Friday, February 10, 2012

The Inferno of World War II

by Conroy

“War is prodigiously wasteful, because much of the effort made by rival combatants proves futile, and the price is paid in lives.”

“Among citizens of modern democracies to whom serious hardship and collective peril are unknown, the tribulations that hundreds of millions endured between 1939 and 1945 are almost beyond comprehension.”

“An average of 27,000 perished each day between September 1939 and August 1945 as a consequence of the global conflict.”

- Max Hastings, Inferno: The World at War,   1939-1945

It seems that seventy years after the events of World War II – the greatest calamity in human history – historians have gained a better understanding of the facts and effects of the conflict than anyone, be they leaders, generals, soldiers, civilians, or victims, had during the war or in the immediate post war period. Max Hastings is one of these historians and his many works on World War II stand out among the best histories of the conflict. To this list can be added his latest work, Inferno:The World at War, 1939-1945, an ambitious single-volume overview of the war.

Readers of this blog may remember an earlier post where I praised Hastings’ previous two books, Armageddon and Retribution, which respectively covered the final year of the war in Europe and the Pacific. As with those works, Hastings focus in Inferno is not on the Allied and Axis leadership, notable generals, or even the broad goals and war strategy. Instead, he provides a “bottom-up” approach that conveys the experience of war, what it was like to be a rifleman in battle, a civilian under aerial bombardment, or victim of pillage and rape (a ubiquitous civilian experience in many theaters of the war), to provide a few examples.

As Hastings notes it is impossible to present a blow-by-blow account of World War II, an immensely large and far-reaching subject, in 800-odd pages. In fact, a work ten times as long would be insufficient. Instead, he set out to provide an impression of events as they unfolded starting with the German invasion of Poland in September 1939 and ending with the Japanese surrender in Tokyo Bay six years later. He has succeeded. The quotations provided at the top of this post give a sense of the massive horror of the war, and indeed for a modern reader it’s very difficult to understand how such a large proportion of the world’s people could have endured under the stress of war for so long. No book can fully capture this reality, but Inferno does it as well as any. And it does this through largely new or never before used first-hand accounts, diaries, letters, etc. These sources add a gratifying freshness to the book.

Hastings also manages to provide some new insights that have been revealed through decades of studying World War II. There are no sacred cows in Hastings’ telling of the war and he expertly separates fact from myth and legend. This is useful and appropriate. Wars gather their own momentum and this was especially true for World War II. History (with a capital H) has largely identified the correct decisions from the terrible blunders, the necessary sacrifices from the useless wastes, the effective leaders from the incompetent, and the victims and criminals. But Hastings goes one step further, correctly assigning evil to those to which it belonged and separating it from the terrible logic of war, where horrible things happen to many people by all sides. There no moral equivocation with Hastings, only clarity.

I recommend this work highly, it presents the war as well as any single-volume history is likely to. Hastings book is both concise and comprehensive, but to better present Hastings’ mastery of the subject, I’ve provided a series of quotations and passages below that demonstrate two aspects of the book: the actual experience of the war – the bottom-up view, and the many blunders made by the Germany – the broad evolution of the War.

For me, the only real counter-factual worth pondering about World War II is this: Could Germany have won the war? That’s an important question mostly because such an outcome would have been catastrophic for most of Europe’s population and would have set subsequent history in a radically different direction (and thinking from a modern perspective, a very loathsome and bizarre direction). There is much debate about this issue, the forces arrayed against the Axis were enormously powerful, but surely the many and massive mistakes made by Germany (and Japan) contributed substantially to the Axis defeat.

Of course it was the Axis that plunged the world into war. Over 60 million people died between 1939 and 1945, tens of millions of men (and women) were pulled into the war machine and shuffled all over the globe. Whole nations suffered from battle, massive population displacements, shortages, and other privations; the effects ranging from minor inconveniences, to major disruptions, and often the total disintegration of normal pre-war life.

But here are these aspects of the War in Hastings’ words:

The Fatal Blunders of the Axis

On the overall war plans:
“From June 1940 onwards, both Berlin and Tokyo made strategy with awesome incompetence.”

“Once the British and American war efforts gained traction, the Western Allies conducted their affairs much better than the Germans and Japanese at every level save local ground combat.

