Stalin’s Secret War: Soviet Counterintelligence Against the Nazis, 1941-45

It is only recently that Western historians have been able to render more or less full accounts of the Eastern Front, the decisive front in World War II. Only after Soviet historiography and archives opened up to some degree did it become possible to go beyond self-serving German and Soviet accounts of the war that were as notable for their distortions and omissions as they were for their information. But they were not alone in these offenses against Clio. Western historiography too showed an unwarranted tendency to play down the epic drama of this front which, in Churchill’s words, “Tore the guts out of the German Army.” This omission in our historiography led to a neglect of the lessons to be learned as well as an unmerited depreciation of the front’s strategic significance.

Robert Stephan’s book is one of the many that have come out in the last decade or so to fully rectify this omission. While we have had an enormous outpouring of literature on the intelligence war in the West, we have had very little on the dimensions of this aspect of the war in the East. And if one wants to see what information warfare really looks like, with deception operations materially contributing to operational success on the battlefield, or if one wants to understand the strategic importance of intelligence, the Eastern Front is the place to look. As Stephan points out, this front was host to the most brutal war in history. Apart from an unparalleled brutality of combat operations, most of the Holocaust happened here, taking place in what the French historian and ex-communist Boris Souvarine rightly called a counterintelligence state. And this unremitting investment in intelligence and counterintelligence paid off for the Soviet Union during the war, notwithstanding Stalin’s catastrophic disregard for intelligence in the period 1939-41.
Stephan’s work, deeply researched from sources on both sides and punctuated by his own experience as a CIA employee, recounts the Soviets’ attention to the importance of intelligence and counterintelligence, their growing ability to use these tools effectively in the conduct of combat and deception operations, and the penalties that the Germans incurred because of their blithe disregard for both forms of secret operations. Not surprisingly, the German invasion of Russia was in itself an act of staggering disregard for intelligence, and this hubris was only compounded by the incompetence, schisms, and insouciance of German spymasters. It is also safe to say that in a real sense the Nazi high command did not know what it was doing in Russia or against whom it was fighting until it was far too late. Moreover, the importance of this dimension of the war is brought home to the reader in the recounting of individual operations and in the author’s equally masterful depiction of the general climate and modus operandi of Soviet counterintelligence actions.

For once the encomiums on the back of a book are correct. This will be an indispensable account of this dimension of the war on the Eastern Front, and a valuable primer for all those who wish to understand how to conduct intelligence and counterintelligence operations. Needless to say this topic is of immense relevance to American forces and intelligence agencies today, and Stephan’s story is not just bygone history. In any account of the Eastern Front of World War II and of intelligence operations, this book deserves a very honorable mention.

Reviewed by Dr. Stephen Blank, Professor of National Security Studies, Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College.

COPYRIGHT 2005 U.S. Army War College
COPYRIGHT 2005 Gale Group

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