Ask most historians about the turning point of the Second World War, and they’ll usually retort with one word: Stalingrad.  But as this magnificent new book by Rodric Braithwaite shows, it was surely the battle of Moscow, where in 1941, seven million men and women fought over a terrain that was equivalent to the size of France!  This in itself is nigh incomparable, to say nothing of unimaginable, but then we are, literally, talking about the greatest battle in history.

Based upon a myriad of interviews, this book tells the stories of not only soldiers and politicians, but also intellectuals, writers, dancers, artists, peasants and school-children; making for a well-rounded and altogether humane appraisal of something so utterly inhumane.  That a white swan died in Moscow Zoo on New Year’s Eve 1940, might have been an omen of sorts – but then even the poets couldn’t keep up with the inevitable dance of death that plunged the city into its darkest hour.

The facts speak for themselves: more people were lost in this one battle – 926,000 soldiers killed (to say nothing of the wounded) – than the British lost in the whole of the First World War.  Or, put another way, there were more casualties in the Battle of Moscow than the combined casualties of the British and Americans in the whole of the Second World War.  (Perhaps) understandably, numbers cease to mean anything after a while – but some sort of perspective is surely called for, for as Brian Eno once said: kill one person and you get locked up for murder, kill twenty and you get banged up in an asylum, kill thirty-thousand and you get invited to a conference in Geneva…

Meticulously well researched and replete with maps and photographs, Moscow 1941 makes for humble yet necessary reading; humble, because it equates spirit with strength, and necessary, because it makes one wonder how different life might have been today - had this battle not taken place.  As Braithwaite states: ‘’… in their hearts many Germans already knew that, if the Battle of Moscow was not the beginning of the end, it was most certainly the end of the beginning.’’

David Marx
Moscow 1941 - A City And Its People At War
By Rodric Braithwaite - Profile Books - £20.00