go home (he learned about his father’s death six months after it occurred). I still have pictures of my father and all of my uncles in their military uniforms. My favorite picture is of my favorite Uncle Chuck sitting behind the wheel of a jeep in North Africa with a pistol holstered on his hip and a giant grin on his face (he was always grinning). It was there, in North Africa, that my Uncle Chuck met Coach Bear Bryant; they became lifelong friends. My family has been Alabama football fans ever since.

Consequently, it should come as no surprise to anyone that I was fascinated with learning more about the war. The first major history book I read in high school was John Toland’s The Last 100 Days, followed by Jean-François Steiner’s Treblinka. I was hooked. But even I must ask, “Do we really need another history book about World War II”? After all, two lists featuring World War II nonfiction works on Goodreads include 663 books (World War Two - Firsthand Accounts) and 584 books (Best World War II History) respectively. New books seem to appear almost weekly. Nevertheless, I had not yet read a single-volume overview of the entire conflict. Is such an overview even possible short of 5,000 pages? In Inferno: The World at War, 1939-1945, British journalist and military historian Max Hastings has created what appears to be a rather unique version of the struggle. He gives us anecdotal accounts of the soldiers and civilians who were caught up in the conflagration and in the suffering. It is a record of the way ordinary people experienced World War II. In his introduction, the author describes his account much better than I can, given my feeble abilities:

“This is a book chiefly about human experience. Men and women from scores of nations struggled to find words to describe what happened to them in the Second World War, which transcended anything they had ever known. 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 its 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 60 million were terminated by death.”
― Max Hastings, Inferno: The World at War, 1939-1945

What you quickly realize is that the world’s descent into war in 1939 was no less surreal to those involved than it seems to us now. Shortly before 1:30 in the morning on April 9, 1940, when an aide-de-camp awakened Norway’s King Haakon VII to tell him, “Majesty, we are at war!”, the king answered: “Against whom?” The entire Norwegian government, including King Haakon, fled the capital that morning for the mountains in the north. Many of the generals in charge were old men, vestiges of the First World War. Many of their weapons were even older. Defenders in Finland positioned cannons cast in 1871, firing black powder charges against the Russian invaders.

Inferno is an enormous panorama of the conflict that swept over entire continents, yet Hastings manages to keep the details in sharp focus. He covers the significant events, but also makes us witnesses to tragic scenes that happened on the margins of the global conflict because they were anything but marginal for the people who experienced them. Through anecdotes and statistics, Hastings demonstrates that the war turned the world into a cruel slaughterhouse where unimaginable acts of cruelty were committed by all sides. A few randomly chosen anecdotes from the book should suffice to give one a general idea of what Hastings has accomplished with this uncommon work of history. One can see that the core of the book lies not in the general but in the particular.

“The street is no longer measured by meters but by corpses ... Stalingrad is no longer a town. By day it is an enormous cloud of burning, blinding smoke; it is a vast furnace lit by the reflection of the flames. And when night arrives, one of those scorching howling bleeding nights, the dogs plunge into the Volga and swim desperately to gain the other bank. The nights of Stalingrad are a terror for them. Animals flee this hell; the hardest stones cannot bear it for long; only men endure.”
― Max Hastings, Inferno: The World at War, 1939-1945

“A total of around 300,000 Russian soldiers are believed to have been killed by their own commanders—more than the entire toll of British troops who perished at enemy hands in the course of the war.”
― Max Hastings, Inferno: The World at War, 1939-1945

“The Russian armies drove forward in the same desperate fashion in which they had retreated in the previous year, numbed by daily horrors. Victory at Kursk meant little to a soldier such as Private Ivanov of the 70th Army, who wrote despairingly to his family in Irkutsk: “Death, and only death awaits me. Death is everywhere here. I shall never see you again because death, terrible, ruthless and merciless is going to cut short my young life. Where shall I find strength and courage to live through all this? We are all terribly dirty, with long hair and beards, in rags. Farewell forever.”
― Max Hastings, Inferno: The World at War, 1939-1945

