The man who really defeated Hitler

 

Sixty years on, it's time to reinstate Georgi Zhukov and remember his role in defending Russia from the Nazis, writes Shane Kenny.

The new German film Downfall, depicting Hitler's final days in his Berlin bunker before he committed suicide 60 years ago today, has received wide international acclaim. In the film, desperate Wehrmacht officers want to contact the Russian Marshal Georgi Zhukov to negotiate surrender. This was the military leader who, more than any other in the second World War, became Hitler's nemesis.

An international hero at the end of the war, he featured on the front page of Life magazine, in newspapers and on newsreels. But Zhukov is now a neglected figure in the West. The descent of the Iron Curtain and the Cold War meant that the Western Allies' role in the defeat of Nazi Germany received more attention and was celebrated in books and films about the Battle of Britain, El Alamein and D-Day. But the real truth of the European theatre is that it was essentially fought and won on the eastern front.

I first visited Moscow as part of the Irish government's official delegation in 1995 to attend Boris Yeltsin's commemoration of the 50th anniversary of what Russians call the Great Patriotic War. With the fall of communism, Zhukov, who had become a Soviet-style "non-person" due to false charges of plotting to take over the revolution, and Stalin's fear of his popularity with the people and the Red Army, was finally celebrated as the major Russian hero of the victory over Nazi Germany.

Born into dire poverty in 1896, Zhukov was decorated twice in the tsarist army during the first World War. He became a soldiers' Soviet leader during the 1917 revolution and joined the Communist Party in 1919. He survived Stalin's great purge of the military in 1938, though he was a target of the debauched and murderous internal security chief Lavrenti Beria. When Hitler launched his attack on Russia on June 22nd, 1941, Zhukov, aged 45, had been chief of staff of the Red Army for just five months.

Stalin received more than 80 warnings of the impending Nazi invasion in 1941 but dismissed them as "disinformation" concocted by Churchill and others to embroil him in a war with Hitler. Zhukov wanted the Red Army be put on full alert, but Stalin refused. Finally, an ineffective, garbled warning was permitted on the evening before the invasion.

THE EASTERN FRONT was a cruel, bloody contest. It is not widely appreciated that Hitler's surprise attack on Russia was conceived as a war of extermination as well as territorial conquest. He intended the complete destruction of Leningrad and Moscow, with the annihilation of their civilian populations. The capital was to be flooded as an artificial lake, drowning men, women and children.

The first battles were catastrophic for Soviet forces. There was chaos and demoralisation. About 1,200 aircraft were destroyed on the ground in the early hours of the attack, and whole armies were surrounded and captured within weeks. The Germans advanced hundreds of miles into Russian territory. After a briefing from Zhukov on the unfolding disaster, Stalin stalked out of the defence commissariat with Beria and Malenkov, muttering disconsolately to them: "Lenin founded our state, and we've fucked it up".

The battle for Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, led to a blazing row between Stalin and Zhukov, who wanted Russian forces withdrawn from the city before they were surrounded. Stalin shouted that Zhukov's plans were "nonsense!". Angrily, Zhukov resigned as chief of staff, but a wily Stalin did not wish to alienate him. He made it clear he would remain a member of the Stavka - the inner war command. Kiev fell in mid-September and more than a half a million men were killed or captured. When I interviewed Zhukov's eldest daughters Era and Ella in Moscow, they said sadly their father "was proved right". Leningrad, surrounded by the Germans in early September, seemed certain to fall. Stalin summoned Zhukov to the Kremlin and described the situation as "hopeless". Zhukov disagreed and volunteered to take command immediately. Flying over German lines, he arrived in the city, as Irish military commentator Col Ned Doyle says, "like the wrath of God". He immediately countermanded the scuttling of the Baltic fleet, and had the ships brought close to the city where their 16-inch guns could pound German positions.

The major criticism of Zhukov is that he recklessly sacrificed his troops - but the eastern front was a battle against extermination, and Soviet military doctrine, unlike the West's, had not changed because of the slaughter of 1914-1918. The end, regardless of human cost, justified the means. Zhukov was ruthless towards panic-mongers and cowards, ordering the arrest and execution of officers, soldiers and commissars to illustrate where failure would lead. His defences at Leningrad saved the city, but more than a million people died from starvation, cold, bombing and shelling. Zhukov would return in January 1943 to break the blockade.

