The first book review of 2012- Max Hastings' Inferno

Inferno:  The World at War 1939-1945.  Max Hastings.  New York:  Alfred A. Knopf, 2011.  ISBN 978-0-307-27359-8.  Maps.  Illustrations.  Notes & References.  Bibliography.  Index.  Pp. xx, 729.  $35.00.

Max Hastings' magnum opus of World War II is an excellent study for the introductory student looking for a single volume history of the conflict.  One of several new single volume examinations of the war published in 2011, Hastings' work stands out for his ability to cover not only the military, but the political, economic and even social aspects of this global struggle.

Building on the style of his previous works of World War II history Armageddon, covering the European Theater in 1944-1945,  and Retribution, covering the war against Japan during the same timeframe, this book seamlessly  takes the reader around the various theaters of the war, and Hastings does an outstanding job of showing the truly global nature of the war and how decisions in each theater interacted with strategy, logistics, and coalition politics.

There are several really unique aspects of this book.  First, Hastings dives into some theaters not traditionally covered in single volume histories of the war, particularly the China-Burma-India theater.  He also does an outstanding job of discussing the home fronts and how each country mustered its economic and natural resources to supply the massive military machines involved.

However, Hastings continues to be of the "superior German Wehrmacht" school of thought and he is unsparing of his criticism of American and British generalship.  Although he rightly condemns the moral ambiguity of much of the German officer corps to Hitler's atrocities, he continues to admire the tactical prowess of German soldiers in small unit combat.  Hastings will also make no friends among British partisans as his fiercest criticism is for the British military and leadership, especially the fall of Singapore and the performance of the British army in the early campaigns of 1940-1941.  Although this is a continuing debate on the combat 'deficiency' of American and British units versus their German counterparts, new research makes a pretty compelling argument that Germany was not "rolled over" by superior American and British material and troop strength after the Normandy invasion.

His analysis that Soviet Russia contributed the most to the defeat of the Wehrmacht is essentially correct, but it is unlikely that Stalin's troops alone could have won the war.  Although it was quite clear that the German army that faced the Allies was at its peak in the early North African campaigns of 1942-1943, by 1944, American and British units were able to perform very effectively on the battlefield.  Hastings does an admirable job of explaining the differences in doctrine and tactics of an army of a dictatorship (Germans and Russians) versus a democracy (British and Americans) and quite correctly notes that the casualties that Hitler and Stalin were willing to have their troops endure would have been very problematic to FDR and Churchill.

This is really a minor difference of opinion and doesn't diminish the overall effectiveness of the book in presenting the history of the key conflict of the 20th century in a concise, highly readable manner for both the beginning student as well as the jaded grognard.