“To put the matter bluntly, U.S. soldiers on Bataan and Corregidor showed themselves more stalwart than British imperial forces in Malaya and at Singapore, albeit likewise in a doomed cause. Brigadier Dwight Eisenhower, who had served unhappily under MacArthur a few years earlier, wrote in his diary: “Poor Wainwright! He did the fighting … [MacArthur] got such glory as the public could find … MacArthur’s tirades, to which … I so often listened in Manila … would now sound as silly to the public as they then did to us. But he’s a hero! Yah.” At home in the United States, news commentators squeezed every ounce of glory from Bataan, from skirmishes at sea and manifestations of America’s embryo mobilization.”
― Max Hastings, Inferno: The World at War, 1939-1945

Not only does Inferno provide little known anecdotes about the lives of those caught up in the war, the book includes sections and chapters on the less familiar aspects of the conflict. Examples of these include the Arctic convoys that delivered supplies from Britain to the Soviets; the Battle for New Guinea; the impact of the war on European colonies in Africa; how the war was viewed by the various groups within the British Empire, e.g. the Raj; and the war in Yugoslavia, just to name a few.

While this is a deeply depressing book, it provides a much-needed curative to those who have focused on this war’s tales of valor and selflessness. No doubt such instances occurred, but Hastings helps us to look at the war from a different perspective. In this way, he robs the war of its glamor. As a history, conveying to 21st-century readers the human experience of the greatest conflict in human history, “Inferno” is superb.

“it is a constant of history that nations which start wars find it very hard to stop them.”
― Max Hastings, Inferno: The World at War, 1939-1945
Profile Image for Charlie Hasler.
Author 2 books209 followers
September 20, 2019
In terms of world war 2 books I don’t think they come much better than this. Superbly written. Fast paced and no unnecessary padding out of the subjects.

The personal accounts are harrowing and as much of a cliche as it is to say, it really does bring things into perspective.

I have some other books of Max Hastings to read but will do them in stages due to the heavy subject matter.

Brilliant, an utterly brilliant book.
Profile Image for Kimba Tichenor.
Author 1 book111 followers
September 10, 2018
From the standpoint of a military history, this one is excellent. The author provides truly global coverage of the battles in Asia, Africa, and Europe and does so without glorifying the experience of total war. In his recounting of the experience of the common soldier, he gives voice to not only the experience of American and British soldiers, but also German, Russian, and Japanese. In this respect, the book is superb, drawing on diaries, archival documents, and letters to capture the experiences of ordinary people caught up in a global inferno.

In covering the war in Asia and Africa, Hastings does not shy away from recounting the racism of the British and Japanese military. For example in the face of the Japanese invasion of Malaysia he notes that when the British fled, they refused Malaysians, who had supported their rule, access to the evacuation ships. The result was their mass murder by the invading Japanese troops. Similarly, he outlines in great detail the brutal campaign of the Japanese military in China.

But his coverage is not always even-handed. He devotes extensive space to Russia's arrests, deportation and murder of Poles during the 1939-1940 Russian invasion. But he says very little about the mass deportations, enslavement, and murder of Poles by the Germans. Similarly, his chapter on the Holocaust is one of the weakest ones in the book. Like many military historians, his interest in military campaigns often means that he fails to fully grasp the role of politics and ideology in determining the course of the war. It is undeniable that German troops' behavior in the Ukraine alienated populations who initially were inclined to view the Germans as liberators from Russian imperial rule, thus denying the Germans a potential source of manpower. But this was not simply a "military mistake" anymore than was the Nazi decision to divert resources from the war effort to the Final Solution. These decisions were not simply "military mistakes" as Max Hastings labels them, they reflected Hitler's vision for Europe -- a Europe devoid of Jews and in which Slavs were exploited and enslaved under the "master race".

