Stalin's grand delusion
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 17 September 2005)

In the spring of 1941 German planes often flew what looked like reconnaissance sorties over Soviet territory. When the Soviets protested, the Germans explained that these damn young pilots were always getting off course. Sorry. Perhaps that sounded reasonable to some on the Soviet side, but what about the reports of German trains acquiring devices that would enable them to operate on the different gauge used by Soviet railroads? Why did Soviet spies in Berlin keep reporting that German troops were moving east, toward the border?

At that moment Stalin and Hitler were allegedly friends, having been involved since August, 1939, in a mutual assistance pact. Their agreement had made it possible for Hitler to take part of Poland and Stalin another part. It was a trade agreement, too. Stalin was selling Hitler grain, oil, copper, manganese ore, rubber and other wartime necessities.

Stalin believed the Nazi-Soviet pact was a diplomatic coup, and felt sure the Germans wouldn't betray him. He had a plan. He believed that the Soviets would benefit from whatever happened in the war that was then in progress. David E. Murphy, a retired intelligence officer and former chief of Soviet operations at the CIA, leads us through some of Stalin's thinking in What Stalin Knew: The Enigma of Barbarossa (Yale University Press, 2005), one of the best of the books grounded in Soviet archives.

Stalin seems to have believed that if Germany were defeated in a long war, it would be too weak to resist a Soviet take-over. But if Germany won it would be too depleted to be any threat to the Soviets. And the Soviets could probably seize France. He knew one thing for sure: He wanted the war between Germany and Britain to last a long, long time.

A belief in his own grand strategy distorted Stalin's handling of practical details. This led him into modern history's greatest blunder, the failure to anticipate Hitler's invasion of Russia on June 22, 1941, Operation Barbarossa (Hitler borrowed the nickname Barbarossa, or Red Beard, from Emperor Frederick I, who tried to unite Germany in the 12th century). Soviet forces were caught unawares, and the Germans swept across much of Russia. The Soviets eventually turned the war around at Stalingrad, but only after losing (according to credible estimates) 27 million people.

Murphy makes it clear that the real issue was not what Stalin knew but what he wanted to know. Stalin chose not to believe the reports of a coming invasion; they simply didn't fit into his strategic calculations. He provided history's most persuasive proof of the rule that military intelligence is only as good as the people who interpret it.

To Stalin, many reports sounded like English disinformation. He feared England more than Germany because he thought that all the capitalist powers, led by England, wanted to destroy the Soviet Union. When Stalin received a report from spies in Prague who correctly predicted that Germany would invade in the last fortnight of June, he sent it back with a note in red ink: "English provocation! Investigate!"

In Tokyo, Richard Sorge, Russia's master spy, penetrated the German embassy. He reported on May 22 that a German invasion would start in late June; by June 13 he was predicting the exact date. Stalin's response was to turn against Sorge and call him "a little shit who has set himself up with some small factories and brothels in Japan."

Stalin functioned as his own security chief. Only he was sent all the incoming information. Each leader at the next level (the secret police boss, the defence minister, the chief of the general staff, the foreign minister) received excerpts from the intelligence "product." Stalin made sure that only he read everything. No one else was allowed to know enough to challenge his strategic decisions. Stalin trusted only himself -- and Hitler.

On the evening of June 21, he told a group of cabinet ministers that Hitler would not begin a war. The next morning he was awakened with the news that they had attacked.

Books like Murphy's have been enriching our knowledge of Soviet reality, adding nuances to historic facts. Unfortunately, authors who want to dig deeper are facing fresh resistance. Archives that opened in the 1990s are closing. Yeltsin-era freedoms are giving way to Putin-era restrictions. Vladimir Putin would like to forget the 1941 disaster and revive national pride in the victories of the Great Patriotic War that followed. He's clearly in the grip of contemporary Russia's most perverse feeling, nostalgia for Stalinism.

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