Book review: Armageddon

Max Hastings’ Armageddon is what reviewers like to call a “tour de force,” not a mere retelling of the oft told tale of the Allied destruction of the Nazi state but an insightful review of events now 63 years old.

On the one level Armageddon recounts the Allied advance into Germany from September 1944 to May 1945 as well as the German reaction to their state, their Nazi universe, collapsing in blood, fire and rape. On another, it recasts 60 years of historiography putting many events and personalities in a new perspective.

Recently written, Hastings says this work has been in preparation some two decades and reflects more than “any narrow military judgement” as important moral and social issues were also at stake. “A cultural collision took place in Germany in 1945, between societies whose experience of the Second World War was light years apart. What the Soviet and German peoples did, as well as what was done to them, bore scant resemblance to the war the Americans and British knew. There was a chasm between the world of the Western allies, populated by men still striving to act temperately, and the Eastern universe in which, on both sides, elemental passions dominated.”
Armageddon “portrays a human tragedy”, says Hastings for the “Second World War was the most disastrous human experience in history.” With a toll of over 62 million dead and countless more lives shattered or irrevocably altered by this cataclysm that is a hard claim to refute.        
Hastings adds that the book makes no attempt to embrace every action. “This book is a portrait, not an official history. It concentrates on episodes which seem especially significant, and individual experiences that illustrate wider truths.” In this it succeeds admirably. “My purpose is to consider how and why things happened, or did not happen, rather than to rehearse familiar narratives.”        
It is clear then, this is one of the few “must have” books in any library, arguably more so than any of his other works or that of most other authors, except Anthony Beevor, whose twin tomes, Stalingrad and Berlin, have been reviewed with much approval on these pages.
The reviewer will briefly touch on some of the insights Hastings brings to the reader, starting with US President Franklin Roosevelt`s 1944 re-election despite his failing health. Quoting a historian of the period with approval it is suggested the US leader`s refusal “to face the facts concerning his own state of health … suggest not so much heroism, as is usually argued, but irresponsibility and an undue belief in his own indispensability, if not a love of power.” This was compounded by Roosevelt keeping his deputy – and successor – Harry Truman – in the dark on a great many details, including the entire atomic weapons programme.
Hastings also agrees with a “recent Anglo-American study” that described Operation Bagration, the Soviet destruction of the Nazi Army Group Centre as “the most impressive ground operation of the war”. Though not covered in any detail – it took place in June 1944 – it brought Stalin to Warsaw and two offensives away from Berlin (the Vistula-Oder operation in January 1945 and the Oder-Elbe operation in April. On the latter he notes that it has been “insufficiently recognised” that Marshal Georgi Zhukov`s attack over the Oder at the Seelow heights “was a shambles. It was an operation worthy of the worst days of the Red Army, not of its final triumph.”
In the west, one of Britain and Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery`s “gravest and most culpable errors” was not clearing the Antwerp approaches, a monumental non-move that let the Nazi 15th Army escape the Pas de Calais and fight another day. It also meant the great port could not be used for several months at a time crucial battles were being fought and supplies had to be ferried by truck from the invasion ports in Normandy.              
Even more fascinating is Hastings` epilogue, an account of the hardships many faced when the guns fell silent but the hatred continued, especially for Soviet citizens who had fallen into Hitler`s hands and had to endure their status as “persons of the second sort” [sic] for decades after the war ended. It was obviously worse, much worse, for those who had aided Hitler, like his Ukrainian camp guards and Cossack cavalry, but they, Hastings say, “must rank low on the roster of those deserving pity.”
Then there is the interesting comparison between the fanaticisms of the Germans vice the Japanese when fighting ion their home territory, even in the West. Then there is the comparison of Hitler and Stalin, “affectionately” known as “Koba” to his inner circle; and a comparison of generalship and soldiery. Of the generals and the soldiers he says, in short, the Zhukov could correct the shambles at Seelow by ordering suicidal attack after suicidal attack until the Germans were overrun. This was also possible in the German military but not in the British or American – who lacked troops sufficiently browbeaten or conditioned and in the case of their generals lacked officers sufficiently ruthless, George Patton being an exception. “… American and British soldiers were not panzergrenadiers. Socially and morally, we should be profoundly grateful that it was so. … They fought as bravely and as well as any democracy could ask, if the values of civilisation were to be retained in their ranks.” In answer to the question why they had not won the war by Christmas, something that briefly seemed possible in the heady days of August and early September 1944, Hastings replies: “To have achieved a swift victory, Eisenhower`s soldiers would have needed to be different people.” We should be grateful they were not and that we are not. Think about it.           
Max Hastings
Armageddon, the battle for Germany, 1944-45