This book is on the Army Chief of Staff Reading List so I read it when it became available. I’ve read a lot of WWII both in my life and in over the last few years. As this is professional reading, I suppose the kind way to phrase it is that I am over-saturated with WWII at the moment. I was a history major in college, I’m in the military, and my father was described by John Mulaney this week on SNL – he is between the ages of 60 and 75 and watches every WWII documentary ever made. I know what happened, at least the major muscle movements, and I did not expect to learn much new in Inferno. I was pleasantly surprised then when Hastings opened the book by describing that he would not regurgitate the D-Day landing and other significant and well-researched events. This book is a chronological look at the war for the perspectives of those who lived it. It looks at the trees, not the forest and I really liked it.
My favorite part is the part that leaves me feeling the most conflicted. This next part is about genocide so be forewarned.
As an American, WWII was always easy. We were the good guys. So were the Brits. The Germans and the Japanese were the bad guys. I’ve always made that association – WWII-era Germans are Nazis and they are bad. The thing I liked about this book is not that it challenged that idea, Nazis are still bad, but it did humanize an aspect of the war I never considered and it made me feel lots of things. Specifically, Inferno discusses one of the first regular German army units tasked to, essentially, kill every man, woman, and child in a village. This was not the SS or a unit led by an infamous war criminal. These were regular soldiers, perhaps conscripted, put into an absolutely horrible no-win scenario. They were ordered to commit war crimes. If they didn’t or failed to complete their mission, they would be killed. Hastings describes what the men felt and their horror at what they were asked to do. If you are like me, you think Nazi=bad, and that such atrocities were easy for such horrible people to commit. That was not the case. In fact, Hastings specifically mentions that this is one of the few cases in which soldiers did not ostracize those that did not engage or could not follow through. This book details how the men became physically ill at what they did and that other soldiers would have to finish killing for them. Inferno then discusses how after just a few instances of committing these atrocities, these mostly regular soldiers hardened and became indifferent to their awful task. Hastings shows us how the evil German soldier came to be. While it in no way absolves what happened, it was a perspective I had never seen in WWII research before. It added a layer that muddied the waters and helped remove the false dichotomy that I did not realize I had internalized so much. I love it when literature does this and I think it is a monumental achievement that does something similar in non-fiction.
I’ll conclude by mentioning that one of the things Hastings writes in the beginning that I think ties this all together is that WWII was awful for everyone. It is indisputable that it was worse for Polish Jews in Warsaw that it was for Americans who spent the war in the United States. That take though seeks to minimize the dramatic change in day-to-day life for a stateside American. To that American, life was inexorably worse that it was before the war. WWII affected and impacted everyone and it was a nearly global change for the worse. Comparisons of how much worse it was for some than others is an unnecessary task. We can talk about how life deteriorated for everyone with comparison. We cannot compare the Holocaust or the Soviet purges to the American experience due to the sheer scale of the war. Hastings used this philosophy to write this book and highlight different trees form within the forest of WWII. I did not want another WWII book when I started but this book found a receptive audience in me and I’m glad I read it. I think you should too.