Max Hastings has written a masterpiece on the battle for Germany in 1944-1945. The book is remarkable because Hastings is able to cover many different things simultaneously, while weaving everything together in a narrative that is well-written and engaging. Indeed, topics that are typically researched as independent issues (the Holocaust; the plight of civilians; the quality of the various armies; issues of military command; issues of politics) are all treated together to give, finally, the reader "the big picture". The meaning of all of this is driven home with personal accounts, which makes the book pointed and poignant. Quite simply, this book must rank highly on anyone's list of "best WWII books of 2004."
There are several issues that I think are worthy of special attention.
First, Hastings argues that Allied armies (UK and US) fought under conditions that forced caution and an attention to casualties. Being democracies, their militaries operated under different constraints than the German and Red armies which instead relied upon fanaticism and ruthless disregard for the value of an individual's life. That the allies produced no commanders of German or Soviet caliber is explained by the fact that they could not engage in East-front style operations, where a butcher's bill of hundreds of thousands of casualties was "normal." Hastings even states that a general like Zhukov would have been decidedly ordinary had he been forced to adopt the constraints the US and the UK operated under.
Second, Hastings does not use these constraints to excuse poor performance by the UK and US. He instead points out several failures of operations and command, as well as pointing out missed opportunities to move more quickly. Hastings blasts Montgomery and the British Army for failing to secure the approaches to Antwerp. He is correct in identifying this as perhaps the single most important hindrance to moving further in 1944. Without the port, supplies had to come over the D-Day beaches or up from the Mediterranean coast of France. This was wasteful and slow. Hastings further blasts Montgomery for his insistence on a narrow northern thrust. Hastings clearly and convincingly shows that it would not have worked. Concurrently, Hastings shows that the British failures in Market-Garden offer further evidence of (a) Montgomery's inabilities and of (b) the British army's poor quality. Finally, regarding the British, Hastings is quite scathing in his assessment of Montgomery's elaborate and basically pointless battle to cross the Rhine, which moved slowly and painfully, even as American units were already across elsewhere. Nor does Hastings spare American commanders, although they come out looking a bit better. Hastings is critical of Eisenhower's military command decisions, particularly in terms of passing up an opportunity to encircle the Germans in the "Bulge" and in terms of moving very slowly once across the Rhine. Even in 1945, when meeting fleeting resistance, Eisenhower seemed overly concerned with the possibility of German counter-attacks and wanted a tidy front line. Hastings criticizes Soviet decisions regarding the pointless attacks in Prussia and Silesia, which served, he argues, only to divert attention away from the Berlin axis of attack. What Hastings fails to recognize is that Red Army commanders were operating like Eisenhower: they were still afraid of the potential for German counter-attacks. The Red Army, like Eisenhower, continued to over-estimate the strength of the German army until the very end.
Third, the author reminds us that the slowness of the Allied armies had very real consequences. To those who study World War II from a purely military perspective, there is typically not much concern about how quickly the end of the war was brought about. After all, by the fall of 1944 it was obvious that Germany would lose the war, even if when it would lose was not known. Hastings points out, however, that the failure to end the war more quickly caused a tremendous amount of suffering. Dutch civilians starved to death in the winter of 44-45. The Nazis had more time to carry out their brutal Holocaust. Slave laborers continued to toil. Hastings' point is that if the US and UK were fighting for democratic and moral ideals, then they had an obligation to move more quickly.
Fourth, Hastings points out that the Red Army, fighting for revenge, exacted it in terrible ways on German civilians. Much like Beevor, Hastings documents the rape and pillage perpetrated by the Red Army. However, Hastings, unlike Beevor, is quick to remind the reader that the Germans, despite their complaints about "honor" behaved in exactly the same way, and worse, in the occupied region of the Soviet Union. In the absence of any other justice system, an "eye for an eye" is perhaps an understandable, although not morally perfect, result.
Finally, Hastings address a variety of political issues. He exposes Churchill's naivety in, well, everything from the UK's declining position in global politics, to the UK's declining importance in the alliance, to the lack of any influence in Eastern Europe (considering the Red Army was firmly in charge). Eisenhower, criticized for operational decisions, is credited for wise political decisions. Hastings gives him credit for holding the alliance together, especially in the face of downright unprofessional conduct of Montgomery and the petty sniping between other commanders. Eisenhower is also given credit for his correct decision to abandon a drive on Berlin. Hastings assesses Stalin's behavior and concludes that although it was brutal, it was very effective in securing his goals. Stalin knew he owed very little to either Churchill or Roosevelt and he had his armies covering the eastern half of Europe. He knew he could do as he pleased, and did so. The western allies did not "lose" eastern Europe because that assumes they had it in the first place.
Hastings has written a very perceptive book. Finally, an author has tackled simultaneously the military, moral, and political element of the end of the war in Europe, and has done so brilliantly.