The Magazine

Brutal Victor

The man who crushed the Wehrmacht.

Jul 16, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 41 • By ANDREW NAGORSKI
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At the very least, both assertions create somewhat misleading impressions. As Robert Conquest pointed out in his seminal study The Great Terror, the purges hit senior officers the hardest, including 3 of the 5 marshals, 13 of the 15 army commanders, 50 of the 57 corps commanders, and 154 of the 186 divisional commanders—and this is only a partial list. Khrushchev argued that the purges were one of the reasons why, in June 1941, the Soviet Army was so woefully unprepared for the German invasion:  “So many were executed that the high command as well as middle and lower echelons were devastated,” he wrote. “As a result our army was deprived of the cadres who had gained experience in the civil war, and we faced a new enemy unprepared.” 

It’s not quite clear why Roberts feels compelled to characterize Zhukov as a “mild” devotee of Stalin, when so much of his book is focused on his service under the Soviet leader. True, once Zhukov rose to his dominant position in the military command during World War II, he appeared to be somewhat less personally intimidated by Stalin than most senior officers. But his loyalty was beyond question. As was his willingness to resort to the kind of brutal methods that were considered de rigueur for any faithful disciple.

Zhukov’s major break came in May 1939 when he was assigned to the Far East, where Soviet and Japanese troops were fighting intense battles along the Khalkhin-Gol River on the disputed Mongolian-Manchurian border. He improved intelligence-gathering, trained his troops hard, and caught the Japanese unawares with a major new offensive that resulted in a decisive victory in August. In the process, he also demonstrated the kind of ruthlessness that would mark his entire military career. While preparing for the Khalkhin-Gol offensive, he announced the execution of two soldiers for cowardice. And he was quick to proclaim: “Death to the despicable cowards and traitors!” 

Under Stalin, those were never idle threats. Both the Soviet dictator and Zhukov did not hesitate to order their troops into battle even when the odds were stacked against them—casualty calculations simply weren’t a factor. In some cases, such sacrifices of their men were justified by the results; in others, this approach led to countless squandered lives. And that was on top of those who were killed outright by Soviet firing squads. During World War II, the Soviets executed 170,000 of their own troops. And after German forces scored their initial series of victories on the Eastern Front, Stalin and his generals often would not permit retreats—even for tactical reasons—and set up “blocking battalions” to machine gun anyone who disobeyed.

Roberts mentions such practices but doesn’t dwell on them. Instead, he focuses on Zhukov’s career as he is at first caught up in the disaster following Hitler’s launching of Operation Barbarossa against the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941. At Stalin’s behest, Zhukov issued orders for counter-offensives that were completely unrealistic and ensured staggering losses. But after taking charge of beleaguered Leningrad, he stayed there long enough to arrest the German advance, setting the stage for what would be the 900-day siege of that critical city, and then raced back at Stalin’s command to organize the defense of Moscow. 

Nearly two million Soviet troops perished in the various stages of the battle for Moscow, and it was as much Hitler’s mistakes as Soviet resistance that led to the sputtering-out of the German drive on the capital’s outskirts. While this represented the first defeat for the Wehrmacht since its invasion of Poland in September 1939, it wasn’t until the Battle of Stalingrad a year later that the Soviet Union could claim a decisive triumph. Zhukov was involved in the planning of that action, but Roberts points out that he almost certainly exaggerated his role. At the same time, he was directly responsible for the abject failure of Operation Mars, which had been designed to sweep away the remaining threat to Moscow in the Rzhev-Vyazma region.

As Soviet forces recovered from their initial defeats and gained momentum, Zhukov was able to burnish his status as the architect of victory, particularly after his troops finally seized Berlin. His personal triumph was short-lived, however: When Stalin launched a new round of purges in 1946, Zhukov was denounced as “an exceptionally power-loving and self-obsessed person.” One of the additional charges against him was that he “expects submissiveness and cannot bear dissent.” This may have been accurate, but it also demonstrates that Stalin had no sense of irony.