Book: The Greatest Battle

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The Greatest Battle: Stalin, Hitler, and the Desperate Struggle for Moscow that Changed the Course of World War II

Author: Andrew Nagorski
Publisher: Simon & Schuster

The Battle for Moscow was the deadliest battle of World War II—and the deadliest battle of all time. Between September 30, 1941 and April 20, 1942, seven million German and Soviet troops took part in the battle, and 2.5 million of them were killed, taken prisoner, missing or severely wounded. As German troops approached Moscow, half of the city’s population fled, while others looted stores, staged strikes and attacked those who were escaping. In the end, the German drive fell short, but Stalin’s regime was so embarrassed by how close they came, by the mistakes the Soviet dictator made that allowed them to do so, and the behavior of many of its own citizens, that the battle was given short shrift in their history books.

Both Hitler and Stalin (briefly allied and now newly at war) intruded themselves into the strategies for their armies. Hitler was so overconfident—even though his generals warned him—that the German army went into battle in the Russian fall with no winter clothes. Stalin was so in denial that the majority of Russian soldiers had no weapons. They had to wait for a comrade to fall in order to acquire a gun. Soviet soldiers following the front lines were under orders to shoot anyone who retreated. Meanwhile, the German soldiers, well equipped with armaments, and well trained but with no winter clothes, were freezing to death by the thousands.

Nagorski’s description of the parallels and differences between Hitler and Stalin is a fascinating opening to his book. His description of Stalin’s courtship of FDR and Churchill is an important historical contribution.

His account of the near catastrophe of the German attack (Stalin had Lenin’s body removed and sent away, so close was Moscow to capitulation) is dramatic.

Moscow was under attack and siege for six months. Nagorski describes the horror in great detail. Because he speaks Russian he was able to interview many who lived through this battle, including the young man who transported Lenin’s body.

The Battle for Moscow was the first turning point of the war, the first time that the German Blitzkrieg had been stopped. If Hitler hadn’t committed major mistakes, the history of World War II would have been radically different. Nagorski tells the full story of this epic battle for the first time. He draws upon previously classified documents from the archives of the NKVD, as the KGB was called, letters, diaries, memoirs, and numerous first-hand accounts of survivors, many of whom contradict the sanitized version of events presented by Soviet and even Western writers.

The result is a riveting tale of terror, mass murder and, ultimately, a narrow victory that marked the beginning of the end for Hitler’s war machine.

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