It Sucked to Go Through World War II. Inferno Will Remind You Why.

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There’s no point in trying to summarize Inferno, because it’s a book written against summaries. It’s an anti-summary.

The author of Inferno is the journalist and military historian Max Hastings, and its full title is Inferno: The World at War, 1939-1945, though neither of those facts tells you much about what’s special about it.

The point of Inferno is that it’s a record of the way ordinary people experienced World War II. So while there’s an appropriate amount of information in there about politics and strategy and armaments, and while it contains the required litany of numbing statistics (the war killed an average of 27,000 people every day), the focus is on individual experiences: first-person, trench-level, eyewitness testimony. Its aim is to un-numb you: to restore feeling to minds numbed by statistics.

Mind you, the feelings it restores are really, really painful ones. It’s impossible to bridge the gap between our long-healed world and the world of WWII, which was just then being roughly torn open, but Inferno comes as close as any book I’ve ever read. It’s a massive panorama that takes in entire continents while at the same time keeping the details in sharp focus. You witness disastrous scenes that most histories gloss over because they happened in the margins of the overall conflict. But they were anything but marginal for the people who experienced them. So for example, while it’s desperately moving to read about the atrocities of the Holocaust and the trauma of D-Day, it’s not unfamiliar; whereas it’s truly shocking to read about what people went through in relatively minor campaigns like the brutal struggle for Greece, and the Arctic convoys that ran materièl from Britain to the Soviets, and the tropical fighting in New Guinea. In Inferno these episodes open up and reveal themselves to be horrific little worlds in and of themselves.

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What you realize first is that the descent of the world into war in 1939 seemed no less surreal to those caught up in it than it does to us now. When an aide woke up King Haakon of Norway at 1:30 in the morning on April 9, 1940, to tell him that his country was at war, the king answered: “Against whom?” Many of the generals in charge were old men, relics of the First World War. Many of the weapons were even older. At Kollaa, in Finland, defenders deployed cannons cast in 1871, firing black powder charges, against the Soviet invaders.

The heart of the book lies not in the general but in the particular. So I’ll reproduce a few anecdotes, chosen pretty much at random.

  • On June 12, 1940, German forces prepared to cross the Loire River at Saumur, which happened to be the home of a cavalry school. The colonel who ran the school mustered his cadets and instructors to defend the riverbanks and led them into battle. Scores of them died before their position was finally overrun.
  • In August of 1940 the British coal ship Anglo Saxon was sunk west of the Canary Islands by a German cruiser. Seven men escaped in an open lifeboat. Five died of injuries or suicide. (After two weeks the ship’s cook was heard to say, “I’ll go down the street for a drink,” before he stepped overboard. The logbook reads: “Cook goes mad; dies.”) Two men survived until October when the boat washed up in the Bahamas, 2,275 miles from where it started. On his way home, one of the survivors died after his ship was sunk by a U-boat.
  • After the battle at the Russian town of Rzhev, where 26,000 Russians died, a German officer walked the battlefield. It was deep winter – Russian winter. “As we picked our way through the carnage,” he remembered, “the hard frozen bodies clinked like porcelain.”

[You have no choice but to talk about numbers if you want to get at the scale of the suffering the Russians endured, which shocks even Hastings, who at this point you’d think was unshockable. It’s not news, but it’s still awe-inspiring. The Soviet Union suffered 65 percent of all the Allied deaths in the war; by comparison, the U.S. and Britain accounted for 2 percent each. At Stalingrad alone, the Russians shot 13,500 of their own troops for cowardice and desertion (that’s a guess, the real number is probably higher). The Russians themselves went numb to their own tragedy. “Here and there in the trench one sees body parts trampled into the mud,” wrote one Nikolai Nikulin, fighting near Stalingrad. “A flattened face, a hand, all as brown as the soil. We walk on them.”]

  • A woman from a well-off family in Naples fled the city with her relatives to escape the bombing. They hid in a tiny village deep in the countryside. But that village was bombed too, and almost her entire family was killed: 10 people. After months living in caves, the woman fled again with her two surviving children to Rome. The city was surreally untouched by the war. “At the Corso Hotel, where the concierge knows us and tries to help,” she wrote, “we hear another guest threatening that he will refuse to patronize the establishment again if it admits such vagabonds as ourselves.”
  • Casualty rates were extremely high among pilots and airplane crews, which led to a strange culture of callousness and emotional distance. “If you were coned [picked up by searchlights] you’d fly towards somebody else in the hope they’d pick them up instead of you,” wrote Ken Owen of the RAF. “There was a tremendous element of cynicism and callousness — ‘Thank Christ it’s someone else.’” A crewman from an American B-17 put it like this: “We learned to live as perhaps once we were long ago, as simply as animals, without hope for ourselves or pity for another.”
  • Another B-17 pilot remembered this from a mission: “A German pilot came out of his plane, drew his legs into a ball, his head down. Papers flew out of his pockets. He did a triple somersault through our formation. No chute.”
  • In Budapest in early 1945, when the city was besieged by the Soviets, almost all the 2,500 animals in the zoo were killed or eaten. “For weeks,” Hastings writes, “a lion roamed the underground rail tunnels until it was captured by a Soviet tank force dispatched for the purpose.”

These aren’t the worst of the anecdotes. In fact I chose them because they’re relatively mild, and I can stand typing them. They get much much worse than that — more violent, more evil, more horrifying, more graphic. There are accounts of close-quarters fighting with bayonets, and mass executions, and what happens when a large-caliber round gets loose inside a tank, and ships sinking with the engine crew trapped below.

But you get the idea. Once you start reading, you can’t stop – you want to meet these strangers who suffered things we can’t imagine so that we could live in a sane world, or relatively sane. And they succeeded. In that sense we’re all like Nikolai Nikulin: we’re all walking on the dead.

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