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Marshal Zhukov's Pocket Knife (blogs.harvard.edu)
63 points by pepys 62 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 76 comments



Zhukov is actually very controversial nowadays. A lot of the early historians accepted his autobiography as a the main source pretty uncritically.

There is another historical view of Zhukov:

- He wasn't the military genius he portrayed himself to be and actually stole the credit for the achievements of other officers. For example he supposedly saved Stalingrad yet was nowhere near it, he came to Halkin Gol when the battle was beginning and didn't credit the staff chief for the excellent planning and so forth.

- He was a Stalin yes-man, and in stark contrast to his autobiography, there is no proof he ever challenged him on any decision. This is what Stalin liked, he needed talented commanders, but also people who will follow his orders to the letter.

- His handling of the Red Army in the summer of 1941 while he was Chief of Staff, was absolutely disastrous. He lost millions of men in ill planned counter attacks. Stalin kept him around because he followed orders (see above).

- Besides being a yes-man, by all unofficial accounts he was a brute and enjoyed humiliating his soldiers and officers. He was often in fights even with other marshals.

- He didn't care much about his soldiers lives, this is why Stalin sent him to capture Berlin as soon as possible.

- He wasn't demoted because of paranoia (he probably wouldn't be alive). He was actually demoted because he allowed his troops to pillage Eastern Germany for months, and took a huge share of the booty. Not that Stalin was particularly humanitarian, but this meant that discipline had become nonexistent.

- Far from being apolitical and not involved in intrigue, he actually participated in a coup against Malenkov and Beria. He almost became the leader of the Soviet Union, however was cleverly outmaneuvered by Khrushchev who put him in retirement.

- His mythos began during the time of Brezhnev, when he needed to rewrite the history of WWII to suit his ends. His autobiography was certainly not written by him, as are its subsequent 15 editions which hilariously contradict each other often. His daughter supposedly finds forgotten pages that just happen to complement the evolving views of Kremlin for over 40 years.


I agree that no person should be idealized or anyone view on history should be trusted without questions, but where did you find credible sources to your view because both Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Georgy_Zhukov and Britannica: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Georgy-Zhukov confirm positive view on Zhukov same as article.


> He wasn't the military genius he portrayed himself to be

Useful corollary would be to stop taking any self-celebration so naively. It is not like his autobiography was the only one where a person celebrates himselfs and ads himself a credit.


What I recall from the texts of mainstream yet highly respected and rigorous historians like Beevor or Sebag de Montefiore is that Zhukov was painted in a mostly positive light.

Who is on the other side of the controversy?


no surprises. most soviet personalities were in fact figments of the KGB imagination.


I never understood why there is this tendency to make military leaders into heroes. They are not better and not worse than leaders in any other area. The top leaders most likely are just very good politicians.

If we want heroes then it should be the poor guys who have to go to battle for no payoff and often loss of life or limb.


>>>I never understood why there is this tendency to make military leaders into heroes. They are not better and not worse than leaders in any other area. The top leaders most likely are just very good politicians.

Historically, casualties in war were far higher than they've been lately, so successful military leaders USUALLY were lauded for their ability to not bring home friendly troops in bodybags repeatedly. Now, I'm not even sure we've seen them accomplish that. With a few exceptions they are mostly energetic, charismatic, yes-men who deliver mediocre results.[1]

Having worked in a 3-star headquarters....flag officers are definitely cut from a different cloth, personality-wise, even compared to many of the Colonels I've worked for directly under them.

>>>If we want heroes then it should be the poor guys who have to go to battle for no payoff and often loss of life or limb.

It's not like we ignore them, almost all medals for valor are awarded to junior ranks (enlisted guys and a few junior officers). As a rough estimate, look at the living Medal of Honor recipients from Iraq & Afghanistan[2]. The only exception in recent memory is maybe the field-grade Marine officer who organized the defense of Camp Bastion[3], and he was given a much lower medal (still, a Silver Star is very impressive).

[1]https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/11/general... [2]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_living_Medal_of_Honor_... [3]https://www.stripes.com/news/marine-awarded-silver-star-for-...


Even if true, by killing Beria, he probably saved more Soviet citizens from a horrible death than those killed by Hitler.


Beria actually wanted to liberalize the Soviet system - he reduced the power of the MVD and released a lot of people from the Gulag. Mind you, at a personal level, he was an asbsolute monster - but I don't think if he had stayed in power there would have been any more mass purges.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lavrentiy_Beria#First_Deputy_P...


Beria was a fucking mass murderer, who created two generations of people who were scared to death to speak freely.

"Wanted to liberalize the system" my ass.


