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My bedtime reading for the last few weeks, between Teresa of Avila’s Foundations, has been Max Hastings’s All Hell let Loose: The World at War 1939-1945. It’s almost too disturbing to read late at night, which is why I moderate it with some Carmelite spirituality.

No-one would deny how much the Allies suffered in the Second World War, on the front line and at home; but what comes across to me from the global perspective that Hastings offers is the breathtaking scale and unimaginable horror of war on the eastern front, as the Red Army clashed with the Nazis. I was mostly ignorant of this whole reality, and over-influenced by the British/American perspective.

I won’t try to summarise the book. If someone has asked you for a late Christmas present suggestion then get it for yourself. But here are a couple of statistics that made me stop in my tracks about war in the east.

On Sunday, 23 August, the Germans heralded their assault [on Stalingrad] with an air raid by six hundred aircraft: 40,000 civilians are said to have died in the first fourteen hours, almost as many as perished in the entire 1940-41 blitz on Britain [p308].

By the end of 1943, the Soviet Union had suffered 77 per cent of its total casualties in the entire conflict – something approaching twenty million dead [p395]

And to put in perspective the relative Allied losses:

The Soviet Union suffered 65 per cent of all Allied military deaths, China 23 per cent, Yugoslavia 3 per cent, the USA and Britain 2 per cent each, France and Poland 1 per cent each [p324].

Hastings is at pains to explain that you can’t compare one form of suffering with another, and that the knowledge of someone’s tragedy on another side of the globe does not in any way diminish or trivialise your own. But the scale of tragedy on the eastern front almost defies comprehension.

Part of the interest of the book lies in how Hastings manages to weave personal accounts of the war into the overall story, without ruining the flow. So in the midst of a section about grand strategy there are illuminating human passages from a letter sent home from the front line, or a diary found in the rubble of a besieged building.

I don’t know enough about the war to judge his judgments, but it’s a gripping story, and a sobering reminded of the tragedy of war. Despite the stories of heroism and daring, very little romance remains – at least in my own mind.

Here is the blurb from Waterstones, if you need any more persuading:

A magisterial history of the greatest and most terrible event in history, from one of the finest historians of the Second World War. A book which shows the impact of war upon hundreds of millions of people around the world – soldiers, sailors and airmen; housewives, farm workers and children.  Reflecting Max Hastings’s thirty-five years of research on World War II, All Hell Let Loose describes the course of events, but focuses chiefly upon human experience, which varied immensely from campaign to campaign, continent to continent.  The author emphasises the Russian front, where more than 90% of all German soldiers who perished met their fate. He argues that, while Hitler’s army often fought its battles brilliantly well, the Nazis conducted their war effort with ‘stunning incompetence’. He suggests that the Royal Navy and US Navy were their countries’ outstanding fighting services, while the industrial contribution of the United States was much more important to allied victory than that of the US Army. The book ranges across a vast canvas, from the agony of Poland amid the September 1939 Nazi invasion, to the 1943 Bengal famine, in which at least a million people died under British rule – and British neglect. Among many vignettes, there are the RAF’s legendary raid on the Ruhr dams, the horrors of Arctic convoys, desert tank combat, jungle clashes. Some of Hastings’s insights and judgements will surprise students of the conflict, while there are vivid descriptions of the tragedies and triumphs of a host of ordinary people, in uniform and out of it.  ‘The cliche is profoundly true’, he says. ‘The world between 1939 and 1945 saw some human beings plumb the depths of baseness, while others scaled the heights of courage and nobility’. This is ‘everyman’s story’, an attempt to answer the question: ‘What was the Second World War like ?’, and also an overview of the big picture. Max Hastings employs the technique which has made many of his previous books best-sellers, combining top-down analysis and bottom-up testimony to explore the meaning of this vast conflict both for its participants and for posterity.

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