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'Inferno' a devastating look at terrible toll of WWII

It was the spring of 1945 in Hamburg, Germany, a proud and ancient city devastated by Allied bombing. An elderly resident, Mathilde Wolff-Monckeburg, the wife of an academic, shared her innermost feelings with her diary as she had done sporadically throughout the war. This time, she surveyed the utter ruin all around her and wrote:

"All this because of one man who had a lunatic vision of being 'chosen by God.' "

If only it were that simple!

To British historian Max Hastings, World War II remains a mass of jumbled, mind-numbing contradictions nearly 75 years after Adolf Hitler began to assuage his appetite for land and glory at the expense of the Czechs and the Poles.

And mind you, that assessment comes from a historian who has been researching that titanic clash of egos and ideologies for 40 years. He has written a dozen books on aspects of the war. Now he pulls together a life's work in one monumental volume.

Hastings is a master of the international geopolitics of the 1930s and 1940s, the accelerant that within months spread a war, which began as just another chapter in the age-old battles between European neighbors, to nearly every continent and ocean.

It is his uncanny understanding of World War II, built over decades of study, which helps explain its inconsistencies. Why a Russian dash into Finland, or a German struggle in Norway? Poland makes sense, even Czechoslovakia. But Norway? It was reported that when the king of Norway was told his nation was at war, he needed to ask: "Against whom?"

The questions abound. Why did the Italians join with the Third Reich after making overtures to France? What did Mussolini hope to gain from a Hitler who disdained him? And of special interest to Americans: Why did Japan attack the United States when the last thing the Axis wanted was the full participation of America in the war? There were plenty of valuable Dutch and British islands around for the taking.

On this question, Hastings does not equivocate. He describes as nonsense the various conspiracy theories involving President Franklin D. Roosevelt. According to Hastings, the attack on Pearl Harbor was based on Japanese "calculations that were introspective and matched by stunning geopolitical ignorance."

From Tokyo, it might have appeared the United States, which wouldn't fight alongside its oldest allies in Europe, had no stomach for war over islands half a world away. One good thrashing and the Americans would sue for peace. Hastings describes Pearl Harbor as "a grossly misconceived operation," because little else could have coalesced America like that humiliating and humbling defeat.

It would be a mistake to think this huge single-volume history is another compilation of battles, generals and campaign strategies. As he has done in past books, Hastings tells much of his story through the eyes of the men and women of all sides who were thrust into mortal combat not of their making, the people unsure of who they were fighting or why. This is where Hastings is at his brilliant best.

The indescribable human tragedy of this war lives on in letters and diaries -- it seems every woman kept a diary and every man wrote at least one letter home, the one discovered in his pocket upon his death. Beyond deadly fright and loneliness, the repeated theme of the common Brit, German, American, Italian and Russian was a fear of what transpires when the power of governance is allowed to slip into the hands of unscrupulous demagogues.

Yet, it is telling that common men and women on all sides of this mortal struggle were convinced they were fighting to save a civilization. The Anglo-American alliance sacrificed the flower of a generation to save Western Civilization.

But, a young German pilot wrote the defeat of Russia would "save Western Civilization," and a German Panzer gunner wrote home that "surely our Fuhrer has saved Europe from chaos." A young girl trapped and starving in the siege of Stalingrad rejoiced in her diary when Mother Russia saved her from the "Hun brute who would destroy the world."

Of course, she never learned that 27 million Russians -- a staggering number -- died defeating the Axis. And included in that number were at least 300,000 Russian solders, killed by their own superiors when they dared to retreat.

Even within most nations, the common folks were not united in this fight. Despite the heroic stories of the French resistance, many Frenchmen killed the very Brits and Americans who would liberate them. Many Eastern Europeans were torn between dying now at the hands of the Nazis, or dying later at the hands of the Soviet Communists. The Yugoslavs fought each other throughout the war. And according to Hastings, the Italians were "united only in their desperate desire for all the belligerents to leave their shores."

The atrocities that the warring sides inflicted upon each other's people in the final year, when all reasonable leadership knew the Axis was defeated, were incomprehensible. Europeans, who believed themselves the most civilized people on earth, murdered, raped and pillaged beyond the ability to imagine.

The Nazis continued killing Jews and others they deemed undesirable long after the cause was lost. In the East, the Russians killed for vengeance. In the minds of many Brits, the continued civilian bombing when victory was at hand was just payback.

Besides the unprecedented killing, the sides laid waste to the greater part of an entire continent. It is a wonder anything survived. This is the poignant story Hastings tells in individual letters and diaries: A masterful narrative of the struggle of the human spirit to overcome despair in the face of helplessness.

At the end of this magnificent volume, this critic was reminded of a moment in 1992 in the bowels of a British war museum, where a queue of septuagenarians, some wearing the caps of their regiments, wiped tears from their eyes as they stared at photographs and listened to the recorded voice of Winston Churchill.

A well-meaning American college student among the visitors whispered to her companion: "These Brits still get all emotional about that war."

One only hopes that the young innocent went on to learn the tears were for a buddy who died in a muddy foxhole or a smoke-filled cockpit, or for a shattered family, loved ones separated and lost forever, or for the tens of millions of individual aspirations and dreams dashed and trodden under foot.

This book should be must reading for a generation of educated young adults who have never tasted the misery of world war and who know World War II only through a few classic Hollywood films where the good guys always win and the heroes never get killed.

Edward Cuddihy is the retired Buffalo News managing editor.

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Inferno: The World at War, 1939-1945

By Max Hastings

Knopf

730 pages, $35