What Stalin Knew: The Enigma of Barbarossa

What Stalin Knew: The Enigma of Barbarossa

by David E. Murphy

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This “riveting account of one of history’s greatest blunders” chronicles Russia’s tragic mishandling of Nazi Germany’s invasion during WWII (William L. O’Neill, The New Leader).
On June 22, 1941, Nazi Germany’s Operation Barbarossa was launched against Russia. Within days, the invading army had taken hundreds of thousands of Soviet captives while the Luftwaffe bombed a number of Russian cities, including Minsk. Though accurate intelligence about the plan had been available to Stalin before the attack, he chose not to heed the warning.
In What Stalin Knew, historian and former chief of the CIA’s Soviet division David E. Murphy illuminates many of the enigmas surrounding the catastrophic invasion, offering keen insights into Stalin’s thinking and the reasons for his fatal error of judgment. A story of successful misinformation campaigns, and a leader more paranoid about threats from within his regime than from an aggressive neighbor, this authoritative history sheds essential new light on the most consequential event in the Eastern Front of World War II.
“If, after the war, the Soviet Union had somehow been capable of producing an official inquiry into the catastrophe of 6/22—comparable in its mandate to the 9/11 commission here—its report might have read a little like [this book]. . . . Murphy brings to his subject both knowledge of Russian history and an insider’s grasp of how intelligence is gathered, analyzed and used—or not.” —Niall Ferguson, The New York Times Book Review
“A fascinating and meticulously researched account of mistaken assumptions and errors of judgment . . . Never before has this fateful period been so fully documented.” —Henry A. Kissinger

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300130263
Publisher: Yale University Press (Ignition)
Publication date: 06/11/2005
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 340
Sales rank: 136,769
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

David E. Murphy, now retired, was chief of CIA’s Berlin base from the early 1950s to 1961 and then became chief of Soviet operations at CIA headquarters in the United States. He is coauthor of Battleground Berlin: CIA vs. KGB in the Cold War, also published by Yale University Press.

Read an Excerpt


Stalin versus Hitler Background

The year 1945 saw the end of the most destructive war in the history of mankind. Among the nations that suffered the greatest human and physical losses were Germany and Soviet Russia. It was a decision made final in August 1939 by the German and Soviet leaders that rendered this catastrophic war inevitable. Why was that decision made? How did the German leader, Adolf Hitler, and his Soviet counterpart, Josef Stalin, view the world at that time?

Both Germany and Soviet Russia were losers in World War I. After a relatively brief but important period of diplomatic, military, and economic cooperation during the 1920s, the two nations followed different paths of development in the 1930s. Stalin achieved total control of the ruling Communist Party and embarked on a wholesale transformation of the rural economy, eliminating a rising group of independent peasants and forcing others onto collective farms. This policy eventually enabled the state to control agricultural output, but it also produced massive famine in which millions died. Concurrently, Stalin began a gigantic industrialization program that greatly expanded existing industries (most of which had been expropriated following the 1917 revolution) and created vast new industrial centers. The pace and intensity of this effort were unprecedented but made necessary, in Stalin's view, by the "capitalist encirclement" of Soviet Russia.

Stalin saw criticism of any aspect of his agricultural and industrial policies as an attack on his leadership of the party, and he responded by instituting widespread purges of those he termed "the opposition." The arrest, imprisonment, or execution of many thousands of the nation's most talented people would in time be felt throughout the party, government, and economy, but most severely in the armed forces. Apart from the problems caused by the loss of experienced cadres, the purges resulted in an atmosphere of fear and suspicion that paralyzed many of the survivors, making them incapable or unwilling to work effectively or creatively.

Abroad, Stalin saw his socialist regime surrounded by capitalist states that had been hostile to Soviet Russia since the Revolution of 1917. To the west were Great Britain, France, and their client states such as Czechoslovakia, Romania, and Poland, all of which were in some degree anti-Soviet. Japanese aggression, notably in Manchuria and North China, figured as the main threat in the Far East. When Hitler and his National Socialist Party came to power via the ballot box in Germany, Stalin understood his election as a natural evolution from democratic capitalism to fascism that would hasten the development of a revolutionary situation. He therefore forbade the German Communists, a formidable, well-organized party, to make common cause with the German Socialist Party, then the largest party of the left, against the Nazis and their storm troopers. The result of this decision was the destruction of both parties and the consolidation of Hitler's power as Führer.

