When Stalin ignored intelligence – a cautionary tale

by | Jan 13, 2017 | Uncategorized | 6 comments

S. Lee Manning: We Rogue Women Writers are blogging these two weeks on why intelligence matters. In essence, it’s quite simple. The purpose of intelligence services is to give government leaders information so that they can act, well, intelligently.
One of the unfortunate things about intelligence is that we rarely see when it works. We see it when it fails. But sometimes the failure can’t be blamed on the intelligence community. Sometimes the failure lies with what a head of state does with information gathered by his intelligence services.
Case in point: Operation Barbarossa – and Stalin.
Background: Stalin was a mass murdering dictator, who ruled the Soviet Union from 1929 to 1953.  Note: Under Putin, Stalin has been somewhat rehabilitated, but since I have the luxury of not living under Putin (yet), I’m calling Stalin as I see him.

Under Stalin’s rule, millions were killed for being of the wrong class, for speaking the wrong thing, or generally just pissing Stalin off. He was paranoid and a megalomaniac.  He was obsessed with the possibility of betrayal and he was suspicious of even his own followers, murdering anyone he thought might betray him, whether or not there was any basis in reality for that fear.
So, not unsurprisingly, everyone around Stalin agreed with whatever he said. Disagreeing did not lead to a long life span.
Hitler. Kind of the same as Stalin, except for being a Fascist instead of a communist, and except for murdering millions of people more for ethnic origin than class. Also murdered people for saying the wrong thing or just generally pissing him off. Along with hating communism, he also believed Slavic peoples, i.e. Russians etc., ranked somewhere between the subhuman status of Jews and gypsies and the true superiority of the Aryan race. They were slave status, not slated for automatic extermination as were the Jews, but could be killed without conscience if they were bothersome.

So two megalomaniac killers in charge of two powerful countries in Europe in the 1930s with starkly different views of the type of dystopian future they wanted to impose on the world led, of course, to the….
Non-Aggression Pact between Russia and Germany. Surprise! Germany and Russia signed the pact in August 1939, just prior to Germany invading Poland.
It was, for want of a better description, a marriage of convenience between true deplorables. (Yes, Virginia, there really are deplorables – and Stalin and Hitler were two of them.)
As in all marriages of convenience, they wanted different things:
Hitler wanted an easy invasion of Poland. England and France might or might not do something besides talk, and Hitler didn’t want to face them AND the Soviet Union.
Stalin was enamored with the idea of the Western countries, Germany, France, Poland, England, all fighting it out and then the Soviet Union could take over in the ruins of what had been Europe. Then there were the Baltic countries. He wanted those little countries served up on his platter, with German blessing – along with a strip of Poland au juste.
Stalin was not a complete idiot. He knew this was no marriage of true love. Sooner or later, the Soviet Union and Germany would fight it out, but he believed Hitler wanted to polish off England first. He thought he would be the one to end things between them. He was wrong.
What intelligence knew
Then as now, the Russians had spies everywhere.
The Russians had one of the more developed spy networks in the world at the time – despite periodically killing off some of their best spies in political purges from time to time. And they had good information.
In 1940-41, credible intelligence from at least 87 sources came in. Agents recruited inside the German government. Diplomatic sources reaching out with the same information. The marriage had gone sour. Germany was planning an invasion.
Tanks and troops began to build up on the German ruled side of the border with the Soviet Union.
Stalin didn’t believe it.
Part of the reason he didn’t believe might be found in two letters recently found in Russia, allegedly from Hitler to Stalin, swearing that Hitler had no intention to invade.There was also a German disinformation campaign. Further, Stalin distrusted anything that came from England.  And Stalin preferred to believe Hitler and the disinformation because he liked the position he thought he was in.
He thought he’d be the one to end the marriage – when the time was right.
I already mentioned that people who told Stalin things he didn’t want to hear had a short life expectancy.  His head of the foreign intelligence arm of the NKVD, Pavel Fitin, knew the truth about German plans, but truth was a lot less important than agreeing with Stalin, unless you had a really strong desire for a bullet in the back of the head in the yard of the Lubyanka.
The wisdom of saying nothing was reinforced by Soviet Foreign Affairs Chairman Beria who threatened the execution of anyone forwarding information on the coming invasion.
To the extent he did speak up, Fitin was not only personally disbelieved. His sources were considered unreliable. He was ordered to check whether the Cambridge Five (British spies for the USSR – responsible for the deaths of British and American agents after the war) were double agents.
Ironically, Fitin may have been saved from execution by Operation Barbarossa – which by proving him right, also proved he was not a tool of the British.
Operation Barbarossa commenced on June 22, 1941.  The Germans invaded Soviet territory in a move that was a surprise to Stalin and his close circle. The story is – Some generals in the Soviet Army were not surprised, but they knew the rule. Don’t tell Stalin what he doesn’t want to hear. They stuck to it even as the Germans swarmed over the border.

