The Intelligence Blunder of Barbarossa

  • Posted on: 14 June 2014

Case Study

Operation Barbarossa is the codename given to the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 (LEVY & Joseph 2009). The operation was named after the medieval German Emperor Fredrick Barbarossa (Red Beard) (Gantz, 2001). Hitler authorized the invasion of the USSR on December 18, 1940 and the original date set for the attack was May 15, 1941 (Stahel, 2009). The scale of the planned operation was unprecedented in human history and on June 22 at 3 am approximately 3,000.000 men marched across the Soviet frontier. The Red Army suffered dramatic losses and the bulk of the Soviet air force was destroyed while still on the ground. Numerous related intelligence reports had been available to Stalin prior to the attack, but that notwithstanding, the Wehrmacht found the Soviets totally unprepared and Hitler’s forces were able to affect a complete strategic surprise (LEVY & Joseph 2009). This is, undoubtedly, one of the pivotal events of the last century, as it transformed World War II, which was the main element leading to the Cold War and the Soviet domination of Eastern Europe for half a century. How did the “ruthless Realpolitiker” that trusted no one, ignore a suspicious and conspicuous German military buildup on his borders for a whole year, in addition to apparently disregarding more than 80 credible intelligence warnings about the imminent threat?


The ideologies of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union were fundamentally contradictory. From the beginning of his rise to power, Hitler had never concealed his loathing for communism. As early as 1925, in Mein Kampf, Hitler had suggested an invasion of the Soviet Union stating that the Germans needed lebensraum or “living space”. He saw Germans as superior to the Untermensch (Slavs), whom he claimed were ruled by their “Jewish Bolshevik” masters (Glantz 2001). For Stalin, on the other hand, Fascism was the worst manifestation of the Western capitalist world that he intended to destroy. Both Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin were ruthless dictators and both had aspirations of gaining more land and spheres of influence for themselves and their countries. Despite this, Hitler and Stalin entered into the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact on August 31st, 1939 (Stahel 2009). This non-aggression treaty between them, which included an agreement to divide up Poland, ultimately led to Germany’s invasion of Poland and an end of the Anglo-French policy of appeasement. In September 1939, France and the United Kingdom declared on Germany.

Stalin was convinced that a confrontation with Germany was inevitable, but in 1940 a trade pact between the two nations led to exchanges of German manufactured goods for Russian oil and wheat Star Media (2013). Stalin felt that this cooperation would stave off Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union long enough for him to prepare for war. In fact, the last trains carrying Russian goods to Germany left shortly before the start of war on the eastern front.

Pre-emptive action:

Suvorov (1990), a former Soviet staff officer, argues that the Nazi attack on the Soviet Union was a pre-emptive action based on German assumptions that the Soviets planed an attack on them. His theory is based on an understanding of the Red Army’s strategic doctrine, which avoided defense in favor of offense. Moreover Viktor, in support of this theory, refers to the military buildup of the Red Army on the border of German- controlled territory in 1941. This claim has been a main element in German justification for a necessary, preventive war, along with the claim that German had a duty to recover the three independent Baltic states and the areas of Finland lost to the Soviets in the Winter War, 1939-1940. Gabriel Gorodetsky, (1997) counter argues that the buildup of Soviet troops on the borders was more of “a demonstration of force” than a preparation for an actual attack, and that Stalin considered the peace period after the pact with Hitler as an opportunity to build Soviet military capabilities.


David Murphy, a retired CIA officer, examined the intelligence received by Joseph Stalin on these issues, presenting them in his book “What Stalin Knew: The Enigma of Barbarossa”, and included two letters that were sent from Hitler to reassure Stalin that the Nazi military buildup in Eastern Europe, was a matter of protection from the British. The Führer added “on my honor as a head of state the Soviet Union will not be attacked by the Germans” (Murphy, p.258).

Stalin was firmly convinced that Hitler would not attack the Soviet Union until he had pacified the United Kingdom in the West (Bar-Joseph & Levy, 2009). This was a case of Stalin looking at the situation from his point of view and not from Hitler’s. In fact, Hitler felt that the possibility of the Soviet Union entering the war was giving the United Kingdom hope. If that hope was removed, he believed, then the British would be forced to negotiate with the Nazis (Star Media, 2013). Stalin underestimated Hitler’s capability to conduct a war on two fronts, and this led him to discount the possibility of a German invasion of the Soviet Union at that time. There was a “received wisdom” that the Germans had learned from the two front mistakes of the First World War and would not readily repeat them (Wieczynski, 1993).

