Inferno: The World at War, 1939-1945

Max Hastings, Knopf

Nov 9, 2011 at 10:34 am

Most histories of World War II are successful because they focus on specific battles or campaigns. The global conflict that seemed to define the last century was so complex and multifaceted, it would seem foolhardy to attempt to cover it in one book. 

But that’s exactly what military historian Max Hastings has successfully accomplished with his massive masterpiece, the comprehensive and compelling new tome, Inferno: The World At War, 1939-1945. Hastings, who has written several other less ambitious World War II histories, spent 35 years researching and writing this powerful treatise, and that commitment is evident on every single page. 

Hastings details virtually every aspect of the war, from the major battles to the little-known skirmishes, and the result is a vivid and deeply personal depiction of World War II. The author reveals at this book’s start what might be the most startling statistic of the war: that this blood bath killed an average of 27,000 human beings every single day.

Hastings’ genius, however, is beyond recounting facts and figures; it is in rendering a more personal version of World War II through the everyday lives of those forced to endure it, from the soldiers who sacrificed their lives to housewives and children killed, maimed and often forced from their homes. He accomplishes this by quoting from the diaries of those who fought and from their letters home. Through this we get a grunt’s eye view of much of World War II.

Hastings also delves into the minds of leaders like Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Theodore Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, whose stubborn resolve might have saved a continent. Inferno is a fitting tribute to the millions who paid the ultimate price on the blood-soaked fields where World War II was won and lost. Grade: A