The general who halted Hitler

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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.

Roberts’s favourite Red Army general had been Konstantin Rokossovsky, whose style and background differed greatly from Zhukov’s. The Rokossovskys, like the founder of the Soviet secret police, Felix Dzerzhinsky, came from the szlachta, the traditional Polish nobility. Zhukov was a peasant from near Kaluga, to the south of Moscow. Rokossovsky’s suave personality contrasted sharply with the rough-and-ready comportment of a man whose military career began as a conscript in the imperial Russian cavalry in the first Word War.

For Roberts, whose biography of Zhukov is his sixth major work on Soviet history, Zhukov’s personality and prowess began to grow on him as his research continued, and the result is a work that is not uncritical of its subject but is positive in its overall judgment.

Born in 1896, Zhukov had the perfect credentials to become a Soviet hero. He was a peasant. The family’s house, which I visited some years ago, was little more than a hut in a remote community in European Russia. When the civil war came he knew exactly where he stood and joined the Red Army in 1918, applying for membership of the Communist Party shortly afterwards. He was an ethnic Russian, which was also an advantage.

His activities in the civil war between the Reds and Whites were curtailed when he was wounded in 1919. Ten years later he studied at the Frunze Military Academy, in Moscow, and in 1937 he benefited from the military purges that began with the execution of Mikhail Tukhachevsky, marshal of the Soviet Union.

While many historians regarded these purges as a weakening of the USSR defence capacity, there were others, including the military correspondent of this newspaper, the late ED Doyle, who believed that an unintentional effect of the liquidation of so many senior peacetime officers was to open opportunities for younger, more innovative men. In this respect Zhukov fulfilled the criterion demanded by Napoleon, who said he had plenty of clever generals but just wanted a lucky one.

Zhukov in later years strove to portray himself as a near-victim of the purges, but Roberts rightly makes the point that his rapid promotion at the time runs contrary to these claims. Only those who conformed and raised no fuss survived the mass liquidation of senior officers, Roberts writes, adding that the vast majority of the armed forces fell into this category.

His first major victory in battle came against the Japanese at Khalkin Gol, in Mongolia, in August 1939, when he was able to put in a huge defence against the enemy, including 57,000 troops, 500 artillery pieces , 900 armoured vehicles and 500 planes. He certainly had the men and equipment, but there was more to it than that: military historians have described his management of the battle as a masterpiece of tactics.

In his series of victories from Russia to Berlin Zhukov was frequently criticised. Perhaps the most serious allegation was that he was responsible for the lack of discipline in his soldiers that led to the mass rape of thousands of German women. The rapes undeniably and inexcusably took place, but Roberts has found no evidence that they were condoned by Zhukov. At one stage he even issued an order that any soldier seen entering or leaving a private house should be arrested.

In the USSR the news of the atrocities was instantly put down to “western propaganda”. So the atrocities had no bearing on Zhukov’s demotion. Jealousies, enmities and infighting in the snakepit of Stalin’s entourage played their part, as did Zhukov’s straight talking to and absence of sycophancy towards Stalin himself.

He most certainly had an enemy in Stalin’s fellow Georgian Lavrenty Pavlovich Beria, the egregious secret-police chief. When I met Zhukov’s daughters Era and Ella in Moscow a decade ago they spoke of their father’s elation when he was returned to his home having commanded the party that arrested Beria in 1953. Indeed, when asked by a previous biographer what he regarded as the greatest achievement of his great career, Zhukov replied: “The arrest of Beria.”

Reinstated by Khrushchev as defence minister and later relegated once more, Zhukov died in Moscow on June 18th, 1974. His death raised him to prominence again, and his funeral was the biggest the Soviet Union had seen since that of Stalin.

Roberts’s biography contains an abundance of new material. It is an informative, accessible and academically rigorous work the publication of which fittingly marks the 70th anniversary of Stalingrad.


Séamus Martin is a retired international editor and Moscow correspondent of The Irish Times. His documentary series Death of an Empire, on the fall of the Soviet Union, won gold at this year’s New York Festivals Radio Awards

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