WHAT DID STALIN KNOW, AND WHEN DID HE KNOW IT?
How does intelligence affect decisions for peace and war ? This has been a subject of much partisan rancor regarding the case made by President Bush and his administration for war in Iraq but the Iraq War was hardly the first war in which intelligence and its accuracy played a critical but disputed role. Intelligence as a factor in decisions for war has generally been ignored or underplayed by diplomatic historians until recent times. The opening of Soviet and Eastern Bloc archives, and lesser efforts at declassification on the American side during the Clinton years, have caused historians to begin to take a second look at well known events.
The CIA’s new issue of Studies In Intelligence has an interesting review of What Stalin Knew: The Enigma of Barbarossa by David E. Murphy, a former CIA Sovietologist. The reviewer, CIA historian Dr. Donald P. Steury, correctly frames the historical questions:
” The German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 was one of the pivotal events of the 20th century. It transformed the Second World War and led, perhaps inevitably, to the Cold War and the half-century domination of Eastern Europe by the Soviet Union. It was, furthermore, one of the most brutal campaigns of modern times, bringing unspeakable atrocities and the near-annihilation of whole nationalities. The Nazis probably bear the principal responsibility for the character of the campaign, but the Soviet regime must shoulder some of the blame.
The sheer enormity of the event long has cried out for explanation on the strategic, political, economic, and even cultural level. At the heart is the question of why it happened at all. Why did Hitler attack the Soviet Union, thereby virtually abandoning his war with Britain and France at the very moment that he seemed about to achieve victory? Why did the attack come as such a surprise to the Soviet Union? How was Stalin, the canny, ruthless Realpolitiker in Moscow, flummoxed by the half-crazed ideologue in Berlin? Why did Stalin ignore the yearlong military buildup in eastern Europe and the (by one count) 87 separate, credible intelligence warnings of the German invasion that he received during 1940–41?”
If you pick up any decent biography Stalin, the chapters on the events of 1936-1941 will usually be among the most interesting. A period that saw the convergence of Soviet foreign policy with the internal policy of Stalinist terror – the dictator’s unholy mixture of brutal realpolitik with ideologically paranoiac mass-murder. As Operation Barbarossa approached however, Stalin’s rejection of unwelcome news about Hitler’s intentions extended even to Stalinist insiders in the secret police hierarchy like Dekanazov ( then also Soviet ambassador in Berlin), not just to foreign statesmen, professional Soviet diplomats and militay officers and spies like Richard Sorge.
Steury describes the evidence in What Stalin Knew:
” Murphy massively documents the in-pouring of intelligence from all over Europe and even Japan, warning of the German military buildup for invasion. Insofar as this intelligence was used at all, it was to avoid any action that might be seen as a provocation. German aircraft were allowed to fly reconnaissance missions deep into Soviet territory; German troops were allowed to violate Soviet borders in search of intelligence. All this was intended to remind the Germans of the depth of Soviet resolve, while demonstrating that the Soviet Union was not about to attack. Moreover, Stalin was absolutely convinced that Hitler would attempt nothing until he had resolved his conflict with Great Britain. He was encouraged in this preconception by a well-orchestrated German deception operation—including the two letters to Stalin—that was, at least in part, personally directed by Hitler. Thus it was that Stalin was able to ignore the massive military buildup on his borders and to dismiss every warning of a German attack as disinformation or provocation, right up until the morning of 22 June.
In describing how intelligence was collected and reported to Moscow, Murphy chillingly documents what it meant to be an intelligence officer under Stalin by following the careers of three men. NKVD foreign intelligence chief, Pavel Fitin, whose agents reported on German plans for BARBAROSSA right up to the attack, served throughout the war, but was in disgrace afterward. Ivan Proskurov, an air force officer and head of military intelligence during 1939–40, insisted on telling the truth to Stalin. He was shot in October 1941. Proskurov’s successor, Filipp I. Golikov, suppressed or altered intelligence reporting that did not meet the Soviet dictator’s preconceptions. He prospered under Stalin.”
This self-imposed isolation and distortion under which Stalin received intelligence and acted as his own analyst was replicated by Saddam Hussein in 2003, himself an admirer of the Soviet dictator’s methods, to even worse consequences. Foreign Affairs has published an excerpt, “Saddam’s Delusions“, from the Iraq Perspective Project that demonstrates that in comparison to Saddam’s fantasy world, Stalin’s decision making in 1941 was the epitome of rationality and clear thinking. The position and perspective of leadership inherently contains an element of distortion but it is evident that totalitarian, hyperviolent political systems like those created by Joseph Stalin or Saddam Hussein magnify the distortions a thousandfold.
Interestingly enough, Steury points to the possibility that even completely accurate information might not sway megalomaniacal dictators. His source is Adolf Hitler, reflecting upon the errors in German intelligence prior to Barbarossa:
“In closing, it is worth noting that there was another failure of judgment in BARBAROSSA, that of Adolf Hitler. Hitler, like Stalin, was a victim of his own preconceptions, but, in contrast to Stalin, he was ill-served by his intelligence services. Suffering from what the Japanese, from bitter experience, would call “victory disease,” the Germans overestimated their own capabilities, even as they underestimated the Soviet capacity to resist. In July 1942, one year after the start of the campaign, Hitler admitted as much to Marshal Carl Gustav Mannerheim, the Finnish military leader, on a visit to Helsinki—Finland then being a cobelligerent with Germany in its war with the Soviet Union. “We did not ourselves understand— just how strong this state [the ussr] was armed,” Hitler told him, “If somebody had told me a nation could start with 35,000 tanks, then I’d have said, ‘You are crazy!’ . . . [Yet] . . . We have destroyed—right now—more than 34,000 tanks . . . . It was unbelievable . . . . I had no idea of it. If I had an idea—then it would have been more difficult for me, but I would have taken the decision to invade anyhow . . . .” History does not record Marshal Mannerheim’s reaction.”
[ Emphasis mine ]
Statesmen who deal with information from a variety of sources, including intelligence, need to step back a bit and assess the limitations and gaps, the potential for error, self-referential bias and outright lies. Everything needs to be questioned and taken with a grain of salt. Yet in the end, decisions have to be made and neither credulity nor paranoia will serve.