It is difficult to condense the history of the Second World War into anything, let alone a single text. In a time so very close to our own, the world underwent changes and experienced a conflict that has never been seen, and indeed, will ever be seen again. Every single country felt its effects, some more than others. The Russians, for example, estimate some 27 million civilians and armed forces members perished during its bitter struggle with the iron-spirited Nazis, accounting for nearly half of the estimated losses throughout the entire conflict. By the time the Germans surrendered on May 7th 1945, up to 13 million people; six million of them Jews, had perished either in the gas chambers or died at the hands of the Germans, primarily the SS. Even small nations thousands of miles away who had never heard of obscure Polish towns like Treblinka or Auschwitz, such as New Zealand lost over 11,000 of its population of just 1.6 million. Indeed, the seven long years of war are splattered in blood across the pages of history.
It is difficult to comprehensively cover the major events that occurred during the Second World War. historians who would choose to undertake this task, in any medium of media, would face monumental challenges.
Of all the historians who have undertaken this task, Sir Max Hastings delivers an excellent offering to a world with a vast abundance of reading material. The title itself is brilliant. It perfectly describes the turbulent events that effected the vast majority of the world. It gives the reader an overwhelming sense of perspective; to have an unyielding respect to the people who survived it; civilians and soldiers, Allies or Axis. Hastings breaks the book down into a series of 26 chapters, each one representing a major event in the Second World War. Each chapter provides a wealth of information whilst being written in a very addictive way. All Hell Let Loose at times reads like a gripping novel. Indeed, at times the reader may have to be cautious to not forget that this is not a fictional piece of literature. This book would be an excellent way for younger generations to learn the history of the Second World War.
The book is very well researched, a bibliography in the back lists close to three-hundred books pertaining to the events of the Second World War, and even then Hastings mentions many other texts and sources were omitted to save space. This book is written with authority; to use perhaps an inappropriate expression, Hastings knows what he’s talking about. By the end of the last chapter (titled Victors and Vanquished) one may feel disappointed that such a vast book, a truly emotional read, has come to an end. The bibliography provides a lot of excellent references which, like this book, are excellent reads.
Whilst being British himself, Hastings writes this book from a neutral perspective. Highly decorated war heroes such as Churchill, MacArthur, Montgomery, have their share of embarrassments (and sometimes appalling ones) in this book, whilst lesser-known (and indeed virtually unknown) leaders and officers receive the recognition which is deserved. Highly popular and celebrated events such as the events leading up to the Dunkirk evacuation or even the eventual invasion of Normandy are shown in different lights, free from the bias that one may associate with such a book being written by a British historian.
The book includes testimonials and eyewitness statements from an immense amount of people; soldiers of every rank, civilians of all professions and walks of lives. It reinforces the respect for survivors one will feel inside them upon finishing this book. Readers new to the Second World War may even find it overwhelming.
In short, All Hell Let Loose is a masterpiece. Hastings truly takes the reader on a very long, arduous journey into one of the largest, darkest events in the history of humanity. The first sentence in the Introduction of All Hell Let Loose perfectly encapsulates what it is, for those it affected and for the reader as well:
“This book is about human experience.”
I thoroughly recommend this book. As quoted in a review of All Hell Let Loose: The World at War 1939-1945 in the UK’s Daily Telegraph it is, if asked to describe it one word: Majestic.