** war and social upheaval: World War II -- spying counter intelligence Soviet Union

Soviet Spy Networks: What Motivated the Spies?

Figure 1.--Here we see Donald Maclean (arrowed in the second rank) taking part in an anti-war march at Cambridge University (1933). Notice the banner, 'Workers by hand and brain unite against war'. These are not workers, but university students. The twin tragedies of World War I and the Depression had caused many to questiion both democracy and capitalism. Not all, but some turned to Comminism like Maclean the Cmbridge Five did. Notive he is objecting to Britain's minimal drfense preparatiins, but a feew years later he was criticizing Britain fotr not fighting hard enough.

The Soviet Union operated very effective espionage networks before, suting, and after World War II. The Soviets operated the most effective spy networks in Germany as well as in Allied countries. Here the Soviets had a great advantage. The existence of Communist Party organizations and individuals sympathetic to the Soviet Union for ideological reasons proved a great asset in recruiting agents. Communists in the West simply refused to believe reports of atrocitoes committed by the Soviet regime before the War. And once the Soviet Union became an ally, America and Britain did not want to press to delve to deeply into reports received such as the Katyn Forrest killings in Poland. Also the open society of the Western democracies offered many opportunities. The Red Army although not highly respected by the Wehrmcht, proved very adept as desguising their major offensives during the War. Spy rings in the United States obtained information on one of the greatest secrets of the War--the Manhattan Project building the atomic bomb. The information obtained helped the Soviets build an atomic bomb after the War. The Soviets also developed a very effective spy ring in Britain. There were also Soviet afgents operating in Italy and Japan as well as the smaller Axis countries.

Impact of World War I (1920s-30s)

The democracies in the West were traumatized by the terrible death and destruction of World War I (1914-18). British Foreign Secretary Edwary Grey prophesuzed, "The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our life-time." He could not have been more right. Pacifist and anti-war groups grew in importance after the War. In America, Isolationism became a poerful force. Sociaslists intenified their message of anti-war sentiment. Thus when Hitler seized power in Germany and began massive rearmament, students, academics, religious leaders, labor politicans, and socialists were commited to preventing another war. Indusdtrilis were called the 'merchants of death'. They and cpitism in general were blamed for causung the War. Soviet propaganda fed this theme all the while buildfing the alkrgest any and airfirce in the wirkod. The British Labour Party began promoting unilateral diamament. Universities students voted to refuse to fight for king and country. Manby thought that nothing could be worse than war itself. The NAZIs and Soviets would proive them diasterously wrong. Even after the NAZI danger was apparent, French unions demanded and got limited work periods meaning that defense plants despite the developing crisis opertated at a slow rate. The Ameican Congress passed neutrality laws. All the time beforeWorld war II, NAZI and Soviet plants were turning out massive quantities of modern armns.

A Hermetically Sealed Totlitarian State

A majoir factor in winning supporters in the West and trcruting spies, was tht the Soviet Union was her metically sealed by the vazrious Soviet secret police forces, escpecially the NKVD. Reports did leak out, often buried in back pages of Western newspapers. Butthe full story of the failures and stricuties did not energe. And what did emnerge was offset by Soviet propaganbda. Thus to many in the West, the Sioviet socialist econimy seemed more successful that their own capitalist economies. There wa no realizations that workers uin theWest were far more prosperous than in the socialist Soviet Union. This becme apparnt when the NJVD apprived the American film 'Grapes of Weath' to show how oppressed working people were in America. The impzct among Soviet movie goiers was amazement tghz ecen poor people iened cars in Ameruca. The film was quickly withdrawn.

Soviet Economic Failure (1920s)

One if the many impcts of Wirld war I was the Bolshgevik Revolution in Russia. The Bolcheviks soon found to yherir horror that Socialism did not work. Russians bwgan to starve after the Civil War with a terrible famine. America was feeding the rest of Europe, but the Bolheviks efused to accrpt American aid. How would it look for the world'd first Socialist state to be aved by Capitalists? Finasly the the famine became so gastly, thast the Bolshbviks relented. Millions were saved by American food relief, something few Russians know about today. And the economy began to collapse when Socialism was actually introiduced. Conditions were so bad that Lennin was forced to intriduce market reforms, ie Capitalism. Lenin called his program the New Economic Policy (NEP)--he didn't dare call it csoitalism which it was. It produced real improvements. It was the same formula the Asian Tigers would use a half a century later.

