Ghastly war and glorious romps: Sir Max Hastings

Sir Max HastingsSir Max Hastings  – author, journalist, broadcaster, editor – spoke in  Christchurch on Tuesday 14 May, a guest of The Press Christchurch Writers Festival. He will be in Auckland as part of the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival.

It was a near-packed house and the audience was treated to a man who knows a lot about war and history, and can spin facts, anecdotes, letters, and diaries into an utterly compelling narrative.

Editor of The Press, Joanna Norris, introduced Max as “one of the giants of our industry”- a man with qualities of ballsiness, fearlessness and even a dash of foolhardiness.

Max talked about his book All hell let loose – a human history of World War Two. It contains his own thoughts on great issues.  He wondered if the “unfulfilled threat” of Luftwaffe attacks might have been worse than the actuality.

The book aims to convey “What was the war like?” as a “global portrait from the bottom up” – with a focus on the men, women and children of embattled societies. He acknowledges that for a small group of people WWII was a “glorious romp” (as it was for his father). But Max’s knowledge of relevant statistics and figures were sobering – 27,000 people a day died due to to war and its related effects. 92% of German military deaths were at the hands of the Russians. 350,000 Poles dies by Russian oppression. 1 in 4 Russian soldiers died.

Max also spoke about nationalistic perspectives of World War Two. Many French fought the British, and instead of fighting with the Free French, many evacuated Frenchmen went back to live in occupied France.

The situation in India was also complicated, as  Churchill refused to grant India independence. Nehru said “How can I fight for a thing that is denied to me?” In the Bengal Famine of 1943, between 1 and 3 million died of starvation while British officers continued to dine in their clubs. Churchill would not re-route shipping to get food to the people.

Food emphasised the relativity of suffering. The British has rationing. 4 out of 5 Belgian children had rickets. The Nazi and Japanese regime involved starving subject populations. The Americans had “fantastically generous allocations of food”. 800,000 died of starvation in Leningrad, and there were numerous incidents of cannibalism.

Max emphasised the moral ambiguities of war. In 1945 Stalin was in power in Eastern Europe, and the Poles in Britain were ostracised as “human sacrifices to the realities of power”. The West “lacked the political will and military means” to truly liberate those who were the original reason for going to war.

There was a lot of grief and sorrow in Max’s talk. Undertaking research for his book Bomber Command, he spoke to the crew of a flight where a young airman stayed on a plane to let the others eject: “What was the point of having a posthumous V.C. if you died at 19 without ever having kissed a girl?

Max answered a lot of questions from the audience. Behind me, was a Falklands navy veteran who reminded Max that he had been honoured to give the Editor of his favourite paper The Daily Telegraph a tour of his ship.

Speaking of his next book Catastrophe on how World War One came about, he explained the strong connections between WWI and WWII. The Kaiser’s plans were not much different from Hitler, except for Jewish genocide. The war poets spoke eloquently of the “ghastliness” of war, but offered no alternative or solution.

On today’s situation, he said the Afghan war is a “ghastly failure”. He called Dick Cheney “that idiot” for calling Muslim terrorism the greatest threat to Western civilisation, and advised “be very very careful what you get into” when discussing Syria. In his opinion:

“Something must be done” has caused more trouble in the world …

He ended with a funny maxim from his father:

Marry a girl with fat legs because they are better in bed.

Thanks Sir Max for a thought-provoking talk. If you are lucky enough to be going to the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival get along to one of his sessions.

Sir Max Hastings

   

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