The Magazine

Stalin's Blindness

He deceived himself about Hitler, and it cost millions of Russian lives.

Jun 27, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 39 • By ANDREW NAGORSKI
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What Stalin Knew

The Enigma of Barbarossa

by David E. Murphy

Yale, 340 pp., $30

WHAT WAS JOSEPH STALIN THINKING when he allied himself with Adolf Hitler for nearly two years at the beginning of World War II? What did Stalin know about Hitler's intentions to turn on him, and when did he know it?

Historians have grappled with these questions ever since foreign ministers Joachim von Ribbentrop and Vyacheslav Molotov signed the infamous Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact on August 23, 1939, and the subsequent German attack on the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941. Operation Barbarossa, as the German invasion was called, blindsided Stalin and came closer than most people realize to achieving its aim of inflicting a swift, mortal blow to his country. In What Stalin Knew, David E. Murphy, a former CIA agent who was in charge of Soviet operations, provides the most thorough answers to date. His systematic examination of the "product" of Soviet intelligence during the critical 22 months of the pact, and of how Stalin angrily rejected most of the reports of his spies, is an absorbing account on several levels--tactical, psychological, and moral. The result is a devastating indictment of the Soviet tyrant on all those grounds.

Stalin's apologists have always maintained that he had no choice but to agree to the pact with Hitler, since he needed to buy time to prepare for war. Britain and France's appeasement at Munich a year earlier, and their lack of serious interest in forging an alliance with Russia, left Stalin with no choice, they claimed. In fact, Murphy points out, the Soviet leader was much more than Hitler's reluctant partner. He was enthusiastic about dividing the spoils of Poland, which he attacked from the east 16 days after Hitler's armies attacked from the west, and seizing control of the Baltic states. And, most tellingly, he slipped quite comfortably into the role of defending Germany and vilifying the British and the French.

So comfortably that the case can be made that Stalin may have wondered what kind of outcome he really wanted from the war he helped unleash. In the most controversial part of his book, Murphy offers the first English translation of a speech Stalin allegedly made on August 19, 1939, right before formalizing his agreement with Hitler. In it, he argued that if the West defeated Germany in a long war, that country would be ripe for Sovietization; but if Germany won in a long war, it would be too exhausted to threaten the Soviet Union, and a Communist takeover would be likely in France. Hence a win-win situation for the Soviet Union, and his conclusion that "one must do everything to ensure that the war lasts as long as possible in order to exhaust both sides."

The speech was first reported by the French news agency Havas in late 1939, and Stalin promptly branded it a fabrication. But in his denial, he insisted "it was not Germany that attacked France and Britain but France and Britain that attacked Germany, thereby taking on themselves responsibility for the present war." Murphy is convinced that Stalin did make this speech; but even if he didn't, the Soviet leader's protests were almost as revealing as the contested transcript. Besides, Stalin let slip similar comments on September 7, 1939, in the presence of several of his top aides. Discussing the war "between two groups of capitalist countries," as he characterized the Western powers and Germany, he asserted: "We see nothing wrong in their having a good fight and weakening each other."

The problem was that Hitler, who had all along believed that subjugating Russia was a key part of his life's mission, quickly became frustrated with his inability to bomb Britain into submission or mount Operation Sea Lion, the invasion of that island nation. Instead, he convinced himself that if he knocked Russia out first, this would leave Britain more isolated and vulnerable than ever. The fact that history (to wit, Napoleon's disaster in 1812) and common sense flew in the face of that reasoning meant little to Hitler. But Stalin refused to believe it--as he refused to believe the steady stream of reports flowing from Soviet agents abroad.