- The Greatest Battle: Stalin, Hitler, and the Desperate Struggle for Moscow That Changed the Course of World War II
- Simon & Schuster, 384 pp.
Hitler, Stalin, and Moscow
Andrew Nagorski is a former Newsweek bureau chief in Moscow and one of the most experienced American correspondents. He has written an engrossing and well documented book about the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941. He focuses on the assault on Moscow, the largest battle in history between two opposing armies. In this battle seven million men took part, and of these 2.5 million were killed, taken prisoner, wounded, or went missing. The invading Nazi army numbered about three million, which as Nagorski might usefully have mentioned was six times larger than Russia’s last previous major invader, Napoleon’s Grande Armée in 1812. (The Mongol army that invaded Russia from the east in 1237 may have numbered only 150,000, but the Russian population was far smaller, too.)
Nagorski describes in useful detail the numerous reports that Soviet leader Joseph Stalin received of an impending German attack. Stalin dismissed the reports, and no one has ever been able to learn definitively what was in his mind when he did so. Certainly he did not want to see an end to the agreement that he had concluded in 1939 with Hitler’s Germany, that led to the partition between the two regimes of much of Eastern Europe. The partition had begun when Hitler invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, precipitating World War II, and Stalin seized eastern Poland. Later Stalin incorporated Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia into the USSR. The agreement also put Finland within the Soviet sphere of influence, but the Finnish army resisted with considerable success the Soviet attack on them late in 1939. Finland retained independence, but had to cede to Moscow ten percent of its territory.
As Nagorski writes, no matter what reasons Stalin had for disregarding the reports of impending invasion–certainly, Nagorski says, he was playing for time to strengthen Soviet defenses–it was “a monumental failure of leadership.” The German army crossed the Soviet border on June 22, 1941 and crushed the Soviet defenders. Within a month they had gone two-thirds of the way to Moscow.
There were, however, looming problems. The original date for the invasion, which the Germans codenamed Operation Barbarossa, had been May 15, five weeks earlier. That spring, however, Hitler unexpectedly had to divert Wehrmacht divisions to the Balkans, both to help his Italian allies, who ran into stiff resistance from Greece after Mussolini’s ill-planned invasion of that country, and to put down nationalist resistance in Yugoslavia. The result was that the German invasion of the USSR began a day later than that of the French invasion of 1812–which, as Hitler and his generals well knew, had failed in good part because of Russian winter weather.
A still more worrisome problem, for at least some senior German officers, was that Operation Barbarossa had three prongs: a thrust northeast toward Leningrad, the central thrust toward Moscow, and a thrust southeast toward Ukraine and the Caucasus. The generals thought they should focus their forces on Moscow. Hitler disagreed; he said scornfully that they did not understand the economic aspects of war, and that it was more important to seize Ukraine’s rich agricultural regions and then go on to the Caucasus oil fields. Heinz Guderian, Hitler’s great Panzer general, wrote years later that the Wehrmacht’s seizure in the late summer of 1941 of Ukraine and of hundreds of thousands of Soviet prisoners amounted to a great tactical victory–but “would the German army, before the onset of winter and, indeed, before the autumnal mud set in, still be capable of achieving decisive results?”
The answer turned out to be No. With its forces divided, the Wehrmacht neared Moscow but never entered it, despite a day of panic in the capital in mid-October. Most of the Soviet government was moved east to safety in Kuibyshev, as were foreign embassies. Stalin, however, stayed in Moscow. Martial law was declared in the city. The panic waned, and among the people there was the sense of a new determination to stop the invaders. Nagorski, incidentally, in writing that American Ambassador Laurence Steinhardt ordered “all” his staff to Kuibyshev, ignores the fact that one officer remained, and became Washington’s immediate link to Stalin. This was a Foreign Service officer named Llewellyn Thompson, who would himself later serve twice as the American ambassador to the Soviet Union.
Despite the book’s title, it covers more than the battle for Moscow. The author’s father, as he mentions briefly, was one of the brave Poles who manned the fortress at Brest during the German attack in September 1939. Not unnaturally, later in his book Nagorski goes on at some length to discuss the wartime talks between Stalin and Western leaders which made clear Stalin’s intent to hold on to the Polish territory he had seized in 1939. (The elder Nagorski, once a Polish captain, became after the war an officer of the U.S. Foreign Service and, still later, president of the Center for International Leadership.)
The author has usefully incorporated into his book interviews that he had conducted while Moscow bureau chief for Newsweek. Later, in 2005, he returned to Russia for other interviews and research. He describes a poignant visit he made with three Russians to a wooded area near Vyazma, 140 miles west of Moscow. The Russians were members of a group organized to search for the remains of fallen soldiers at one of many battlefields. This and other groups had so far found thirty thousand remains and buried them in the Vyazma cemetery–and still had much to do.
Nagorski writes that his book “…draws on a broad range of sources, some tapped for the first time. Among them: large numbers of newly declassified documents from the archives of the NKVD, as the KGB was then called….” This reviewer at first assumed that this meant that Nagorski, or someone employed by him, must have gotten directly into the archives. Not so; it appears that what Nagorski drew on was a book published in Russian, in Moscow, in 1995, by M.M. Gorinov and others, reproducing the text of old files to which they had gained access.
Also troubling to this reviewer was Nagorski’s failure to make any reference to the book Moscow 1941, by former British ambassador Rodric Braithwaite, which came out last year in both Britain and America. Like Nagorski, Braithwaite interviewed a number of people who had experienced the battle for Moscow, in the capital and sometimes at the front. Comparing the lists of those interviewed, one finds that Nagorski interviewed six of the same people Braithwaite did, including a man named Zbarsky who helped take Lenin’s body east to Tyumen for safekeeping. That is an interesting story, but one that perhaps did not need to be told twice from the same source.
This reviewer wrote of Braithwaite’s book for CLR some months ago, and found it one of the best modern books on Russia. That is more than he can say for Nagorski’s new book; but if a reader wants an overall work on Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union and related matters, The Greatest Battle will serve well.