Author: Blank, Stephen J
Date published: April 1, 2010
Absolute War: Soviet Russia in the Second World War. By Chris Bellamy. New York: Vintage Books, 2008. 880 pages. $19.95.
On the face of it Chris Bellamy should be the ideal author to write this book. He is an outstanding war correspondent and military historian, has a complete command of the requisite languages, and an intimate knowledge of the Soviet system. All of these virtues are evident throughout the book. Yet it is a disappointing and unbalanced work. To say this is not to dismiss the entire enterprise. Indeed, there are many valuable points here, for example Bellamy's discussion of the Eastern Front in World War II as an incarnation of Clausewitz's concept of absolute war, hence the title. This discussion is spot-on. Likewise, Bellamy's discussion of the big campaigns of 1941-43, the initial German offensives, Soviet counteroffensives, and battles such as Moscow, Leningrad, Stalingrad, and Kursk are superb. The problems, however, prevent the knowing reader from considering the book as a true history of Soviet Russia in WWII.
First, Absolute War is essentially an operational history of the war, and its coverage virtually ends in 1943. Much less space and consideration are given to the Soviet offensives of 1943-45 compared with the campaigns of 1941-43. Second, even though it is an operational history, the strategic consequences of these campaigns also get short shrift. Beyond those failings, which are lamentable, given Bellamy's diligence in depicting the earlier operations, there are other shortcomings that undermine the book's value.
A history of the war that lives up to the premise implicit in the title should give an account of more than just the battles that took place, however epochal they may have been. Yet we do not see that in this work. The reader needs to consider the omissions. There is virtually nothing about the recovery of the Soviet defense industry, one of the most heroic and consequential actions of the entire Eastern Front. Also absent is any detailed examination of the Stalinist deportation of entire nationalities and what these deportations meant in the context of the war and for the Soviet system. The absence of any exacting analysis of the campaigns of 1943-45 means that we do not get to see how the relationships between Stalin and his generals evolved, let alone the workings of other key governmental institutions, the Communist Party, secret police, etc. Little if anything is mentioned about the partisan campaign in the rear of the Nazi forces even though the number of partisans reached more than a million by 1944 and wreaked considerable havoc upon the German invaders. Stalin's diplomacy with his allies, Great Britain and the United States, do not figure in this account either, a fact which substantially detracts from the account of the various campaigns. That is another consequence of the failure to focus attention on the strategic, rather than the operational, dimensions of the war in the East. Finally, there is nothing about the Holocaust. This is truly a stunning omission, since from the German point of view, the purpose of the campaign was the extermination of European Jewry, most of which was located in the Eastern Front's theaters of operation.
Perhaps it may be asking too much to expect any author, even one so well-equipped with the necessary skills as Bellamy, to cover all these topics in one volume with the depth they deserve. This could and should have been a multivolume work. It is only in the last 20 years that we have been able to get a truer picture of the Eastern Front, thanks to the efforts of Russian scholars and archivists and various western scholars such as the late John Erickson, Richard Overy, and David Glantz. Bellamy has a masterly command of this literature and could have contributed a great deal more to scholarly and popular insight into the greatest and most titanic of all recorded wars. Unfortunately, this account, despite its many virtues, falls short of that goal. While the reader will not be disappointed with what this book offers, there is so much more it could have accomplished.
Reviewed by Dr. Stephen J. Blank, Professor of National Security Studies, Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College.