While Stalin was preoccupied with his purges, Hitler set about eliminating the restraints on Germany imposed by the Treaty of Versailles. In October 1933 Germany seceded from the League of Nations. In January 1935, following a plebiscite, it reincorporated the Saar, a German province that had been placed under a League of Nations mandate after World War I. On March 16, 1935, in defiance of the treaty, Hitler reintroduced compulsory military service and created an air force. A year later he remilitarized the Rhineland. The former Allies protested but took no other action.

In June 1935 Germany signed a naval agreement with Great Britain that greatly relaxed the Versailles Treaty's limitations on German naval tonnage and permitted Germany to build a submarine fleet, forbidden under Versailles. The agreement came as a shock to many, including Winston S. Churchill, as with it the British government appeared to lend support to Hitler's violations of the treaty. Admittedly, strict enforcement of its provisions had never been popular in the United Kingdom, where sympathy for Germany as the underdog was not inconsiderable. Furthermore, if enforcement risked war, it is unlikely that the British public would have stood for it. Memories of the trench slaughter of the 1914–18 war were fresh in the minds of most families, and the British economy was still suffering from the effects of the Great Depression. The naval treaty was seen by some British politicians as an effort, therefore, to demonstrate to Hitler that Great Britain was willing to work with him to ensure stability in Europe. In this, of course, they completely misjudged their man. On June 23, 1939, Hitler renounced both the 1936 naval agreement and a subsequent version.

Despite the apparent similarities in their government structures, Fascist Italy and Germany were not that close until October 1935, when the Italian army invaded Ethiopia. The League of Nations labeled Italy an aggressor and imposed economic sanctions, but to no avail. Ethiopian resistance was overcome in May 1936 and the King of Italy was crowned Emperor of Ethiopia. The prestige of the League of Nations suffered, as did that of France and England. Meanwhile, Germany was the only European power that refrained from acting against Italy. The two "have not" powers drew closer after this experience. Military cooperation between the two grew as they joined in supporting General Francisco Franco's revolt against the Spanish Republic, which began in July 1936.

This revolt had its origins in the long-standing tension between urban workers and landless peasants on the one hand and extremely conservative landowners and industrialists on the other. The latter groups and the Catholic hierarchy upheld the monarchy, while the urban and rural poor supported those working to establish a republic. Victory in the municipal elections of April 1931 was interpreted as a vote for a republic, and King Alfonso went into exile. The new republic could not satisfy the demands of the poor for social justice and at the same time persuade the upper middle class that their rights would be respected. Frustrated, the poor engaged in industrial strikes, seized land, and attacked Church property, prompting a brutal army crackdown and, in turn, the creation of a Popular Front formed of liberal republicans and socialists. In the elections of February 1936, the Popular Front gained control of the parliament. During the months that followed, Spanish society split into two factions. The left grew increasingly radical and opposition to the republic from the right was centered in the Falange Party, a Spanish version of fascism. By July, large elements of the army, particularly the officer corps, felt they had to save Spain from communism.

It was this feeling that invited them to launch a rebellion under General Francisco Franco, who turned to Germany and Italy for help. They both sent units of their regular forces lightly camouflaged as "volunteers." The republic also turned to England, France, and the United States for assistance but these countries demurred, choosing instead a policy of nonintervention, although some of their citizens participated as individuals. Soviet Russia sent weapons and its own volunteers to support the republican cause but tried to mask the extent of its aid (see chapter 2 for details on the activities of Soviet volunteers in Spain). It also coordinated the operations of international brigades recruited from foreign communist parties. When the Spanish civil war ended in early 1939 with a Franco victory, it was seen by many as a victory "over communism," adding to the prestige of the Tripartite Anti-Comintern Pact, which Italy had joined in November 1937.

While the Spanish conflict ground on, Hitler had been taking other actions to expand German territory. In March 1938, when a Nazi, Arthur Seyss-Inquart, was named Austrian chancellor, the Austrian frontier was opened to the German army. There were no protests by France or Great Britain. On March 13 Hitler announced the return of Austria to the Reich. What happened in fact was the isolation of Czechoslovakia, Hitler's next victim.

