Stalin’s General: The Life of Georgy Zhukov by Geoffrey Roberts, Random House.
“There is only one thing which these gentlemen who long for the western way of life cannot explain – why we beat Hitler.”
Bit of a gob smacker, that, at least for those whose knowledge of WWII comes from Hollywood and Ken Burns. Sure, the Russians were part of the alliance, but, you know – Pearl Harbor, Dunkirk, Normandy Beach, Battle of the Bulge, Midway, Hiroshima, those places were where the action was. The Russian Front, that was some place Germans were sent for punishment.
Well, it’s only natural to focus on the home team, but that war strikes closer to the bone in Russia than America. They suffered 90 to 95% of all allied casualties. Not for the Soviets was this an ecumenical affair of Allied nations fighting shoulder to shoulder, a World War if you like. For Russians, it was, and is, the Great Patriotic War. They point to the cost to the motherland, and can still grumble over the west’s failure to open a second front in a timely fashion.*
And they point to Georgy Zhukov as the greatest Soviet general of that war.
Apprenticed to a furrier before the first war (which makes for an interesting counter-factual if that war had never happened) he joined the Bolsheviks and fought for them in the Civil War, then rose slowly but steadily up the ladder, avoiding the purges of 1937. Lucky for Russia that he did. His first action as a senior officer was against the Japanese in 1938 .
The Japanese had made hay out of the Russians back in 1906 and were willing to try their luck again in 1938 by probing the (Russian held) Mongolian border. This blew up into a full scale undeclared war, in which, after a few battles, Zhukov was brought in to see what he could do. His finest hour was at the Battles of Khalkhyn Gol in Mongolia, a classic double envelopment accompanied by innovative offensive tactics** and more materiel defeated a larger number of less well equipped Japanese.
By 1941 cordial relations between Germany and Russia had frayed. Germany invaded Russia and an unprepared Russia reeled back in the face of Germany’s onslaught.
Zhukov had warned of such a thing and once Stalin got over his shock, the dictator put his favorite general in charge of the defense of Kiev. Zhukov was confident to tell him to his face that it could not be done. Fired and rehired in the space of half an hour, he was
Soon he was sent to Smolensk where he oversaw Russia’s first notable victory at nearby Yel’nya (1941). Props for that. The German commander Guderian had planned withdrawal, but was vetoed by Berlin until too late. The latter part of the battle was chasing Germans who were redirecting towards targets further south.
From then on he went from one trouble spot to another – Leningrad, where he stopped the advance but could not break the blockade, to Moscow where he held off the autumn attack and counter attacked in December. In 1942 and 43 he bleed the Germans at Stalingrad and followed it up with the battle of Kursk, the largest tank battle in history. By 1944, he lead Operation Bagration, further expelling the Germans form Byelorussia and the Baltics. And onward to take Berlin.
Zhukov’s post war career was a zigzag course of hero to disgrace (the Stalin connection again) and finally back to rehabilitation. He died of natural causes.
The standard arguments for Germany’s defeat in the east have had to do with appalling weather, a micro-managing fool in Hitler, and a communist willingness to pile on cannon fodder. Zhukov pointed out in his memoirs that the weather was grueling for both sides. The other charges are harder to refute. Hitler certainly overruled his generals repeatedly and would not have his sleep interrupted by emergency calls. The Soviet Union went into this war with a population of 190 million vs about 80 million Germans. With numbers like that, it was insanity to invade Russia at all (it was further insanity to alienate would be allies- Ukrainians initially welcomed the Germans as liberators). Once Pearl Harbor brought in America with its Lend Lease materiel, a service to Russia predated Pearl Harbor, btw, it would have been astonishing if they had not won.
How to rate him as a general? You can start a fist fight with that question. The author sums up with Zhukov’s having lead the army to the “greatest victory in military history”. Which raises the question, how do we measure greatness in victory? Sun Tzu suggests economy of action relative to size of result – small butcher bill, utterly cowed enemies. Zhukov’s defenders point to documents proving that Zhukov tried to minimize casualties, but the numbers of dead and wounded were often disproportionally in Germany’s favor, results that would have had any American general sacked on the spot. Stalin could live with it. Other Commanders in Chief would not have done so.***
The author draws comparisons with various commanders of that war and rates Zhukov as the best general all rounder. His greatest asset was sheer determination and endurance. Failure was not an option. That and meticulous preparation. The author also notes, however, that he could only have been a Soviet general.
A few quibbles. In this book, Germany “conquers” countries; the Soviets “expand their influence”. It’s a distinction that might be lost on the natives who were staring at tanks driving down their roads. Soviet invasion of neutral Finland is mentioned, but not that the casus belli was staged, or that the fighting saw Russia expelled from the League of Nations.
Zhukov has always attracted controversy at home and abroad, some politically motivated, some not. This book won’t end that, not should it be expected to. It is, however, a valuable and welcome resource for students of the second war, and we can hope that the Russian archives will continue to fuel work of this sort. The kinds of sacrifices and achievements made by the Russian people in that war deserve as full an accounting as possible.
See also – The Memoirs of Marshal Zhukov
*Bit of slap in the facet to the men who fought and died in North Africa, the North Atlantic, the skies over Europe, Sicily, Italy, Greece, China, Burma, and the Pacific. It was, after all, these last named who kept Japan from renewing the Mongolian front.
**(Tactics of Deep Battle were worked out by Russia’s generals in the late twenties and early thirties, basically methods of combined attack to break through defense works and cut off the enemy from behind before he has a chance to recover and counter attack. The notion had roots in J.F.C.Fuller‘s writings from the end of the first war, and it was taken up by Germany as well.)
*** Sun Tzu does not recommend discipline battalions to shoot recalcitrant soldiers pour encourager les autres. 156,000 Soviet soldiers died this way.