An examination of what was indeed the greatest battle, numerically and perhaps otherwise, in history.
Nagorski (Last Stop Vienna, 2003, etc.), a former Newsweek Moscow bureau chief, draws on recently declassified Soviet archives to explore unknown aspects of the half-year-long battle for Russia’s capital over the fall and winter of 1941-42. One of them comes after the war, when Soviet commander Marshal Zhukov, now defense minister, requested an estimate of Soviet casualties; when he received it, he ordered its author, “Hide it and don’t show it to anybody!” And for good reason, as Nagorski shows: Overall Russian casualties in the battle were 1,896,500, against the Germans’ 615,000. Not that the Germans had it easy; convinced that Moscow would be taken before the winter came, Adolf Hitler failed to provide cold-weather gear for his men, thousands of whom died of frostbite and exposure. The news in Nagorski’s book isn’t much news at all: Neither Hitler nor his Soviet counterpart, Josef Stalin, shied from sacrificing soldiers for their respective totalitarian causes, so that the Armageddon-sized battle was all but inevitable. Still, this was something new: Soviet soldiers who had been captured and then liberated, for instance, were sent into battle in human-wave assaults, with almost zero chance of survival, while even the most loyal Soviet soldier often went into battle without a weapon, told to scavenge one from a dead German. Small wonder that the casualties were so heavy. Though he considers what might have happened had Hitler not split his forces into three fronts and instead gone straight for Moscow, Nagorski’s account lacks the big-picture clarity of other journalistic studies of the Russian war, such as Harrison Salisbury’s The 900 Days; the battle scenes are uninspired, too, as military-history buffs of the Cornelius Ryan school will quickly note.
Serviceable but lackluster account.