On the missed opportunity to eliminate Britain from the War in 1940-41:
“Yet if, instead, [Hitler] had left Churchill’s people to stew on their island, the prime minister would have faced great difficulties in sustaining national morale and a charade of strategic purpose. A small German contingent dispatched to support the Italian attack on Egypt that autumn would probably have sufficed to expel Britain from the Middle East; Malta could easily have been taken. Such humiliations would have dealt heavy blows to the credibility of Churchill’s policy of fighting on.”

On the terribly conceived and administration of the war against the Soviet Union:
“One of Hitler’s greatest mistakes, from the viewpoint of his own interests, was that he attempted to reshape the eastern lands that fell under his suzerainty in accordance with Nazi ideology while still fighting the war…Ignoring the human horror—as of course did the Nazis—these policies imposed enormous economic and agricultural disruption on Hitler’s war machine. Some members of designated lesser races enlisted in Nazi service to secure food or pay, or because they hated Jews, or because they merely relished opportunities for exercising dominion and indulging cruelty; but oppression embittered millions of Stalin’s former subjects who might have become willing German acolytes…All history’s successful empires have rested partly on force majeure, but partly also upon offering conquered peoples compensations for subjection: stability, prosperity and the rule of law. The Nazis, by contrast, offered only brutality, corruption and administrative incompetence.”

On the relative economic weakness of Germany:
“For the rest of the war, those responsible for Germany’s economic and industrial planning fulfilled their roles in the knowledge that strategic success was unattainable. They drafted a planning paper in December 1941 entitled “The Requirements for Victory.” They concluded that the Reich needed to commit the equivalent of $150 billion to arms manufacture in the succeeding two years; yet such a sum exceeded German weapons expenditure for the entire conflict. Whatever the prowess of the Wehrmacht, the nation lacked means to win; it could aspire only to force its enemies to parley, together of severally.”

On the effects of Nazi racial policies on the War’s progress:
“It may sound trite to emphasise the centrality of the influence of the SS upon the Holocaust, but it is nonetheless necessary. The most powerful fiefdom in Nazi Germany pursued the extinction of the Jews almost heedless of its impact on the country’s war making.”

“The elimination of European Jewry assumed an ever-higher priority on the Nazis’ agenda: Hitler convinced himself that the August 1941 Atlantic Charter, together with America’s looming entry into the war, were driven by Jewish influence on the United States government. This lent a new urgency to his determination to kill their coreligionists in Europe. During the months and years that followed, Germany’s leader came to view this as an objective as important as military victory, and even as a precondition for achieving it. Attempts to discern rationality in Nazi strategy, especially from 1941 onwards, founder in the face of such a mind-set.”

The Experience of War

On the often inflated accounts of battlefield heroism presented to civilians on the home front:
“[Lt. Robert] Kelly, like Eisenhower, failed to grasp the importance of legends, indeed myths, to sustain the spirit of nations in adversity.”

Unnamed British corvette seaman:
“…But we [Atlantic convoy escorts] were young and tough and, in a sense, we gloried in our misery and made light of it all. What possible connection it had with defeating Hitler none of us bothered to ask. It was enough to find ourselves more or less afloat the next day with the hope of duff for pudding and a boiler-clean when we reached port.”

Staff sergeant Harold Fennema, about life in the Pacific theater:
“So much of this war and army life amounts to the insignificant job of passing time, and that really is a pity. Life is so short and time so precious to those who live and love life that I can hardly believe myself, seeking entertainment to pass time away…I wonder sometimes where this is going to lead.”

“Combat opened a chasm between those who experienced its horrors and those at home who did not. In December 1943, the Canadian Farley Mowat wrote to his family from the Sangro front in Italy: ‘The damnable truth is we are in really different worlds, on totally different planes, and I don’t really know you any more, I only know the you that was. I wish I could explain the desperate sense of isolation, of not belonging to my own past, of being adrift in some kind of alien space. It is one of the toughest things we have to bear – that and the primal, gut-rotting worm of fear.’”

“An American or British rifleman who entered France in June 1944 faced a 60 percent prospect of being killed or wounded before the end of the campaign, rising to 70 percent for officers.”

“Much depended on local junior leadership, and too many brave junior leaders died. ‘The spirit of human aggression has a magical tendency to evaporate as soon as the shooting starts,’ wrote Norman Craig, ‘and a man then responds to two influences only—the external discipline that binds him and the self-respect within him that drives him on … Courage is essentially competitive and imitative.’”

“Allied airmen, once deployed to operational fighter or bomber squadrons, until the last eighteen months of the war confronted a statistical probability of their own extinction.”

