BOOK REVIEW News Weekly
New perspectives on World War II
, August 4, 2012
ALL HELL LET LOOSE:
The World at War 1939-1945
by Max Hastings
Paperback: 768 pages
Reviewed by Bill James
In his introduction, British journalist and award-winning military historian Max Hastings describes World War II as “the largest event in human history”, in which an average of 27,000 people died each day between September 1939 and August 1945.
It has certainly become history’s best-known era, the one most widely written and read about.
Hastings is an acknowledged expert on the subject, and has produced this excellent one-volume survey, offering both foxhole and ops room perspectives, following his many books on more specialised aspects of the conflict.
Because the story is so vast, and because its general features are so well-known, this review will mention just a selection of Hastings’s main points.
Here, then, are a dozen of his major emphases.
1) Unlike an objective historian writing after the event, participants involved in hostilities at the time are in no position to assess their sufferings relative to those of others.
The historian’s knowledge that civilians caught up in the rationing, evacuations and bombing raids in large British cities were not as badly off as civilians in Hamburg, Tokyo or Leningrad, or combatants in Arctic convoys, Asian jungles or the snows of Russia, does not alter the reality and intensity of their subjective distress at the time.
2) Both the civilian populations and armed services of the great dictatorships, Germany, Japan and the Soviet Union, displayed aggression, determination, discipline, stoicism and sacrifice on a scale rarely if ever matched by the comparatively reasonable, humane and moderate peoples of the liberal democracies.
The Nazis were defeated not by the Allied air offensive, or the Desert War, or the fighting in Western Europe after D-Day, but by the fighting on the Eastern Front where, because Stalin proved to be as ruthless a gangster as Hitler, 90 per cent of German combat deaths occurred.
The number of Russian soldiers executed by their own officers was greater than Britain’s total war dead.
In the Pacific theatre, where the production rate of ships and aircraft, not a suicidal warrior ethos, was the paramount factor, Japan succumbed to the industrial and economic superiority of the United States.
3) The most extraordinary military phenomenon of the first half of the 20th century was the way in which Germany twice took on the rest of the world, and then held out for so long before being defeated.
There has been an understandable reluctance to openly acknowledge this fact because of the anti-Jewish atrocities which accompanied World War II, and Hastings is completely dismissive of any attempts to pretend that the Wehrmacht was not aware of, or complicit in, the Holocaust.
However, honesty compels him to recognise the unparalleled excellence of Germany’s army.
Its soldiers approached the Japanese and Russians as regards courage and endurance, and outdid them in terms of resourcefulness, equipment, imagination, flexibility, professionalism, efficiency and discipline.
Hastings writes that the Wehrmacht’s “commitment to counter-attack, even in adverse circumstances, amounted to genius”, and he quotes an Italian ally’s reluctant admission that, “without a shadow of a doubt, as soldiers they have no equals”.
4) A couple of countries which are generally admired or envied today, remained neutral and did quite well out of the war.
Sweden spent the war years grovelling to the Nazis and supplying them with iron ore (and then spent the next 40 years grovelling to the Soviets), while Switzerland discovered a nice little earner in the resources which had been deposited by Jews who died in the death camps.
The many citizens of the neutral Irish Republic who joined the British Army were morally superior to their government, which denied Britain vital naval bases, and whose leader, Eamon de Valera, called at the German embassy in Dublin to express his condolences on Hitler’s death.
Despite sending a division to Russia, the fascist Franco disappointed Hitler by keeping Spain out of the conflict.
Although this decision was taken on the basis of purely cynical and hard-headed calculations, it was to the Allies’ advantage, since it preserved Gibraltar and the entrance to the Mediterranean.
5) For Australian readers, Hastings’s treatment of our country’s involvement in World War II is rather sobering, as he ruthlessly — and, it must be said, accurately — places our efforts in the context of the big picture.
Australians played a significant role in the defeat of the Italians and then the Germans (particularly at Alamein) in North Africa; but the whole desert war was a sideshow, and so were the debacles in Greece and Crete, and our success in Syria.
It can be argued, and still is, that whereas Germany and Italy had no designs on Australia, our struggle against Japan was fully justified by its intention to take us over.
Hastings knows nothing of any Japanese invasion plan, and points out that not only were Australia’s efforts in New Guinea and elsewhere to our north fairly irrelevant to the final defeat of Japan, but so were the far bigger operations of the Americans in the Philippines, and the British and Indian armies in Burma.
What really counted in the end was the thrust of American sea and air power through the Pacific islands toward the Japanese mainland.
The disgraceful behaviour of many Australian troops during the February 1942 fall of Singapore is not spared or rationalised, but Hastings emphasises that it was no worse than that of the island’s other defenders.
Easily the most moving reference to Australia in the book is its quotation of the famous words of matron Irene Drummond to her nurses, as they were forced into the sea by Japanese soldiers to be machine-gunned: “Chin up, girls. I’m proud of you and I love you all.”
6) A possibly disproportionate amount of the narrative is devoted to the experience of two European countries, Poland and France.
The war began with the invasion of Poland in September 1939 (during which some Polish cavalry did actually charge Nazi tanks), which marked the commencement of years of disaster for that country.
It was dismembered between Germany and the USSR; suffered one of the war’s highest per capita death rates (including the Soviet Katyn massacre, the 1943 Warsaw Jewish Ghetto revolt, and the 1944 Warsaw uprising which Stalin declined to assist); and was surrendered to communist dictatorship under the 1945 Yalta agreement.
