- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 11, 2005


By David E. Murphy

Yale, $30, 310 pages, illus.


In the spring of 1941, with Europe trembling with fears that Germany might prove invincible and seize the entire continent, a gush of intelligence warnings flooded over the desk of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin warning of an imminent invasion of the Soviet Union. The reports came not only from his own agencies, notably the GRU, or Red Army intelligence, but from other European services that feared a wider war, particularly the British, who were reading German cable traffic through the so-called ULTRA intercepts.

Just why Stalin chose to ignore all these alerts — and indeed some persons who continued passing them along were summarily shot — remains one of the deeper mysteries of World War II history. The “conventional wisdom” is that Stalin wrote off the warnings as British disinformation aimed at disrupting the Hitler-Stalin pact of August 1939.

Now comes the real reason, via a book that explores one of the more massive intelligence failures in history, David E. Murphy’s “What Stalin Knew: The Enigma of Barbarossa.” (Barbarossa was the German code name for the invasion.) What only a few members of Stalin’s inner circle knew — men such as Marshal Georgy K. Zhukov — was that his confidence stemmed from two extraordinary letters he had received from Hitler, published here in English for the first time.

In the first letter, dated Dec. 31, 1940, Hitler admitted what could not easily be concealed from Soviet air reconnaissance and long-range patrols: That indeed 70 German divisions and supporting aircraft were deployed near the U.S.S.R. border in what he called the “Government General,” the term for the portion of Poland seized after the infamous 1939 pact. He claimed he wished to keep them safe from British bombers until the time came to invade England. Any talk of a German strike against the Soviet Union was the result of rumors and “fabricated documents.”

The following May 14, Hitler again acknowledged the size of his forces along the Soviet frontier but warned against British disinformation and “rumors now circulating of a likely military conflict between us.” Then, in a truly audacious statement, Hitler wrote, “I assure you, on my honor as a chief of state [emphasis added] that this is not the case.”

In the same letter, Hitler employed what Mr. Murphy describes as “the final masterpiece in a gallery of disinformation.” He “confided” in Stalin that some of his generals might launch an unauthorized provocative attack “in order to save England from its fate and spoil my plans.” He asked Stalin not to respond in kind by resisting any renegades who might enter the Soviet Union. Mr. Murphy writes, “Hitler virtually dictated the scenario Stalin followed in the first hours after the invasion.” Not for days did the Red Army mobilize and try to fight back the invaders. By that time, of course, the Germans had struck deep into Soviet territory.

In Stalin’s defense — heavens, but my fingers rebel at typing that phrase — a Hitler strike against the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941 made no military sense whatsoever. Why would Hitler open a second front, against an adversary historically able to throw back invaders, when he had yet to deal with the British Isles? Although its early victories had come with relative ease, the Wehrmacht and its air arm were near exhaustion.

In any event, the letters apparently convinced Stalin to ignore literally scores of invasion warnings. (Mr. Murphy requires three full pages to list each of them.) Not untypical was a report on June 17, 1941, from Pavel Fitin, the chief of NKGB foreign intelligence (predecessor of the latter-day KGB). The source was sound: an intelligence officer in Herman Goring’s Air Ministry. Further, the estimate was about as direct as an intelligence report can be: “all preparations for an armed attack on the Soviet Union have been completed, and the blow can be expected at any time.”

With an angry scrawl in the margin, Stalin returned the report to Fitin’s chief: “Comrade Merkulov, you can send your ‘source’ from the headquarters of German aviation to his [expletive deleted] mother. This is not a ‘source’ but a dezinformator.” Five days later, German armor clanked into the Soviet Union, followed by more than 100 divisions of infantry, covered by planes that smashed much of the Soviet air force on the ground. Thus began a war that would result in the deaths of at least 20 million Soviet citizens.

Historians have long since established Stalin’s unwillingness to accept hard intelligence of the imminent German invasion. Previous books, both first-rate, include Joseph Barros and Richard Gregor, “Double Deception: Stalin, Hitler and the Invasion of Russia” (1995) and Barton Whaley, “Code-word Barbarossa” (1973).

Mr. Murphy was able to go a significant step further by obtaining access to previously top secret Soviet archives and he is a man uniquely qualified to tell the story. He spent a distinguished CIA career on Soviet operations, first as chief of station in Berlin and then as head of Soviet operations at Langley.

One must admit to a twinge of sympathy for the men and women who risked their lives to gather information on the looming war, only to have their cowed intelligence superiors refuse to pass the information to Stalin. The famed Rote Kappelle, or Red Orchestra, which lost dozens of Soviet agents to Nazi torture chambers, had the full story; it was ignored.

But most striking, perhaps, was the plight of Richard Sorge, famed in books and films as a Soviet agent who posed as a journalist to penetrate the German embassy in Tokyo. Sorge’s accurate reporting on German intentions began in 1940 and continued through June 20, 1941, when he reported that the German ambassador had told him that “war between Germany and the USSR was inevitable.” Stalin accused Sorge of being “a little [expletive deleted] who has set himself up with some small factories and brothels in Japan.” Another report was returned with the notation, “I ask you not to send me any more of this German disinformation.”

When Sorge sat in prison awaiting execution, Tokyo offered to swap him for a Japanese military officer. Stalin replied, “Richard Sorge? I do not know a person of that name.” Sorge went to the gallows. As a sort of consolation prize, in the post-Stalin 1950s he was depicted on a Soviet postage stamp as a “hero.”

That Joseph Stalin was a paranoid reclusive, unwilling to trust even his intimates, has been well established by biographers. David Murphy tells vividly the price the Soviet people paid for having their country run by someone who truly qualifies as a mad man. A first-rate read from a man who knows the intelligence business. Five cloaks, five daggers.

Joseph C. Goulden is writing a book on Cold War intelligence. His e-mail is [email protected]

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