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What Stalin Knew: The Enigma of Barbarossa

by David E. Murphy; Yale University Press, New Haven, 2005, $30.

Career CIA officer David E. Murphy endeavors to explain in What Stalin Knew, why, on the very eve of the launching of Operation Barbarossa, Soviet Premier Josef Stalin refused to believe the in-depth reports he received from his own intelligence agencies that Adolf Hitler’s attack was imminent. Denied all but superficial access to Russian archives, Murphy made wide-ranging use of a two-volume collection of official military intelligence reports and summaries published in 1998 by Alexander N. Yakovlev and the Moscow-based International Democracy Foundation, 1941 god (The Year 1941), and also of two document collections issued under the aegis of the FSB (the successor to the KGB). These materials and others allow Murphy to detail evidence of Hitler’s intentions from Soviet military intelligence residencies in Western and Eastern Europe; from Stalin’s agent in Japan, Richard Sorge; from the People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs foreign intelligence operations; from recruited spies; from counterintelligence operatives against foreign missions; from railroad security police; and from Soviet border troops. “Awareness of German preparations to invade so pervaded Moscow,” observes Murphy, “that even Stalin’s most sycophantic collaborators in these services found it difficult to choke off the constant flow of intelligence reporting.”

How could Stalin, in the face of such overwhelming evidence, have trusted Hitler, even allowing the Luftwaffe the freedom to conduct reconnaissance flights over Soviet territory? Murphy acknowledges that the situation was more complicated than first meets the eye. German deception, after all, did seek to reinforce Stalin’s belief that Hitler would not attack the USSR. Then, too, Soviet military intelligence residencies in Eastern Europe did pass on false reports to Moscow. Moreover, some intelligence was withheld from Stalin, while other reports were altered to conform to his conviction that Hitler would not consider turning against the Soviet Union until after he had overpowered England. This especially became the case following Stalin’s dismissal in July 1940 of the head of his Military Intelligence Directorate, Ivan I. Proskurov (the hero of Murphy’s account). Proskurov’s replacement, Filipp I. Golikov, did whatever he could to reinforce Stalin’s views by writing off warnings of a German invasion as British or German disinformation. As we know from the failure of the Bush administration in Iraq, intelligence services sometimes supply information to conform to the views of the leaders they serve, often with dire consequences.

Yet, as Murphy points out, none of these considerations satisfactorily explains the tragedy. Nor, he maintains, does the theory of plans for a Soviet preventive strike against Germany, made popular by Viktor Suvorov’s Icebreaker, among other works. Stalin held out, Murphy insists, owing to two recently uncovered letters the Soviet leader had received from Hitler. Murphy calls the second letter, dated May 14, 1941, “the final masterpiece in a gallery of disinformation,” for in it Hitler assured Stalin “on his honor as a chief of state” that the rumors circulating about a conflict between the powers were untrue. The letters constitute part of what is purported to be a more extensive correspondence between the two dictators, which has not survived.

Unfortunately, Murphy’s cursory discussion of the Stalin–Hitler letters raises more questions than it answers. I suspect, however, that Murphy would have argued even without these letters that the reason for the disaster is “to be found in Stalin’s personality, his gross errors of judgment, and the ideologically warped system he created.” In other words, “It was Stalin’s insistence on accepting German deception as truth, his rejection of valid intelligence from his own sources, and his failure to recognize that the warnings from the Western powers, themselves threatened by Hitler’s aggressiveness, were accurate and well-intentioned, that led to the debacle of the summer of 1941.”

World War II buffs will find much in Murphy’s account to debate, but those familiar with the scholarship on what Stalin knew will expect Murphy to have produced a more exhaustively researched book. They might also be annoyed by his frequent potshots at “historians” who remain unnamed. Moreover, his concluding thoughts about the meaning of Vladimir Putin’s 2004 electoral victory betray an ahistoricism that shapes his formulations elsewhere in the book, underscoring his background as an analyst, not as a research historian.

Originally published in the June 2006 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.