Stalin Was Not Surprised by Preemptive German Strike in 1941

Interview of Sergio Beria

Sergo Beria is the son of Lavrenty Beria, chief of the notorious NKVD, the Soviet secret police. Growing up he was privy to many high-level conversations his father had with Stalin, Molotov, and countless other important Soviet figures. As a young man he worked as a spy for Stalin at the Tehran and Yalta conferences. The “Cold War” production team spoke with Beria in October 1996. The following are translated excerpts from his interview.

On why Stalin signed a neutrality pact with Nazi Germany at the start of World War II:

[Stalin] often visited us at home, and he said, “We have to win time, if only two years. Only with this amount of time would the Soviet Union be ready … to defend itself against Germany.” I heard conversations like this many times with Molotov and my father. …

That the Western countries might let us down in some measure — this was Molotov’s opinion. [He believed] there might be a kind of Western alliance with Germany, whereby Germany could invade us and the Western countries wouldn’t help directly, but would find all kinds of ways to urge Germany on.

On Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union:

It wasn’t unexpected, because in the year before the war began, we got the documents from Germany about the Barbarossa plan, the main directions of the invasion, what the troops would look like, how many divisions would take part in this war. …

[But] to say honestly, our army wasn’t ready to meet the German troops, because our army didn’t understand fully what this war would be like. Later on, a lot of military people wrote that this war was unexpected for them, but those are only fairy tales, because this war wasn’t unexpected. [Soviet Generals] Zhukov and Timoshenko were in the Kremlin from 4 p.m. on that day. They tried to give good orders; [but] later on they lied when they said this war was unexpected.

On the Tehran Conference:

When they chose the place where the Tehran Conference would be held, first of all they wanted to hold this conference in Casablanca. Our specialists went there, but it was known that in comparison with Iran, the Soviet side had no spies there, no network of spies in Africa. Whereas in Tehran we had a lot of agents and a wide network of spies.

[At the conference] Stalin’s assistant came and took us to him, one at a time. Stalin told me that the task he was putting to our group, and particularly to me, was ethically very unattractive but the position of the U.S.S.R. was so serious that he had to know what [the other Allies] were thinking. … My personal obligation was to listen to and record everything connected with Roosevelt and those close to him, to decode the recordings, and to report all this information direct to Stalin personally.

After that, every day in the morning at about 8 a.m., I had to come to Stalin with all the information written in English and in Russian too, and he asked me very detailed questions about Roosevelt’s conversations, sometimes for as long as an hour or two. Sometimes he was interested in how Roosevelt said something — even what his intonation was, what the concealed meaning was, things like that.

When I finished reporting, I saw a great amount of paperwork on his desk which was connected to the questions he was dealing with. That is, he prepared for each conversation like a lecturer prepares for a lecture: with archive documents, intelligence reports, army reports, etc., and with a complete list of the conversations held around the conference. Of course, he was far better prepared … than the Allies, because he knew in advance, for instance, all the things that Churchill wanted to do to spite the Americans — a whole lot of interesting things.

On how Soviet intelligence eavesdropped on the Allies at Tehran:

Although the Americans and the English had equipment for finding microphones and bugging devices, they didn’t once manage to find our bugging equipment. They assumed they were being listened to, but they didn’t have any real proof. They didn’t find any equipment at the Tehran Conference.

Often people close to Roosevelt warned him to bear in mind that these things existed: that in all probability he was being listened to. … But from what I heard, and from later conversations I had after the conference, I got the impression that sometimes Roosevelt quite simply said things he couldn’t say to Stalin officially. That he conveyed a whole lot of information to him which it was impossible to convey at a state level.

He said once that he was for the destruction of the British Empire. In Yalta, later on, he said this once again. But the first time he mentioned the colonial empires was in Tehran. Officially, this theme wasn’t discussed; but sometimes in the talks with his generals, with the people who surrounded him, with some of his coordinators, he talked much about the British Empire, about its colonies. But he said these things only in order to be heard, to be listened to, to give this information to the Soviet side.

