Drawing on rich new sources from the recently-opened Soviet archives, Geoffrey Roberts has fashioned the definitive, first full-scale biography of this seminal 20th century figure.
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Review 1 for Stalin's General
Henry Coningsby at Watford
08 August 2012
Right, military buffs, here’s one for you. On a sheet of A4, write down the names of ten British generals from the Second World War. Next, ten German, and ten American. Quick as you can please. Finished? Good work everyone. Now, for the tie-breaker, ten Russian generals. Hah. Got you there. If your sheet is anything like mine, the list will be remarkably short. How strange it is that the largest army, fighting the greatest battles, should have produced only one commander to rival in stature the likes of Montgomery, Rommel, or Patton.
This is partly because the commander in question, Marshal Zhukov, managed to claim credit for nearly every victory on the Eastern Front - Moscow, Leningrad, Stalingrad, Operation Bagration, and of course Berlin - while distancing himself from the catastrophic rout of June 1941. But I think it has more to do with the West’s somewhat simplistic view of the Red Army as a great mass of uniformed peasantry launching itself at the coolly professional Wehrmacht, prevailing by sheer weight of numbers like an irresistible brown tide. Tactical nous, strategic subtlety, according to this school, are the last things one associates with Soviet generalship. Ura!
While there is some truth in this caricature, it seems astonishing that there has been no full-length study of Zhukov until now. Geoffrey Roberts’s fine book, ‘Stalin’s General’, takes its place among the last, but no less valuable pieces in the jigsaw of World War Two historiography. It is a shrewd, balanced account. In his words, ‘while Zhukov was a great commander he was not the unrivalled military genius of legend … his talent was for deployment, not for creative innovation or imaginative flair’.
The particular challenge facing Red Army historians is that so many of the sources are tainted by post-war Kremlin power struggles. When Zhukov was in disgrace, having offended Stalin in some real or imagined way, memoirs tended to show him as a foul-mouthed idiot, always losing his temper and falling out of observation posts. When he was back in favour, as defence minister under Khrushchev, his peers quickly realised that he was, after all, a second Alexander.
Zhukov himself, like many an old soldier, remembered with advantages - as Roberts demonstrates, certain meetings he claimed to have had with Stalin simply could not have happened, the two men being in different cities at the time - but still had to find room in his 1969 autobiography to mention what a shame it was that he kept missing Colonel Brezhnev, whose invaluable counsel he was especially keen to hear. If the marshal’s ferocious behaviour to other subordinates is anything to go by, Brezhnev should have counted himself lucky. Carefully nurtured eccentricity in the British mould would not have taken anyone very far in the Red Army. Zhukov’s reputation for competence and brutality was well-deserved.
Arguably his greatest triumph was a battle few Westerners have even heard of, Khalkin-Gol, against the Japanese in 1939. From that moment Stalin regarded him as indispensable; insofar as he was capable of trust, he trusted Zhukov. There is a widespread view that Stalin did not so much marshal his forces during the war as force his marshals. Roberts shows that whatever else we may think about Stalin - and this month of all months, the anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising, your reviewer is more inclined than ever to spit at his name - he had at least the wisdom, unlike Hitler, to defer to people who knew what they were doing.