Andrew Nagorski. The Greatest Battle. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, September 18th, 2007. 366 pp.
After reading a biography on Stalin last year I wanted to learn more about the Soviets during World War Two. So when I found this book on the Battle of Moscow I was excited. In the opening of the book the author made it clear that while there is some distant historical imagination in the Russian public memory of the Battle of Moscow, very few people know the exact details and actual facts beyond the sanitized Soviet account. The book’s chief point is to explore the battle historically with data outside the official version according to Stalin and the Soviet Union. The author does this by utilizing other resources such as interviews of survivors, newly revealed government source materials, journals and Western news reporter’s personal account. I must say I enjoyed the book and the effort the author put into this book.
I don’t want to rehearse the whole book but the book explored both Hitler and Stalin’s leadership in the conflict. In the first chapter the author described the similarities between both dictators’ leadership style and personality. Both men distrusted one another which shouldn’t come as a surprise since they did not even trusted those men around them. It is surprising that both came to a mutual agreement not to attack each other but secretly they both knew that war between one another was inevitable. Their agreement of neutrality towards one another was to buy time for the upcoming war and unfortunately it was a game that the Soviets were beaten in and the Germans had the advantage of in the beginning.
The book reveals just how close the Nazis were to Moscow. The popular Russian narrative that the Russians faced the Germans fearlessly wasn’t always true. At one point the people in Moscow when it seems inevitable that Moscow would fall to the Germans even rioted, fled and was ready to commit treason such as surrendering and burning Marxists documents. Police officers were nowhere to be seen and looting were rampant. Due to some poor strategy on the part of Hitler the German Army focused elsewhere in the Eastern front rather than completing their march towards Moscow. This act saved Russia and the Russians soon started pushing the Germans back.
I think the author argued his point quite successfully that the leadership of both Stalin and Hitler raised the costs of casualties on their own respective side, sometimes unnecessarily so. Both men had the misfortune of having their arrogance blinded them; they even thought they knew better than their generals and think of themselves as great strategists but who were often in error and trivial. But the costs in terms of lives and resources were terrible as the personal accounts throughout the book can attest.
Some of the more intriguing part of the book for me include the discussion of Russian covert actions ranging from the bizarre to the heroic. I also learned from this book of the origin of the Marines guarding American Embassies began when American diplomats were concerned about security in which Russian spies and secret agents were always surrounding American diplomats and where they were staying. But the majority of the book was sadder to read. The story of incredible suffering on both sides was not easy to read. The stories of Russian military units and the NKVD (predecessors to the Russian intelligence and security agency KGB) killing Russian soldiers who fled was rather disheartening to read. Even worst were the stories of how Stalin’s policies towards Russians soldiers captured by the Germans was to treat them as traitors. Even soldiers who were caught for a brief time and escaped were interrogated and executed as spies. Of course the treatment of enemies’ prisoner of war wasn’t going to be more humane.
What’s in it for the Christian: War is evil. Even when it’s justified, war is evil. The suffering it cause is unimaginable for most of us in the West. We must never forget this and books such as this should remind us about the brutality of total war. This book also should remind Christians about the truth that everyone is a sinner, including those in government. Both Hitler and Stalin were tyrants who use their power for evil. We must never forget that evil leaders would hurt others and one’s own countrymen. How much more so we guard ourselves and oppose those who want to lead by sheer ungodly charisma who boast of their sins shamelessly and think they are God’s gift to the political world.