Max Hastings's impressive achievement here is that he has written such a readable one-volume study of the war. The book's readability is largely due to Hastings's inclusion of so many views from soldiers and civilians involved in the action. When the statesmen and generals are heard from, it is more in their human roles, not their official statuses. (For example, Joachim von Ribbentrop, Germany's Ambassador to Britain, insisted to Hitler that Britain would not intervene if Germany invaded Poland. When Britain declared war two days after the invasion, Hastings describes how Luftwaffe chief Hermann Goering phoned von Ribbentrop and ripped him a new one.)
Hastings uses an effective system to make vivid and understandable points. He starts with a 10,000-foot descriptive overview, buttressed with statistics and other data, but then lasers in with a story that encapsulates his point. In one such case, he writes about how Italy was boastfully confident about its military prowess, but then lost a huge percentage of its military capacity during the North African campaign. Hastings then offers this anecdote: "Mussolini's propaganda department in Rome made a film designed to demonstrate the superiority of fascist manhood. To this end, a fight was staged between former world heavyweight champion Primo Carnera and Kay Masaki, a black South African taken prisoner in the desert. Masaki had never entered a boxing ring in his life, and was knocked down when the cameras began to roll. He picked himself up, however, and struck Carnera a blow that rendered him unconscious."
I'm much more familiar with social and political histories of WW2. This book focuses primarily on the tactical and military history (except for chapters 13 and 20), which has not been of particular interest to me previously. However, Hastings's writing is so lucid and lively that I was engrossed.
Hastings has a distinct point of view. He states strong criticisms of various well-known military leaders. He forcefully counters moral relativists who equate the bombings of Germany's cities with Germany's wartime murders. I was relieved that Hastings is not one of these "greatest generation" types who paint Allied soldiers as nonstop heroes with no real human frailties. He recognizes great contributions to the war effort and examples of bravery, but he also writes about soldiers who fell apart under the strain of battle, who committed cruelties and who deserted. One illuminating tale he tells is of Italy in the period after Mussolini was first deposed and Italy declared war on the Axis. Nearly everyone expected that fighting in Italy would cease, but Hitler sent in his troops to continue the fighting and reinstall Mussolini. From that point, desertions on both sides skyrocketed. Hastings writes that about 30,000 Axis soldiers deserted and about half as many Allied soldiers.
I was tremendously impressed by this history and I believe it would be both an excellent introduction to the topic for novices and a welcome and insightful overview for readers already familiar with WW2 history.