What was particularly surprising and ironic (given the ideologies that defined this war and led to the enslavement and murder of Jews, Roma and Sinti, and Slavs) was the author's willingness to make sweeping generalizations about ethnic groups. For example, he described the Poles as being "prone to fantasy." And quite mysteriously, he alleged that the British people were proud of their "anti-militarist tradition." Given their empire, not to mention that fascism had a substantial following in Great Britain in the interwar years, this claim simply is untrue.
Profile Image for Michael.
253 reviews2 followers
September 8, 2013
As a former history teacher, I have always struggled with a question invariably posed by my students: "What's the point of knowing all this?" Over the years I marshaled a number of replies to this query. My ultimate response was that history shows us what it means to be human. Of course this statement conjures another issue.
One of the potential pitfalls in being a student of history is temptation to fall into a deep and abiding pessimism about the general qualities of "human nature".
Historians attempt to avoid this by adopting an attitude of objectivity and, to that end, often concentrate their focus on the broad brush strokes of the historical panorama. Concentrating our attention on the larger-than-life figures in the picture, the personalities involved, the issues debated, the legislation passed, and the raw, factual data, allows us to pass comfortably over the fundamental humanity involved, and the suffering individual humans endure in the course of "making history".
Max Hastings, in Inferno: The World at War, 1939-1945, dives beneath the superficiality of objectivity to lay bare the cost of this, the most terrible war in human history. The events, their motivations, and ramifications, are placed in an intense and horrifying human context. By telling the story of World War II through the eyes of the participants, only rarely the leaders or apologists, the author brings into bloody focus the events of those years and the effect they had on real humans, attempting to live human lives but, too often, achieving inhuman deaths.
Profile Image for David.
1,630 reviews105 followers
May 6, 2019
I'm not always impressed by what I would call overview books, especially if I'm looking for more detail. On the other hand, sometimes I just want a quick understanding of some key points and basic facts about a topic and I have read a number of those books. If it awakens a curiosity in me I can always read more books. With respect to WWII I have read quite a few books covering various aspects of that global conflict. So when I found Inferno: The World at War, 1939-1945, I wasn't sure if it would be a good pick for me. But I soon learned how wrong I could be. It is an overview of the entire global conflict from the rise of Hitler and his initial conquests in Europe to Japan's incursions into China through the final assault on Berlin and the atomic bombings in Japan. It is sort of like cooking on a 25-burner stove and trying to keep up with what's happening with each one. Because of the length of this book (some 752 pages) it is hard to really think of it as an overview book. But that length allows for more detailed summaries of what was happening as it jumps from Europe to Africa, Hawaii to China, North Atlantic to Australia, it is packed with a lot of detail about the battles and strategies happening in each location. As much as I read about WWII, I found quite a few things I hadn't already known. If you consider yourself a WWII buff and haven't already read Inferno, you may want to add it to your list.
Profile Image for Olethros.
2,617 reviews428 followers
May 9, 2013
-Sin olvidarnos de los “Qué”, agradecemos los “Cómo”, porque la épica tiene un lado muy humano, quizás el más importante al final-.

Género. Historia.

Lo que nos cuenta. Relato de la Segunda Guerra Mundial, del verano del 39 hasta el primero de septiembre de 1945, en orden generalmente cronológico, construido con el apoyo de las experiencias de los que estuvieron allí.

¿Quiere saber más de este libro, sin spoilers? Visite:

Profile Image for Michael.
Author 85 books11k followers
March 3, 2014
I've just completed the audiobook and it has been a really wonderful experience. The focus on the victims, including so many from forgotten battles and atrocities really sets this apart. It's one of the best attempts I've read to encompass something of the sheer size of World War 2. It wipes away a good deal of the golden glow of the Greatest Generation but the more honest picture that emerges is so much more satisfying. The courage of so many of the people involved doesn't burn brighter because we whitewash the cowards and the fools and the devils.