Absolutely - the guy was a complete monster both at a personal level and through his actions as a senior member of Stalin's regime.


They all were monsters and murderers. Kruschev was in charge of the party purges at Leningrad. Beria was something special, but then, he had to be: all the serial NKVD heads were and had to be, but Beria was more monstrous than the rest. Now, maybe Beria intended to liberalize once in power, and maybe he even did a bit, just as Kruschev did later too. But it's hard to say that Beria wasn't going to continue being a monster.

Now, Kruschev and the rest of the politburo certainly didn't want to be led by Beria -- they knew Beria was a monster and would eat them alive, so Beria had to go. Of course, if Kruschev had meant to be an uber monster himself once in power, Beria would still have had to go. There's no two ways about it: monsters have to take the competition down.

Beria had less than four months in power, so it's hard to judge how it would have gone from there had he stayed in power as long as Kruschev.

All I know is they were all monsters. Stalin had seen to it that they so be -- they all had to have skin in the game to protect Stalin.


> As we know, there was no invasion of the Japanese home islands—not by the Soviets, nor the Americans, nor the British. Fearing massive loss of life both among Allied forces and the Japanese civilian population, President Truman ordered nuclear bombs dropped on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. These bombings quickly brought the war to a close.

Why do American scholars have to justify the bombings each time? "President Truman ordered nuclear bombs dropped on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki." would have been sufficient. It feels like newspeak in 1984.


Well hindsight is 20-20, and anyone commenting on the bombs has the luxury of decades of historical analysis of the war.

My understanding is that the nuclear bombs were approximately as destructive as the fire-bombing technique. (Commonly used in the war) If we fire bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, just as many lives would be lost but we would never talk about it.

The difference is that fire bombing required many more planes and many more bombs, thus increasing American military risk. Enemy civilian casualties would be similar.


The firebombing would have brought the war industry to a halt but wouldn't have resulted in surrender.

The alternative would have been Operation Downfall, a conventional invasion expected to cause up to 10M casualties and involve chemical weapons.

For scale, the atomic bombings killed ~200K Japanese while the Japanese occupation of China alone killed 20M


Indeed. There's been plenty of hand-wringing since the war, mainly by those who didn't live through it.

The savagery of the Imperial Japanese forces is well documented, as is their willingness to fight until death. It is difficult to imagine what the resistance involved in invading Japan would have been like.

The atomic bombings without doubt saved hundreds of thousands of lives on both sides. Further, since WWII, nuclear weapons have been a greater force for peace than anything in history. Let's hope that status quo continues...


I don't think that's correct. The March 9/10 attack on Tokyo killed 88,000-100,000 people, but was an anomaly. Japanese civil defense forces adapted, and casualties were much less in later raids. A firebombing attack on Hiroshima in September probably would not have killed more than 10,000.


Firebombing would also fail to intimidate the Japanese command. They knew what firebombing was and were prepared for it. But not for nuclear bombs. Nuclear ordnance was the only reason the Emperor Hirohito cited for the surrender.


Firebombing would also fail to intimidate the SOVIET command. I've frequently read postulations that was an additional impetus for dropping the 2nd bomb: to demonstrate to Stalin that we could mass produce them, lest he try to make any more aggressive moves in Europe. It was also a convenient way for the Japanese Emperor to "save face". People also postulate that the overwhelmingly successful Soviet invasion of Manchuria had the Japanese leadership worried: the Soviets had a reputation for brutality and a possible Soviet invasion of the Home Islands would turn out even worse than an American one (for the Japanese people). It looks much better to say "we threw in the towel due to America's wonder-weapon" than "we threw in the towel because we were terrified of Stalin".


Japan was already preparing to surrender before the bombs were dropped.



Not the authors only gratuitous editorializing

> the United States… is now riven by toxic political discord and stands at the brink of social collapse

both cases unnecessary, off-topic, and detract from an otherwise good article


My guess is that American scholars are annoyed at the reality that it happened, in contrast to imagined alternatives, like a "demo" off the shore of a city, or over the Japanese fleet somewhere.


> Truman ordered nuclear bombs dropped

Or should it read "Truman authorised nuclear bombs dropped", there is a fair difference in meaning.


By the way the legend of the picture in the middle of “Four Commanders of the Allied Forces in Berlin” says that the 4th general is de Gaulle but it is clearly not. I think it is de Lattre.


I'm sure you're right; those cheeks are de Lattre and I think de Gaulle always had a moustache.

Plus the five stars.


