Max Hastings presents the world with two personae. There is the curmudgeonly right-wing journalist, scion of the Establishment and apologist for the British military. Then there is the historian, who comes across as a wholly different sort of beast, his historical work pervaded with a great sense of humanity and of the pity of war.
With this book, Max Hastings the historian has completed a body of work on the Second World War comparable to Shelby Foote’s magisterial history of the American Civil War. This book fills some of the gaps in the history of the war not covered by his more detailed studies (Overlord on the battle for Normandy; Armageddon on the last year of the war in Europe; Nemesis on the last year of the war in the Pacific; Warlord, his study of Churchill’s war leadership; and Bomber Command). So there is greater consideration here of, for example, the invasion of Poland, the war in the Mediterranean, the major naval campaigns such as the Battle of the Atlantic and the Arctic Convoys, and amongst the most chilling chapters, a discussion on the war in the Balkans. Naturally, however the discussion of the war’s final campaigns are more cursory here given Hastings’ other writings.
One of the things about Hastings’ historical work that is so delightful is that even if one is familiar with much of the narrative of the events he will often bring new detail or insight to the discussion. This book does not disappoint in this regard: the retreat from Stalingrad, for example, is told principally from an Italian perspective; and the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is discussed through the idea of “technological determinism” which Hastings sees as shaping key aspects of the Allied campaign, particularly the B29 bomber offensive on Japan. By this he means that when a military capacity exists there can become an overwhelming motivation to use it irrespective of the strategic value: it is an idea that also helps illuminates the dynamics behind some questionable dashes into war, such as the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
There is also a great fair-mindedness to Hastings’ historical writing, acknowledging, given the comparable horror of both Soviet and Nazi tyrannies (something that Timothy Synder explores in greater detail in his exceptional book Bloodlands), that for many eastern Europeans the war never could appear the clear cut battle between good and evil it has become in Anglo-American mythology. Hastings also points out how that Anglo-American myth must take some tarnishing given Britain’s role in the Indian wartime famine, the Anglo-American betrayal of Poland, and some of the needless blood shed by the Allies in the Pacific.
Overall a great work of narrative history, elegantly written with a seeming effortlessness that belies the great learning it contains.