Absolute War: Soviet Russia in the Second World War, By Chris Bellamy, Knopf, 813 pp., illustrated, map, $40
On Aug. 11, 1941, as massed German armies were advancing on Moscow, Colonel-General Franz Halder, chief of the Nazi general staff, wrote in his diary that "we have underestimated the Soviet colossus."
Since the German invasion had begun, some seven weeks before, the unprepared Soviets had been steadily pushed back toward Moscow, Leningrad, and Kiev, and had already suffered more than two million casualties. "But," wrote Halder, "there they are. . ."
"The ferocity of the Soviet resistance," writes British military historian and war correspondent Chris Bellamy, became a key factor in "the most absolute war ever fought," a war marked by "primordial violence, hatred, and enmity; the play of chance and probability; and [its] political direction."
"If you want to understand war," writes Bellamy, "study this one."
But the war, the "shooting war," does not begin until close to a quarter of the way into Bellamy's account, with much of that text given over to a speculative, but fully sourced, discussion of one of the intriguing questions of World War II - "Who planned to attack whom, and how?" as Bellamy puts it.
The traditional view is that Stalin ignored warnings from diplomatic sources and Soviet spies that Hitler planned to attack his then-ally in mid-1941, and that he was surprised when Nazi troops crossed the border on June 22, 1941.
Bellamy argues that Stalin and Hitler each distrusted the other and that both were planning pre-emptive strikes. But the Soviets were still relatively unprepared in 1941 and Stalin was stalling for time.
As for the Soviet failure to act on warnings, Bellamy suggests that it ranks at best third behind the two other misreadings of intelligence - one by the Germans, the other by the Japanese -- that, taken together, culminated in what he argues was the turning point of the war on Dec. 6 and 7, 1941.
As Bellamy puts it, "as the sun set that day on the freezing white snowdrifts west of Moscow . . . it was close to rising in the Pacific."
During the previous night, German Panzer armies began withdrawing from their positions just west of the Kremlin itself, their invasion, Operation Barbarossa, thwarted by Soviet resistance and the arrival of a Russian winter. And as the Japanese Admiral Yamamoto commented, the attack on Pearl Harbor had "[awakened] a sleeping dragon."
Once the shooting does begin, Bellamy addresses it from the strategic level of command decisions, large-scale troop movements, the development and utilization of equipment. It is a global view presented with remarkable clarity. His treatment of the major battles - the Russian defeat at Smolensk, the victories at Stalingrad and Kursk - puts them in that global context.
Bellamy contributes useful accounts of the importance of partisan units in the Soviet response to the German invasion, and of women as pilots and snipers.
"The colossal contribution of women and girls to the real 'front-line' fighting effort," Bellamy notes, "has still not been properly acknowledged." But, he writes, "these women fought. And they often fought better than men."
There were the all-women fighter squadrons, and, being "more patient, and more resistant to cold" than men, he writes, "[women were] particularly suitable as snipers."
A constant thread in Bellamy's accounts, whether of defeats or of victories, is the gargantuan scale of Soviet casualties - some 27 million deaths, military and civilian.
As noted before, there were some two million casualties during the first two months of the war as the unprepared Soviets reeled before the German invasion. But in the final three weeks of the war, as the now-victorious Red Army raced headlong towards Berlin, the Soviets suffered an average of some 15,000 casualties each day.
There is a footnote to that final Soviet thrust. By the late 1960s, a new wave of the rabies virus had swept westward into France. It had started, writes Bellamy, "when rabies-crazed wolves and foxes had fled" westward ahead of the advancing Soviet forces - and were then trapped from returning eastward by the Soviets' Iron Curtain. It is with this strange occurrence that Bellamy begins his sobering account of "absolute war."
Michael Kenney is a freelance writer who lives in Cambridge.