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The Library of Babel

A Spin-off of http://bookwormshead.blogspot.co.uk

All Hell Let Loose: The World at War, 1939-1945 - Max Hastings "The World at War 1939-1945" states the subtitle of this mastodontic book by the British historian and former war correspondent Max Hastings.
And there is little doubt that the 675 pages of "All Hell Let Loose", also known as "Inferno" for the US audience, should be enough to deliver a thorough account of all the main events of World War Two.

Potential skepticals on the ability of Mr Hastings to portray such an important period of history on a worldwide scale will be stunned to find fifty-nine (59!) additional pages of notes and references at the end of this book.
Sure enough, you would say, a total of 748 pages will suffice to show what really happened during the turbulent six years between 1939 and 1945 from the Atlantic Ocean to the Sea of Japan, from the boiling sands of El Alamein to the frozen waters of Murmansk.

You will be disappointed.

"All Hell Let Loose" doesn't tell you all and in fact is very far to win over the ambitious goal of making you as much familliar as possible with all the main events of World War Two. Much, too much is missing here.
And the choice of what including and what omitting in this volume is very unclear.

On the one hand is understandable how this goal couldn't be easily achieved even by the celebrity of historian Mr Hastings is and you cannot blame him too much for failing. But on the other hand, I believe that reviewing this book as "a single-volume history that covers every aspect of the Second World War", as the Financial Times did, means either being over indulgent with its author or having a limited knowledge of WWII.

Nevertheless, in many respects this is a history book to praise and something worth to get. Max Hastings takes you to not much known war-scenarios delivering well-documented, poignant and informative descriptions of events such as the siege of Budapest, the Nazis landing in Norway and the American-Japanese bloody fights for conquering the Philippines.

There is an overwhelming amount of documents, letters, written and oral accounts as well as diaries that the British historian had to look into, research and select in order to show us how war, famine and despair were felt by those who found themselves engulfed by the conflict as reluctant soldiers, deported Jews and POWs or as terrified civilians. Much to Mr Hastings credit the skill of putting everything in the right place here.

Less well-chosen is the decision of putting quotes from works as fiction such as "Suite Française"* by Irene Nemirovsky or "Life and Fate" by Vassily Grossman inspired by World War Two along with actual first hand accounts of the years from 1939 to 1945.

Fiction is fiction. No matter how good it could be. And a historian, like Mr Hastings is, should be very much aware of this tracing a dividing line separating reality from fiction.

Fiction is not journalism too.
No serious historian would put quotes from "The Quiet American" by Graham Greene hand in hand with passages from "Dispatches" by Michael Herr while writing about Vietnam. The fact that Mr Hastings himself was once a war correspondent is an aggravating circumstance of the historic status he gave to novels.

*[It must be said that "Suite Française" was not intended to be "a trilogy" (sic) as Hastings wrote here, but rather a serie of 5 novellas within a single volume. Perhaps some confusion with the "Lord of The Rings" saga arose in the busy historian's mind].

Fair enough. Let's talk about some of the omissions here.
The term "Sudetenland" cannot be found a single time in the 675 pages of narration as well as in the 59 pages of notes and references of All Hell Let Loose. Just like it happens with "Danzig corridor", "Westerplatte" and "Polish underground state".

This denotes a certain superficiality in talking about the very beginning of the war and leads us straight to a major problem this book doesn't care to face:

when did the Second World War begun?

Well, the invasion of the Sudetenland region belonging to Czechoslovakia and justified with futile reasons by the Nazis happened on 21st October 1938 and I would put this event as the beginning of World War Two as the very first act of Hitler expansionism.
And yet, the subtitle chosen by Mr Hastings and his editors says 1939-1945. An unfortunate choice? I do believe so.

Unluckily, there are plenty of peculiar choices here by Max Hastings.
The British historian states that "Britain's anti-militarist tradition was a source of pride to its people" to explain the reluctancy of Britons to be deeply involved in World War Two (a feeling eventually won over by the Luftwaffe air-attacks and by the passionate exhortations of Winston Churchill).

Oh well, if a colonialist country which fought two Boer wars in South Africa, three wars in Burma, three wars in Afghanistan, two opium wars in China (later sending troops to face the Boxer Rebellion), attacked the Zulus and the Ashantis in Africa, battled with Sikhs and Indian "mutineers" taking part to the First World War - just to mention the most significant conflicts happened in the 100 years before World War Two - has an anti-militarist tradition, we can call Stalin a democratic leader and a benefactor of economic liberalism.

As an Italian, I found puzzling how the chapter about the liberation of Italy stops half way on the Gustav line without mentioning at all the battle of Monte Cassino which had a fundamental importance and an important historical legacy.
Moreover, Hastings forgot or - even worse - chose to leave out from his book what happened in northern Italy as well as the dark page of the Republic of Salò, our own Vichy with Mussolini leading a Fascist state within the country supported by thousands of fanatics leading to civil war in Italy.

There is a review of this book published on The Economist (http://www.economist.com/node/21556542) stating that "Mr Hastings excessively admires two German field-marshals: Gerd von Rundstedt and Eric von Manstein, whereas only Bill Slim and George Patton rise above the general mediocrity of Allied field commanders".

A sentence which I looked at in disbelief as a potentially ironic remark considering how Hastings here stresses out pretty often how Britons were superior, more clever and considerate than guilt-anguished Germans, savage Russians, anachronistic Japanese and those scum of the Earth-like good for nothing Italians.

Talking about the American Mr Patton, I remember how the author basically addresses him an antisemite quoting a sentence by the American general about Jews being less than animals.
If this is what The Ecomomist calls "rising above the general mediocrity of Allied field commanders", well I might assume that the reviewer is in league with Mr Hastings in considering Britain a country with an anti-militarist tradition!

All in all, I consider "All Hell Let Loose" as a good history book, but "the best single-volume history ever written" (quoting the Sunday Times) might be somewhere else or, perhaps, has just not been written yet.