Absolute War, by Chris Bellamy

Heroism – and humour – in hell
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The Independent Culture

Chris Bellamy's aim in Absolute War is to provide "in one volume, a modern history of the greatest and most hideous land-air conflict in history": that between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia on the eastern front of the Second World War between 1941 and 1945. His volume is, unsurprisingly, a large one, as is his achievement with this tour de force.

Making use of a massive amount of archival information which has become available since the break-up of the Soviet Union, Bellamy re-examines many old certainties – or myths – about the Great Patriotic War, as the Russians call it. He is also able to present many details previously concealed, most notably the staggering levels of Soviet casualties. Absolute War is full of such details – of facts, figures, maps and plans – but is also eminently readable.

One of the myths Bellamy is keen to dispel is that Stalin was completely unprepared for the German invasion, Operation Barbarossa, of June 1941, despite having received ample warning, and that he fell to pieces when it happened. Krushchev was behind the latter allegation, which new evidence shows to be completely false. Far from collapsing and hiding away, Stalin held 29 meetings with his senior officials in the course of the next day and managed with even less sleep than usual. As for his lack of preparedness, Bellamy demonstrates that the truth is more complicated and subtle than previously thought.

Stalin knew quite well that Hitler was no real friend and would one day attack the Soviet Union. His mistake was not to realise how soon the attack would come. The Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact of August 1939 had represented a playing for time. Stalin knew as well as anyone – having largely created the situation through his purges of top personnel – that the Soviet fighting forces were not ready for a major war effort.

There is much circumstantial evidence – though as yet no proof – that Stalin was himself on the point of launching a pre-emptive strike against Germany. Bellamy's opinion is that Stalin was indeed planning an attack – for a year later. His desperation to avoid war before 1942, combined with his distrust of the British who were among those providing intelligence about a planned German attack in 1941, led him into denial. Then came his characteristic paranoia, in which he perceived all informants as "disinformers", traitors and "wreckers".

Distrust between the Soviet Union and Britain, even after the German attack, was mutual and long-lasting. History made that inevitable. The Bolsheviks' withdrawal from the First World War and assassination of the imperial family – cousins of the British monarch – had not been forgotten. It stuck in the craw of many British top brass to think of the Russians as allies, while Churchill's attitude to the USSR was epitomised by his persistence in referring to "Russia". It was the British public, encouraged by Lord Beaverbrook and his media empire, who forced a change, suspicion replaced by fellow-feeling. The British knew what it was to fight alone against the Nazis.

Bellamy's background as a journalist – defence correspondent of The Independent – ensures that his narrative contains all the excitement of reportage. He is at his most gripping when describing the crisis points, such as the hours leading up to Barbarossa, the Battle of Stalingrad and, finally, the Russian entry into Berlin. The chapter he devotes to the historic siege of Leningrad is also expertly written, with the right combination of fact and awe. As he points out, Leningrad's experience was a microcosm of the whole Soviet experience, a triumph of human endurance over impossible odds involving massive loss of life and an extraordinary resilience. It is fitting that the renamed St Petersburg still embraces its other identity as "Leningrad – hero city".

Bellamy knows too when to inject a touch of humour, as on the occasion of Churchill's visit to Moscow for his first meeting with Stalin in October 1942. Churchill "had not known quite what to expect in the land of workers and peasants which was bearing the brunt of the war with Germany, so he brought some sandwiches". After being plied with traditional Russian hospitality, including a seven-hour drinking bout with the dictator, Churchill may have felt his sandwiches were surplus to requirement.

Virginia Rounding's biography of Catherine the Great is published by Arrow

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