Mr. Hastings, thanks for this, that was a hell of a read.

Edited to note that I probably shouldn't do metaphor while watching the Oscars.
Profile Image for Speesh.
409 reviews28 followers
March 26, 2012
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.
Profile Image for Max.
343 reviews308 followers
October 3, 2014
“Inferno The World at War 1939 – 1945” is the best war history I have read. Hastings unique account eschews the typical military history preoccupation with detailed accounts of generals and their battle plans. Hastings gives us the strategies of the war as a framework, a glue to bring into focus the war at a personal level. What was it like to be on the Russian Steppe in the winter of 1941-42 without food or warm clothes, or in the jungle in Guadalcanal with dysentery and malarial mosquitoes everywhere or in the desert at El Alamein in a sandstorm – and all the time in the middle of brutal combat?

Hastings takes you there and you taste it and feel it. To do this he employs constant stream of diary entries and letters from combatants and civilians caught up in this immense conflict. This is war history told in large part by the participants in their personal accounts written at the time. As such it is often raw and rough, but you know it is real. Hastings achievement is also remarkable for the breadth and depth of its reporting on WWII while maintaining a coherent narrative in a single volume.

This is not just a soldier’s history; it is one of all who were caught up in this global firestorm: The Leningraders reduced to eating their cats then each other by the German containment designed to starve them out, the Chinese butchered and raped in endless atrocities by the Japanese, The Indians left to starve to death in the Bengal famine of 1943-44 by the British to avoid modest cutbacks back home and on and on and on…. The unimaginable cruelty of the Germans and Japanese combined with the expediency of the allies and indifference by all for any people but your own resulted in a war with 60 million dead and a world changed forever.

I have read a number of books about World Wars I and II and the American Civil War but this one stands out. I could picture the whole world falling apart with a profound sense of the enormity of its impact on all of humanity. Everyone with any interest in history should read Hastings great work.
Profile Image for carl  theaker.
892 reviews42 followers
August 2, 2017
Max Hastings style makes this general history of World War2 a compelling read. I often couldn't wait to pick it up again, despite the fact that at 700 pages - on the heavy side.

There are many histories of the 'Good' War available, so to differ, Hastings takes the tack of using the stories of many participants be they in the trenches or at the home front to not necessarily prove points, but to illustrate them.

He also has a keen way of laying out the different sides of an event without being overly educational or detailed. In fact a few times it appeared he was contradicting himself till I settled on his method.

He also likes to dissect legends and myths, separating the propaganda that has perpetuated over the years. There's a lot of showing who made the blunders as well as credit where credit is due.

This book is a good one for the first timer or the veteran history reader. There were more than a few times I thought, mmm I'm going to have to read more about that subject.

There are a couple dozen routine photos. It's also published as: Inferno: The World at War, 1939-1945

A couple favorite quotes:

Hans Frank Nazi governor of occupied Poland :
"Humanity is a word one dares not use... The power and the certainty of being able to use force without any resistance is the sweetest and most noxious poison that can be introduced into any government."

1943, Emperor Hirohito goading his generals:

"Isn't there someplace where we can strike the United States? Where and when are you people going to put up a good fight? And when are you ever going to fight a decisive battle?"
Profile Image for KB.
187 reviews7 followers
November 5, 2020
I've had this sitting unread on my bookshelf for a few years. Figured it was about time to try and get through it. But single-volume histories make me kind of nervous. Some are good but just not engaging in the right way, and others are simply too dry and packed with information to really be an enjoyable read at all. The little blurb on the cover states that All Hell Let Loose is "unquestionably the best single-volume history of the war ever written." That's a big claim, but this truly is an excellent history of the Second World War.

I haven't read every single-volume book about the Second World War, so I can't tell you for certain whether this is "unquestionably the best" or not, but I can't imagine that it's not in the running for top spot. While this is not an easy read - it took me just over two months to get through its 675 pages of reading - it is very readable and consistently engaging. I'm not normally too interested in military history that covers the sea and the air, but the chapters that focus on these topics were just as good as everything else.

