The Magazine

Brutal Victor

The man who crushed the Wehrmacht.

Jul 16, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 41 • By ANDREW NAGORSKI
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The other irony in Zhukov’s career was that he helped Khrushchev win power by participating in the arrest of Stalin’s feared secret police chief Lavrenty Beria after Stalin’s death in 1953, and served as defense minister under the leader who launched the de-Stalinization campaign. During Zhukov’s tenure, his devotion to brutal repression against perceived foes remained undiminished. When the Hungarians sought to break away from Soviet domination in 1956, he was typically unequivocal in his recipe for action: “Remove the rotten elements. Disarm the counterrevolution. Everything must be brought to order.” The resulting bloodshed was hardly surprising.

For all his attempts to sort through Zhukov’s record judiciously, Roberts points out that “winning in war tends to trump all criticism of the conduct of particular battles or operations.” But where his biography falls short is in examining just how much Stalin, Zhukov, and the others who constituted the political and military leadership of the Soviet Union were responsible for nearly losing the war at first—and for contributing to its astronomical toll. Russian historians estimate approximately 27 million Soviet citizens died during the war, of which at least 8.6 million comprised Soviet military personnel. Stalin’s refusal to believe the numerous warnings of his own spies and Western powers that Hitler was about to attack, and the subsequent calamitous series of military decisions in the early days of that conflict, as ordered by Zhukov and other commanders, magnified the tragedy.

For all that, Zhukov deserves his place on his horse in front of the entrance to Red Square. He learned from his early mistakes and eventually led his troops to victory, commanding the respect of Allied generals and leaders who recognized that the Germans suffered their greatest losses at the hands of his forces. Without those losses, Hitler’s Germany would have ruled Europe much longer than it did. 

But Zhukov’s “flawed character,” as Roberts puts it, also suggests why the new Russia still has so many difficulties in honestly confronting its recent history. Even in the case of the country’s most acclaimed military commander, the Stalinist “flaws” are all too evident, and the price that his countrymen paid for them remains all too high. 

Andrew Nagorski, vice president and director of public policy at the EastWest Institute, is the author of Hitlerland: American Eyewitnesses to the Nazi Rise to Power.