What Stalin Knew: The Enigma of Barbarossa

  By Theodore Felix, 27 July 2007; Revised
  Category: 20th Century

On June 17, 1941, Stalin received a report signed by Pavel M. Fitin, chief of the NKGB Foreign Intelligence, asserting that “all preparations by Germany for an armed attack on the Soviet Union have been completed, and the blow can be expected at any time.” The source was an intelligence officer in Hermann Goring’s Air Ministry. In the margin of the report, Stalin scrawled this note to Fitin’s chief, the people’s commisar for state security, Vsevolod N. Merkulov: “Comrade Merkulov, you can send your ‘source’ from the headquarters of German aviation to his fucking mother. This is not a ‘source’ but a dezinformator.” Five days after Stalin expressed these sentiments, the German onslaught broke, bringing with it a war that would result in the deaths of twenty million Soviet citizens.

This is the opening paragraph to David E. Murphy’s study on Soviet intelligence in the months before the "Great Patriotic War", and a great example of what much of the book consists of. Using the wealth of Soviet archives – opened to the public after the USSR’s collapse and closed again in recent years – Murphy aims to show the incredible level of information available to Stalin from the end of 1940 to the eve of Barbarossa, and how Stalin’s own beliefs and conceptions did not allow him to heed these warnings, culminating in the disastrous events of late 1941.  In What Stalin Knew: The Enigma of Barbarossa, the retired chief of Soviet operations at the CIA does much to test the “surprise” that actually came with Barbarossa.

Murphy opens the book with a short overview of the policies and relations between the two countries prior to the war. He then gives a bio of Ivan Iosifovich Proskurov, an air commander during the Spanish civil war and later head of the RU, the Military Intelligence Department. Murphy seems to clearly admire this man, whose outspokenness would alienate his relations with Stalin and, ultimately, cause his demise. The book then quickly moves to Ribbentrop-Molotov pact and the border movement the USSR undertakes. Murphy provides the reader with an analysis of the situation in each of the newly annexed territories, the depth of nationalist resistance; the Soviet method of curbing it and how it would all later play against them when the invasion occurred. Here, Murphy also illustrates how the Soviet military failed to adapt to the newly created frontier, blaming it on “… the absence of a well-developed military frontier infrastructure of the type that had existed along the old frontier.”

Chapter five is devoted to the disastrous Finnish “Winter War” that would batter the image of the USSR and feed Hitler with confidence. Proskurov now comes to the fore as Stalin seeks a scapegoat to escape blame. Proskurov responded to all charges swiftly and adeptly, engaging Stalin in a discussion that would put him forever in the eye of the dictator. The discussions give us a window into Stalin’s ignorance of military intelligence. When presented with an intelligence report detailing German troop positions, Stalin responds: “This shouldn’t have been printed at all… We should publish military knowledge, techniques, tactics, strategies, the make-up of divisions and battalions so that people can have some idea of a division, units, artillery, techniques, what new units there are.”

The real study of Soviet intelligence begins in Chapter six and seven as we get a look into to the various residences in Western and Eastern Europe, the depth of which seems astounding. In April, the Berlin attaché, Vasily I. Tupikov, concluded in a report: “1. In current German plans for waging war, the USSR figures as the next enemy. 2. The conflict will definitely take place this year.” Zhukov sent this report to Stalin, omitting this conclusion. From its London residency, the RU received sources providing “…hard reporting from ULTRA on actions by the German Luftwaffe in the fall of 1940 to dismantle communication stations and other arrangements… indicating that the Germans had given up their plans to invade England…” From Bucharest, the best information source of Eastern Europe, according to Murphy, a report stated: “All preparations are to be completed by mid-June… War against the USSR presents no problem from a military standpoint.” The author, however, does say that the wealth of information sent to Stalin was not always so precise: it was often mixed in with German deception and disinformation. The two chapters show that Stalin could not pick out the accurate reports from the inaccurate.

In chapter eight we are introduced to the famous Richard Sorge, the Soviet attaché in Tokyo. From his location, Sorge was able to give the USSR the assurance that Japan would not enter the war, allowing the relocation of 1000 tanks and aircrafts along with 10 Rifle divisions to the western front when it was most beneficial. Three years later, when called on to return the favor, Stalin responded by saying that he did not even know who the man was, leaving Sorge to face execution in Japan.

