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Real and ‘Counterfactual’ History: The Zhukov Factor

In courses as different as creative writing and historiography, there is a standard simple argument. If one writes, ‘The king died, and then the queen died’, either in fiction or in history, this is only chronicle. If one writes, ‘The king died, then the queen died of grief’, you have the basis of a novelist’s plot, or of a historical explanation. The novelist, however, is godlike and omniscient, and can be quite firm about the cause of the queen’s death. The historian has a larger problem, and will need plenty of supporting evidence to be confident about the second clause. After all, there can be few queens in history who showed more grief at the death of her consort than Victoria, but she managed to go on grimly mourning in constant black attire for decades after the death of Albert.

In the case of a queen’s quick death after the death of a king, she conceivably was so shattered, so unconcerned with eating, sleeping, or turning her mind from her agony, that the explanation of her literal death from grief may be a real possibility. But she might have discreetly committed suicide with a drug overdose, concealed from the world, or more dramatically, been as discreetly murdered by some ambitious courtier or member of the royal family. Or a historian might succeed in finding medical documents unequivocally demonstrating that the queen had been in the course of dying from some ailment like an intestinal cancer well before the king died. In some cases, the true explanation can actually be found, with near-total certainty; in others, alternative explanations can go on forever, although with some more probable than others.

Furthermore, sometimes a very good explanation can be provided that event A caused event B, and it may even have been published more than once, yet never really entered the assumptions and imaginings of most historians, never mind the broader public. It is sometimes made strikingly clear that, as Dr. Johnson remarked, we are more in need of being reminded than being instructed. This thought came back to me with great force as I was reading a review article (‘The Truth About World War II’) in the October 11, 2012 New York Review of Books, by Richard J. Evans, of two new books on the War, a new history, The Second World War, by Antony Beevor, and a new biography, Stalin’s General: The Life of Gyorgy Zhukov, by Geoffrey Roberts. This is the first I have heard of the latter, although he apparently did a solid job on Zhukov. However, both Beevor and Evans are two of the best living historians about WW II, which makes the whole review an unusually authoritative one.

Yet it contained a couple of paragraphs about events in 1939 that I know I and other history teachers had been more or less familiar with, but which I doubt many of us thought through as consistently as both Beevor, and Evans, who agrees with him, have. Those of us familiar with the history of the era knew that there was a short Russo-Japanese war in 1939, and we also knew that the Japanese cabinet had once considered a ‘strike north’ strategy to expand and acquire raw materials by attacking the U.S.S.R., rather than a ‘strike south’ on the British and Dutch colonial empires in Asia, co-ordinated with the attack on the American naval base at Pearl Harbor. But I don’t think I have ever seen before, or thought through before, this condensed version of the equivalent of why ‘the queen died’, as described by Evans:

‘The book [Beevor’s] opens with a description of the Battle of the Khalkin Gol River, which began in May 1939 with a minor border clash between Red Army and Mongolian forces on the one side, and Japanese and Manchurian forces of the other. Unlike previous clashes, this one escalated as the local Japanese commander ordered an air strike against Soviet bases behind the front line, and Stalin called in the cavalry commander Gyorgy Zhukov to deal with the situation. Zhukov prepared his mission with all the tactics that later made him famous, assembling massive reinforcements under cover of darkness and concealing them during the day, while deceiving the enemy with misleading and badly encoded messages into believing he was digging in when he was actually preparing to go on the offensive.

On August 20, 1939, his tanks powered forward behind the Japanese lines in a large encircling movement, inflicting 60,000 casualties on the enemy and resolving the border issue in favor of the Soviet Union. Another of Zhukov’s characteristics came to the fore in the conflict too: his disregard for casualties among his own troops, nearly 8,000 of whom were killed and more than 15,000 wounded. An attempt by his superior officer to stop the carnage was brusquely dismissed as “indecisiveness”.

Beevor brings out well the larger significance of this minor clash. Surprised and dismayed by the defeat, the Japanese military was forced to abandon its plan to strike first against the Soviet Union and give way to the naval faction, who wanted instead to ‘strike south’ in the Pacific. The decision had far-reaching consequences; bolstered by a Soviet-Japanese nonaggression pact signed in April 1941, it would give Stalin a free hand to counter the German invasion of the Soviet Union in the months following the launching of Hitler’s ‘Operation Barbarossa’ in June 1941.’

So there it is; a whole card deck of not especially far-fetched counterfactual histories of the 1940s, of several different Second World Wars and outcomes, all to be traced to what might have happened if Stalin had not had the ruthless but capable Zhukov available to deal with the Japanese in the spring of 1939.

Neil Cameron