In October, the Germans were rapidly advancing on Moscow. Stalin called on Zhukov to save the capital. Over the telephone, Stalin asked: "Are you sure we'll hold Moscow? I ask you this with pain in my heart. Speak honestly, as a communist." Zhukov answered, "We'll hold Moscow all right."

When Zhukov took over, British historian Prof Richard Overy estimates there were just 90,000 defenders left out of 800,000. Zhukov said: "I assumed command at a time when the front lines had actually reached the suburbs of Moscow." He asked for 200 tanks and reinforcements. There were no tanks and a shortage of ammunition - but reserves came from Siberia. In freezing temperatures, his counterattack, started in early December, threw the Wehrmacht back 130 miles from the city.

Zhukov had also mobilised every last civilian resource. "Everyone who was able to shoulder a rifle or hold a spade, or could work in one of the war plants came to the defence of Moscow," he said.

After this success, Stalin took direct command again, and, rejecting Zhukov's advice for another concentrated attack on the Germans before Moscow, he ordered a general offensive along the entire frontline. It was a disaster, and half a million men were lost.

A familiar pattern was echoed by the near-collapse of the Red Army in the south as the Germans pushed towards the Caucasus oil fields in summer 1942. Stalingrad was in imminent danger of falling. Stalin called Zhukov again to the Kremlin, and made him deputy supreme commander, second only to himself, telling him the situation at Stalingrad was critical: "How soon can you leave?" This battle, the most famous engagement of the eastern front, was a great psychological and military victory, but afterwards German forces on the eastern front still numbered about six million, backed by powerful panzer corps and the Luftwaffe.

The most critical battle was to follow in summer 1943 - the battle of the Kursk Bulge. South west of Moscow, the Russians held a salient in the German lines, and Hitler determined to destroy it with a pincer attack. Zhukov said later, "the Germans wanted to get even for their defeat at Stalingrad." Zhukov decided on deep defensive lines to "bleed white" the German attack, and then a massive counter-offensive to roll them back.

Stalin tried to interfere, pushing for a pre-emptive strike, but Zhukov held him off. Hitler put the cream of the Wehrmacht into the attack, over a million men and the latest Panther and Tiger tanks. He confessed to Gen Heinz Guderian that his "stomach turned over", thinking of the offensive. He knew it was his last great gamble.

Zhukov's plan succeeded beyond his imagination. The offensive was blunted and the counter-attack pushed the Germans as far as Kiev. After Kursk, the Wehrmacht was broken as an offensive force - it was only capable of defensive retreat.

IN SPRING 1945, Zhukov took direct command of the attack on Berlin. Russian diplomat/historian Vassily Istratov says it was his "worst victory": Zhukov made mistakes onthe approaches to the city and got bogged down for days. On April 30th, he rang Stalin to tell him Hitler had committed suicide. "He got what was coming to him!" said Stalin gleefully. "Too bad he wasn't captured alive." After bitter street-by-street fighting which destroyed the city, the garrison finally surrendered on May 2nd.

Zhukov, representing the Allies, chaired the formal unconditional surrender led by Marshal Keitel on May 9th and, with Eisenhower and Montgomery in the Control Commission, ran occupied Germany.

He and "Ike" became friends. When Eisenhower visited Moscow in August 1945 at Zhukov's invitation, ecstatic crowds greeted them both. The same year, Eisenhower said "To no one man does the United Nations owe a greater debt than to Marshal Zhukov . . . one day . . . there is certain to be another Order of the Soviet Union. It will be the Order of Zhukov, and that order will be prized by every man who admires courage, vision, fortitude, and determination in a soldier." Ironically, this became true after the fall of communism.

Zhukov was invited to the US, but his visit was cancelled. He pleaded illness, but it was Stalin's paranoia and jealousy that stopped him. In 1946 he was arraigned before a kangaroo court of the central committee and accused of plotting a coup.

Turned into a "non-person", erased from history books and banished to military backwaters, he returned to power as minister for defence under Khrushchev after playing a central role in the arrest of Beria following Stalin's death. But Khrushchev too grew to fear Zhukov's popularity and sacked him from both government and the army in 1957.

The defeat of the Nazi regime cost the lives of more than 25 million people in the East. Sixty years later it is time to acknowledge the terrible price they paid, and the role of Marshal Georgi Zhukov in Hitler's downfall.

Shane Kenny's documentary, Hitler's Nemesis: Marshal Zhukov, can be heard on RTÉ Radio 1 at 7.02pm on Wed, May 4