Mr Hastings's technique is to mine the written record of those who took part both actively and passively. His witnesses range from the men whose decisions sent millions to their deaths to the ordinary soldiers who carried out their orders and the civilian victims who found themselves on the receiving end. Cynicism and idealism, suffering and euphoria, courage and terror, brutalisation and sentimentality—all find expression through their own testimony. From the Burma Road to the Arctic convoys, the killing fields of Kursk and the London Blitz, their voices are heard. Mr Hastings’s achievement in organising this unwieldy mass of material into a narrative that sweeps confidently over every contested corner of the globe is impressive.
Less so are some of his judgments. Although delivered with verve and economy (Mr Hastings is, above all, an accomplished journalist), they are often unfair. For example, he argues that the decision by Britain and France to declare war because of the German attack on Poland was an act of cynicism because they knew they could do nothing to help the Poles. That was never in doubt, but the Allies hoped the stand against Germany’s naked aggression would persuade Hitler to step back from the brink of all-out war, a motive that was neither base nor ridiculous.
Mr Hastings's repeated admiration for the fighting qualities of German, Japanese and Soviet soldiers compared with British and American forces is especially trying. Germany and Japan were militarised societies that glorified war and conquest, held human life to be cheap and regarded obedience to the state as the highest virtue. Russian soldiers were inured to the harsh brutalities of Soviet rule and driven on by the knowledge that they were fighting “a war of annihilation” against an implacable enemy. If they wavered, they knew they would be shot by NKVD enforcers. More than 300,000 were killed pour encourager les autres.