Back in the early 1970s, Seventeen Moments of Spring became the Soviet Union’s true WW II spy blockbuster series. The main hero, Standartenfuehrer Stirliz, actually an intrepid, resourceful Soviet intelligence officer, captured everyone’s heart, ranging from housewives to CPSU General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev. Well to be expected, considering the head-spinning plot: a Soviet spy in the heart of Nazi Germany [weeks before its defeat by the Allies], having to act on his own against the still formidable government machine of the Third Reich. He played his game well, he had nerves of steel, was always a step ahead of the enemy, however subtle and experienced, and got the upper hand.
Some will immediately point out that things like that happen in the movies, never in real life. Granted. Then what was the actual status of the Soviet intelligence service prior to the Wehrmacht invasion [on June 22, 1941]? Did Moscow receive messages warning against this invasion? Does Stirliz have a prototype? The older generation remembers being repeatedly told that what happened was Nazi Germany’s surprise, treacherous attack, catching the Soviet Union completely unawares. If so, the Germans actually proved smarter than Stirlitz.
As it was, the Soviet Union had to pay a dear price for Joseph Sta-lin’s pathological self-confidence, particularly his unwavering belief that his ally, Adolf Hitler, would never order the Wehrmacht to invade the USSR in 1941. This self-confidence ended in tragedy. [In the intelligence domain] the situation looked very different. There were numerous warning messages. Hitler would eventually admit that the Soviet intelligence service was in many respects superior to that of the Third Reich, that there were Soviet spies operating on the highest echelons of power in Germany, people who had access to top-secret data, including military secrets.
But then there were Stalin’s purges that inflicted heavy losses on the Soviet army command, destroying lots of cadre, battle-hardened professionals. According to ex-Soviet spy Leopold Trepper [(1904-82), one of the organizers of the Red Orchestra (RO)], following the 1937 purges, the vacated intelligence [NKVD/Smersh] posts were filled by people picked at random. Thus, the new head of the “Center” recommended that he start by forming a “group [i.e., spy ring]… in any German city… for example, in Strasbourg.” Note that this city, even though Nazi-occupied, was still part of France. This is proof of that center’s “professional” level at the time.
Soviet intelligence officers did what would seem impossible under the circumstances. Risking their lives on a daily basis, they obtained precious information and conveyed it to the Center. The legendary Soviet spy, Richard Sorge, informed Moscow in March 1941 that Germany would invade the USSR in mid-June that year, and then radioed a coded message containing the exact date: June 22, 1941. Remarkably, his message contained verified military data, to the effect that between 170 and 190 [Wehrmacht] divisions were deployed on the eastern border, all of them being either panzer or mechanized; that the assault would be front-wide, mostly aimed at Moscow, Leningrad, and Ukraine; that the Soviet Union would be invaded first and war on it declared afterward. [Editor’s note: Sorge’s exact date of the launch of Operation Barbarossa is questioned by researchers in the West. Gordon Prange’s analysis (1984) reads that Sorge actually told Moscow the invasion would start on June 20 (he learned this from Lt.-Col. Friedrich von Schol, assistant military attache at the German embassy in Tokyo).] Not only was his information ignored, but the man was branded as traitor and his wife Yekaterina Maksimova arrested (she would die under mysterious circumstances in July 1943, in a hospital in the Krasnoyarsk Krai region of Siberia). Even though subsequent events proved Sorge right, he wasn’t rehabilitated. Japan’s secret service hunted down Sorge’s spy ring and the man was arrested [October 18, 1941, in Tokyo. – Ed.] and sentenced to death by hanging. Richard Sorge (codename: Ramsay) was executed on November 7, 1944, [at 10:20 a.m. Tokyo time, in Sugamo Prison. – Ed.] after Tokyo’s three overtures to Moscow, offering to trade Sorge for one of their own spies, each time being told that Moscow knew nothing about the man.
Needless to say, Sorge was one of the Soviet Union’s many spies operating across the world, especially in Europe. The spy rings in Europe, particularly the Red Orchestra in Germany [die Rote Kapelle, a name given it by the Gestapo], kept informing Moscow about Nazi Germany’s war preparations, supplying detailed military data (“orchestra” because in the espionage parlance a radio operator is a “pianist,” with several pianists making up an “orchestra”). The Red Orchestra did succeed in performing a symphony that was very dangerous for the Third Reich audience. RO’s Arvid Harnack was on the German Economic Ministry’s payroll as an expert. He was also one of the NKVD’s most important intelligence assets under the codename “Corsican.” Starting in late 1940, he kept informing Moscow about Berlin’s war preparations. In March 1941, he informed Moscow that Germany’s invasion of the USSR had been decided upon; that the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (the Third Reich’s supreme military command) believed the Red Army would be able to offer resistance within eight days after the invasion date, whereupon it would be finally defeated; that by occupying Ukraine, the Wehrmacht would deprive Soviet Russia of its number-one industrial base; that from then on the Wehrmacht would move eastward; that German forces would reach the Urals within 25 days; that Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union was warranted by the former’s military advantage over the latter.