I think a large part of the draw of this book is Hastings' use of "bottom-up views and experiences." It's that sort of stuff that makes the book. And Hastings found some incredible examples. When Germany's strike into Russia failed to deliver a crushing blow and dragged on, apparently a sarcastic joke went around among the Germans: "Eastern campaign extended by a month owing to great success." Or when the Brits fighting the Japanese in Burma heard about the end of the war in Europe, an NCO "turned to his men and said, 'The war in Europe is over. Five-minute break.'" There's so many great examples, but I don't want to load up the review with them (or spoil the pleasure of reading them!).

But equally important is Hastings' handling of the subject. I've never read anything by the author before, but I was impressed by the authoritativeness of his writing. He seemed fair in his judgements, and very direct in his opinions. A sort of enduring myth about WWII is that it was the SS that did all those terrible things and the Wehrmacht wasn't involved as they were just the regular army. Hastings flat out says "the Wehrmacht was wholly complicit in Himmler's operations, even though the SS did most of the killing." Likewise, he seems to have little sympathy for German victims of the RAF/USAAF bombings:
The killing of civilians must always be deplored, but Nazi Germany represented a historic evil. Until the last day of the war, Hitler's people inflicted appalling sufferings upon the innocent. The destruction of their cities and the deaths of significant numbers of their inhabitants seems a price they had to pay for the horrors they unleashed upon Western civilisation, and represents a far lighter toll than Germany imposed upon the rest of Europe.
I can appreciate that he's not wishy-washy in what he thinks.

If I could nitpick a little I'd point out that Hastings writes about Mao "Zhedong" a few times, and the name even appears like that in the index. And as a Canadian it was a little disappointing to read barely anything of our contributions. Hastings pulled some excerpts from Farley Mowat's excellent war memoir And No Birds Sang, where he was deployed it Italy, but we don't get too much more than that. He was also very harsh on Allied leadership, which I'm sure some readers will disagree with. I'm not an expert on this topic, but while his judgements seemed fair based on the information he presented, it also seemed like there was little praise for what they accomplished or how they accomplished it. And lastly, the section covering the Battle of Berlin felt a little anti-climactic.

All Hell Let Loose is clear, vivid, engaging and informative. The context is extremely well balanced with personal anecdotes from the people who lived and fought during the war. What more could you want in a history book?
Profile Image for Piker7977.
450 reviews22 followers
September 6, 2020
Max Hastings provides a grand one volume study of the Second World War that emphasizes historical scope over chronological narrative. This approach uncovers numerous lessons and considerations for the modern reader which performs a service by providing an objective macro-presentation of the war. There are "good war" histories and critical revisionist studies; Hastings's Inferno fits into a middle of the road category that ought to be labeled "necessary, but ugly" historiography.

He achieves this by loosely structuring the book chronologically, but deviating when events provide important segues into deeper topics like manufacturing, civilian casualties, victims, women's contributions, etc. This approach is a bit scattered as the reader's imagination will drift in and out of strict time sequences, but I'm not sure how else one could construct a history of an event so large, and so encompassing, in an effective way. This allows for the scope of the book to be huge while only taking up 752 pages of text instead of multiple volumes. Think of reading this book as looking at a globe instead of multiple maps in an atlas. The findings and arguments provided by such a view don't allow for much hair splitting or subjective arguments. Many of them are so big and evident as to risk being banal, but Hastings presents them in a manner that makes the whole history fascinating.