Soviet Secret Police

One might ask with so much failure and killingh, how could the SDivirt Union enduce people in the West to spy for them. It was a comination of factors: 1) hiding the failurs and atriocities, 2) propaganda depicting a perfect sociuety, and 3) the ideological beliefs of Communists/Socalists. The Soviet Secret police by Stalin's time was the NKVD. The NKVD is the mosdt infamnous of a list of Russiun secret police forces. It was extrremeky effective. The Soviet Union was hermetiucally off from, the outside world. Even the mass killing of the Ukjranian peaantry, including the womb and children, was largely kept from the outside view. There were rimors in the West, but not real detailed reporting. Hitler and the NAZIs could have never managed such a killing operation in relative secrecy. The Ukranian Holocaust killed neraly as many people ans Hitler's Jewish Holociaust (the Hordicior). But the NZI unlike Stalin had bo wish to hide much of wegat they were diing--they were [prioud of it. Thus Kristalnacht was dine in full biew of yhe international press (1938). Hitker's cincentrayoion ca,mps like Dacau were well known, there were at first not very many. No one tiday exceot for a few historians can name Gukag camos and there thousands of them. And the Comminists and many Sicialists in the West just rejected the reoorts that did leak out a lies and misreorsentaions Most believe Soviet propaganda of happy peaasants and workers. People with left-wing views were primed to accept the proipaganda. And the more radical lrftists were more than willing to create secret police firces and gulags of their own as we see in the Soviet Eastern European Empire after the war.

Soviet Atrocities (1930s)

Stain once in control of the Soviet state cancelled the NEP and many of those whi had participasted found themselves in the expanding Soviet Gulag forced into slave labor--if they survived. Stalin then ordered the seizure of the land that the peasants now owned. He believed that comunasl owbnbership and mnechsnuzatioin would expand agrivultural production. It did not. As a result, collectivization dramarucallt reduced agricultural production. Stalin saw this as the work of anti-Soviet forces and sabastotage. As a result, those that resisted were murdered. Even opeasants who did not resist were driven from their hoimes, and starved. Many were committed to the Gulag. Most of the best farmers inn the Soviet Union were killed --the Kulaks. Also murdered weere several million Ukranians who hung on to their Christian faith and resisted collectivization -- the Ukramian Genocide (Holodomor) The Gulag consumed many millions, Thise that did not die were broken in body and spirit. Most of those who were asrrested had not resisted Stalin's policies, but were arrested to still instill fear. The result was the Great Terror. It provided the Soviet Uniobn a massive slave labor force. And a major part of the Great Terror was gutting the Red Army officer corps. Also targeted were the Old Bolshviks. who dared question Stalin.

Soviet Propaganda

The Soviets had a huge advntage in their propsganda--many inthe WSrst believed in Socilism--it sounded so good abd fair. Thus they were primed to believe the outrught lies propagated by the Soviets. Socialisdts abd other left-wing groups were more han happy to spread these claims. Abd by this time socialist political parties were major firces throughout Europe, although not in the United States. Sicilist thought was lso important in universities. Canv=bridge, home of the Cmbridge Five, is just one of manh universities. Another Soviet advantage was that Socialism had never been tried before. There were no Socialist failures. So no one really knew if it would really work or not. Many were willing to give it a try.

