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Stalin’s Top General Admits Germany Nearly Defeated Russia at Moscow

Western historians have been saying it for decades, but to hear it from Georgy Zhukov himself is something else entirely. In a shockingly candid interview that was finally broadcast in Russia for the first time this year,the commander of the Red Army during World War II readily admits just how close the Soviets came to being defeated by the Germans outside Moscow in 1941—and how poorly organized the Red Army’s defenses were at that critical point in the war.

“It was an extremely dangerous situation,” Zhukov says in the 1966 recording, responding to questions from the Soviet writer Konstantin Simonov. “In essence, all the approaches to Moscow were open.”

During the Cold War, Soviet authorities were highly sensitive to accusations that the country and its leadership in the Great Patriotic War—Stalin in particular—were not prepared for the German invasion, and the recording was immediately censored and ordered destroyed. But one copy survived. After years in obscurity, the tape was finally released as part of this year’s 65th anniversary celebrations of V-E Day, a milestone accompanied by several other cautious attempts by Russia to be more transparent about its wartime history.Along with the publication of a damning collection of documents implicating the Soviet government in the Katyn Forest massacre, a Yeltsin government official told a historical conference that Stalin had blocked several efforts to assassinate Hitler in 1943 and 1944 for fear that the Nazi leader’s successors would make a separate peace with the British and Americans.

For many historians, though, it is Zhukov’s videotaped revelations about the near-catastrophe of 1941— when the fate of Europe depended entirely on the Red Army—that have the broadest implications. “We’ve heard from other people who were talking to Zhukov around this time who said he was saying the same thing, that Moscow was the turning point, and it could have gone either way,” says Andrew Nagorski, author of The Greatest Battle: Stalin, Hitler, and the Desperate Struggle for Moscow that Changed the Course of World War II. But Zhukov’s own memoir, published a few years later, was scrubbed clean of such references, and for decades after he died in 1974, the official Soviet line—that the war was never in doubt—remained dominant.

Those who questioned the Soviets’ airbrushed version of events have certainly been vindicated by the release of the interview, however, for in it Zhukov tells a very different story. In October 1941, four months after the German invasion, the general says he was summoned by Stalin, ill with flu at the time, to Moscow for an emergency meeting. The Soviet leader had recovered from his initial shock following the Nazi offensive, only to watch the Red Army suffer defeat after defeat, and sent Zhukov to the front to report on the troops’ positions. What Zhukov saw shocked him: the army’s defenses, he found, were “absolutely insufficient.” Unlike many other Red Army commanders, who were too terrified of Stalin to tell him the truth, Zhukov spoke up. “Our troops on the Mozhaisk defense line could not have stopped the enemy if he moved on Moscow,” Zhukov says in the interview.“I telephoned Stalin. I said the most urgent thing is to occupy the Mozhaisk defense line, as in parts of the Western front in essence there are no troops.”

In response Stalin appointed Zhukov commander of the Western front, and the rest, of course, is history. The German offensive bogged down in the rainy season and then came to a halt, undersupplied and outgunned by dug-in Russian troops, on the outskirts of the Soviet capital.

As Zhukov said to his interviewer about the battle, “We perfectly understood what it meant, and I remember the smallest detail even now. Moscow was the hardest trial.”

Who Killed Germany’s Dreaded ‘Black Baron’ Tank Ace?

Joe Ekins, a British tank-gunner, has been credited by historians for firing the shots that killed the German tank ace known as the “Black Baron” in a furious tank battle two months after the Normandy invasion. According to a documentary released earlier this year, Ekins, an 86-year-old retiree living in England, is responsible for firing the three shots that finally ended the remarkable career of Michael Wittmann, the Waffen SS captain whose exploits on the Western and Eastern fronts made him one of the deadliest tank commanders in history—and a household name in Germany. The commander of a company in the feared 101st SS Heavy Panzer Battalion, Wittmann was credited with destroying 138 tanks during his career, leaving a bloody trail from Kursk to Normandy.

Like the Red Baron of World War I, though, Wittmann’s death has long been shrouded in mystery. On August 8, 1944, Wittmann and his Tigers were part of a doomed, post–D-Day counterattack that was overwhelmed by the massive Allied force pushing south from Caen. His tanks were ambushed by a squadron of Sherman Firefly tanks, which pumped shells into his machine until it exploded, blowing off the turret. But when it became known that it was Wittmann who had been killed, several different versions of the battle surfaced, with a range of Allied forces—from a Polish tank battalion to a RAF fighter squadron—getting credit.

These other stories, however, have been convincingly laid to rest in a new documentary, Wittmann vs. Ekins: Death of a Panzer Ace, produced by three historians associated with Battlefield History TV. After two years of research and a painstaking recreation of the battle, these experts agree that it was Joe Ekins, a onetime shoe maker from Northamptonshire, who fired the shots that killed Wittmann. No witnesses reported any air strikes in the area, they point out, which makes an attack from above unlikely. And since Ekins’s Firefly was the only tank in the area big enough to take out a Tiger—and the only machine in his unit within range—the historians conclude that Ekins is the man who did the deed.

After years of keeping a low profile, Ekins spoke publicly for the first time about the deadly encounter. “In a battlefield I don’t think anyone can really be 100 percent sure, but most historians now seem pretty sure it was me,” Ekins says. “I’ve got no regrets; he deserved to die and I am glad I was the guy who did it.”

New Museum Arises on Once-Feared Berlin Site

If there was a black heart in the darkness of Germany’s Nazi regime, this was it. Little of the original structures remain today  but during the war these 11 acres in the center of Berlin were the home not only of the Gestapo and its fearsome prison, but of the leadership of the SS and the Reich Security Service. Himmler’s offices were just down the street; Eichmann’s were, too. “People coming to Berlin still want to know…‘Where was the capital of the Third Reich?’” Andrea Nachama, the director of a new exhibition center on the site told reporters when it opened this year.

For years, a temporary open-air exhibition known as the “Topography of Terror” has attracted visitors to the site, providing some background on the area’s chilling history. But it was only this spring that a permanent museum and documentation center—still known as the Topography of Terror—were opened to the public. The simple, single-story building devotes most of its space to the stories of the many victims of the Nazi regime, but it also explores the methods, and the motives, of some of the war’s worst criminals. That it does so on the same ground Himmler and Eichmann once trod makes it a museum hard to forget.

Originally published in the October 2010 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here.