"Now we know. The Germans are not human. Now the word 'German' has become the most terrible swear word. Let us not speak. Let us not be indignant. Let us kill.... If you have killed one German, kill another. There is nothing jollier than German corpses."
When Ilya Ehrenburg, a correspondent for the Red Army newspaper Krasnaya Zveda, wrote those famous words, the battle for Moscow -- Sept. 30, 1941, to April 20, 1942 -- had recently ended. The atrocities that had been exacted on the Russian people by Hitler's invading army were eliciting a corresponding savagery from Stalin's troops as they drove German divisions back from the edge of the capital city.
In his enthralling history of the defense of the Soviet capital, "The Greatest Battle," Andrew Nagorski, a Newsweek International senior editor, writes that "the battle for Moscow was arguably the most important battle of World War II and inarguably the largest battle between two armies of all time." The statistics are astounding: Approximately seven million Russian and German soldiers were involved in the fighting; about 2.5 million were killed, taken prisoner, wounded or counted as missing. Soviet troops sustained the highest casualties.
And the stakes were high: Had the Germans' "Operation Barbarossa" succeeded, Hitler would have had the vast natural resources of the Soviet Union under his control, magnifying the strength of his forces and enabling the German military machine to return, mightier than ever, to the Western Front. As Mr. Nagorski shows, Moscow was a turning point: At long last the fearsome blitzkrieg had been forced to a standstill, shattering the myth of Nazi invincibility.
Hitler and Stalin flung their armies into the conflict under appalling conditions -- the Germans didn't even have winter clothing and many of the Soviet troops had no guns. Both leaders ordered their men, from generals down to privates, to stand and die, never to retreat. As Mr. Nagorski details, Stalin had long assumed, despite what his intelligence services told him, that Germany would not violate the nonaggression pact of 1939. After the June 1941 invasion, he fell into a state of psychological collapse, unable to give orders. At one point he even retreated to his dacha as the Kremlin despaired and the blitzkrieg rolled toward Moscow.
Eventually he snapped out of his malaise and strode back into the Kremlin barking commands to his general staff. As the Germans pressed close and the city seemed doomed, its citizens fleeing, Stalin refused to abandon Moscow for an emergency capital 600 miles away.
Thus this monstrous dictator, who in the 1930s had had hundreds of his senior officers -- and millions of his own people -- murdered, became a symbol of courage and leadership in Moscow's hour of crisis. The history of war is strewn with blood and irony.