For a while now I’ve averaged about one book every ten days, yet here we are three weeks into January and I’ve only just finished my first book of 2012. The reason for that is that Max Hasting’s monumental volume on the second world war, All Hell Let Loose, is 748 pages long so it’s like reading three books!
The volume of literature on the last great war is immense, the bibliography to this book is enormous and so it’s hard to say where this single volume work ranks. I also haven’t read many other books so have little to compare it with, but I’m not sure I need to read another.
This book manages something remarkable, it conveys the great sweep of the war, the many differing timelines and events and yet manages to convey what the war was like. This is because the perspective is not that of a Churchill or a Roosevelt, for they are minor characters but having drawn from a myriad of letters, diaries and reports shares what war was like for those most affected by it, mothers, soldiers, sons.
The second world war really was global and immense, the numbers are staggering and hard to comprehend and this book both shattered illusions and educated. I learnt of the 15 million Chinese who died and the Bengal famine which saw nearly two million Indians starve, I learnt that the British army rarely if ever crowned itself in glory and learned how the great powers utterly shafted, screwed and ignored the nation of Poland from first to last.
That more Russians soldiers were shot by the Russians than British soldiers were sot by the Germans, that more Russians (civilians and soldiers) died at the battle of Leningrad than the Americans and British armies combined for the whole war. The numbers are staggering, nearly 60 million people killed in just six years.
No nation covers itself in glory during war, combatants and neutrals alike. Switzerland, Ireland and Sweden can hardly be proud of their neutrality. France has much to be ashamed of, and there were enough incidents for to prevent Britain and America from too much hubris. America became a great power as a result of this war, the only nation to emerge vastly richer and more powerful while all its rivals lay exhausted and in ruins.
Of the three great powers, Britain stood up to the war when all others didn’t. France defeated, America abstained and Russia was an ally to Hitler. Britain really did stand very much alone but too weak to win the war on its own. America paid for the victory. It’s vast industrial might provided for all and proved far too much for anyone else to emerge victorious. Russian on the other hand clearly died for the war. 25 million Russians died, starved, shot, raped and ruined. No country was as willing to sacrifice its millions more than Stalin and had they not, Hitler would have taken a lot longer to defeat.
Yet all these facts stand alongside countless story of death, rape, mutilation, despair. The sufferings of the Yugoslavs, Poles, Italians, Chinese, Burmese, Malays and of course the Jews throughout mainland Europe and ordinary people everywhere was horrific and shocking and it is these stories that make this book such a masterpiece.
This is quite a phenomenal book and I’m sure, no matter what I read, it will rank near the top of my reading list come December 2012. That’s a slightly depressing to think I may have already read the best book of the year but at the same time, what a book!