And yet, of all the countries overrun by the Nazis, it saw the largest voluntary exodus to fight on with the Allies, and was the only one with no record of collaboration.
There was widespread French support for Pétain’s collaborationist administration after the 1940 defeat, and corresponding widespread resentment of the British.
Most French soldiers evacuated at Dunkirk chose to be repatriated; the French colonies remained loyal to the Vichy regime; and, contrary to carefully fostered post-war legend, very few French citizens participated in the Résistance or joined de Gaulle’s Free French forces.
Unfortunately, one feature which these two otherwise contrasting nations had in common was a deep strand of anti-Semitism.
7) With the best will in the world, a British writer is going to produce a Britain-centred history of the war.
Hastings proudly reminds us that Britain and her dominions were (along with, it should be emphasised in view of the preceding Point 6, France) the only countries who voluntarily declared war on principle, and Britain’s defiance of Nazism under Churchill was vital in the years 1940-41.
He commends Britain’s politicians and public servants, its scientists and code-breakers, its Royal Navy and RAF, but is scathing about its army — with the exception of the artillery.
However, he transcends parochialism by describing also a number of both small and huge global features of the period 1939-45, of which the average British or Australian reader could well be unaware.
For example, Brazil sent troops to Italy in support of the Allies; two SS divisions consisted of Bosnian Muslims; between one and three million Indians died in the Bengal famine of 1943-4; and 15 million Chinese died as the result of the Japanese occupation of their country, which began in 1937.
8) As regards the participation of America in World War II, it is still possible to encounter popular myths that it became involved reluctantly and late, displayed indifferent fighting qualities, and prevailed primarily because of the size of its economy.
President Roosevelt certainly had to struggle against isolationism. Interventionism was strong in the conservative states of the south and west, but elsewhere attitudes were poisonous.
Hastings quotes the editors of the Yale and Harvard student papers who (with a bloody-mindedness reminiscent of the infamous 1933 Oxford Union resolution “That this House will in no circumstances fight for its King and Country”), published a manifesto in 1940 “asserting students’ determination not to save Europe from Hitler”.
Pearl Harbour, followed by Hitler’s gratuitous declaration of war on the United States, did Roosevelt’s work for him, and the nation fell in behind its president.
While it was true that the American economy produced weapons and other war material on a scale which no other combatant nation could match, it is also true that its troops fought with exemplary courage, skill and sacrifice in battles from Midway to Guadalcanal to Omaha Beach to Leyte Gulf to Bastogne.
9) Many News Weekly readers will be aware of the pro-fascist obstructionism perpetrated by Australian communist waterside workers in the period between the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of August 1939 and the Nazi invasion of the USSR in June 1941.
Hastings reminds his readers that British dockers were no better, and this reviewer knew a former worker in a British aircraft factory in which the communist shop stewards caused nothing but trouble until June 1941, after which it ran like clockwork.
Stalin, the object of the Western left’s idolatry, co-operated with Hitler in dismembering Poland and murdering thousands of its officers at Katyn and elsewhere, and only joined the war against the Fuhrer because forced to do so.
Hastings is clear that morally there was little to choose between the two warlords.
Rape, pillage and murder were at best tolerated, and at worst encouraged, in the Red Army, not just against enemies such as Germany, but also in friendly areas of Yugoslavia.
According to Hastings, the Soviet Union suffered 27 million deaths in World War II. One in four Russian soldiers died (as against one in 20 British Commonwealth troops, and one in 34 American), and the USSR accounted for 65 per cent of all Allied military deaths.
These are horrific statistics, but they raise the question of how many died for Stalin and communism, and how many died for their families, their homes, their Orthodox faith and Mother Russia.
This book also reminds us that the Chinese and Vietnamese communists fought as little against the Japanese as they could, conserving their resources for the coming struggle to impose one-party dictatorship on their war-ravaged populations.
10) These days, we tend to regard World War II as far more of a moral conflict than was World War I, which we now view as merely nationalistic and territorial, with no major principles at stake.
One of the main reasons for this contemporary perception is World War II’s Nazi Holocaust, but anti-Semitic genocide was not a high-profile issue at the time.
As this book’s introduction succinctly puts it, “So widespread is a modern perception that the war was fought about Jews, that it should be emphasised that this was not the case…. The plight of the Jewish people under Nazi occupation loomed relatively small in the wartime perceptions of Churchill and Roosevelt, and less surprisingly in that of Stalin.… Their persecution was viewed by the Allies merely as one fragment of the collateral damage caused by Hitler, as indeed Russians still see the Holocaust today.”
11) “Some of those who are today most critical of the use of the [atom] bombs ignore the fact that every day the war continued, prisoners and slaves of the Japanese empire in Asia continued to die in thousands.”
Despite revisionist arguments to the contrary, Hastings believes that this fact, along with the fear of the huge American losses which would accompany an invasion of the Japanese mainland, made the dropping of the nuclear devices on Hiroshima and Nagasaki a reasonable decision — the least of the available evils — at the time.
12) In his essay Why I Am Not A Pacifist, C.S. Lewis likens the complaint that wars never solve everything, with the mentality of the person who tells someone who has just defended himself against a man-eating tiger, “It’s no good, old chap. This hasn’t really cured your rheumatism!”
The conclusion to All Hell Let Loose takes a similar line: “Allied victory did not bring universal peace, prosperity, justice or freedom.… All that seems certain is that Allied victory saved the world from a much worse fate that would have followed the triumph of Germany and Japan.”