Heinz Harro Max Wilhelm Georg Schulze-Boysen, an Oberleutnant (Senior Lieutenant) at Berlin’s Air Force General Headquarters, was another precious Soviet intelligence asset. A born German aristocrat, a great-nephew of Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, this man showed a singular will power and spirit, particularly when covertly fighting the Nazi system. Leopold Tripper writes in his me-moirs that, in the early 1930s, this 23-year-old aristocrat edited a magazine entitled Der Gegner (“The Opponent,” implying his rejection of Nazism). His periodical carried bold articles and there were Jews on the payroll. The ax fell after Hitler came to power. Schulze-Boysen and his Jewish friend Henry Erlanger were arrested.
Both were exposed to third degree, including cat-o’-nine-tails and running the gauntlet several times between the rows of frenzied Nazis. After that Schulze-Boysen asked for a repetition. His SS torturers were amazed but willing to comply, and then the man said: “Well, I’ve just completed my round of honor.” The Nazis present were impressed. He ended up receiving three months for having befriended Untermenschen and adopted a leftist ideology. Family connections proved effective and the young fellow was released from jail. After that his life followed a pattern germane to the milieu. No conflicts with authorities; in 1936, he married Libertas Viktoria Haas-Heye, granddaughter of Prussian diplomat Philip, Prince of Eulenburg [through his youngest daughter Viktoria]. In fact, Hermann Goering was among the closest friends of the family. He attended the wedding ceremony and after that Schulze-Boysen had no problems making a career. He was eventually assigned a post at the Reich’s Air Force Ministry.
Outwardly a dedicated, even fanatical Nazi, inwardly Schulze-Boysen remained true to his struggle against the regime. He used a pen name and continued to write features for anti-Nazi periodicals. He even ran through Berlin streets at night, pasting anti-Hitler leaflets to walls and doors. In 1939, he was recruited by the NKVD, something well to be expected, although he would collaborate with the Soviet intelligence service not for a sum of money but for an idea. The man was aware that Hitler and his administration were leading Germany to the verge of a bottomless abyss, so he was trying to do his best to save his country.
In March 1941, Schulze-Boysen [codename: Starshina] informed Moscow that the Luftwaffe General Staff was making intensive war preparations against the Soviet Union, that bombing plans were being worked out, aimed at the USSR’s major strategic targets, including Leningrad, Vyborg, and Kyiv; that the Luftwaffe HQ kept receiving photos of cities and production facilities on a regular basis; that the German military attache was reconnoitering Soviet power plants, using his car.
On April 30, 1941, Starshina (i.e., Schulze-Boysen) informed Moscow that the final decision had been made and that Germany could invade the USSR any day now; that Ribbentrop, who had opposed Germany’s war against Soviet Russia, had changed his mind, knowing Hitler’s firm resolve.
That same month Schulze-Boysen confirmed his previous intelligence, this time using a different source and relying on an analysis of documents in his possession, stressing that military collaboration between the German and Finnish air force commands was increasing, focusing on combat plans against the USSR; that the Romanian, Hungarian, and Bulgarian military headquarters were requesting quick German supplies of antitank and antiaircraft artillery in case of war against the USSR.
In May, Schulze-Boysen informed Moscow that all data concerning Germany’s impending invasion of the Soviet Union should be seriously considered on the highest level; that the issue had been finalized, and that the Wehrmacht would invade the USSR in the nearest future; that Germany would thus solve the “fascism vs. socialism” case. [Editor’s note: Hitler copied Stalin’s system, especially in terms of law enforcement agencies and death camps, so much so Stalin eventually forbade any reference to Hitler’s National Socialism — Nazism – and instructed those in charge of the Soviet propaganda machine to use “fascism,” which is historically wrong, in that the notion of fascism comes from Italy under Benito Mussolini.] He added that the Luftwaffe Headquarters was a beehive buzzing with bombing plans against the USSR being put together; that everything pointed to German’s invasion of the USSR in the nearest future; that May 20 was often mentioned by general staff officers as the invasion date, but that other officers mentioned June.
All this intelligence was shelved by the Moscow Center, simply because everyone knew how Stalin felt about it; he was sure Germany wouldn’t attack his country, not that year anyway.
Add here the data received from defectors, all those who risked their lives to inform Soviet authorities about Germany’s imminent invasion. This data was shelved as well.
It took Marshal Golikov (GRU chief, July 1940-February 1942) thirty plus years to admit: “The Soviet intelligence service learned the exact date of [Germany’s] attack on the USSR and sounded alarm bells at the right moment. This intelligence service submitted [‘upstairs’] the exact data concerning Nazi Germany’s military potential, in terms of manpower, materiel, and Wehrmacht plans of attack.”
