All Hell Let Loose: the World at War (1939-45)

All Hell Let Loose: the World at War (1939-45)
Max Hastings
HarperPress, 768pp, £30

The Second World War was the most terrible event in human history, killing roughly 60 million people, most of them non-combatants, an average of about 27,000 for each day of the war. More people were slaughtered by their fellow human beings than ever before. A vast number of books has been written about the war. Is there anything new to say? Perhaps not, but this does not mean that the task of the historian has been completed. The challenge is to seek to understand this catastrophe. No doubt we will never fully understand some aspects of it, in particular the Holocaust. Nevertheless, the historian must do his best.

Max Hastings has studied the war for 35 years and has written eight previous books on specific episodes such as the Battle of Britain and D-Day, as well as a volume on Winston Chur­chill as war leader. All Hell Let Loose is an attempt to describe not only the high politics of strategy, but also the experiences of ordinary people involved in the conflict, and what the war meant to those caught up in it. Henry James once described the Victorian novel as a large, loose and baggy monster. This book is also a large, loose and baggy monster, as it must be if it is to comprehend such vastly different experiences as those of the British housewife, the German Panzer officer in occupied territory, the Soviet peasant, the Japanese kamikaze pilot and the Polish soldier who, after fighting bravely on the Allied side, found himself an exile in his own country when it came under communist rule.

All Hell Let Loose is a masterpiece of reportage, but it is not for the squeamish: parts of it are almost unreadable, the atrocities committed
by the Germans and the Japanese being loathsome beyond belief. Britain's colonial record also comes in for a pummelling. In 1942, 50 battalions were needed to keep order in India, more than were then being committed against the Japanese. Some of the repressive measures employed in India "were similar in kind, if not in scale, to those used by the Axis in occupied countries".

Yet the misdeeds of the British owed less to brute sadism and more to insensitivity and faults of omission, sometimes on a large scale, as with the Bengal famine of 1943-44, in which between one and three million Indians died. Bengal was ruled from Britain, yet there was no equivalent for its population of the great British airlift of food to Holland in 1945, since, as India's viceroy noticed, there was "a very different attitude towards feeding a starving population when the starvation is in Europe".

If there is a moral to this book, it is a highly uncomfortable one. It is that totalitarian states are much better at fighting than democracies. Ninety per cent of Germans who died in the war were killed on the Russian front. Thirteen million Soviet citizens died under bombardment or under German occupation, and another two million perished from hunger in territory under Soviet control. Indeed, deaths from hunger in the Siege of Leningrad exceeded the total of British combatants killed in the war, which was won largely because the Russians fought on under unspeakable conditions. "A people who could endure such things," Hastings insists, "displayed qualities the western Allies lacked, which were indispensable to the destruction of Nazism. In the auction of cruelty and sacrifice, the Soviet dictator proved the highest bidder."

By contrast, an American battalion comman­der complained that "our boys aren't professionals, and you have to condition them to enjoy killing". General Eisenhower and Field Marshal Montgomery have often been criticised for exercising excessive caution, but both acted in the knowledge that they were leaders of democratic armies. They felt a profound responsibility towards the men they led. "What's your most important possession?" Montgomery asked a soldier in the Eighth Army. "My rifle, sir," came the reply. "No, it's not, you fool - it's your life, and I'm going to save it for you."

Hastings will no doubt provoke raised eyebrows among the prim historians at universities who, in the words of Max Beloff, treat history as Haydn treated music - something to be written only when wearing a frock coat. But All Hell Let Loose does not pretend to compete as a work of scholarship. The most scholarly book on the Second World War remains A World at Arms (1994) by the American Gerhard Weinberg, whose name Hastings irritatingly misspells as Weinburg. But Hastings's book is livelier, and a better introduction, perhaps the best available for those seeking to understand what the experience of war was like.

Inevitably, there are omissions. There is nothing about the argument, held behind closed doors in 1939-40, about a compromise peace,
a matter that has been chewed over by historians. Hastings believes the rejection of that idea owed everything to Churchill. "It is hard to imagine," he argues, "that Britain would have continued to defy Hitler after June 1940 in the absence of Winston Churchill, who constructed a brilliant and narrowly plausible narrative for the British people, first about what they might do, and later to persuade them of what they had done."

That was not Churchill's view. "I have never accepted," he declared in 1954, "what many people have kindly said, namely that I inspired the nation. It was the nation and the race dwelling around the globe that had the lion heart. I had the luck to be called upon to give the roar." The British people were determined in 1940 to defeat Hitler, and would not have tolerated any government that did not share this aim.

It is often said that we in Britain are too fixated on the Second World War. Nevertheless, it confirmed our identity, made us who we are today, and, for better or worse, confirmed us in our suspicions of the continent, suspicions that prevented us from joining in the postwar movement towards European unity. Amid our present troubles, perhaps it does us no harm to be reminded of the quiet stoicism of an earlier age, a time when, in Churchill's words, we were fighting by ourselves alone but not for ourselves alone.

Churchill had been one of a very small number who understood the ideological challenge posed by Nazism. The left understood the challenge, but did not support the measures of rearmament necessary to meet it. The counterpart to appeasement, which resulted from an inability to comprehend that a supposedly advanced state had given birth to a regime that threatened the whole basis of liberal civilisation, was an inability effectively to combat it. Today, similarly, in a world that has by no means experienced the "end of history", the left has to understand that there may be creeds whose full dimensions are inaccessible to the ideological framework that we have inherited from the liberal era.

Vernon Bogdanor is writing a history of Britain in the 20th century

This article first appeared in the 03 October 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Which Tories is it ok to love?