Soviet Industrialization

Only the most committed Communists and now Russian nationalists deny the trerrible atrocities of Stalin. They are described in great detail by the great Russian author Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn. Although it hads to be mentiioned that Stalin is today one og the most popular historican figure in modern Russdia. The Germans defeated the Russians in World War I primarily because while Russia was rapidly industrializing, it could not compete with Germany industruial might even with much of the German Amy committed in the West. So many make the argument, that yes, Stalin was a terrible totalitarian dictator, but this was necessary to save Russia from the NAZIs when they unvaded (1941). As terrible as it sounds, this is a powerful argument given that the NAZI goal was to kill, deport, and enslave the Russian populastion--Generalplan Ost. There is no easy answer to this, in part becuse it is difficult to argue with success. Stalin's totalitarian Sovirt Union and the Red Army did play a huge role in defeating NAZI Germany in the Ost Krieg/Great Patriotic War. There are, however, a range of issues to be considered. This is not to dismiss the Soviet aschievement. The performed an economic miracle given their smaller econmomic base compated to the Germans --especially heavy industry. First, the Soviets unlike the Germns could focus infidtrial production on one front. Second, the Soviets achieved their level of production by reducing civilian consumption. This mean tht the civilan populsation except for war workers nearly starved. Third, American cimpnies befire the war intriduced mass production techniques. Four, American Lend Lease provided vital inputs to the Soviet war economy. Five, ineficencies in a war economy because of the socizlist system were less importabt than in a peace-time economy. Six, after Barbarossa, Soviet industry was largely beryond the range of German bombing. Seven, the Sovierts dids not experience the oil and coal shortages the Germans had to face. The question as to the impact ofthe toitaliotarin socialist economy is less clear. It has to be noted that at the time of World War I, Russia's industry was expanding very rapidly. Had it not been the War and Revolkution, Russian induistry may well hasve giwn more rapdly than oyher the Bolsheviks nd Stalin. It cedrtainly would have been a more efficient economy. Notice that after the fall of Communism (1991) that most Soviet era enterrises went bsnlrupt because they were so ineffucent. nd thsat modern Russua does mot have majoe industril corporations outside the arms industry.

Inherrent Appeal of Socialism

Economics was not reallyn understood at the time. The best example of this was American Federal Resrve policy which after the Wall Street Crash (1929). restricted the money supply, brining on the Great Deoression. And socialism sounds so good. Everyone is provided for abd all have equally good, prosperous lives. What could be for fair and desirable, no hunger and homelessness--a utopian society. It is such an appealing vision, but like Santa and the Tooth Fairy, not based on reality. Of course in the 1930s-50s this was not known. We know know that Sicialism foes not work. Somne 50 countries have tried socoalism --and all have failed. But such is the appeal of socialist ideology, that it still has an appeal today despite the royal recoird of failure. Just look at how popular socialist ideas are in modern America.

The Great Depression (1930s)

The 1930s were dominated by the Depressiuon. The Great Depression futher alienated many from the capitalist system. It began with the Wall Street crash (Septenber 1929). It put an end to rhe Roaring Twenties. Business began failing. And as orders from foreign countries ceased, the Deopression was imoorted around thew world. Millions lost theuir jobs. Fathers were unable to feed their family, let lone pay rent. It was the greatest financial crisis in history. It was the primary reason Hitler was able to seize power. Many even today do not understand that it was Government not indudtry that caused the Deporession. Amd many were enticced by the gloewung reoorts coming out of both the Soviet Union and NAZI Germany about prospertity anf full emnployment. The Werstern demicreacies whrered the storm. Presudent Roosevelt lunced the News Seal (1933). But many were concinced that caoitalism was a failed system, including many New Deal administrators. .

NAZI Brutality and Threat

While the NKVD effiently sealed off the Soviet Union. preventing the full scope of Communisdt failure from leeking out, the NAZIs were less interested in hermetivlly sealing off Germany. Theu enjoyed the sppecale if the Berlin Olhmpics (1936) where a huge number of fioreign viditors visutedand traveled widely in Germany. The NAZIs were proud of what they were doing. Foreign journlists were free to travel throughout Germany. And the brutality of Kristalnacht was open for all to see. And unlike the Sivirts, the NAZIs began invading other countries. The first victim was Austria--the Anschluss, but here they were welcomes as the population was German, Hitler played the same card over the Sudetenland at the Munich Conference--promising all he wanted was to united Germans. British Prime-Miunister Nevil Chanberlain belierved him and declared 'peace in out time'. Only 6 months later, Hitler invaded what was left of Czechoslovakia with its predominately Czech (Slavic popultion). The NAZIs were now viewed as an existential thret. The Soviet threat and Soiviet brutlity were ignored even though it was the the NAZI-Soviet Pact that made the war possible. and the Sovierts began invading other countries and commiting terrible astrocities ouitside the Soviet Union which received less attention than the NAZI military actions. Clearly in the West it was the NAZIs that were seen as the real threat.