On Soviet eavesdropping at Yalta:

I used to see Roosevelt and Churchill during their walks. … When the weather was bad Roosevelt was wheeled in his chair and Churchill walked next to him, usually, and they always talked very intensively. And as we already had a system for directing the microphones to a distance of 50 to 100 meters to listen, as there was no background noise, everything was quiet, all these conversations recorded very well, and later on were translated and processed.

And then we wrote up all this information and reported [it]. Only later on did I come to know that some people in the American delegation were working for the Soviet Government. For example, [one of our spies] was not only accompanying Roosevelt, he was a member of the delegation; that was very important, and he gave his information to us, too. And we got some people among the English delegation also. But here, during the Yalta Conference, Roosevelt spoke against the English state directly, openly.

On FDR’s view of the Soviet Union:

There were a lot of people around Roosevelt who did not agree with his attitude toward the Soviet Union. Roosevelt told them very strictly, very angrily, that they had to help the Soviet Union economically, and they must make the Soviet Union a friend of America. He thought that the main direction of the American economy must be directed to the destruction of the British Empire, and he wanted to have the British colonies for America. Later on, I read a lot of things about the financial minister, Morgenthau, and I read that even in Yalta he wanted to organize very big loans [for the Soviet Union], for about $10 million to $15 million.

On the Potsdam conference:

Before this conference, I heard from my father that the Americans at that time were trying to change their policy, their attitude toward the Soviet Union. … My father often told me that Stalin didn’t worry about that, because he decided to change the policy of the Soviet Union in Europe. … Stalin thought at that time that the Soviet Union was strong enough, and its army was strong enough, and that’s why he wasn’t afraid of this [new U.S.] policy. He didn’t understand why the Western countries didn’t understand that.

Stalin knew that the Americans worked hard to do research on the atomic bomb. A lot of scientists in the Soviet Union were trying to do scientific research, but of course at that time we were behind America because of our technical possibilities. But they felt that very soon the Soviet Union would get the atomic bomb too. We understood at that time that Truman tried to gain time: he tried to delay this conference because he wanted to come to the conference with the atomic bomb already tested, to be able to say that we were at the beginning of a new political phase. That’s what they came to Potsdam with.

And what impressed me most of all there? Truman was waiting for the report that the bomb had been tested. And at the same time, my father and Truman received the telegrams about these tests of the atomic bomb. This information was given to Stalin, but Stalin said, “We must wait.” He was waiting [to hear] how Truman would explain this, and how he would act. The reaction of Truman came very soon.

First this theatrical moment was staged: [it was] as if [only] incidentally Stalin was told about a kind of “super bomb.” Afterwards he laughed, and said that he had pretended that he hadn’t understood what it was about at all, and that he had congratulated them on the new bomb. In Churchill’s memoirs, which I’ve read, he writes that they were quite astonished that [Stalin] hadn’t grasped this business. And that hence they had had a great deal of amusement at our expense.

On Stalin’s increasingly aggressive policies:

The war in Korea broke out on Stalin’s initiative. … He was of the opinion that on the basis of the communist development, we must organize small local wars in different places of the world.

It was begun in Greece, then in China, then in Vietnam, and finally in Korea. That is one of the examples of these local wars. In two weeks, the Soviet troops managed to fight; they were very good. And at that time, Stalin wanted the Soviet troops to fight with rockets. … Stalin wanted the Soviet fleet to destroy three or four American military ships; and they told Stalin that after that, the American side would fight with the atomic bomb. Stalin wasn’t afraid of this atomic bomb; he said, “Then we’ll give our atomic bomb, too.”

During all the sittings of his government, he said that the Third World War would take place, and that this war had to take place during his life. That’s why the military industry in the Soviet Union was very much developed at that time. We got a lot of tanks and rockets and ships, and I think that if Stalin had lived five years longer, we would have had this Third World War.