“Ernie Pyle wrote: ‘A man approached death rather decently in the air force. He died well-fed and clean-shaven.’ More than half the RAF’s heavy-bomber crews perished, 56,000 men in all. The USAAF’s overall losses were lower, but among 100,000 of its men who participated in the strategic offensive against Germany some 26,000 died, and a further 20,000 were taken prisoner.”

Ken Own a British bomber pilot:
“If you were coned [by searchlights], you’d fly towards somebody else in the hope they’d pick them up instead of you. There was a tremendous element of cynicism and callousness—‘Thank Christ it’s someone else.’ I honestly can’t remember the names of many of the men who got the chop.”

“From 1943 onwards, it was the turn of German and Japanese airmen to do most of the dying: less than 10 percent survived until the end.”

“Service in the Pacific was an experience light-years from that of Europe, first because of its geographical isolation. The U.S. Marine pilot Samuel Hynes wrote: ‘Out here the war life was all there was; no history was visible, no monuments of the past, no cities remembered from books. There was nothing here to remind a soldier of his other life; no towns, no bars, nowhere to go, nowhere even to desert to.’”

Unnamed American soldier:
“Any guy overseas who says he’s in love with his wife tells a damn lie…He’s in love with a memory – the memory of a moonlit night, a lovely gown, the scent of perfume or the lilt of a song.”

J.R. Ackerley’s poem published in the British newspaper Spectator on the fate of a lost soldier:
“It was more like the death of an insect than of a man.”

“A powerful sensation among hundreds of millions of people was that of injustice: they did not believe they merited the plagues of peril, privation, loneliness and horror that had swept them away from their familiar lives into alien and mortally dangerous environments. ‘I don’t believe I am wicked,’ wrote the British gunner Lt. John Guest, ‘and I don’t believe the majority of people, Germans included, are either—certainly not wicked enough to have been deservedly overtaken by this war.’”

German Helmuth von Moltke on taking residence in a requisitioned house:
“The … disgusting thing was the feeling of having entered a stranger’s house, to sit there like thieves, while the owner, as I knew, sat in a concentration camp.”

“The Red Army advanced more swiftly than Eisenhower’s forces in 1944–45, partly because its soldiers lived off the land and required much lower scales of supply; they were the least cosseted of the war. Among the long list of comforts and facilities routinely provided to Western Allied troops but denied their Russian counterparts were razors, delousing chambers, pencils, ink, paper, knives, torches, candles, games. Vodka was the only Red Army–issue stimulant to morale, and some sections pooled their rations, so that men could take turns to drink themselves into stupefaction. To the end, many men advanced to attack while suffering hunger, lice, piles, toothache, bleeding gums caused by scurvy, and sometimes tuberculosis.”

An account of a Chinese girl forced into prostitution by the Japanese army:
“One of them was an interpreter who told me the others were officers and then left. All three raped me. As I was a virgin, it felt very painful so I screamed very loudly. When they heard me cry they said nothing, just continued to fuck me like animals. For ten days, every evening three, four or five men did the same. Usually, while one of them raped me the others watched and laughed.

”…Four other girls were taken to the Japanese camp with me, and in 1946 I learned that all of them had died of venereal disease. Later, when the villagers learned that I’d been raped by Japanese, they too mocked and beat me. I have been alone ever since.”

“The grotesqueries of destruction were boundless. Ursula Gebel wrote of a November 1943 attack on Berlin, during which many bombs fell on the city zoo. ‘That afternoon … I had been at the elephant enclosure and had seen the six females and one juvenile doing tricks with their keeper. That same night, all seven were burnt alive … The hippopotamus bull survived in his basin, [but] all the bears, polar bears, camels, ostriches, birds of prey and other birds were burnt. The tanks in the aquarium all ran dry; the crocodiles escaped, but like the snakes they froze in the cold November air.’”


Hastings is a terrific writer and an accomplished historian, and he has repeatedly manages to convey the horrors and mistakes, but also the triumphs and breakthroughs of World War II; the day-to-day grind, and the long-term consequences; what the War meant then and what it means now. I doubt anyone who reads Inferno will be disappointed or unaffected, and I can almost guarantee that new insights and details will be learned. Hastings notes in the acknowledgments, jokingly, that his supportive wife might rather have lived through World War II than have to read anymore of the author’s books on the subject. Hastings is being too humble. Any student of history would gladly devour his books, Inferno prominently included.

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