It should be remembered that Zhukov was one of a number of highly talented Soviet generals who served under a very effective supreme commander—Stalin. If Zhukov was the greatest general of the Second World War—in the sense that he made a decisive contribution to all the war’s significant turning points—it was not through his efforts alone. He was a member of a Soviet High Command that collectively performed brilliantly. Arguably, it was Stalin’s management of his generals that mattered as much as their individual talents, skills, and exploits. By using his leadership and authority to cohere a group of powerful and often clashing personalities, Stalin elicited the best from their individual and collective talents, and inspired and demanded a loyalty that held them together through disaster and triumph. Zhukov was Stalin’s greatest individual asset from among this group. Time and again Zhukov delivered military victories to the Soviet dictator, unhesitatingly if not always unquestioningly. He never challenged the dictator’s supremacy or showed ambition beyond achieving victory. He was indeed Stalin’s general.
How does this Soviet legend compare with other great commanders of the Second World War? And what should be compared? A simple tally of victories says nothing about how hard fought the individual battles may have been. A personality profile does not reveal military prowess. Generating popularity or provoking hostility among peers cannot measure talent and skill. Comparisons are made even more difficult when it comes to Zhukov because, as Eisenhower noted, the Soviet general “had longer experience as a responsible leader in great battles than any other man of our time.”
Perhaps the most apposite comparisons would be with other top Soviet commanders, particularly Konev, Rokossovsky, and Vasilevsky. But none of those generals had as many diverse roles as did Zhukov, who was variously chief of the General Staff, Front commander, Stavka coordinator, and deputy supreme commander. Vasilevsky had various duties but mainly functioned as a Stavka representative and it was not until toward the end of the war that he commanded a Front. Zhukov, Konev, and Rokossovsky all experienced failure as well as success and it is difficult to adjudicate their relative merits as Front commanders. After the war Konev and Rokossovsky often complained of the interference in their Fronts’ operations by the General Staff and by Stavka representatives such as Zhukov and Vasilevsky, claiming that as the on-the-spot commander they knew what was best. But neither Konev nor Rokossovsky ever had to meet the challenge of centrally coordinating and directing operations being conducted across multiple Fronts, so it remains unknown how well they would have performed and whether such experience would have changed their command style or altered their success rate.
The temperaments and leadership styles of Zhukov and Konev were quite similar. As multi-army Front commanders they both drove their troops forward with a relentless determination to achieve their prescribed goals at whatever cost was necessary. Both were aggressive, offensive-minded commanders but knew when to call off an attack and regroup. Rokossovsky had a more subtle and intellectual approach, at least in relation to his immediate colleagues and subordinates. As Rokossovsky noted in his memoirs Stalin, too, was adept at using a softly-softly approach when necessary, although the Soviet dictator was also capable of throwing tantrums, issuing threats, and delivering insults—behaviors typical of Zhukov’s and Konev’s leadership style.
Compared with non-Soviet generals Zhukov appears to combine many of their traits, both good and bad. Zhukov’s favorite American general was Eisenhower, who like himself was able to manage effectively a large and complex organization responsible for millions of soldiers. Both men achieved this by surrounding themselves with loyal and talented lieutenants who got on with the job. Zhukov, however, lacked Eisenhower’s diplomatic skills. After the war both men became successful politicians but Zhukov turned out to be the more politically naive of the two.
General Patton is famous for slapping two sick soldiers he thought were malingerers. There are reports that Zhukov, too, occasionally hit his subordinates, a practice picked up from his time in the tsarist army, where it was common. More happily, Patton and Zhukov shared a devotion to constant training and drilling as the basis for strong discipline on the battlefield. Both men were also fervent believers in offensive action and conveyed to their troops the need to close with the enemy in order to destroy them. Like Zhukov, Patton attained legendary status during the war and was held in high esteem and affection by the general public as well as by his troops. Both commanders liked nothing better than to be in action with their troops and as close to the front line as possible.
Another general who commanded respect and affection and generated confidence in the ranks was the British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery. Zhukov shared with Montgomery a dedication to meticulous planning and preparation of operations. Both men devoured resources to assemble the overwhelming force required to guarantee victory. Less happily, both men provoked jealousy and hostility among their peers as well as love and respect from other senior commanders.