Let's consider a couple:
- The Soviet Union broke the back of Germany with limited help from the Western Allies. This observation is hardly a shocker and is backed up by clear-eyed presentations of the battles leading up to 1943, sobering casualty figures, and horrifying accounts from German and Soviet belligerents. Hastings is also careful not to wade to far into the effectiveness of individual commanders (this also helps when looking objectively at the Western Allies), and lets the merits of the supreme leaders, economic capabilities, societal factors, and military cultures (considered as all-encompassing measures of a belligerent's effectiveness) speak as larger momentums affecting the outcomes of the war. The overall impression is that the Stalin made a few blunders at first, but was able to harness the ruthlessness of his military and citizenry to exact a punitive victory over Germany in a manner that would have been inconceivable by his democratic allies.

-Most battles, especially after 1943, were won by forces who had superior firepower, manpower, vehicles, and other empirical measures of military strength. This helps tear down some myths surrounding certain battles, big and small. Hastings provides figures for most critical battles that demonstrate why armies were able to be victorious while still providing grotesque and horrifying details about the associated destruction and suffering.

-The United States' manufacturing and industrial output was the determining factor in defeating the Japanese, and quickening the end of Germany's war. In the U.S., World War II is such a politicized and sacred event that "good war" histories, depictions, and myths take prominence over those that lean critical or revisionist. While Hastings is a little critical and neglectful of American military commanders, he acknowledges the country's output in terms of munitions, ships, planes, and tanks. This is most notable in sections on the U.S. Navy's role in defeating Japan. They were the ones who did the heavy lifting in the Pacific Theater. This also sets up a good comparison between the Soviet Union and the United States as to what these titans brought to the table in WWII and how they would compete in the postwar years. You had a democracy with unmatched industrial, resource, and market strength eventually opposing a ruthless totalitarian state that embraced total war and scorched-earth tactics to defeat an invader.

There are so many more that are a trove of historical pondering.

One more aspect of Inferno needs appraising and that is Hastings's writing style. The author's prose are stripped down and avoid delicious adjectives and heightened retellings of exciting battles. He lets actual participants do that as much of the content consists of primary sources including letters, orders, diaries, interviews, and propaganda flashes that do most of the storytelling. This is a beneficial means of recapturing history as the historian avoids over-involvement in constructing the study as he lets representatives of the times do the talking for him.

This is top notch history. It lets the reader in on how mind-blowingly big the Second World War was and provides many lessons to digest for further consideration.
Profile Image for Stephen.
519 reviews152 followers
February 1, 2014
Very comprehensive summary of the Second World War which really emphasised that it was a World War by describing what happened in every country that was involved. Thought I knew quite a bit about the War but this filled in a number of gaps and gave very interesting analysis of the importance of each battle and the cost to each side - full of facts but to summarise, the most important was that Germany v Russia was the crucial conflict and the one where both sides bore most of the overall casualities. Reading a book of this size covering the whole war could have been quite daunting but the whole thing was made extremely readable by all of the personal testimonies (many posthumous) included which made it all very real. If you want a summary of the War in a single volume then this is definitely the one to read.
Profile Image for John Nellis.
89 reviews7 followers
June 27, 2014
This account of the second world war was one of the very best I have read. Mr. Hastings puts a human face on the war so few accounts have fully managed to do. Not just the words of the soldiers or leaders, but the words of the common man and woman. He is able to convey the horror and tragedy of the whole scope of the war brilliantly. I was moved by his words on many occasions as I read. I can't say I have read any other account to show the absolute whole story of the war experiance so well. The human cost of the war and the tragedy of it all is the underlying meaning of the book. Also the military side of the war and its events are well represented. I can't say enough of how good this one volume account of the second world war was. Truly a masterpiece of historical writing.
Profile Image for Olethros.
2,617 reviews428 followers
March 13, 2014
-Sin olvidarnos de los “Qué”, agradecemos los “Cómo”, porque la épica tiene un lado muy humano, quizás el más importante al final-.

Género. Historia.

Lo que nos cuenta. Relato de la Segunda Guerra Mundial, del verano del 39 hasta el primero de septiembre de 1945, en orden generalmente cronológico, construido con el apoyo de las experiencias de los que estuvieron allí.

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