The Eastern Front in World War II is known for many things: the heroic stand of the Soviet troops at Stalingrad, the massive tank battle at Kursk, the three-year siege of Leningrad that resulted in mass starvation of the populace. While itís common knowledge that Hitlerís invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 faltered just short of Moscow due to the extreme winter weather, for which the Germans were unprepared because Hitler insisted the war would be won before it set in, not much has been chronicled about the actual battle for the Soviet capital.
That is, until now. Andrew Nagorskiís The Greatest Battle demonstrates that the stand in front of Moscow is what truly changed the course of the war, as well as showing that both dictators made so many extreme mistakes that it seems both were trying to lose, even though itís obvious that they werenít. While uneven, the book does a good job of showing the circumstances leading up to the battle, as well as the hardships that set in and how close the Germans came to actually capturing the city.
As with most history books, Nagorski starts out by setting the stage, discussing the German-Soviet pact signed in 1939 that allowed the two powers to divide Poland between themselves, as well as allowing the Soviets to expand farther into Eastern Europe. Nagorski uses these opening chapters to also showcase how both paranoid and naive Stalin was regarding Hitler and the German war machine. He seemed desperate to maintain the peace, even going so far as to discredit any of his spies who tried to tell him that the Germans were beginning to mass on the border in preparation for an attack. Stalin seemed paralyzed when Hitler first crossed the frontier, unable to believe that the Germans were doing anything more than war exercises, and unwilling to allow his troops to fight back in those first crucial hours. This resulted in the loss of many hundreds of thousands of troops.
Nagorski does an excellent job analyzing the conduct and thought processes of both leaders, highlighting mistake after mistake that enable first Hitler, then Stalin, to gain the upper hand in the ongoing battle. Hitlerís decision to delay the final assault on Moscow for over a month is shown to be a fatal blunder, one that his top Panzer general, Guderian, credits for beginning the loss of the war. I especially enjoyed reading about the dictatorsí relationships with their generals, and how they refused to hear what they didnít want to believe. Nagorski provides details of the bitter conditions for the German army once the winter set in, and how Hitler and Goebbels refused to believe that the army could really be suffering that much.
Whatís especially riveting about The Greatest Battle is the illustration of the conditions in Moscow as the Germans approached. One of the roads was wide open due to Soviet tactical blunders, but the Germans didnít have the strength to follow up on it. Nevertheless, panic ensued in Moscow for at least 24 hours, with massive evacuations and civilians jamming the streets and roads trying to get out while they could. They were convinced that the Germans were on their doorsteps, and there were some reports that the Germans had even entered the city. This wasnít true, as the closest they ever came was some of the suburbs, but it was enough to raise anxiety levels. Nagorski uses firsthand accounts as well as diaries to show that, no matter how the official histories deny it, the residents of Moscow gave in to mass panic on October 16, rather than resisting stoically, as the government would have everybody believe.
Nagorski pulls no punches in his analysis of the entire battle. He demonstrates the Soviet disregard for the humanity of its soldiers, thrown them into the meat grinder of battle in mass human wave attacks, guaranteed to cause massive casualties. NKVD (forerunners of the KGB) battalions followed military units into battle to make sure there were no thoughts of desertion. Stalin has a general executed and then, when the generalís brother comes to speak with him, acts like heís never heard of the general. These details bring The Greatest Battle to life and add to the interest level.
Despite how good this book is, however, there are some problems with it. First, Nagorski spends much more time discussing the overarching aspects of the battle and how it affected the civilian population than he does the actual military situation. There are a couple of maps detailing the invasion and the assault on Moscow, as well as the counter-productive Soviet counterassaults in the early months of 1942, and there are some descriptions of battles in the book. Overall, though, The Greatest Battle looks above it all rather than at the military detail. Fans of military maneuvers will find themselves wanting at times while reading this book.
Secondly, there are some pacing problems, or at least decisions that I disagree with. He ends one chapter on a seeming cliffhanger, mentioning that Moscow was literally in a panic. Nagorskiís next chapter is a fairly long discussion (30 pages) of how the rest of the world reacted to the possibility that Moscow might fall, going back in time to where Franklin Roosevelt decided to establish diplomatic relations with the Soviet government in the 1930s and then moving forward. This is an interesting chapter, but he doesnít get back to his panicked Moscow citizens until the following chapter. This could be fine in a novel, where suspense is something you want, but in a history book? For me, it just ruptured the narrative flow.
Finally, The Greatest Battle uses my least favorite form of notation, where the notes are in the back of the book and you can only find them by an excerpt from the page (though at least it does give you page numbers). Thus, rather than a raised ď1Ē to announce the first note, you have to go to the back of the book, find the note, and find the words to which itís referring. For example, it will say ď121 ĎIf you comeí [notation]Ē. This has the reader paging to the back of the book a lot more often than is comfortable. I finally decided it wasnít worth it.
While these problems do detract from the book, itís still extremely interesting. I love the fact that so much of Nagorskiís information comes from interviews with survivors of that battle so many years ago. It immerses the reader in the history, making it even more vivid. Nagorskiís writing style also keeps you reading, not getting bogged down in extraneous historical detail. The Greatest Battle is definitely a must-read for anybody with an interest in World War II, mostly because much of this information has never really been put out there for popular consumption. Donít let the little bugs get in your way. Itís a great read.