In Czechoslovakia, Hitler's tactics were similar to those he used in Austria. The Sudeten German minority, occupying territory along Czechoslovakia's western border with Germany, was included in the state following the Versailles Treaty. This area was also the location of Czechoslovakia's new line of very modern fortifications, vital to that nation's defense against Germany. Throughout the summer of 1938, the Sudeten German National Socialists continued to make impossible demands on the Czechs, followed by Hitler's threats of military action. At this point Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain of Britain took over. On September 15 he visited Hitler in Germany at Obersalzberg, and again on September 20–24 at Godesberg, offering to intercede with the Czechs. Hitler would not budge, but he did say that "this will be the last territorial claim I shall have to make in Europe." On September 26 he issued a forty-eight-hour ultimatum. France and Great Britain began to mobilize. Mussolini now intervened to agree with Chamberlain's proposal for a four-power conference, which was held in Munich. Neither Soviet Russia nor the Czechs themselves were invited. Britain and France accepted Hitler's demands and on October 1 German troops entered the Sudeten area. Chamberlain returned to London claiming he had achieved "peace in our time." On March 15, 1939, as the Spanish Republic disintegrated, Hitler's army entered Prague. On March 16 Hitler proclaimed the "Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia." Slovakia declared its independence; in reality it was a German client state.

These events surely convinced Hitler that if he could be assured of Soviet neutrality in a Polish-German conflict, the odds were good that neither France nor Great Britain would intervene to help Poland. Stalin, on the other hand, must have certainly known, after his rebuff in the Czech crisis at the hands of the British and French, that he could expect little help from them were he to oppose a German invasion of Poland. Consequently, he would drive the best bargain he could with Hitler. He would look on his negotiations with the British and French during the summer merely as a negotiating device to obtain more from Hitler. Stalin never imagined that in reaching an agreement with Hitler he would be deceived by the Führer on a scale that rivaled that of the infamous Trojan horse.


The Outspoken General Ivan losifovich Proskurov

How could Stalin have trusted Hitler? Here follows the history by which Stalin, supplied by his own country's intelligence services with absolutely solid information on Hitler's intentions, blindly disregarded the intelligence in favor of Hitler's lies.

The interwoven careers of three intelligence officers dramatize this history and will enable the reader to determine what Stalin knew and how he came to know it. The first of these was Ivan I. Proskurov, a talented military pilot and air force commander who had fought in Spain. The second was Pavel M. Fitin, who was assigned to the NKVD's Foreign Intelligence Service by the party and rose rapidly to become its chief in May 1939. The last was Filipp I. Golikov, who had served in the Red Army since the postrevolutionary Russian civil war, primarily on political assignments. In July 1940, Stalin appointed Golikov head of the Soviet Military Intelligence Service as Proskurov's replacement.

Proskurov had no previous intelligence experience, but he was ideally suited for the task given to him. A brave combatant and imaginative commander, he was highly intelligent and had an excellent memory. Instinctively honest, he refused to shade the truth in preparing intelligence reports. He was also a modest, unassuming man devoted to his country, wife, and children. Unusual for that time and place, he always showed great concern for the welfare of his subordinates, protecting those who feared repression (the purges) whenever he could. On the other hand, in the USSR under Stalin, where subservience to the "Boss" and the concealment of unpleasant truths were the rule, Proskurov's qualities, especially his independence of mind, were not ones that would endear him to Stalin. Indeed, his outspokenness often enraged Stalin, who knew he couldn't control him.

Proskurov was born on February 18, 1907, in the village of Malaya Tokmachka in what is now Zaporozhskaya Oblast of Ukraine. His father was a railroad worker and Ivan attended the Aleksandrovsky Railroad Academy in Zaporozhe and the Kharkov Institute of Mechanization and Electrification of Agriculture during the unsettled years of World War I, the February and October revolutions of 1917, the brief Ukrainian independence period from 1918 to 1920, and the civil war. From 1924 to 1926 he worked at the Zaporozhe Cable Factory, where he belonged to the Komsomol. From 1926 to 1927 he was chairman of the district council of labor unions, joining the Communist Party in 1927. In 1931 he joined the Red Army air forces.

