Saturday, December 30, 2006


I'm currently reading one of the best history books I've come across in quite a long time. Armageddon, by British historian Max Hastings, is simply superb. Sixty years after the end of WWII, thousands of books have been written about the war. Despite being probably the most analyzed and dissected conflict in human history, Hastings manages to not only bring a fresh and unique view, but he also describes events that I was totally unfamiliar with (e.g., the Russian thrust into East Prussia which had virtually no military significance yet resulted in the slaughter of tens of thousands of civilians).

Here are a couple of excerpts from reviews of this excellent book:

From the New York Times:

... The central question about [the European war's] final phase is not, to borrow the title of Richard Overy's excellent book, ''why the Allies won,'' but rather why it took the Germans so long to lose. This is the question posed by ''Armageddon,'' Max Hastings's splendid account of the European war from the Allies' failure to capture the bridge at Arnhem in mid-September 1944 to the final extinction of German resistance in May 1945.

It is not difficult to understand why Hitler and those closest to him did not surrender in the fall of 1944. They knew what they had done: the mass murder of Europe's Jews, the vicious occupation policies in Poland and Russia, the millions of Russian prisoners of war dead of starvation and neglect. Their only option was to hope for a miracle -- one of the new weapons that German scientists were struggling to develop, the shattering of the alliance between the Western democracies and the Soviet Union, a dramatic victory by the hard pressed German Army.

How the Nazis were able to keep fighting is more difficult to understand. Hastings offers three explanations. First was Albert Speer's organization of the German economy, which provided enough matériel to sustain the machinery of war. Second was Heinrich Himmler's huge repression of dissent, which severely punished any indication of ''defeatism.'' And finally there was the fighting power of the German Army, which is Hastings's main subject. Sometimes outnumbered by as much as seven to one, usually without air support, German troops nevertheless fought with remarkable skill and intensity, inflicting proportionally more casualties than they suffered, forcing their enemies to pay dearly for every kilometer they eventually conquered.

From the Wall Street Journal:

"Armageddon" tells the story of the last terrible months of World War II, which saw the Goetterdammerung of Imperial and Nazi Germany's bid to conquer the world. Its British author, Max Hastings, is a former war correspondent who has seen the face of battle on many fields. Thus he writes with authority, as well as humanity, about the realities of combat -- the fear, smells, hunger, humiliation and the horrendous wounds inflicted. His range spans from the lowliest GI crouched in his foxhole in the dread Hurtgen Forest to the commanders in charge. He has been helped by the post-Glasnost availability in the former Soviet Union of combat accounts previously out of reach.

The result is a broad canvas that emphasizes the appalling toll of war on the Eastern Front. Among other things, "Armageddon" (Alfred A. Knopf, 584 pages, $30) relates the ruthless rape and pillage of East Prussia by Stalin's troops, full of terrible vengeance for the atrocities committed by the Germans in Russia. Almost eclipsing the savagery of Genghis Khan, much of this was hitherto unseen by Western eyes.

From National Review:

In Armageddon, a sequel of sorts to his acclaimed book Overlord: D-Day and the Battle for Normandy, 1944, published 20 years ago, Hastings recounts this final act in the drama set in motion when Germany invaded Poland in September 1939. He covers not only the Western Allies' side of the story but also the much less familiar and far more brutal Soviet side of the battle for Germany. He offers penetrating assessments of the principal leaders-Roosevelt, Churchill, Stalin, and Hitler-and of their foremost generals, but at the same time he draws on interviews and other records of the experience of ordinary soldiers and civilians. The result is an exceptionally rich and balanced work of military history that will be widely read for years to come.

I realize that I'm a history buff and that not everyone finds history as interesting as I do. However, I find Armageddon to be a unique work of history in that it does more than regurgitate the facts. Hastings offers new perspectives and insights that will reshape the historical understanding of World War II.

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