Stalin had … plans [to use the nuclear bomb in Korea] and my father was very much afraid of these plans. … My father was even against the preparation of this bomb, and he understood that if the Soviet Union got this bomb, nothing would be able to stop Stalin in his wish to conquer the whole world.

Of course, a lot of people understood that Stalin had such dangerous plans and that they must do their best in order to stop him and his plans. But Stalin was very clever, and he understood everything. He felt all these spirits of people who surrounded him. When he felt that somebody was dangerous for him, he immediately killed them. He protected himself from the enemies, and it was very simple for him to do this. And if he hadn’t died in 1953, it seems to me that he would have killed all the members of the Politburo. Bulganin, Malenkov, Khrushchev and my father would have been killed — I am sure of this fact.

On his impressions of Stalin:

When I was a child, I had the same impression as my father: I thought he was a god. But when I was older and I could have my own opinion … I can’t say I criticized him, because he was a very big person, he was an unusual person, and for an ordinary person it was not allowed to speak about him, to criticize him. Because I say once more that he was not an ordinary man. He did much more than Churchill or Roosevelt. You can’t compare him even with these people — he was much higher, and he had a very big force; and sometimes I thought maybe that is the force of the devil.

[He] had very great charm and could be very sympathetic to the people. … When he wanted to win [over] people, he could do it very easily. I was a friend of his daughter, Svetlana. He used to come to us, and I used to go to their house. … And when I came to Stalin’s house, Stalin asked us what we were reading at that time, for example, and he offered us some books and asked us about our impressions, what we thought about these books. He told my mother that I hadn’t read “Germinal,” by Zola, for example. So I can say he was attentive to us, to his daughter and to me, and we were very much impressed that such a big person, such a big politician could find some minutes for us.

He had a very big sense of humor; he knew a lot of very humorous stories, and he often told them. But of course, there was another side to his character. He had no heart. If somebody stood in his way or had a different opinion than his own, he destroyed them, even if they were his relatives or his close friends. He destroyed everybody. When Svetlana, his daughter, was 16 years old, their relations got worse, and Stalin said he didn’t trust his daughter. That’s why he spoiled his relationship with his daughter.

At the end of 1939, or in 1940, thousands of Poles were killed, and I know who was the initiator of this deed. My father refused to take part in this action, and [Soviet foreign affairs committee president] Zhdanov wanted to throw my father out of the government. Zhdanov wanted to be the minister of interior affairs. But Stalin wanted first to kill Trotsky, to throw out Trotsky, and only then my father. Stalin agreed to allow my father not to take part in this action. Later on, my father tried to explain his position: he said that it was not because he loved people very much and he was altruistic, but he said that this was on the eve of the war, and that’s why we must save all these people and make them fight against the Germans. And when I saw that in one minute it can be decided that thousands of people would be killed, I got a shock, and I thought that Stalin had no heart.

Source: CNN Interactive

3 thoughts on “Stalin Was Not Surprised by Preemptive German Strike in 1941”

  1. As I puzzle the umpteen conundrums and tangled interests, I cant help but share a fantasy. Wouldn’t it be great if there was an additional mode to Google Earth called Google History? I imagine a little slide bar over to the right that is incremental by date. The user just pulls the date back to when they are curious about and the view and information tags change correspondingly.

    While we are waiting for Apple to pay its 59 billion in taxes its dodging in offshore accounts …yeah there are funds for this, yes its needed, and its doable. All the google scanned books could be integrated. Lots of jobs there. It would be a worthy task for the people of earth and in Information Technology terms equivalent to a World Wonder.

    Just imagine a few generations after a tool like this existed, what better decisions could be made. Politicians would find less wiggle room in the popularity contest to ignore precedent. The average citizen attending community meetings with Google History pulled up on their phones. Timelines, photos, scans of primary source, references to historical opinion, all there waiting to vett the knowledge of leadership.

    But alas, the Bystander’s wings are burning……he falls….again, back into this heavy veil of tears. Hope. Glimpsed even in desperation, is a momentary respite.

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