Battlefield triumph and appalling human tragedy mingle uncomfortably in an extraordinary analysis of World War II
All Hell Let Loose
By Max Hastings
Published by Harper Press, 2011
Available at Asia Books, Bt520
Reviewed by Paul Dorsey
In May 1942 police in Leningrad, a city under siege by Hitler’s armies, arrested 236 starving citizens for cannibalism. The food supply situation then improved somewhat. In June only 56 were arrested for eating their dead neighbours.
War is, of course, sustained horror that might be measured only in degrees. The “hell” in the title of Max Hastings’ latest superb history is to be taken quite literally. It’s a summation of breathtaking blunders and untrammelled egotism, but mostly it’s an account of inhuman atrocity. Dante could have witnessed no worse.
If you already know about the more famous siege that gripped Stalingrad and are unfazed by the cruel necessity of cannibalism, then how about this from the frontline diary of a Russian soldier?
“The corpse near me stinks unbearably – there are many of them around, old and new. Some turn black as they dry, and lie in all sorts of postures. Here and there in the trench one sees body parts trampled into the mud – a flattened face, a hand, all as brown as the soil. We walk on them.”
Max Hastings has already published separate best-sellers about the war in Europe (“Armageddon”) and in the Pacific (“Nemesis”). Here he recounts all of World War II in 700 pages without once repeating himself, again making history a human affair rather than just the physics of forces and momentum on the battlefield. He leaves it to other chroniclers to explain the strategies in detail, drawing instead on the participants’ own recorded reactions, from the government minister to the Japanese foot soldier to the small-town English housewife.
This is certainly not to say that Hastings spares facts and reserves comment on the armed combat. He describes events dispassionately until perspective demands criticism. Why, for example, he asks, were the British and French in May 1940, the Soviets in June 1941, the Americans in December 1941 and the Germans in June 1944 so cataclysmically unprepared for massive assaults about which they’d had ample warning?
“Each society around the world which found itself overtaken by the contagion of violence responded with initial disbelief, even if logic had been proclaiming its inevitability from the rooftops.” Japan and Germany, he writes, were crippled by colossal strategic blundering, their initial success due only to wilful Allied dawdling.
Hastings, a newspaper columnist who is no dove when he sees need for war, is scathing in his condemnation of misplaced military might. He never lets the reader forget the darker intent behind the Allies’ “fight for liberation”. The Soviets had their own thuggish imperial ambitions. The Americans were determined that, since they were dragged into the global murk, they’d make sure the globe was shaped to their liking once they’d won.
Despite this, the Europeans were meanwhile determined to re-colonise their former holdings. The end of the war filled many Asians and Africans with bitterness and dread at the prospect of their former masters’ return. The French and Dutch tried hard though in vain to restore the good old days in Indochina and Malaya. The Philippines bridled violently at the pull of US reins. Churchill fumed that Burma and India were set on independence.
“British onlookers at the Burmese capital’s [post-war] victory parade watched uneasily as Aung San’s nationalist troops goose-stepped down the central avenue in Japanese-style uniforms.”
Japan’s vaunted Greater Asia Co-prosperity Sphere brought the continent no prosperity. On the contrary, millions of Chinese, in and out of uniform, were slaughtered, and at least five million Southeast Asians died, many from starvation because Tokyo diverted so much food to its soldiers.
India, never overtaken by the Japanese, continued its insurrection against the Raj during the war, resulting in the appalling fact, suppressed by censors in the West, that in 1942 Britain deployed 50 battalions to quell it – more than were committed against the Japanese – and routinely brutalised the protesters. Gandhi and Nehru were among 30,000 dissenters in prison that year. When natural disaster triggered the Bengal famine the following year, Churchill refused to help, and between three and four million British subjects died.
Thailand is mentioned little in the book, and perhaps the less said the better. The only significant passage comes during the doomed Allied defence of Malaya in 1941. On December 8 “the first of the countless atrocities took place” in the Pacific theatre. “Three British airmen who crash-landed in Siam were arrested by its gendarmerie, who handed them over to the Japanese. Tokyo’s local vice-consul told a Siamese judge that they were ‘guilty of taking Japanese lives and destroying Japanese property’, and the men were beheaded on a nearby beach.”
Hastings rates the armies, the commanders and leaders of nations. Hitler and Stalin both made egregious mistakes – Stalin alone learned from them. Churchill and Roosevelt acceded to a string of costly attacks in the Pacific – Burma, Iwo Jima, Okinawa – that were utterly superfluous to victory’s needs because Japan was already encircled and would have soon enough suffocated for lack of supplies.
But Japanese military leaders continued the fighting around the region, Hastings says, in the fatalistic spirit of shikala na gai – “it cannot be helped”. “If this was a monumentally inadequate excuse for condemning millions to death without hope of securing any redemptive compensation, it is a constant of history that nations which start wars find it very hard to stop them.”