Monday, September 16, 2013

2,447: Stalin's General by Geoffrey Roberts

For the British (and, possibly, American) reader, there’s a section in Armageddon, Max Hastings’ masterful account of the last year or so of WW2 in Europe, where the author contemptuously dismisses the military qualities of almost all of the leading British and American generals of the time.  Indeed, pretty much only Eisenhower, Montgomery and Patton emerge with even faint praise, although even this is tempered with much criticism.  Counterpointed with his comments on the superiority of the German armed forces, it comes as no surprise that Hastings points to the Red Army as the real victors of the land war in Europe.  In summary, he believes that the Soviets supplied the blood, the Americans the equipment and the British contribution was to hold out in 1940.

Given all of this, and that for most of the War, Georgy Zhukov was the Soviet Union’s leading professional soldier, it is arguable that Zhukov was the general most responsible for the ultimate defeat of Germany in 1945.  Present at pretty much all of the most significant battles on the Eastern Front (including the siege of Leningrad and the battles of Moscow, Stalingrad and Kursk), Zhukov’s forces won the race to Berlin and it was troops under his command who placed the red flag atop the Reichstag building.  Named Deputy Supreme Commander, Stalin permitted Zhukov the honour of taking the victory parade in Red Square, sitting astride a white charger.

And yet, within a year of this zenith, he was in disgrace and banished by Stalin to a military backwater until Stalin’s death and his rehabilitation by Khruschev which culminated in his appointment as Minister for Defence, followed almost inevitably by further disgrace and dismissal.  Suffering the reputational trashing that followed, Zhukov lapsed into obscurity until the replacement of Khruschev by Brezhnev gave him the opportunity to reclaim his reputation and to write a self-serving autobiography before dying in 1974.  Since then, his iconic status has remained untouched and, in 1995, a statue of Zhukov on the famous white stallion was erected in Red Square itself.

In totalitarian regimes such as the old Soviet Union, history becomes a political tool of the regime and it can be difficult to know where truth lies.  This is doubly so in Zhukov’s case with his rises and falls from grace and his sometimes unreliable memoirs.

It is, therefore, welcome that Geoffrey Roberts, given access to previously unpublished Russian archive material, has written a new biography, seeking to readdress Zhukov’s position in Soviet history and to give a more accurate portrayal of the man.

In many ways, Zhukov was a prototypical Soviet success story, the child of a proletarian family who climbed to the very top of Soviet society through a mixture of talent, hard work, luck and political reliability.  A dedicated communist, he was a brilliant offensive general, skilled in the use of deception as a tactic and Stalin’s favourite general, given a latitude not extended to other generals and used almost as a troubleshooter, being sent off to any major situation.

The flip side was that he was arrogant and keen to make certain that he received full credit for his successes - traits that led directly to both his falls from grace and ensured that there was no shortage of rivals and colleagues ready to criticise him and trample on his reputation at the right time.

Zhukov could also be fairly accused of taking a cavalier attitude towards the lives of the men under his command and of only being concerned with body counts to the extent they impacted on the effectiveness of his forces.  He could also be a bully and appeared to take a tolerant view of the campaign of rape that the Red Army waged across Germany in 1945.  Another criticism is that his impact on Soviet military doctrine and theory was limited - a criticism I find slightly unfair.  After all, the mark of a wartime general lies in his victories and, in this, Zhukov was unsurpassed in WW2 and ranks alongside any Russian or Soviet military leader of any period.

Roberts does not shy away from these criticisms and also exposes the lies and exaggerations that Zhukov makes in his memoirs in defence of his reputation.  Yet, despite his stated intention of writing a critical biography, it is clear that Roberts is positively disposed to Zhukov and, where differences of opinion arise, tends to give Zhukov the benefit of the doubt.  One should not forget, however, that Zhukov for all his positive qualities and his relative independence from Stalin was a committed communist and follower of Stalin whose last action as a military leader was to mastermind the uncompromising suppression of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956.

Stalin’s General does an excellent job of retelling Zhukov’s life story and setting it in its true historical context.  Roberts also succeeds in reconciling the competing claims for credit made by leading figures such as Stalin, Khruschev, Konev and Rokossovsky.

What it doesn’t quiet manage to do, however, is to give much insight into the personal life or the mind of Zhukov.  Roberts does make some attempt to do this and we do learn about his somewhat complicated love life - four children, two wives and a long term lover - but at the end, he is still something of a mystery as a human being.  Given the exigencies of Soviet politics and history and the inadvisability of writing down unedited thoughts, it is, of course, possible that Roberts has done as much as will ever be possible along these lines.

Roberts rates Zhukov as top of a kind of military geeky league table of Soviet and Russian generals and, whilst it is probably impossible to make definitive judgements across time, it is certain that, in Zhukov’s sometimes brutal but effective manner, the Soviet Union got the general it needed to win the long drawn out existential battle that was the Eastern Front.

Stalin’s General is an interesting and necessary biography of one of the most significant figures of WW2 and a “must read” to anyone interested in this period or, more generally, in Russian history.  Whether it becomes the definitive biography probably depends upon whether there is any as-yet undiscovered archival material out there that could shed more light on the inner Zhukov.


I’d like to thank Random House for allowing me to read this via Netgalley.

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