Chapters nine, ten and eleven focus on the Fifth Department of the NKVD’s Chief Directorate for State Security, GUGB in Russian acronyms; Pavel M. Fitin, the young head of the department, and the spies under his arm. Although decimated under earlier purges, Murphy shows us how Fitin’s abilities were able to bring together a quality intelligence source that once again was disregarded by Stalin. Here the author makes a contrast between Fitin and the deputy of the department, Pavel A. Sudoplatov. The latter being a Stalin appeaser; there to alter all information and data so as not to go against the dictator’s expectations, at one point altering a report that pinpointed the German invasion between the date “June 20 and 25.” We are also given a description of the various spies located all around Europe with their various reports, there to inform Stalin of an impending danger. With chapter eleven, we see the NKVD/NKGB piercing into German, British and American embassies gaving the Russians even more insight, at times even giving Soviet intelligence access to first-hand documents, all there to confirm what was being said.

As the book moves on we see the growth of suspicion among other aspects of the USSR state. In chapter twelve, the First Railroad Department of the NKVD/GTU start to report the obvious buildup of the German military along the Polish frontier and the mobilization of Ukrainian nationalists. Chapter thirteen discusses the wealth of knowledge the Soviet military acquired on the German military situation opposite their frontier along with the increasing number of incidents involving the Abwehr.  One memorandum mentions that German intelligence pierced the USSR to “bring Germany samples of oil, motor vehicle and aviation gasoline, and lubricants,” none seem to have known the reason; although Murphy assumes that Vsevolod Merkulov, and Ivan Maslennikov, Lieutenant General and deputy NKVD for troops did, but held back out of fear of displeasing Stalin.

Chapter fourteen and fifteen see Proskurov removed from his station and replaced by Filipp I. Golikov, who worked “to label any warnings of an imminent German invasion of the Soviet Union as disinformation originating in England, America, or Germany.” Chapter sixteen shows how the Germans were able to do reconnaissance flights freely over Soviet territory at a frightening rate. Stalin not only failed to heed this increasing problem, but ordered that German aircrafts trespassing Soviet territory must not be fired at.

It is in chapters seventeen and eighteen that were are granted a look into the various German deception programs and Hitler’s own assuring letters to Stalin. However, Murphy makes sure to portray the deception programs as inadequate, blaming their success on Stalin’s belief in Hitler. Chapter nineteen, “The Purges Revived”, is rather self-explanatory. Proskurov is isolated as all those around him fall to Stalin’s accusations and traps. A large number of capable men are killed off as the time when they would prove most useful neared. These would only be added to when the invasion did occur.

The last chapters are devoted to the day’s right before the invasion and the invasion itself. As the threat to the USSR increases, Stalin continues to rest on his idea that all is well and that Hitler would never betray him. When he was betrayed, it took days for him to acknowledge it. As the German soldiers neared Moscow, Stalin went about a number of purges to erase any evidence of his mistake.

Murphy includes a large appendix including details on Soviet intelligence, two unauthenticated assuring letters from Hitler, a list of those purged and chronology of agent reports. The index also includes a glossary to help the reader with the seemingly endless list of names and acronyms that litter the book. Murphy also provides a rather in-depth notes page.

One of the reasons why this book succeeds is because of Murphy’s ability to organize the vast collection of archival sources and bring them into a solid narrative that never becomes too complex to handle. For all that Murphy does include, however, one should wonder how much is left out. Scores of archives have yet to be opened to historians and Murphy himself seems to have a goal at hand when writing this book: to portray Stalin as gullible and ignorant. Although he devotes a chapter to disinformation, we never get a real picture of the level of the deception program. While he mentions it, you never get a real sense of it; and, therefore, I am rather suspicious of how gullible Stalin actually was. Murphy’s aim to make everything look so obvious seems to be full of hindsight advantage. Receiving one rumor after another, what could Stalin truly do? The question certainly is not answered in this book.

This, however, is only a small criticism. The author does a great job in giving the reader insight on the machinations and length of Soviet intelligence. The topic is a rare one in English and this book certainly contributes something original.