Makes sense that it's de Lattre as it's probably taken at Potsdam where they "established good relationship"


Dissapointing that this text about a historical figure should end with the trope about the bomb ending the war before anyone invaded, when the historical consensus is that the best that can be said is that the bomb and the soviet entering the japanese theatre by invading manchuria had about equal importance.

http://blog.nuclearsecrecy.com/2013/03/08/the-decision-to-us...


If you have not watched it, the movie The Death of Stalin is great, mostly historically accurate, though not in the depiction of the characters, and extremely funny. Zhukov is represented as a hilarious bully who intimidates the whole politburo.


One thing that amused me about that film was all the actors use there own accents with the exception of Jason Isaacs, who decided that General Zhukov should be protrayed with a Yorkshire accent.

As the saying goes, you can always tell a Yorkshireman... but you can't tell him much. ;)


Later Zhukov was on his track to become a dictator in 1957, flaunting his personal command over Soviet military on multiple occasions. It took a combined pushback of (otherwise feuding) Soviet elites to bring him in check.


I am not praising Zhukov himself. The way he spent men to win Stalingrad is another questionable aspect of the character.


Stalingrad was the decisive turn of fate during WWII, if the allies had lost it, the Axis would probably take over the all of Europe. Sure, a lot of men were sacrificed, but this was total war, those sacrifices saved tens of millions.

We live with this slight propaganda that the USA was the responsible to liberate Europe, but in fact, USA showed up here at the end of the war when the Russians had already inflicted a major defeat on the German army, and it was the sacrifice of Russian men at Stalingrad (together with any material help the British could afford to spare to that front), that ultimately won the war for the Allies, not D-day.


The Allies weren’t exactly sitting on their hands. Just taking the strategy of picking off North Africa and Southern Europe before hitting Western / Central.

Trying to reduce the war down to any one side is, IMHO, wrong and suspect.


They were letting the Soviets do the heavy lifting, contributing more materiel than manpower until late in the process.

I don’t blame the western allies for the strategy but the soviets don’t get adequate credit for the privation they suffered.


> soviets don’t get adequate credit for the privation they suffered.

this old trope? the soviets were horrible monsters. they killed jews (many pogroms). during peacetime they killed at least as many people as the nazis did.

the great trick that the soviets managed is to make us belief they were on the right side of history, when in reality they were on the worst side, every single time.

one of the greatest mistakes of WW2 was the US support of the USSR. they should have left the two madmen to kill eachother. the world would have been a much better place. what did we get in return? USSR dominating half of Europe, murdering, scheming, destroying the social fabric of the continent for half a century.


Towards the end of the war there clearly wasn't US support for the USSR; we were racing them towards Berlin (and lost) and raced them to get Japan to surrender (won that one). The optics of completely abandoning someone you are ostensible allied with are poor.

All of that is orthogonal to the fact that over a third of the people who died in WW2 were Soviets, and many people do not realize it, which is the point the grandparent comment was making.


> soviets don’t get adequate credit for the privation they suffered.

According to whom?

We certainly learned the human burden the Soviets bore, including their less-than-Western regard for life, as a part of the war in my public school.

Perhaps if they hadn't raped, pillaged, and plundered their way through Europe they would've seen a bit more celebration from their erstwhile allies.


> Perhaps if they hadn't raped, pillaged, and plundered their way through Europe they would've seen a bit more celebration from their erstwhile allies.

Makes you wonder why Americans did get that celebration then:

"In 1945, after the end of the war in Europe, Le Havre was filled with American servicemen awaiting return to the States. A Le Havre citizen wrote to the mayor that the people of Le Havre were "attacked, robbed, run over both on the street and in our houses" and "This is a regime of terror, imposed by bandits in uniform."[4] A coffeehouse owner from Le Havre testified "We expected friends who would not make us ashamed of our defeat. Instead, there came only incomprehension, arrogance, incredibly bad manners and the swagger of conquerors."[6] Such behavior also was common in Cherbourg. One resident stated that "With the Germans, the men had to camouflage themselves—but with the Americans, we had to hide the women."" [1]

I wonder if it had anything to do, with the much better implemented propaganda machine, USA had in Western Europe after WWII.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rape_during_the_liberation_of_...


Are you really equating “incomprehension, arrogance, incredibly bad manners and the swagger of conquerors” to the mass rapes the Russians committed?


You do understand that the title of the wikipedia article - and its main point - is about the rape of French woman by American soldiers on the aftermath of D-Day, right?


Then why did they quote about "bad manners"?


Having studied the Eastern Front extensively, incidents like this would not even have been significant enough to be recorded in the context of the Soviets or Germans.

