- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 15, 2005


By Max Hastings

Knopf, $30, 584 pages, illus.


Max Hastings’ earlier book on the Normandy landings, “Overlord”, contains a haunting scene that foreshadows the story he has to tell in “Armageddon”. As American forces approach Omaha beach, an error results in more than two dozen amphibious tanks being launched too far from the shore, in water that is far too deep for them: “Each one, as it dropped off the ramp of the landing craft, plunged like a stone to the bottom of the sea, leaving pitifully few survivors struggling in the swell. Yet the following crews drove on into the water undeterred by ghastly example.”

Out of error and chaos comes victory, but at a halting pace, and at a desperate cost. As “Armageddon” opens, hopes are high in the Allied camp that Germany will capitulate in a few months. As late as September 1944, Whitehall planners set December 31 as the likely end of hostilities. Unlike his senior generals, however, Winston Churchill sensed that the struggle would continue into the New Year.

What were the reasons? As in “Overlord” and his book on RAF Bomber Command, Mr. Hastings (the son of a war correspondent and a distinguished journalist himself) does not flinch from listing the strategic blunders made by the Allied side. His re-telling of the Arnhem fiasco makes painful reading. He is particularly hard on Field Marshal Montgomery’s egoism, and although he is full of praise for General Eisenhower’s diplomatic and man-management skills, he has no time for myth-making about General Patton. It soon becomes clear that, if the war had been fought in the full glare of the modern TV networks, no senior commander could have been sure of surviving in his post. (The same is probably true, of course,of any war you care to mention.)

Yet the principal reason why the end of the Third Reich was postponed by several bloody months, Mr. Hastings, argues, was the high quality of the German fighting forces. In his view, the Allies’ citizen-soldiers, imbued with democratic values, were bound to be at a disadvantage. “Overlord” drove home the same point. In “Armageddon” Hastings returns to the same theme over and again, drawing on the testimony of the distinguished military historian, Professor Sir Michael Howard, who himself saw action against the Wehrmacht:

“They were better than we were: that cannot be stressed too often. Every Allied soldier involved in fighting the Germans knew that this was so, and did not regard it as in any way humiliating. We were amateurs … drawn from peaceful industrial societies with a deep cultural bias against all things military … fighting the best professionals in the business …”

“Armageddon” effortlessly synthesizes events on the eastern and western fronts. Events in the East unfurled on a different scale, embracing forces and casualties almost beyond the imagination. Mr. Hastings looks on in awed fascination, dazzled by the strategic skills of the best of the Russian generals yet appalled by their casual approach to sacrificing millions of soldiers’ lives. Similarly, his admiration for the Germans’ panache and inventiveness on the battlefield is tempered with horror at their inhumanity towards “inferior” races. The notion that only the Waffen SS indulged in atrocities is dispatched with a dry turn of phrase: “Germany’s soldiers perceived themselves as a vastly more civilized people than their Soviet enemies. In everyday matters such as table manners, so they were.”

As Mr. Hastings continues his descent into the inferno, his eye roams in every direction, catching the most unlikely detail. When Hitler pays a rare tea-time visit to Goebbels’ home in December 1944, the Propaganda minister’s aide notices that the Fuehrer’s briefcase contains a thermos: Always afraid of being poisoned, the dictator travels with his own refreshments. Time and again the narrative zeroes in on the everyday experiences of combatants and civilians alike.

Mr. Hastings is as alert to the sufferings of female Russian soldiers as he is to the privations of bomber crews. He devotes an entire chapter to the hierarchy of captives of the Reich, from the Anglo-American troops at the top to the Russians and Jews deep down in the abyss.Fresh light is shed on the Soviet rampage through East Prussia, a catalogue of pillage, massacre and rape that the Russian authorities still prefer not to acknowledge in too much detail. A German survivor describes the episode as “our holocaust”. But then, as Mr. Hastings hastens to remind us, such words could never make much of an impression on anyone who had witnessed what the Germans had perpetrated in the drive to Moscow.

Even before the conflict ended, the Cold War was beginning to take shape. There are harsh words for President Roosevelt’s failure to detect Stalin’s ambitions for eastern Europe. On the other hand, Mr. Hastings is much more understanding towards Eisenhower’s controversial decision not to push on to Berlin, thus allowing the greatest prize of all to fall into Soviet hands. Churchill was outraged. To Mr. Hastings, though, it was a sensible choice. The casualties involved in pushing further east would have been catastrophic, he thinks, and as Berlin would in any case have stayed within the designated Soviet occupation zone, the campaign would have been purely symbolic. The last word goes to Henry Kissinger, a staff-sergeant at the time:

“If you look at the world geopolitically, the mistakes were avoidable. But if you look at them as Americans did in 1945, when they were trying to escape history, they were understandable. America was determined not to do what other nations had always done after winning wars — grab as much as they could. There was no excuse for the way Roosevelt treated Churchill. FDR was naive. But one must make allowances for the spirit of the time. If Roosevelt had resisted Soviet demands, a big slice of the U.S. intellectual community would have accused him of provoking Stalin.”

That last sentence deserves a book to itself, perhaps. Given recent events in Iraq, it is also worth reading “Armageddon” with an eye to seeing how a grand alliance copes with the strain of conflicting national interests. A “One Nation” Tory who has recently made some frankly condescending comments about George W. Bush and American military tactics in Iraq, Mr. Hastings does not believe in starry-eyed talk about the Special Relationship. As he writes in his closing chapter: “So much public sentiment was lavished upon the partnership between Britain and the United States during the war years, above all through the rhetoric of Churchill, that it is important to emphasize that affection played no part in the decisions or actions of either ally. At all times, tough negotiation and hard-headed calculation determined American and British behavior.”

Is he being overly cynical? I think he is. Readers who lived through the period can answer that question for themselves. Administration officials who sometimes give the impression there is no need to explain policy to the rest of the world should ponder the point too.

Clive Davis writes for The Times of London. His weblog is at clivedavis.blogspot.com

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