Mr Beevor is keener than Mr Hastings on detailing the horror. He is particularly vivid in describing the barbarities that became commonplace during the carnage on the Eastern front. Frozen German corpses littering the battlefield were frequently missing their legs, not because they had been blown off, but because Red Army soldiers wanted their boots and could only pull them off after the legs had been defrosted over camp fires. Outside the besieged city of Leningrad, amputated limbs were stolen from field hospitals and bodies snatched from mass graves as a source of food. Within the city, 2,000 people were arrested for cannibalism. Those most at risk were children, who were eaten by their own parents.
The cruelties perpetrated by the Japanese against civilians in China (Mr Beevor sees the Sino-Japanese conflict that began with the Nanking massacre in 1937 as the true opening chapter of the second world war) and any of the countries unfortunate enough to come within the “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere” were nearly as systematic as any of the crimes committed by the Nazis. Japanese commanders actively encouraged the dehumanisation of their troops in the belief it would make them more formidable. Prisoners were burned on huge pyres in their thousands and killing local people for meat was officially sanctioned.
Mr Beevor also gives more attention than Mr Hastings to the appalling acts of violence suffered by women when invading armies arrived. Again, it was the Japanese who set about mass-rape with methodical zeal. Hundreds of thousands of Chinese and Korean girls were press-ganged into becoming “comfort women”; 10,000 women were gang-raped after the fall of Hong Kong. But revenge-fuelled Red Army soldiers were little better. Soviet forces looting and pillaging their way through East Prussia on their way to Berlin raped around 2m women and girls.
This is, however, a less satisfying book than Mr Beevor’s earlier, more focused works. There is an unevenness of quality. The author has a tremendous grasp of the things he has written about before, in particular the titanic struggle between Hitler and Stalin. But he is dutiful rather than exhilarating when dealing with some other passages and theatres of the war. The account of the campaign in north Africa plods, and American readers may be disappointed by his handling of the war in the Pacific. The battle of Midway, arguably the defining naval engagement between Japan and America, gets two pages. At other times, there is too much detail: a succession of generals, armies and battles come and go. Second world war anoraks and students of military history will get more of what they are looking for from Mr Beevor, but less committed readers will find Mr Hastings’s work easier to get to grips with and a better read. Is there room for both books? Absolutely.