In Absolute War, acclaimed historian and journalist Chris Bellamy crafts the first full account since the fall of the Soviet Union of World War II's battle on the Eastern Front, one of the deadliest conflicts in history.
The conflict on the Eastern Front, fought between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany between 1941 and 1945, was the greatest, most costly, and most brutal conflict on land in human history. It was arguably the single most decisive factor of the war, and shaped the postwar world as we know it. In this magisterial work, Bellamy outlines the lead-up to the war, in which the fragile alliance between the two dictators was unceremoniously broken, and examines its far-reaching consequences, arguing that the cost of victory was ultimately too much for the Soviet Union to bear. With breadth of scope and a surfeit of new information, this is the definitive history of a conflict whose reverberations are still felt today.
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October 13, 2008
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Excerpt from Absolute War by Chris Bellamy
FLIGHT OF THE RABID WOLF: THE LONG-TERM IMPACT OF THE WAR IN THE EAST
By the late 1960s a new wave of the rabies virus had sped westward through Europe's wild mammal population and reached the English Channel. Rabies is endemic in many parts of the world. A bite with infected saliva transmits the virus - which can kill horribly - to domestic animals, or to humans. The United Kingdom authorities feared the disease might leap the natural defensive barrier of the Channel and reappear in the UK, which had long been rabies-free because of strict quarantine regulations. Scientists agreed that the virus, transmitted in the wild mainly by wolves and foxes, had been spreading westwards through Europe since the end of the Second World War in 1945. In 1967, there were 2,775 reported cases in West Germany, and the first 199 cases in Switzerland. In 1968 it reached France, with 60 cases reported.1 It was clear that the epizootic - the animal equivalent of a human epidemic - had headed remorselessly westward, rather than east, north or south, since the war. Why?
It started when rabies-crazed wolves and foxes had fled the fighting on the Second World War's eastern front, as the Germans were pushed westward by the advancing Red Army from 1943 to 1945.2 The 'Iron Curtain' between East and West established after the war is known to have been an effective barrier to animals, as well as to people.3 The maddened creatures carrying rabies had clearly moved west before the Iron Curtain descended at the end of the war, and, understandably, kept going. And now, a quarter of a century later, the environmental effects of that war were lapping at the Channel and threatening the UK.
If the fighting on the eastern front had that effect on mad wolves and foxes, and on the natural environment, what effect must it have had on the millions of people from the sophisticated, educated and civilized nations of central and eastern Europe? A war 'hideous beyond imagining', not only unprecedented in its scale and violence, but 'befouled by and drenched in criminality'?4
In the late 1960s, the rabies scare was not the greatest concern for western European and UK security, however. The biggest threat - and it was very real then - was that of global thermonuclear war. Whoever might have started such a conflict, the missiles falling on western Europe, the UK and the US would probably have come from the Soviet Union. And the Soviet Union had become a world nuclear-missile-armed power as a direct result of the war in the East.
This book is the story of that war. The greatest, most costly and most brutal war on land in human history. It was fought between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany for 1,418 days, from 22 June 1941 to 9 May 1945, on a front from the Arctic Circle to the Caucasus, from the Barents Sea to the Black Sea, up to 3,200 kilometres long. Three months to the day after it ended, as promised, on 8-9 August 1945, the Soviet Union attacked a million-strong Japanese army in Manchuria and made it surrender in eight days, although fighting continued in Manchuria and the Kurile islands until 1 September.5
Soviet casualties in that 1941-5 period are now estimated at 27 million direct deaths, military and civilian. That is nearly half the total losses resulting from the Second World War. But the 'global loss' to the Soviet population - the difference between the population after the war and the population as it should have been, had the war not taken place, may be 48 to 49 million. Germany probably lost 4.3 million military dead as a direct result of the battles in the East.6 And these gures do not include the invisible legacy of wars, which we are only now coming to recognize: the psychological casualties, and the victims afflicted by nervous disorders and post-traumatic stress, and the consolations those people seek.
Another gruesome by-product of the war in the East was an intensification of Nazi persecution of the Jews and the 'final solution', which only reached its final, obscene dimensions after 1941. The Holocaust had begun before this - alert British newspapers were reporting deportation of German Jews in the 1930s, although many Jews were able to emigrate.