Inferno: The World At War, 1939-1945 by Max Hastings

inferno book cover

Recommended by Doug Braudaway


There are many books about the Second World War. There are many goods books about the Second World War. Add Inferno to the list of good books about the Second World War.

Author Max Hastings has done two distinct things with Inferno. The first is writing a comprehensive history of the Second World War. He includes North Africa, the Russian Front, Burma, and other theaters of battle generally unfamiliar to Americans (who are mostly aware of the fighting in France and Germany--the Saving Private Ryan field of battle). Hastings includes the American areas but reminds the readers of the many other battle fronts around the world.

The second thing Hastings focuses on is personal observations. He makes a solid effort to show us the war through the eyes, ears, and experiences of the ordinary people who suffered though it. There are quotations from the powers-that-be, the very-important-persons, and such. But most of the quotations (and long quotations) are the words of ordinary soldiers, sailors, and civilians in the war zone. These are people who were not famous and will not be famous. But their letters and journals tell tales that have not been thought out for the public's approval. These words were written without military promotions or post-war political careers in mind.

It is difficult to describe the first-person narratives. They do not fit into one theme or one message. That is a deliberate plan by the author. The narratiaves simply have to be read for oneself. There are

the nearly frozen Russian prisoner-of-war who fell onto a stove and just lay there while he burned;
the formerly middle-class Italian women prostituting themselves for food;
the professional Germans committing suicide (and familial murder) as the Russians approached;
the American sailors sitting in a lifeboat somewhere in the Atlantic with no food or water;
and a hundred other stories that will shock and amaze.

The author does another thing in Inferno. He throws around some numbers. Sadly, the book does not one place to see all the numbers together (like I heard during an interview with the author on C-SPAN's BookTV). Still, the last chapter, "Victors and Vanquished" has many. Here are a few--

In Germany at the end of the war, 1 in 3 of the male children born between 1915 and 1924 were dead.
The British government maintained food rationing until 1952.
More than five million Poles died.
One in four of the twenty million military dead died in German or Japanese prison camps.
More than a million Yugoslavs of the total population of 15 million died.
During the event called World War II, more than 60,000,000 human beings died.
The Second World War was truly an Inferno. For those of us who have grown up since 1945, it is difficult to understand the magnitude of that fight. Max Hastings goes a long way in helping us do so.