The general who halted Hitler
BIOGRAPHY: SÉAMUS MARTINreviews Stalin’s General: The Life of Georgy Zhukov By Geoffrey Roberts Icon Books, 375pp. £25
GEORGY ZHUKOV was the most successful general officer in the second World War. This bald statement would not ring true with those whose views have been formed from a diet of western TV war documentaries. In these the heroes fought in the desert, in Normandy and in the Pacific. The bloodbath, for both sides, on the eastern front is often relegated to a historical footnote with the emphasis on how the Germans suffered from Russia’s harsh climate.
But Zhukov’s record speaks for itself: the defence of Moscow in which the German blitzkrieg was for the first time stopped literally in its tracks; the successful operation to end the siege of Leningrad, an event in which more died than the combined US and UK deaths in the entire war; the pivotal battles of Stalingrad and Kursk; and, finally, the capture of Berlin.
Today Zhukov is a hero in Russia. An equestrian statue was erected to him at the entrance to Red Square in 1995 when many statues in Moscow were being demolished in the post-Soviet era.
It was not always like this.
The horse ridden by Zhukov in the great victory parade in 1945, an Arabian grey named Tsepki, made the marshal seem invincible as he rode through Red Square to begin a military ceremony that included the dashing of captured German banners to the ground in front of the Lenin mausoleum. The fate of a great hero seemed to await him, but the opposite was the case. Zhukov was accused of claiming excessive personal credit for Soviet victories and was relegated to a minor command in Odessa at Stalin’s behest.
Geoffrey Roberts, head of the school of history at University College Cork, has benefited from the wealth of new evidence that has become available since the opening of the Soviet archives. The result is the most comprehensive biography of Zhukov in English, which chronicles not only the marshal’s well-known military feats but also, and very importantly, the military and political intrigues and infighting that went on behind the scenes as the USSR fought, firstly for its survival and finally for total victory against what had once appeared to be Germany’s unbeatable military machine.
The author admits that he set about his task with a somewhat cautious view of Zhukov, whose memoirs he regarded as self-serving. It was these overblown journals that served as the main resource for previous biographies. Roberts’s scepticism of Zhukov’s memoirs led him to set out to produce what he describes as a “warts and all” biography of a soldier hitherto regarded as something of a superman.