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Bringing war to life

Putting a human face on World War II

By Peggy Carlson

The Free Lance-Star

AS THE generation that  lived through World  War II passes on, the rest of us are resigned to learning about it  from books, newsreels, oral histories, letters, photos and more. Veteran author and correspondent Max Hastings has a great knack for distilling  a mass of information into an immensely readable  presentation,  offering  analysis and insight, along with facts.

“Inferno: The World at War, 1939–1945,”  is now available in paperback.  Focusing on the human face of the war, it deserves a place of honor  in the library of anyone interested in World War II. Writing without a trace of romanticism and often with a dose  of irony, Hastings  makes the hellish period come to life in a vivid way, sometimes thrilling and sometimes sickening, but always gripping.

The events are  framed by the human experience, and Hastings offers multiple perspectives: British, American, French, Japanese, German, Polish and  Russian.

Each chapter is a self-contained unit, highlighting  a specific aspect or area of

the war. They are arranged chronologically, but needn’t be read in order to make sense.

Hastings writes about  the fall of Poland and France;  Britain’s lonely stance against Germany; America’s reluctance to go to war; the rise of militarism in Japan;  Hitler’s plans for conquest and much more. The chapters about the Eastern Front, “Barbarossa” and “Moscow Saved, Leningrad Starved,”   are painful.  Hastings aptly describes the situation as  “a grapple between rival monsters,” the Germans and the Russians;  and the treachery, tenacity and barbarity of both sides is  incomprehensible.

The war’s big events and places  are  in this book—Poland overrun, the fall of France, blitzkrieg,   Midway, Battle of Britain,  fighting in  Finland and Norway, Dunkirk,  Pearl Harbor, Anzio, Coral Sea, D–Day, Bataan—as well as the “little” events—children separated from parents,  wives searching desperately for food and firewood, young boys conscripted into military service, homes destroyed and lives forever changed.

Hastings concludes with  “Victors and Vanquished,”  a masterful analysis of what  the inferno of World War II had wrought.  He concludes:   “It is impossible to dignify the struggle as an    unalloyed contest between good and evil  All that seems certain is that Allied victory  saved the world from a much worse fate  than would have followed the triumph of Germany and Japan, With this knowledge, seekers after virtue and truth must be content.”

Peggy Carlson  is on the newsroom staff of The Free Lance–Star


By Max Hastings

(Knopf, $17.95, 500 pp.)


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