A suitably massive, thoroughly impressive history of Stalinist Russia’s central role in defeating Nazi Germany over five long years of war.
Russia bore the brunt of that struggle, writes British historian Bellamy (Military Science and Doctrine; director, Security Studies Institute/Cranfield Univ.). Even Winston Churchill, devoutly anti-Soviet, noted in a 1944 speech to Parliament that “the guts of the German army have been largely torn out by Russian valour and generalship.” The Soviet contribution has long been downplayed in the West—a victim of Cold War rivalries—but there it is: One in seven Soviets died, 27 million people in all. Key episodes have also been forgotten even in Russia. In one illuminating side episode, Bellamy recounts a great battle called Operation Mars, involving nearly two million Red Army soldiers mounted to break the German attack on the Moscow front. When the counteroffensive failed, it was written out of the history books, while “Western intelligence at the time seems to have been completely unaware of [Field Marshall] Zhukov’s unsuccessful attempt to cut off and kill Ninth Army and possibly rupture Army Group Centre.” Operation Mars now restored to history, Bellamy examines some of the factuals and counterfactuals, among them the notion that Hitler might not have attacked Russia had some leader other than the hated Stalin been in power, which raises the possibility of a joint anti-aggression pact and even alliance that would have made a united front against the nations of the world. “What might have happened then,” he concludes, “is perhaps even more terrible to contemplate.” The reality is terrible enough, and though Bellamy’s sober-minded book lacks the dramatic power of works such as Harrison E. Salisbury’s The 900 Days: The Siege of Leningrad, he capably describes the stunning losses that accompanied even the most brilliant successes, German as well as Soviet.
A welcome corrective to the idea that the Western Allies fought it out alone, as books such as Geoffrey Ward and Ken Burns’s The War (2007) might suggest to novice readers.