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Review of “Inferno: The World at War, 1939-1945” by Max Hastings


Those of you that read my review of Armageddon: The Battle for Germany will certainly remember my effusive praise of Max Hastings. I find his writing style, masterful use of direct quotations from primary sources, and his ability to distill his writing to the most important issues to be superb. So, as you might expect, I was overjoyed when I found a copy of one of his newer books, Inferno: The World at War, on my bookshelf.

Unlike Armageddon, which is only about the later part of the war against Germany, Inferno: The World at War is about all of World War II. Hastings describes every theater, home front, and time period of the war are described to some extent, which makes is a great book for those who want to start learning about World War II in general rather than just a specific theater. To find out if it’s the book for you, just continue reading this review!

Summary of Inferno: The World at War by Max Hastings

In Inferno: The World at War, Hastings wastes no time in getting to writing about the war itself. From page 1 he describes the actual fighting and what strategy that guided it, not the overarching political considerations that guided each decision. That decision allows him to satisfactorily describe each aspect of the actual war in depth; instead of being bloated with extraneous details, Inferno: The World at War is relatively concise for the time period (1939-1945) that it covers.

Additionally, Hastings does not divide Inferno: The World at War into sections based on the year, the front, or the perspective (Axis, neutral, or Allied), as many authors do. Instead, he has sections based on general time periods in which he writes about both Axis and Allied actions in the Pacific, Mediterranean, and Eastern theaters.

That blending of the various available perspectives of World War II helps Hastings show how how victories or defeats in each theater affected the other theaters and how the Allies were able (or unable, at some points) to get along and synchronize their offensives. For example, by writing about D-Day in close proximity to his description of Operation Bagration, Hastings showed how the Soviet war effort was helped by the Allies finally attacking the Germans where it mattered and how the Allies were helped by the massive amount of blood the Soviets were willing to shed to win the war.

Finally, one of the most impressive aspect of Inferno: The World at War is that Hastings is at no time beholden to wartime legends or stereotypes. Rather than basing his writings based mainly on veteran interviews and post-war legends of certain leaders, and thus potentially incorrect details, like Stephen Ambrose did in D-Day, Hastings takes obvious time to try and write about what is actually correct. Two particularly poignant examples of his independence from post-war legend come from his descriptions of two generals: MacArthur and von Manstein.

Hastings takes no prisoners when describing Douglas MacArthur. Whereas MacArthur’s own memoir, Reminiscences, makes him seem like a genius that cared about his troops and needed to retake the Philippines, Hastings describes him as an egomaniac who only landed the tens of thousands of troops needed for the Philippine campaign because his identity was wrapped up in that former colony.

Perhaps because of his personality, a post-war legend of MacArthur’s genius generalship arose; Hastings, however, makes a convincing argument as to why MacArthur’s campaigns were wasteful of American lives and generally unnecessary. Similarly, a post-war myth arose that von Manstein was not a Nazi and Manstein did much to forward that myth in his memoir, Lost Victories. Hastings doesn’t buy that narrative about von Manstein and presents a compelling counter-narrative about Manstein’s obvious Nazi sympathies.

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While that might not seem important, I think it is crucial because it a) shows Hastings’ commitment to writing facts, not just what we want to hear and b) because, if correct, it presents useful lessons on why commanders might follow illegal orders. There are many other myths that Hastings deconstructs, and quite a few that he confirms, such as the lack of fighting spirit among Italian troops, but I thought those were two of the more interesting ones.

Overall, Inferno: The World at War will give you an excellent overview of Word War II and will leave you more knowledgeable about the actual truths of the conflict, not just myths.

Analysis of Inferno: The World at War

I thought that Inferno: The World at War was absolutely excellent. While I usually prefer books that are about a specific topic, such as The German Army on the Eastern Front, An Army at Dawn and The Two-Ocean War, I liked how Hastings was able to weave the disparate actions and theaters of World War II into one coherent narrative. After reading it, I felt I had a better understanding of the war as a whole and what each belligerent contributed towards their side’s cause.

Additionally, I think that Hastings’ commitment to the truth, as I discussed in the above summary section, made Inferno: The World at War a much more interesting read than books written by authors not as investigative as Hastings. Few authors are willing to discuss the lack of fighting spirit in many British troops, the unnecessary nature of MacArthur’s campaign, war crimes committed by Allied troops, or the fact that France probably committed more to the Axis cause than to the Allies. All of those topics need to be discussed, they’re important. But Hastings is one of the only authors willing to do so.


Read Inferno: The World at War. Had I finished it before creating my list of 5 books to read during the Chinese flu quarantine, I certainly would have added it. If military history interests you or you just want to learn more about World War II and your nation’s role in it, I can’t think of a better book to read!

By: Gen Z Conservative