Stalin and Zhukov both actively condoned the rape of women and the atrocities in East Prussia included the rape and crucifixion of women and elderly children and the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff which was equivalent to 5+ Titanics

It was a different order of magnitude of brutality on both sides


Soviet behavior in Eastern Europe is pretty par for the course for a conquering army that isn't re-conquering what it considers home turf.

Considering how the Nazis treated the Slavic peoples they conquered and that the Russians got to see all that on their tour of eastern Europe prior to arriving in Germany I think it's a miracle that the soviet army didn't get even.


> Trying to reduce the war down to any one side is, IMHO, wrong and suspect.

Exactly. Just look at how many times Allied victory in WWII in Europe is reduced to D-Day. It's highly wrong and suspicious.


I don't see anyone in this thread railing about D-Day as the turning point. Please avoid whataboutism.


As far as I know Stalingrad was a big ego trip of both hitler and Stalin. They sacrificed a lot of lives for symbolism and not for military value.


I enjoyed the movie, but when I first saw the trailer I thought Jason Isaacs would be playing Marshal Rokossovsky instead of Zhukov. He looks more like the former than the latter. But I don't think Rokossovsky was heavily involved in Kremlin politics at the time (or ever, other than getting bones broken while in captivity during the Great Purge).


As soon as I saw the title here, I started skimming comments to see if this had been mentioned yet. Highly recommended, indeed!


Brodsky's poem On the Death of Zhukov brilliantly reflects his controversial life. The english translation isn't very good, but it carries some of the flavor-- https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1057/9780230373396_3


I didn't know that the Soviet made pocket knives,they look quite similar to swiss army knives!

This part really struck me hard because my tools are all mint, despite being bought years ago:

> For me, the knife’s most compelling quality is that it clearly saw hard use, most probably by Zhukov himself: some of the blades are stained; a slot that once contained a toothpick is empty; and a couple of tools appear to be broken off, including what was once a small pair of scissors.


First Swiss army knifes were produced in the late 19th century, and the idea of combined blades and tools existed long before. Folding pocket knives were in wide use everywhere, so surely Russians manufactured and used them even before USSR.


I strongly suspect this is a one-off hand-made knife. This is certainly not a mass-produced item.


> certainly not a mass-produced item

With a stock set of tools that is almost the same today on every multitool knife, including a toothpick which a marshal of course needs direly on a knife. And with handle finish that was ubiquitously used on kitchen utensils.

(A fork is a rarity today, though.)


I only noticed wine opener


I noticed the same.

I wonder when the pen knife changed from being a simple folding blade to the multitooled wonder we have today?

Also does it say something about generals and the military that the two missing/broken tools are the scissors and tooth pick?

Edit: Apparently they have a longer history than I would have thought

"The Swiss Army Knife was not the first multi-use pocket knife. In 1851 in "Moby Dick" (chapter 107), Melville references the "Sheffield contrivances, assuming the exterior - though a little swelled - of a common pocket knife; but containing, not only blades of various sizes, but also screw-drivers, cork-screws, tweezers, awls, pens, rulers, nail-filers, countersinkers.""

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swiss_Army_knife



The tulip motives on the knife makes me wonder if it was actually Roman and not from the Middle East.


The Roman Empire covered a huge area, including some of the Middle East and North Africa so it’s highly likely that people, objects, and ideas all moved around. They could well have taken inspiration from something seen at one of the outposts.


> Also does it say something about generals and the military that the two missing/broken tools are the scissors and tooth pick?

The toothpick gets lost in the first months with these knives. Anyway, a bit weird to pick your teeth with the same stick for years.

The scissors might actually be the most useful thing on the knife, or at least on a par with the blades, depending on the owner. Scissors aren't used just for cutting when you aren't hauling around a toolbox. But they have a moving part with a rather feeble connection.


In those days corks were used to close all sorts of bottles not just wine.


I used to have one of these knives :)


"an American general at the time expressed the desire that Germans would henceforth be a “nation of shepherds”, incapable of playing a major part in world affairs—yet shortly after the war’s end, it was well on its way to accomplishing the Wirtschaftswunder, the economic miracle that it maintains to this day. Japan arose the ashes in a similar fashion. And the United States…the country that for the entire postwar period served as a source of aspiration for people the world over, a model of domestic stability and good governance, and a guarantor of its allies’ military security, is now riven by toxic political discord and stands at the brink of social collapse."


I don't agree with that last statement at all. Americans have seen too little hardship to have an idea what "social collapse" and "toxic political discord" is.


Considering my family lived through WWII in the thick of it and later came to America, and this is not a unique occurrence, to say “Americans don’t know” is just wrong.


