Stalin and His Generals: Soviet Military Memoirs of World War II
Marshal Zhukov’s Greatest Battles
Seweryn Bialer’s selection of Soviet military memoirs makes fascinating reading. It is in fact a model of editing: the Introduction, the linking passages, the notes, are just what they should be: informative, accurate, and relevant. The days when histories of the Soviet-German conflict could be written only from German sources are long past. During the last twelve years, countless articles and books, by generals and by historians, have poured from Soviet presses. Needless to say, some of the material is slanted, but largely in familiar ways: all generals seek to prove that they were responsible for successful battles, and that failures were due to someone else or to circumstances beyond their control.
In the Soviet Union, there are, of course, other circumstances to be taken into account. The role of the Party, for instance, can be presented only in one way, the official way. Only those political figures who have fallen out of favor can be criticized. Zhukov’s part in the war was almost ignored in anything published between 1957 and 1964. Marshal Yeremenko praised Khrushchev’s military role, and therefore his own inflated claims could not be deflated until after 1964. These and other biases are dealt with by Bialer, and he rightly concludes that there is nevertheless plenty of good, usable material.
The success that this volume undoubtedly deserves must also be attributed to the fascination of the events themselves. The first part deals with the impact of Stalin’s purge of the military before World War II as seen by its survivors. The purge had effects which showed themselves all too clearly at the outbreak of war. Because of the loss of a high proportion of trained military (and to some extent also specialist-technical) manpower, staff and regimental appointments in 1941 were often held by junior and inexperienced men, and the commanders of the three principal fronts when the Germans attacked, Generals F. Kuznetzov, D. Pavlov, and Kirponos, were, by all accounts, worthy second-raters, promoted rapidly through no fault or talent of their own to replace the brilliant generals who had been slaughtered on Stalin’s orders. The three deputy commissars of defense, Kulik, Mekhlis, and Shchadenko, were loud-mouthed nonentities who played a sinister role in the Purge.
The second important effect of the Purge was on the minds of those who had not been arrested: in both the military and the industrial field it paralyzed initiative and disrupted mutual confidence and working arrangements between staff officers, designers, officials. Nor was it possible to organize fuel dumps, minefields, even guerrilla bases, in the event a retreat was necessary; this would be “defeatism and panic-mongering,” perhaps a capital offense.
The crisis of June 1941 seems fantastic in retrospect. The Germans were concentrating their forces, and evidence of imminent attack was accumulating. Not only the Soviet military and naval attachés in Berlin, not only Soviet agents, but also German deserters and Soviet soldiers on the frontier provided information which Stalin rejected. But suggestions for the most elementary …