Among the Allied generals of the second World War Georgy Zhukov is among the least known, far less familiar a figure than Eisenhower or Montgomery. Yet it could be argued that no other general made a greater contribution to the defeat of Nazism.
Our westerncentric view of the Second World War means we often overlook Zhukov’s importance: during the cold war it became policy to downplay the Soviet role in defeating Hitler, and our narrative of the war has largely been informed by the British and American experience.
Zhukov therefore became a marginal figure in the historical conversation. This new edition of his autobiography will allow us to hear his voice again and gain an insight into the career of one of the most important figures in the history of the second World War.
Born in 1896, Zhukov was conscripted into the Tsarist army in 1915 and assigned to the cavalry. After the October Revolution he joined the Red Army and, from 1919, was a member of the communist party. He was an officer of considerable ability, and promotions came rapidly during the 1930s. He served not only in both world wars but also in the Russian Civil War and the war against the Japanese in Manchuria in 1939.
During the 1930s Zhukov also showed himself to be politically adept. Despite their considerable talents, Stalin singled out some of Zhukov’s contemporaries – Mikhail Tukhachevsky, AA Svechin – for execution during his prewar purges of the Soviet army. Zhukov, who did not meet Stalin until 1940, maintained the trajectory of his career without the Soviet leader perceiving him as a threat.
Halted the Germans
After Germany’s invasion of Russia in June 1940, Zhukov’s abilities saw him promoted to a series of important appointments, and by 1942 he was Stalin’s deputy supreme commander. In the early phases of the war Zhukov busied himself with halting the German advance, and he played a prominent role in planning counteroffensives at Yel’nya, Leningrad and Moscow (1941) and Stalingrad (1942). From 1943 the Soviet Army was increasingly on the offensive, and after the Battle of Kursk Zhukov co-ordinated a series of ambitious offensives to drive the Germans back.
For these he had access to quantities of troops and materiel unimaginable to British and American commanders. For the summer offensive of 1944, Operation Bagration, Zhukov assembled 1.5 million men.
Despite his success in grinding down the German army, Zhukov was not without his critics. His relationship with Stalin was occasionally stormy, and during the Seelow Heights operations, in 1945, his fellow generals criticised him for his haste and the number of Soviet casualties.
The uncertain nature of command is a feature of Zhukov’s autobiography. Having accepted the German surrender in Berlin in 1945, he later led the victory parade in Moscow. In 1946 he was elected to the Supreme Soviet and appointed commander-in- chief of Soviet ground forces. Three months later he was dismissed from this role, and he was expelled from the Central Committee in 1947.
Transferred to an obscure command in the Urals, Zhukov would remain in the political wilderness until 1952-3. Despite being “rehabilitated” and later serving as minister for defence, he was dismissed from the Central Committee yet again in 1957.
This autobiography is a remarkably frank account of a remarkable career. Zhukov is never less than forthright about the difficult political and military realities faced by Russia during the “Great Patriotic War”. Zhukov is critical of Stalin while acknowledging Stalin’s capacities as a war leader, and there are accounts of meetings between the two men – exchanges that always appear businesslike and forthright.
Marshal Timoshenko later said that “Zhukov was the only person who feared no one. He was not afraid of Stalin.” Yet there are obvious undertones of tension in some of the Stalin-Zhukov exchanges, and after the war he would fall out with both Stalin and, later, Khrushchev. Zhukov’s autobiography also gives us an insight into the relationships between the Allied commanders and Russian perceptions of the creation of postwar Europe.
Zhukov, whose career lasted until 1958, brought out an edition of this autobiography in 1969; a second appeared after his death, in 1974. Both were heavily censored. This new version is the first full edition in English. It is edited by Prof Geoffrey Roberts of University College Cork, an internationally renowned expert on the Soviet Union during the second World War and the cold war.
Alongside his well-researched introduction, Roberts has included translations of Zhukov’s account of the 1953-7 period and previously unpublished interview material.
This book is an important source on the conduct of the war on the Eastern Front. And, as an account of the career of one the most influential generals and political survivors of the 20th century, Marshal of Victory is fascinating. Given the renewed tensions between the Kremlin and the West, it is also a timely insight into the Russian military mindset.
David Murphy lectures in military history and strategic studies at Maynooth University