Some of Proskurov's biographers characterize his entry into the Soviet air forces as simply a party assignment (partnabor). Proskurov himself reportedly agreed, saying that he did not become a pilot "from birth, but rather by chance — I was even a bit afraid of the idea of flying." But "at the district committee they talked me into attending flight school." The school was the Higher School for Pilots at Stalingrad, which he completed in March 1933. He was fortunate in this assignment as it allowed him to escape the severe famine conditions brought on in his native Ukraine by Stalin's decision to impose collectivization on the peasantry, an action from which Soviet agriculture never recovered. Pilots in training, however, enjoyed a reasonably nutritious diet.

Proskurov was assigned to the aviation brigade of the prestigious Zhu-kosvky Air Academy in Moscow as a flight instructor. A year later he was sent to the commanders' course at the Stalin School for Naval Aviators at Eisk, on the Sea of Azov in Krasnodarsky Kray, where he finished first in his class. In May 1934 a special commission appointed him aircraft commander in the Ninetieth Heavy Bombardment Squadron. Next he was assigned to the Eighty-ninth Heavy Bombardment Squadron of the Twenty-third Aviation Brigade as instructor in instrument navigation; his superiors characterized him as a "highly disciplined officer." His unit's party organization named him a delegate to a party congress and he was promoted to senior lieutenant. The next year, 1935, Proskurov became a member of the Soviet exhibition team attending an air show in Romania. In 1936 he made a record flight to Khabarovsk in the Soviet Far East to deliver engineers and spare parts to the famous Soviet pilot Valery P. Chkalov who had damaged his plane in an accident. Proskurov and his navigator made it to Khabarovsk in fifty-four hours and thirteen minutes, including refueling stops, a record for which Defense Commissar Kliment Ye. Voroshilov awarded them certificates and engraved gold watches. It was while Proskurov and his navigator were on a well-deserved leave that they heard of the invasion of republican Spain by General Franco and his troops. They both immediately volunteered to help the Loyalist forces. In Proskurov's personnel file, the only reference to his service in the Spanish civil war is a brief memorandum stating that "Sr. Lt. Proskurov was on a special assignment abroad (Sept. 1936–June 1937) carrying out a special task of the government for strengthening the defensive might of the USSR." This opaque treatment isn't surprising. The entire Spanish operation, from recruitment of advisers to weapons acquisition, was undertaken and controlled by the Red Army's Military Intelligence Directorate (RU). The highly experienced former RU chief Jan K. Berzin ran the show in Spain, while Semen P. Uritsky, RU chief in Moscow, bore responsibility for keeping the defense commissar informed. There seemed to be a good reason for this arrangement. None of the nations involved in assisting the two sides in the conflict (that is, Germany, Italy, and the Soviet Union) wished to enter the fray openly. Pretending they were not involved was a face-saving bow to international diplomatic niceties insofar as the Germans and Italians were concerned. In the absence of declarations of war, they had committed elements of their armed forces and made no special effort to conceal this fact.


Excerpted from "What Stalin Knew"
by .
Copyright © 2005 David E. Murphy.
Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Introduction: Stalin's Absolute Control, Misconceptions, and Disastrous,
Abbreviations and Acronyms,
CHAPTER 1 Stalin versus Hitler: Background,
CHAPTER 2 The Outspoken General: Ivan Iosifovich Proskurov,
CHAPTER 3 Proskurov Sets Stalin Straight,
CHAPTER 4 Soviet Borders Move Westward,
CHAPTER 5 The Finns Fight: Proskurov Made a Scapegoat,
CHAPTER 6 Soviet Military Intelligence Residencies in Western Europe,
CHAPTER 7 Soviet Military Intelligence Residencies in Eastern Europe,
CHAPTER 8 Who Were You, Dr. Sorge? Stalin Never Heard of You.,
CHAPTER 9 NKVD Foreign Intelligence,
CHAPTER 10 Fitin's Recruited Spies,
CHAPTER 11 Listening to the Enemy,
CHAPTER 12 Working on the Railroad,
CHAPTER 13 The Border Troops Knew,
CHAPTER 14 Proskurov Is Fired,
CHAPTER 15 Golikov and Operation Sea Lion,
CHAPTER 16 "We Do Not Fire on German Aircraft in Peacetime",
CHAPTER 17 German Deception: Why Did Stalin Believe It?,
CHAPTER 18 Secret Letters,
CHAPTER 19 The Purges Revived,
CHAPTER 20 On the Eve,
CHAPTER 21 A Summer of Torture,
CHAPTER 22 The Final Reckoning,
Conclusion: Will the Future Be a Repeat of the Past?,
Appendix 1: Organization and Functions of Soviet Military Intelligence,
Appendix 2: Hitler's Letters to Stalin,
Appendix 3: Those Executed without Trial on October 28, 1941,
Appendix 4: Chronology of Agent Reporting,
Glossary of Spies and Their Masters,


A Conversation with

David Murphy

Q: How culpable was Stalin for the German invasion of June 22, 1941?

