What Stalin Knew
The Enigma of Barbarossa
by David E. Murphy
Yale, 340 pp., $30
WHAT WAS JOSEPH STALIN THINKING when he allied himself with Adolf Hitler for nearly two years at the beginning of World War II? What did Stalin know about Hitler's intentions to turn on him, and when did he know it?
Historians have grappled with these questions ever since foreign ministers Joachim von Ribbentrop and Vyacheslav Molotov signed the infamous Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact on August 23, 1939, and the subsequent German attack on the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941. Operation Barbarossa, as the German invasion was called, blindsided Stalin and came closer than most people realize to achieving its aim of inflicting a swift, mortal blow to his country. In What Stalin Knew, David E. Murphy, a former CIA agent who was in charge of Soviet operations, provides the most thorough answers to date. His systematic examination of the "product" of Soviet intelligence during the critical 22 months of the pact, and of how Stalin angrily rejected most of the reports of his spies, is an absorbing account on several levels--tactical, psychological, and moral. The result is a devastating indictment of the Soviet tyrant on all those grounds.
Stalin's apologists have always maintained that he had no choice but to agree to the pact with Hitler, since he needed to buy time to prepare for war. Britain and France's appeasement at Munich a year earlier, and their lack of serious interest in forging an alliance with Russia, left Stalin with no choice, they claimed. In fact, Murphy points out, the Soviet leader was much more than Hitler's reluctant partner. He was enthusiastic about dividing the spoils of Poland, which he attacked from the east 16 days after Hitler's armies attacked from the west, and seizing control of the Baltic states. And, most tellingly, he slipped quite comfortably into the role of defending Germany and vilifying the British and the French.
So comfortably that the case can be made that Stalin may have wondered what kind of outcome he really wanted from the war he helped unleash. In the most controversial part of his book, Murphy offers the first English translation of a speech Stalin allegedly made on August 19, 1939, right before formalizing his agreement with Hitler. In it, he argued that if the West defeated Germany in a long war, that country would be ripe for Sovietization; but if Germany won in a long war, it would be too exhausted to threaten the Soviet Union, and a Communist takeover would be likely in France. Hence a win-win situation for the Soviet Union, and his conclusion that "one must do everything to ensure that the war lasts as long as possible in order to exhaust both sides."
The speech was first reported by the French news agency Havas in late 1939, and Stalin promptly branded it a fabrication. But in his denial, he insisted "it was not Germany that attacked France and Britain but France and Britain that attacked Germany, thereby taking on themselves responsibility for the present war." Murphy is convinced that Stalin did make this speech; but even if he didn't, the Soviet leader's protests were almost as revealing as the contested transcript. Besides, Stalin let slip similar comments on September 7, 1939, in the presence of several of his top aides. Discussing the war "between two groups of capitalist countries," as he characterized the Western powers and Germany, he asserted: "We see nothing wrong in their having a good fight and weakening each other."
The problem was that Hitler, who had all along believed that subjugating Russia was a key part of his life's mission, quickly became frustrated with his inability to bomb Britain into submission or mount Operation Sea Lion, the invasion of that island nation. Instead, he convinced himself that if he knocked Russia out first, this would leave Britain more isolated and vulnerable than ever. The fact that history (to wit, Napoleon's disaster in 1812) and common sense flew in the face of that reasoning meant little to Hitler. But Stalin refused to believe it--as he refused to believe the steady stream of reports flowing from Soviet agents abroad.
Murphy provides details that prove "beyond any reasonable doubt," as he puts it, that the Soviet services filed alarming reports about German intentions early and often. From Berlin, a source code-named Ariets reported on September 29, 1940, that Hitler intended to "resolve problems in the east in the spring of next year." Maj. Gen. Vasily Tupikov, the Soviet military attaché in Berlin, backed up his source and later confirmed the redeployment of large numbers of German troops from the western to the eastern front. From Bucharest, the Soviet military mission reported on March 26, 1941: "The Romanian general staff has precise information that in two or three months Germany will attack the Ukraine. The Germans will attack the Baltic states at the same time . . . "
Stalin reacted by ridding himself of Ivan Proskurov, the head of military intelligence who had consistently refused to buckle to his pressure to deliver better news. His replacement, Filipp Golikov, began relying on reports from his officers who picked up German disinformation, which dismissed all talk of an invasion of Russia as "English propaganda." When Golikov felt obliged to pass along a report from his Prague station that the Germans would attack in the second half of June, it landed back on his desk with Stalin's note in red ink: "English provocation! Investigate!"
In keeping with that sentiment, Stalin was determined to honor his trade commitments with Germany, and his country provided huge amounts of oil, wood, copper, manganese ore, rubber, grain, and other resources to keep the German military machine well stocked. He seemed genuinely to believe that he could convince Hitler of his good intentions by such craven behavior. In the words of Nikita Khrushchev: "So while those sparrows were chirping, 'Look out for Hitler! Look out for Hitler!' Stalin was punctually sending the Germans trainload after trainload of grain and petroleum."
As Murphy spells out, Stalin also ignored reports directly from the border regions of large German troop concentrations, and ordered his soldiers not to open fire on German aircraft that were routinely violating Soviet airspace to stage brazen reconnaissance missions. On April 5, 1941, border troops received the order that, in the case of any confrontation, they should "strictly see to it that bullets do not fall on German territory." Instead of recognizing all the signs of German preparations for what they were, Stalin--convinced that he couldn't trust anyone, especially his spies who must have been doing someone else's bidding--closed himself off more and more, and refused to allow his generals to put their troops on a war footing. He was also happy to keep arresting anyone who questioned his policies, dispatching them to his legions of executioners and torturers.
Murphy's book should put to rest the myth that Stalin was a great tactician, the brilliant savior of his country. Before he saved it, he almost destroyed it, when he had every opportunity to prepare his troops for the worst and at least limit their losses. In the end, 27 million Soviet citizens perished during "The Great Patriotic War." Of those, there's no telling how many could have been saved if the country had been led by someone who was willing to listen to the "sparrows," and to renounce the use of terror against his own people--at least for the duration of their epic struggle.
Andrew Nagorski, a senior editor at Newsweek International, is writing a book about the battle for Moscow during World War II.