I think by "Americans" he means "the upper middle class Nth (N>=4 or so) generation Americans that dominate political discourse the 364 days of the year that aren't election day"


'“Americans don’t know” is just wrong.'

Not so much. Sounds to me that, if you consider your family american, by your description they sound more like "european immigrants with the paperwork done".


https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Morgenthau_Plan that wasn't a general: " It was first proposed by United States Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau Jr."


"is now riven by toxic political discord and stands at the brink of social collapse."

lol wut?

the USA has seen a incredible rise on so many fronts: quality of life, removal of segregation, rights of gays, right of blacks, rights of women, emergence of computing, emergence of startups, and so, so many more. to say that the US is on the brink of collapse shows the author doesn't really understand the situation, or is simply pushing a narrative.


I think you and the quote is both right in some sense...


The history might be written by the Victors, but is always read by the survivors


>As we know, there was no invasion of the Japanese home islands—not by the Soviets, nor the Americans, nor the British. Fearing massive loss of life both among Allied forces and the Japanese civilian population, President Truman ordered nuclear bombs dropped on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. These bombings quickly brought the war to a close.

According to other narratives by historians, the main cause of the Japanese surrender was the Russians entering the Pacific war.

https://www.history.co.uk/shows/x-company/articles/why-did-j...

https://apjjf.org/-tsuyoshi-hasegawa/2501/article.html

Is worth remembering that not everyone buys into the idea that nukes are ultimate weapons that definitively ended the second world war. There are actually a variety of views on the subject, which from a game theory perspective creates dangerous instabilities within the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction.


>>These bombings quickly brought the war to a close.

>According to other narratives by historians, the main cause of the Japanese surrender was the Russians entering the Pacific war.

Both - USSR entering the war and the nuclear bombs caused the Japanese surrender. It would have happened soon even without the bombs anyway. The main role the bombs played is to avoid USSR actually invading Japan territory. Ultimately that saved Japan from the Korea and Germany fate.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soviet%E2%80%93Japanese_War

"The invasion of the second largest Japanese island of Hokkaido, originally planned by the Soviets to be part of the territory taken,[18] was held off due to apprehension of the US' new position as an atomic power."


>"The invasion of the second largest Japanese island of Hokkaido, originally planned by the Soviets to be part of the territory taken,[18] was held off due to apprehension of the US' new position as an atomic power."

I checked the citations for that part of the article and they do not back up that claim. They are talking about what territory the USSR will get and which surrendering troops will become Soviet POWs. There is no discussion of "well, we better hold off because the 'mericans are just gonna glass 'em all for us".

Furthermore, the Americans had a shovel ready invasion plan with a start date in November. The soviets didn't have a real plan yet. It's not like they called off an invasion because we started lobbing nukes.

Anyone who says that showing the USSR what we were capable of was more than just a side benefit understand the Pacific campaign. If we didn't nuke them we were going to firebomb them. It was basically common knowledge that these people were dedicated enough to follow their cause to the death. What was learned on Iwo Jima and confirmed on Okinawa was that they were going to make us fight for every inch. In lieu of that it's hard to justify not using every available means to kill them dead enough that they surrender without invasion or soften them up prior to invasion. Imagine the scandal has Truman just decided "this whole atom bomb thing is barbaric, we're going to invade them and/or let the soviets burn half a million lives invading them".


Before the bombs were dropped the Japanese had already intimated that they were willing to surrender with one condition: that the emperor would stay emperor. The U.S. wanted an unconditional surrender, but in the end accepted a conditional surrender while calling it unconditional in public. Stalin's entrance in the war sharpened minds on both the Japanese and American side, as neither wanted Stalin involved anymore.

It's hard to prove exactly, but Stalin's entrance into the war is almost certainly the precipitator for it's quick end without an invasion. For the Japanese, partial occupation by Red Army troops was a much worse prospect than occupation by American troops. For the U.S., giving Stalin a say in Japan was utterly unnecessary and very much undesirable at that point (as opposed to much earlier in the war). The A-bombs wouldn't have moved the Japanese military or emperor very much: they weren't more devastating that fire bombing already had been, and there weren't any notable cities left to devastate in Japan.


I may not have stated this well enough, but my original interest was sparked more by the fact that there is a variation of beliefs in the story, than neccesarily what the original motivations truly were in history, as I was wondering about the resulting implications in strategic game theory. MAD only works if all sides have the same standard for destruction in their beliefs and probability measure for the word assured. The US political culture has a general view that nukes end a war, if the political culture in other countries think that it is possible to develop strategies where you can get nuked and still continue with the war, then that is very important thing to be aware of.




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