A: Stalin bears full responsibility for having allowed German preparations to go forward without taking measures to improve the USSR’s defensive posture and for his naïve acceptance of German deception, fed to him personally by Hitler.

Q: What steps could he have taken to prevent it?

A: Many actions were possible, but Stalin’s greatest failure was his refusal to halt extensive, long-term German aerial reconnaissance operations even though he was aware of them from border troops’ reporting and from Soviet agents in the German Air Ministry. This resulted in the pinpointing and massive destruction of Soviet defensive works, troop concentrations, logistical installations, armor, and parked aircraft within hours of the June 22 attack.

Q: How do we know for certain that Stalin knew the meaning and urgency of the intelligence reports?

A: We know Stalin received reports on the German threat but discounted or rejected them because they disagreed with what Hitler told him were his plans to invade the British Isles in the summer of 1941 and not attack the USSR.

Q: In what way did the system Stalin created abet his natural paranoia and conspiratorial thinking? How was he able to manipulate the system so that he could remain convinced that he was right? Or was he the victim of that system?

A: Stalin did not create the system. He amplified, expanded, and exploited Lenin’s dictatorship, using terror and the purges to instill abject fear in all those who opposed him. There were very few military officers, party, or government officials who dared dispute Stalin’s views, and those who did were tortured and executed. On the contrary, some encouraged his acceptance of German deception by slanting intelligence estimates to fit Stalin’s misconceptions. Thus not Stalin but the entire Soviet people became victims of Stalin’s mistakes.

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What Stalin Knew: The Enigma of Barbarossa 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
Wilsonam More than 1 year ago
This is a well-written and well laid out book. The key problem with it is that it is entitled "What Stalin knew" and appears to set out to demonstrate that the dictator knwe enough to be able to anticipate the German invasion in June '41. Murphy proceeds to demonstrate that Stalin had a wealth of information about the German planning for Barbarossa. What he singularly fails to do (and this is a major omission for an ex-member of the intelligence community) is to provide the full picture. He does not delve into the intelligence provided to Stalin that countered the invasion view, but just dismisses it all as "Stalin's mania for keeping Hitler happy". Seeing that full picture would have made the book very interesting indeed. The failure to do so makes it a very slanted, even biased, pitch at the topic. Would be better entitled "What Stalin knew about the invasion". I would still love to know what intelligence was being provided to Stalin to counter the invasion view. Another oddity about the book is the author's reliance on Russian websites for anecdotal evidence. He uses some excellent primary and secondary sources, so relying on anecdotal evidence from websites does strike me as a little odd.
Shrike58 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
By using those documents that escaped the secret archives before access was again closed, Murphy focuses on how Stalinist Russia went about the business of collecting military intelligence, and leaves no doubt that sufficient information had been collected so as that Stalin and his immediate circle should have been in no doubt about the impending disaster. As for why a supreme cynic and paranoid such as Stalin allowed himself to be duped, Murphy makes clear that he does not accept the revisionist attempts to treat Stalin in the mold of a 19th-century style power politician, and sees a committed Bolshevik who could not rise above his ideological preconceptions; that general war would be good for the spread of Marxism-Leninism.Most poignant are the stories of men such as Ivan Proskurov (erstwhile head of Military Intelligence in the Red Army). Soviet soldiers who attempted to do their duty in defending the Soviet state, and who were punished with death for having embarrassed the "Boss." Stalin having no desire to be reminded of his mistakes.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
random_skeptic More than 1 year ago
After reading this book, I am totally amazed by the inaction of Joseph Stalin regarding the defense of the Soviet Union prior to the German invasion in June 1941. He had a number of intelligence reports from inside the Soviet Union, from hostile nations and from nations that were neutral. However, he chose not to take a defensive posture. It is truly mind boggling that he convinced himself that the Germans would not attack. He was certainly convinced of his own view despite overwhelming evidence. Seems like a character flaw megalomaniacs seem to possess in abundance!!