Claus von Bülow on a great Soviet general who miraculously escaped Stalin’s purges Zhukov: The Conqueror of Berlin by John Colvin, Weidenfeld & Nicolson £14.99 John Colvin, the author of this compact and easily readable biography of Marshal Zhukov, sadly died before publication. Colvin had many admirers who enjoyed his earlier historical works, such as The Lions of Judah, Not Ordinary Men (a battle in Burma) and Nomonhan (a battle between the Japanese and Soviets in Mongolia), and others. A life of Zhukov is in a less esoteric field, one trodden directly or indirectly by many earlier historians.
There are many reasons why this book deserves our interest. It is a biography of a great general in the Second World War, an era of history that sells almost as many books as crime and sex. In fact, most schoolchildren are now ignorant of any other history. When our Prime Minister recently celebrated the photo opportunities on the Normandy Beaches during the D-Day Anniversary, the Russians understandably felt that the heroic sacrifice of their millions had been a greater contribution to the ultimate victory.
This imbalance in the public’s image of the Second World War has recently been rectified by the huge best-selling successes of several weighty tomes, including Antony Beevor’s Stalingrad and his equally impressive and scholarly Berlin: The Downfall 1945. The ferocious purges and executions within Stalin’s court (which Zhukov miraculously survived) have also recently been studied by millions in Simon SebagMontefiore’s fascinating doorstopper volume. Colvin’s biography, even though it includes the many battles in which Zhukov was directly involved, manages to be of a less intimidating size. The reader travels from Mongolia to Pomerania and from the Crimea to St Petersburg, yet the book can fit nicely into an overcoat pocket Zhukov’s childhood was spent in the abject rural poverty of pre-revolutionary Czarist Russia. He never knew his mother, who had abandoned him. After graduating with honours from his school, he was apprenticed to a rich furrier. He fought in the ranks and as an NCO in the First World War against the Germans, and in 1921 against the Poles. In the Russian Civil War most of the old Officer Corps were naturally either disinclined or disqualified from service in the Bolshevik forces.
Zhukov’s experience on active service and natural ability marked him out for rapid promotion, even earning a One-Man Command, meaning that he could dispense with a Political Commissar.
The early fighting in the Civil War did not initially favour the Bolsheviks. However, after the German Armistice of 1918, the British and the French withdrew their expeditionary corps and left the army of the Whites in the lurch. There was no longer any reason for keeping Russia in the War.
Colvin follows Zhukov’s career through peacetime army postings, to a mission with the Republicans in Spain’s Civil War and Stalin’s mad purges of the Old Party faithfuls and the Soviet Officer Corps. The dictator fatally weakened the Soviet Army’s capability in manpower, material, and strategic planning. In the light of the current reevaluation of Intelligence Services, it is noteworthy that Stalin before and after the German Invasion ignored accurate and valid warnings from agents, deserters, and indeed Enigma. His own wishful thinking overruled the facts.
One chapter in Colvin’s book is rightly devoted to the Battle of Nomonhan in 1939, where the Japanese were so thoroughly beaten by Zhukov that they abandoned any future plans for expansion toward the Soviet East and turned their aggression towards the British, French and Dutch Empires, and towards Pearl Harbour. Knowledge of this reorientation also enabled Stalin later to concentrate his forces towards Germany.
Arguably, this small and largely unknown encounter had even greater political consequences than Zhukov’s direction of later major battles in the defence of Leningrad and Moscow, and in the hecatombs at Stalingrad, Kursk and finally Berlin.
Every great writer from Tolstoy to Stendhal knows about the inevitable confusion of the battlefield, which makes the commanders’ luck as important as their strategy. The lay reader, unfamiliar with many of the geographical locations in Russia, and indeed with the now forgotten names of many of the principal generals, will be further discouraged by the system of identifying Army units on both sides by numbers. Colvin helps his reader penetrate this morass of information with a judicious selection of dialogue and quotations.
The senseless brutality of the Germans towards the civilian population authorised by the Nazis naturally provoked a response in the form of heroism by the Russian soldiers. The death toll makes that of all other wars seem puny.
How did Zhukov escape Stalin’s purges? Perhaps a clue is provided by the photograph of the great marshal taking the salute at the victory parade in Moscow, which shows a very combative-looking fellow: think John Prescott without the medals.