Reading update: Absolute War
April 22, 2015
Absolute War by Chris Bellamy is a comprehensive look at the entire Eastern Front largely from the Russian perspective. The author doesn’t just build upon prior works but gathers new information gained from Russian archives in the early 1990s to present some new points of view and add to the debate on old ones. Using a style that keeps the pages turning I would say this is a good read for anyone and not just students of World War II. Which isn’t easy to pull off in a history book since we already know how it’s going to end.
The first sentence of chapter 1 as the lead in is a head scratcher that first left me thinking, “Huh?” But as a way to preface the book and snap a reader out of preconceived views about the war or what you already know it’s one of the best beginnings to a history book I have read yet. Once begun we delve into pre-war politics and the run-up to war. I thought the author did a good job in laying out the case that Stalin wasn’t as dismissive of western warnings to German aggression as is popularly portrayed. That Russian ignorance of an attack being the first great maskirovka, or military deception, of the war is an intriguing argument.
That Stalin was preparing a preemptive strike against Germany isn’t a new theory. This book however presented a detailed look at that theory to help explain 590,000 Russian casualties during the first two and a half weeks of the war in a way I found very interesting. While not definitive the weight he adds to the argument of preemption is difficult to ignore. The contrast to other history reads that dismiss the Frontier Battles as Russian amateurism and abysmal communications too reliant on easily cut phone lines was refreshing. Past the mind numbing totals the author also does a great job putting the great encirclements into a human context where the reader can place themselves in the boots of a General literally losing 44,000 troops PER DAY.
At this point the author assumes you’ve already read The Road to Stalingrad (1975) or similar work and doesn’t get bogged down in the details of tactics. Instead, the strategic view of the march on Leningrad, Moscow and Crimea is the contextual backdrop to the rise, expansion and growing Russian military reliance upon the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD). The country might move at the direction of Stalin but the author shows how the NKVD was the extension of that will in not only the conduct of the war but in keeping the country together in order to fight it. Here the book really adds to the narrative on the Eastern Front showing the expansion not only in size but role of the NKVD was greater than previously known.
This narrative carries the reader through most of 1942 and again the author assumes you’ve already read Enemy at the Gates (1973) so we shift our focus north.
While the Stalingrad counter offensive (Operation Uranus) and eventual destruction of 6th Army is well known what has not been is the Moscow counter offensive (Operation Mars) aimed at the German 9th Army. For almost 50 years this battle has been scrubbed from the history of WWII and this book really builds on previous works in bringing it to light. As the second part of the Stalingrad encirclement Operation Mars resulted in 335,000 killed/missing/wounded for the Russians over two and a half months of fighting. Not only that but it failed to achieve any of its objectives. So even though in terms of soldiers, aircraft, tanks and artillery it was the same size as the Stalingrad encirclement one can see why it was buried. But the fact that it was successfully done so shows how much of the WWII narrative history still has to uncover.
As an American reader the book at this point I found interesting because of the comparisons in time lines of war. I really liked how the book pointed out that in November 1942 while the Americans were entering the war with landings in North Africa (Operation Torch) the Russians were ripping the 6th Army out of the German order of battle. Not to mention the Romanian 4th and 3rd, Italian 8th and Hungarian 2nd armies. Very contrary to the usual view of World War II that we get here in the States where Normandy is the turning point of the war.
Beyond the battle and politics hidden from the world all this time the author also adds to the history of women in the Russian army likewise buried. We of course are introduced to well known figures like sniper Lyudmila Pavlichenko who is credited with 309 kills including 36 enemy snipers. But the scale of almost 800,000 serving women in the armed forces is a story largely untold. After the war it was quickly wiped from the record by the Russians even to their own people. The glimpse the author shows us from that brief window in the 1990s to this story is the best we’ll probably get until Putin opens the archives back up.
Of note was the Night Witches that I had not encountered before. The Russian 588th air regiment from mechanics up to officers was composed entirely of women. Flying night missions with obsolete biplanes they conducted harassment bombing missions. Cutting the engine the pilots would glide into the target, drop their bombs then restart the engine and leave the area. More often than not the bombs dropped were the first indication German troops had that the regiment was there. The regiment in fact got its name from the Germans who started calling them Nachthexen (night witches).
The closing act of this book again doesn’t get bogged down with tactics and does a good job of closing out the war while exploring the politics and foundations of what will be the start of the Cold War. The long term repercussions of the war to Russia is also expanded upon. The newly revised figure of 27,000,000 killed, or 1 in 7 Russians, and how that has echoed through history to the current day is a good read.
A touch of levity to counter the tragic totals is provided with the iconic cover art of the book. The famous photo depicting the Fall of the Reichstag was actually a 1945 version of photoshop. In the original photo the soldier below the one raising the flag over Germany was wearing two watches, almost certainly looted, and it was repainted to him wearing only one. The flag was touched up to look like it was billowing out and more smoke was added over the city for effect. The original photo is included in the book.
All in all not a definitive work on the Eastern Front but as a companion book I would say that this is a must have on your bookshelf in the history section.
The West Report
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