Zhukov was dismissive of the German generals, partly because of their pro-Nazi politics but mainly because those who survived annoyed him with their memoir claims that they had lost the war because of Hitler’s strategic errors, the severity of the Russian weather, and the Red Army’s sheer weight of numbers, which enabled the Soviets to absorb far more casualties than the Wehrmacht. What none of them would admit, according to Zhukov, was that superior Soviet generalship was the primary reason they had lost the war.
The only German general who approached Zhukov’s mass popularity during the war was Field Marshal Erwin Rommel. But Rommel was a battlefield tactician not a strategist or an organizer of large-scale operations. During the North African campaign—which he ultimately lost—Rommel commanded only a few divisions. Set-piece battles may not have been Zhukov’s strongest skill but his prosecution of the fighting at Khalkhin-Gol and during the Yel’nya offensive in August 1941 is certainly comparable to Rommel’s achievements in North Africa. Rommel was also fortunate not to have served on the Russian front—the destroyer of many German generals’ lives and reputations.
Two German generals who did live to tell the tale of fighting on the Eastern Front were General Heinz Guderian and Field Marshal Erich von Manstein, whose names occur often in Zhukov’s memoirs. Indeed, he cites their books as evidence for the veracity of his own account of various battles. But in his writings Zhukov made no effort to assess either of their merits as generals, except for a passing reference to von Manstein as “enterprising.”
During Operation Barbarossa, Guderian’s forces and Zhukov’s fought head-to-head in the battle for Moscow. Guderian blamed the weather for his defeat in front of the Soviet capital but, as Zhukov was fond of pointing out, the cold did not discriminate between German and Soviet soldiers. When the 6th Army was surrounded at Stalingrad, von Manstein commanded the force charged with breaking the Soviet encirclement. This operation failed but Manstein later played an important role in securing the withdrawal of German forces south of Rostov-on-Don taking part in Hitler’s failed drive to capture the Soviet oilfields at Baku. Like Zhukov, Manstein proved himself as adept at defensive battles as offensive ones.
Perhaps the most intriguing comparison is between Zhukov and General Douglas MacArthur. Like Zhukov, MacArthur was surprised by the weight of enemy attack at the beginning of the Pacific War and as a result suffered a series of disastrous and costly defeats in battles with the Japanese in the Philippines in 1941–1942. But MacArthur staged a comeback with a series of brilliant amphibious operations to recapture those islands, together with Borneo and New Guinea. Had the Japanese not surrendered in August 1945 following the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the Soviet invasion of Manchuria, MacArthur would have spearheaded the invasion of Japan and faced a military test of a scale that Zhukov encountered many times during the war. With Zhukov, MacArthur shared the trait of trusting his own intuition and judgment above others’ and of being reluctant to admit his mistakes. But Zhukov did not go as far as MacArthur did in his memoirs where he concluded he had made no major mistakes in his military career.
The conclusion to be drawn from this survey of comparable generals is that while Zhukov did not excel as “the best ever” in any one field of military endeavor, he was the best all-around general of the Second World War. He combined prowess and courage in battle with ambitious strategic vision, determination, and organizational ability. He inspired the affection and confidence of his troops—as well as their fear—if not the ungrudging respect of all his peers. He was stoic in defeat and exuberant in victory. He had seemingly inexhaustible reserves of energy and the will to succeed however challenging the circumstances.
These were qualities Zhukov needed to deploy again after the war when he came under personal and political attack from Stalin and then from Khrushchev. On both occasions he held his nerve and resolved to make a comeback after his fall from grace. Zhukov’s resilience in the postwar period is almost as impressive as his war record. As he had done during the war, Zhukov emerged triumphant from defeat and adversity.
A Soviet system that no longer exists provided the political and cultural context in which the dramatic triumphs and adversities of Zhukov’s life and career took place. As a committed communist, he supported this system; it was a system he served, a system to which he was loyal, whatever its faults. Ironically, it is only because the Soviet regime collapsed in 1991 that it has been possible to undertake research to strip away the myths and political distortions and reveal an accurate measure of Zhukov as a general and as a man.
The Zhukov legend has continued to grow in post-Soviet times. But new sources of evidence make it possible to disentangle the seductive myth from the often ordinary reality and to truly capture the complexity and contradictions of a man who rose from peasant poverty to become a great general and a hero not only to the Russian people but to all those who value his incomparable contribution to the victory over Nazi Germany.