A huge and hugely impressive and moving book, All Hell Let Loose is a concise and precise, but detailed and passion-filled history of the war years of the Second World War. The book is a rivetingly fresh look at a period I thought I knew something about. It challenged me and it has – certainly – rewarded me with increased understanding both of the situation and for those who had to try and survive it. On both sides.
Max Hastings never loses sight of his objective; to put into words an experience that which most ordinary people found indescribable. Explaining how the title came about, he writes;
Many resorted to a cliché: ‘All hell broke loose.’ Because the phrase is commonplace in eyewitness descriptions of battles, air raids, massacres and ship sinkings, later generations are tempted to shrug at it’s banality. Yet in an important sense the words capture the essence of what the struggle meant to hundreds of millions of people, plucked from peaceful, ordered existences to face ordeals that in many cases lasted for years, and for at least sixty millions were terminated by death.
As hinted at above, you will get a thorough and nuanced idea of what the Second World War was actually like to live through for people like you and me. The leaders do get a look in here, and grand stratagems are discussed and illustrated, but it is the even-handed perspective with which he discusses how the war irreversably affected the lives of the ordinary person that shines through. Everyone who was forced to endure it, suffered. Some more than others, some like to say, but thankfully Max Hastings has the rationality to see through the modern cynical smokescreen:
It would have been insulting to invite a hungry Frenchman, or even an English housewife weary of the monotony of rations, to consider that in besieged Leningrad starving people were eating each other, while in West Bengal they were selling their daughters. Few people who endured the Luftwaffe’s 1940-41 blitz on London would be comforted by knowledge that the German and Japanese peoples would later face losses from Allied bombing many times greater, together with unparalleled devastation.
We mostly all know the rough outline of the conflict. Our background and up-bringing makes us think we know who the good guys were, who the bad guys were. This book doesn’t attempt to change that overall ‘big picture’, but by giving us provocative examples of how it was to be a participant or an ‘active participant’, willingly or un-willingly, we are challenged to come away with a much more thought-provoking image of what really went on.
But my over-riding impression from the first two-thirds and one of the main impressions I came away from the book with; is how un-prepared, amateurish and even cynical we ‘victors’ were before and during the first phases, wherever in the world ‘we’ were at the outbreak of conflict. Then even going towards the eventual victory over Nazi Germany and Japan, we often did our best to attempt the snatching of defeat from the jaws of victory. Rather than entering the conflict determined, sure and with a grand strategy that would lead us inexorably on the path to justice and victory, I got the impression we could be said to have often relied on the other side making worse lash-ups of it than we did.
History and histories will always be written by the victors, but this book is a lot more objective than that might lead you to expect. Arrogance, broken promises, cynicism, fumbling, bumbling, incompetence, unreliability, naivity, it’s all here and revealed in detail – on both sides. And who had to deal with all the shit? People like your parents and mine. As he points out: “Combatants fared better than civilians: around three-quarters of all those who perished were unarmed victims rather than active participants in the struggle.”
The final chapter is brilliantly perfect. One of the best pieces of concise writing I can ever remember reading. It gathers together most of the big themes explored throughout the book and discusses them in a riviting and incredibly moving way:
It is impossible to dignify the struggle as an unalloyed contest between good and evil, nor rationally to celebrate an experience, and even an outcome, which imposed such misery on so many.
I never thought I would be so moved by a history of something I thought I knew so much about. I cannot recommend it highly enough. It’s a brilliant book, I’m sorry I came to the end of it, I’m glad I didn’t have to live through it.