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Reviewed by Robert Citino
By Max Hastings
Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2004

The two world wars of the 20th century could not have ended under more dissimilar circumstances. In 1918, Germany’s will to fight collapsed while its armies still stood everywhere on foreign soil. Bringing the army home after the defeat, in fact, proved to be a huge task for the new German Republic. Adolf Hitler and his Nazi minions rose to power partly on the idea that the army had not really been defeated, but had been a victim of a “stab in the back” by Socialists, Jews and defeatists of every description. Next time, he vowed, it would be different — Germany would fight on to the bitter end, until “one minute past midnight,” if need be.

Hitler did not keep all of his promises to the German people, but he did keep that one. In 1945 the German military fought until there was literally no country left to defend. The Third Reich died kicking and screaming, finally crashing down in an orgy of pulverized, burning cities and a river of blood — civilian and military, German and non-German. Military history knows no year quite like 1945, and if we are all lucky, we will never see another.

That horrible year is the subject of Max Hastings’ new book. There is no denying that Armageddon moves over some very old ground. The post-Normandy operational account will be utterly familiar to anyone with even a passing knowledge of the battles under discussion. Bernard Montgomery at Arnhem, Courtney Hodges at Aachen, George Patton at Metz, the debate within Dwight D. Eisenhower’s headquarters about who should receive the limited supplies of gasoline, “single thrust” vs. “broad front” strategy, the strains within the alliance as U.S. power waxed and British power waned, the Bulge — it’s all here, and very little of it adds to our knowledge. In fact, Hastings’ argument that the fuel allocated to Montgomery for Operation Market-Garden should have gone to the First Army — but only if it had been commanded by Patton instead of Hodges — goes a qualifier too far, crossing the boundary from legitimate operational analysis into the realm of alternative history. Russell Weigley’s Eisenhower’s Lieutenants (1981) went over all this a long time ago, and it remains the book of choice for those interested in a campaign history. Nor does Hastings bring anything particularly new to the table with regard to the war in the East. There is a huge body of operational literature on the Red Army’s triumphant advance from Minsk to Berlin, with David Glantz and Jonathan House’s When Titans Clashed still leading the pack. Eastern Front aficionados should not expect to find anything startling here.

Hastings’ previous books, especially Overlord (1984), have raised hackles on this side of the Atlantic with his views on the alleged shortcomings of U.S. Army infantry. This one is no exception, except that he has now added a fresh nuance: The British were not any better. Both Western allies, he says, tended to probe German positions in a tentative, cautious manner, then pull back at the first sign of resistance and wait for the artillery and the fighter-bombers to do their work. While both Brits and Amis suffer under Hastings’ lash, he has nothing but good things to say about German and Soviet fighting qualities. The war in the East, he opines, was of a different character altogether than the war in the West, with the latter the work of “men still striving to act temperately” and the former dominated by “elemental passions.” The best evidence for this characterization, he argues, is the much higher casualty figure in the East. Hastings doesn’t mince words: The Red Army made the greatest contribution to Hitler’s downfall, by far.

If he had stopped there, it would be hard to argue. Unfortunately, the book wastes page after page beating an insistent and senseless drumbeat of comparisons between the fighting qualities of the Anglo–U.S. host in the West and the Red Army in the East, much to the detriment of the former. It is an apples and oranges comparison, to put it mildly, and it is Armageddon‘s greatest failing. As the author himself repeatedly points out, any U.S. or British commander suffering even a fraction of the casualties that the Soviets were willing to tolerate would have been sacked and sent home in disgrace. The Western democracies wanted to win the war at a minimal cost in friendly casualties, which is not some sort of character flaw. Neither Josef Stalin nor his commanders, nor the German General Staff for that matter, cared at all for the lives of the soldiers under their command. “The Americans and British, God be thanked, inhabited a different universe from that of the Russian soldier,” Hastings maintains, and it is hard to see the point of comparing different universes. Likewise, he recognizes that “American and British soldiers were not Panzergrenadiers,” and if they had been, the societies that nurtured them would have had to be fundamentally different and more militaristic than they were.

These comparisons extend up to the higher commanders, as well. Both Montgomery and Omar Bradley receive rough treatment for never having managed a large-scale encirclement of an enemy force. Since when has that been a criterion for success in the U.S. or British armies? How often did they ever try to achieve one? In fact, the battle of encirclement, or Kesselschlacht, has never been a part of U.S. or British doctrine in the way it has been in the German and Russian tradition. “No Allied general on the Western Front matched the verve displayed by Zhukov and his fellow marshals in the East,” Hastings argues. Well, “verve” is one way of describing it. The author himself just a few pages later describes the “wholesale executions of men suspected of cowardice or desertion” under Georgi Zhukov’s command.

Despite those weaknesses, however, there is a great deal of value here. What Hastings has done is document the human tragedy rather than write a mere battlefield saga. He has worked from a large body of evidence: archival materials, unpublished manuscripts and interviews with some 170 participants from Russia, the United States, Great Britain, Germany and the Netherlands. His undeniable talents as a writer enable him to weave these sources together into a compelling, if heavily anecdotal, account. Thus, alongside the movements of the contending armies, we read of German civilians in Dresden trying desperately to extinguish incendiary bombs in the February 1945 raid, and we also come to know the often-terrified pilots who risked their lives on the bombing runs; we meet Jews, slave laborers and concentration camp inmates in both East and West desperately scanning the horizon for the arrival of their liberators, and wondering what was taking them so long.

We meet Tom Barker, a British soldier captured in 1940 who for all practical purposes became a son to the family on whose farm he worked for years; the owner, Hugo Otto, would occasionally share a glass of schnapps with him. On the other end of the spectrum, we meet Genrikh Naumovich. Like thousands of other Red Army men, he was captured by the Nazis, survived their tender mercies (in his case, at Mauthausen concentration camp), was repatriated, and wound up on the “socially dangerous” list in the postwar Soviet Union and could not find work. Perhaps most compelling — and probably least known to American readers — is the vivid account of how close an entire nation came to martyrdom: the ordeal of the Netherlands during the terrible Hongerwinter of 1944-45.

The “good war”? Hardly. The “necessary war” to stamp out National Socialism? Absolutely. Hastings reminds the reader, once again, of the steep price the entire world paid for Hitler.