So at the start of the invasion, the Soviets were unprepared. Soviet forces at the border were overwhelmed, and German initial victories were massive.
We all know how this ended –because the Germans underestimated the Russian winter and they overestimated their Aryan prowess. But there were millions of deaths – civilians and  soldiers – as a result of the German invasion. Would it have been any different if Stalin had taken the intelligence seriously instead of living in his own bubble?
Maybe not. But maybe. Maybe if the Soviets had been prepared, the Germans wouldn’t have gotten as far as they did. Maybe they could have been fought back at the border and missed the fun battle of Stalingrad and the siege of Leningrad. Maybe some of the millions of deaths could have been avoided if Hitler’s forces could have been stopped at the border. Maybe the war would have ended earlier.

But maybe not. It’s hard to know exactly what might have been. But it is important to know that there could have been a different outcome to the German invasion – and that the bloodiest war in history might have ended sooner if Stalin had not been, well, Stalin and unwilling to listen to intelligence
The reason it’s important to know that history could have been different goes back to my original point: why intelligence matters. The surprise aspect of the invasion of the Soviet Union wasn’t a failure of intelligence.
The failure to prepare for the German invasion occurred because no one dared to tell Stalin anything that he didn’t want to hear. It was the failure of a paranoid and insecure leader, who surrounded himself only with people who agreed with him, to take credible intelligence seriously when it contradicted his preconceived notions of the world. It was the failure of a leader who didn’t want his own ambitious plans interrupted and thus chose to believe Hitler, a lying dictator and murderer, over intelligence sources. It was a failure with horrific consequences, but it was a failure of leadership, not of intelligence.

It stands as a cautionary tale of what can happen when a leader does not treat intelligence with the respect it deserves. 

Of course, one needs to distinguish between a country’s leader refusing to accept credible intelligence about an adversary because the intelligence does not support policies he wants and a country’s leader refusing to accept credible intelligence because he is in fact in the pocket of said adversary. Both pose grave dangers to the existence of a country. I leave it to you to decide which is more dangerous, and I leave it to you to decide whether this cautionary tale has any relevance today.

Don’t Miss a Thing!



  1. Gayle Lynds

    I love the way you explain the political/psychological positions of both Hitler and Stalin, and how Stalin made sure his intelligence was stove-piped to make sure he heard what he wanted to hear. Willful ignorance, and millions and millions and millions paid.

  2. Debi Huff

    What a timely blog!! It can explain a lot of what we are seeing in the world today. Thanks for your insight!

  3. Karna Bodman

    This is a great blog S. Lee – reminding us all of the brutality of Stalin and the Nazis — very informative with many details I had not studied. Thanks for posting!

  4. John Sheldon

    Thanks, Sandy – Stalin was as foolish as he was vicious

  5. S. Lee Manning

    Thanks, everyone. I came across this story when I was reading about the history of Russian intelligence services. When I started thinking about the importance of intelligence, I remembered what happened when Stalin refused to accept intelligence about Operation Barbarossa and thought it important to share.