Soviet Resistance to the NAZIs

Hitker abd Stalin launched World war II by invasing Poland. Yet Hitker was generally blammed for it because Stalin invased a few days later than Hitler. Ntritsin and France onky declared war on the Germans. While not a just decision, thry hasf liitle chioce. Germsnyt was a formidable enough challenge. Making war in the NAZIs and Soviets would hsve been national suiside. Eventually Hitler would attack his Soviet ally. And the Soviets while at firse suffering terriber defeats and losses prived to be the only countfry on the Continent that could resudt the German Army in the Ostkrirg--the decuisive campaign of the War and it was heat that the Red Army woud tear the heart out of the Geramn Army. Sone 80-90 percent of German casualties during World War II would be sustained in the Ostkrig. This imporessed may in Europe that were desperate to destoy the NAZI threat. Often forgotton is the role of the Sivuet uniin in destoying the French Army abd driving the Brutidsh Expeditionary Force (BEF) from the Continent.

War in the West

After Hitler launch Opperastion Bzarbarossa (June 1941) fior 3 years it looked like only the Red Army was fighting the Germans, but in fact the War un the West was more imprtant than many authors suggest. Germany was a major industrial country, but not the world's dominant or even largest industrial power. Thus German industrial allocations had to be carefully calculated if they were to win the War. Fortunately for mankind, they were not. And this was especially true of the war in the East with the Soviet Union--the Ostkrieg. The Ostkrieg was certainly the decisive engagement of World War II. Whoever prevailed there was going to win the War. The Allied Strategic Bombing Campaign did far more than damage German war industry, it forced the NAZIs to devote the majority of Germany's potent, but limited industrial power on the war in the West instead of where it was most needed--the Ostheer. Contrary to popular conceptions, the German economy was not effectively harnessed for war. Civilian consumption was not drastically curtailed as was the case in Britain. Women were not further mobilized for war work, especially married women. Industrial production was not totally directed at the War effort. Only when the War began to go against Germany and Albert Speer was appointed Armaments Minister (1942) did German industry begin to take needed steps to maximize production and reach some of its potential. [Speer] The Germans, as a result, despite the bombing were able to expand war production. This was the case through 1943. Only in late 1944 and the full force of the strategic bombing force was released from D-Day support did the German economy begin to collapse under the weight of Allied bombing. Some have used this to charge that the Allied bombing campaign was ineffective and a misallocations of resources. This is not the case. Without the bombing, the Germans could have substantially increased war production in 1942 and 43. Some time ago I notice a comment in an important book on World War II. The author states that the German war economy was oriented to the war in the West, and not the Ostkrieg. [Weinberg] That rather surprised us at the time, but we have since come to conclusion that he was absolutely correct. It took a huge industrial effort to support operations in the West (the West Wall the Air War, the Battle of the Atlantic, the Atlantic Wall, the V-Weapons, etc.). In contrast the Ostheer was mostly unmotorized infantry using horse-drawn carts. We are always amazed that when authors describe the Ostkrieg, they almost always phrase the importance in terms of manpower (German deployment and casualties), never in terms of industrial power. Manpower is important, but as any military historian knows, it is only one factor in warfare, and not always the most important. Our contention is that the War in the West forced Hitler to send the Ostheer into the Soviet Union largely on foot and once there without the industrial support needed for the decisive engagement of the War.


The Soviets controlled almost all Coomunist oattiers around the world. This provided suport fror proioanganda and actuvistsBut really effective soies needed to come from individuals who were not outspoken Coimmunists. And because of the effectuveness of Sobiert pripaganda and tumiltous tijes, the Sovietrs recruited spoy rungs aiun the impoertan countries, inckuding Amneruca, Britaon, and Grermay. We do not yet have information on France.


Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr Isayevich. The Gulag Archipelago: An Experiment in Literary Investigatio (1973).


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Created: 5:11 AM 4/18/2011
Last updated: 3:19 AM 8/8/2021