I have to admit that my first thought on receiving Max Hastings' latest tome for review was: "Do we really need yet another big book on the Second World War?" Of course, I would not subscribe to the suggestion that we should all just "move on" and let bygones be bygones.
The Second World War is too important in our collective recent history for such fashionable nonsense to be allowed to go unchallenged. But, I wondered, after the recent books on the conflict by Andrew Roberts, Michael Burleigh, and others, what more can a global study of this type tell us?
Quite a lot, it would seem. Hastings has long been one of the big beasts in the field, and that elevated status will scarcely be diminished by this book. Written on a much grander scale than his previous works, it seeks to answer the almost impossible question: "What was the Second World War like?"
Of course, the answer to that is vastly different according to whether the subject is a soldier or a civilian, a victim or a perpetrator. It also varies by geography. The experiences of a mother starving in Leningrad, for instance, can hardly be compared with those of "Rosie the Riveter". Yet, Hastings uses such a plethora of voices, from across the globe, and combines them into such a readable and all-encompassing narrative, that the reader is simply swept along.
The first thing one notices is that, unlike some of its predecessors, this is a truly global study. Its vast scope – from Berlin to Bataan, Normandy to Nomonhan – will surprise many readers, and should serve to shake even those with the most determined Anglocentric tendencies out of their D-Day-themed myopia. The judicious use of statistics reinforces the point. When Hastings tells us that nine out of every 10 German soldiers who perished did so fighting the Soviets, or that 25 per cent of all Allied casualties were Chinese, then it becomes clear that that global approach is wholly justified and wholly necessary.
Yet, it is the first-hand accounts which will remain in the reader's mind most vividly. Hastings does not concentrate exclusively on the view from below; he includes numerous digressions on historiography, grand strategy and the wider political and economic concerns of the war's leaders. But it is the everyman's war that provides the bulk of the book.
Hastings has plundered countless sources to find a huge variety of first-hand accounts to punctuate and leaven his history. Sometimes horrifying, sometimes uplifting, always illuminating, such accounts are woven into a grim, yet grimly readable tapestry of the real human face of war.
All Hell Let Loose is an extraordinary book. Full of opinions, wisdom and humanity, it is surely Hastings' finest work to date. In its sympathetic and scholarly portrayal of the most destructive war that the world has ever seen, it is an eloquent and persuasive riposte to those who archly suggest that this gruesome subject can teach us nothing more and that we should finally consign it to the dustbin of history. It reminds us all of the enormous sacrifices made, the atrocities committed, the horrors endured, and the many millions of lives wasted – and as such it provides a vital service.
So, do we "need" another big book about the Second World War? Well, if it is as informative, as thought-provoking, and as well-written as this one then yes, absolutely.