How about the early 1940s? This man was in charge and instructed his subordinates, on March 20, 1941: “All documents relating to the allegedly imminent date of the beginning of war are to be regarded as disinformation ensuing from British, even German sources.”
Accordingly, he marked every decoded top-priority message from Richard Sorge or Schulze-Boysen as “double agent” or “British source.”
Leopold Trepper recalls meeting with Susloparov, the then Soviet military attache in France. He told him about Germany’s imminent invasion, but the man gave him a big friendly smile and told him he would, of course, convey his information. Trepper says his very attitude showed that this intelligence would be ignored because Moscow was too skeptical.
On June 21, 1941, when several sources had confirmed the invasion date — June 22, 1941 — Trepper insisted that Susloparov get in touch with Moscow, on the double, for there was still time to do something about it. Susloparov’s response was his usual broad friendly smile. Patting Trepper on the shoulder, he said, “You got it all wrong, comrade.”
In the end he did contact Moscow. His message read: “June 21, 1941. According to our resident Gilbert (whose information I distrust for the obvious reason), the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht has finished transferring troops to the Soviet border, and that tomorrow, June 22, 1941, Germany will invade the Soviet Union.” This document is in the Russian archives, along with Stalin’s handwritten note: “This information is a British provocation. Locate the author and punish him.”
Getting ahead of this story, practically all Soviet spies were located and punished, considering that the Red Orchestra alone had transmitted some 1,500 messages in 1940-43. They were first hunted down by the Gestapo when some 130 persons involved in and with the Red Orchestra were arrested. Seventy-five were executed, but the survivals would be finished by Smersh.
Leopold Trepper, after going though the living hell of Gestapo interrogations, found himself in a Lubyanka prison cell, followed by Lefortovo and others, serving a total of 10 years behind barbed wire. Returning home, Trepper was confronted by his son who told him, “In our country no one serves a ten-year term without reason.” The boy regarded him as another “enemy of the people.” Small wonder, considering Pavlik Morozov [a boy who told Soviet authorities about his parents hiding grain during the grain requisitioning campaign, whereupon they were executed and the boy was proclaimed a national hero. – Ed.] and such stuff being hammered into the heads of the Soviet masses by the propaganda machine.
As it was, the NKVD prepared a thick folder for Stalin to consider, which Vsevolod Merkulov, the then head of the Foreign Intelligence Department, shelved, knowing Sta-lin’s unreasonably aggressive attitude to this kind of intelligence and fearing the consequences for himself.
In fact, Stalin wrote across one of the urgent messages from a spy ring in Berlin about Germany’s imminent invasion of the USSR, dated June 16, 1941, that whoever said this should have that message shoved up his ass. Ditto his attitude to the messages from Richard Sorge. During a conversation with Tymoshenko and Zhukov (June 1941, with literally days left before the launch of Operation Barbarossa), Stalin said: “There’s this bastard who’s set up factories and brothels in Japan and even deigned to report the date of the German attack as June 22. Are you suggesting I should believe him too?” As a result, some of Sorge’s top priority messages remained un-attended for weeks.
Anastas Mikoyan, the ever-surviving Politburo member (1922-66), one of few of Stalin’s close milieu, recalls a unique case dating back to May 1941, when the German Ambassador, Friedrich-Werner Graf von der Schulenburg, shared lunch with Stalin and made it clear to him, with the interpreter present, that Germany was planning to invade the Soviet Union. A unique situation, indeed, considering that the German embassy’s counselor Gustav Hilger was also present. Hilger would write in his memoirs that Schulenburg was obviously very nervous, that he, as a battle-hardened diplomat, must have waged a battle with himself before making this move, knowing that his head was literally on the block. Mikoyan’s memoirs read that discussing the possibility of Germany’s imminent attack in the spring, and especially in the early summer of 1941, referring to intelligence, was useless because he would angrily, even menacingly, cut short any such discussion.
And then it became clear that all those intrepid intelligence sources had been right and only one man was wrong. What happened next? Nothing. Back in the 19th century a political leader proven wrong on such a dramatically large scope would shoot himself, out of shame. Stalin never did, for he had been raised in a different manner. He simply told himself: shove it.
The lives of all residents took a tragic turn. After Richard Sorge’s execution, the Gestapo hunted down and executed the Corsican and Starshina, along with his wife. The Red Orchestra Gestapo file numbers 75 persons executed. After June 22, 1941, Stalin would never acknowledge his mistake that had cost millions of lives, with Red Army soldiers being ordered to advance, with one rifle for five men, hurling Molotov cocktails at German tanks, dying surrendered by Wehrmacht troops or in concentration camps.
A very dear price to pay for one’s self-confidence proved wrong.
Kostiantyn Nikitenko holds a Ph.D. in history and lives in Lviv