Stalin believed that he would have several years to develop the Red Army, and this conclusion led him to make incorrect decisions such as to continue to plan for an offensive war rather than preparing an adequate defense. The State Defense Plan 1941, ordered by Stalin and prepared by the Chief of the General Staff, Martial Zhukov, reflected that assumption (Glantz, 2001). The facts that Hitler ordered many of his tanks to remain in the west until just prior to the invasion and that the Germans simulating preparations for the invasion of England (Operation Sea Lion) and Norway, only strengthened Stalin’s belief that Germany was neither in a position, nor had the desire, to launch an attack .

Intelligence to Please

The purpose of intelligence is to provide decision makers with the information and analysis upon which effective judgments and decisions can be made. However, it must be evidence-based and not produced to pander to the “policy preferences of political leaders” (Bar-Joseph & Levy, 2009, p.476) ,as Lowenthal (2011) explains; Intelligence officers and policy makers have different interests. Stalin did not suffer from a shortage of information; in fact, his problem was quite the opposite. Stalin faced a similar dilemma that the Americans did later, prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor, with a massive amount of conflicting data to consider. Much valuable intelligence was also lost in the Soviet bureaucratic system.

When the original dates for the launching of Barbarossa came and went, it became difficult for Stalin to differentiate between what intelligence constituted “signals” and what was just “noise” (Wieczynski, 1993). Afterwards, Stalin chose to ignore certain intelligence because of prior false warnings about the date of the planned invasion. This created an intelligence blunder described by Loch, (2007, p 74) as “crying wolf”. It is known that the Germans worked assiduously to confuse Russian intelligence agents and this may have been a factor in convincing Stalin of the unreliability of the initial intelligence reports he received. That notwithstanding, the culture of fear induced by Stalin was a major factor in the minds of intelligence agents when preparing reports subsequently. 
To understand the effect of decisions made by Stalin, Murphy presents the underlying culture of the Soviet Intelligence Community at that time, through an analysis of the careers of several officials. When Pavel Fitin, a foreign intelligence chief at NKVD, passed his agents reports on plans for Barbarossa right up to the attack, he was disgraced. A more dramatic case was Ivan Proskurov’s, who was the head of military intelligence in 1940, when he reported to Stalin what he believed was the truth, regardless of what Stalin wanted to hear, he was shot in October 1941. Filipp I. Golikov, Proskurov’s successor, learned from his predecessor’s fatal mistake and ensured that he only reported intelligence that met Stalin’s preconceptions. As a result he had a successful career under Stalin. Later in 1965 Golikov told a Soviet writer “I admit I distorted intelligence to please Stalin because I feared him”. (Murphy 2008, p.249).

This confirms the fact that at that time not many would dare to contradict Stalin (Star Media, 2013). Stalin had famously purged his military forces of high-ranking officers prior to World War II, leaving the army without the leadership it needed (Wieczynski, 1993). 
Other high ranking sources who provided Stalin with warnings, only fed his already inflamed conspiratorial frame of mind. As he had no strong reasons to trust warnings coming from the German ambassador to Moscow, Graf von der Schulenberg, Churchill or Roosevelt, he simply ignored them (Steury, 2005).


Stalin was provided with not only broad strategic warnings about Hitler’s intentions to invade the Soviet Union, but he also possessed very detailed warnings about the tactics to be utilized and where and when the invasion would begin. It has been suggested that the Soviets received no less than 84 different warnings regarding a German attack. However, Stalin bought into the “ultimatum hypothesis”, which stated that Germany would try to pressurize Moscow into concessions before launching an attack (Whaley, 1973).

The official Soviet History of the events has been revised several times with varying degrees of responsibility attributed to Stalin and other key figures. Khrushchev, in his famous “secret speech” to the Communist Party in 1956, used the failure to prepare adequately for an invasion to discredit Stalin (Levite, 1987). However, some feel that Stalin has been made a scapegoat for larger systemic failures in the Soviet system (Wieczynski, 1993). In the classical sense of strategic surprise, Operation Barbarossa was not a “surprise” in the sense of whether or where Germany would strike, but rather the question was when and how. This intelligence failure did not occur in the collection, processing, analysis or dissemination phases of the intelligence cycle, but in the way that the intelligence was presented to Stalin. Senior officials, in fear of their lives, in the end, only gave him information that confirmed his own prejudices. His personal interpretation of the situation, based on inaccurate reports, led to him making a flawed analysis of Hitler’s intentions.



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