“There was no German-inspired conspiracy in the Soviet military. Nevertheless, the purge continued into 1938 and cost the Red Army dearly.”
By Peter Whitewood
ON JUNE 11, 1937, Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevsky and a group of senior officers from the Soviet high command were found guilty at a closed trial of coordinating a German-funded military plot inside the Red Army.
All were sentenced to be shot.
The execution of what became known as the ‘military-fascist plotters’ sparked a massive military purge and accompanying wave of arrests as Stalin’s paranoid regime sought to cleanse the ranks of anyone associated with the supposed conspirators.
In reality the Tukhachevsky group was innocent of treason. The Soviet secret police had beaten confessions from all of those implicated, yet there was no German-inspired conspiracy in the Soviet military. Nevertheless, the purge continued into 1938 and cost the Red Army dearly.
Stalin’s decimation of the armed forces was a defining moment of the Great Terror, the ruthless campaign of mass arrests, secret trials and executions that hit every sphere of Soviet society — it is also one of the most misunderstood. Below are five important points surrounding the Red Army purge.
The myth of faked evidence
For decades, the ‘Tukhachevsky Affair’ was recognized as the start of the Red Army purge. According to a popular myth, Stalin ordered his political police to assemble a dossier of fabricated evidence — details of ‘counterrevolutionary’ activity and espionage for Germany. He then used the file as a pretext to get rid of Tukhachevsky and other officers he believed might stand in the way of his amassing ultimate power. In another version of the story, the dossier was engineered by Nazi intelligence who then duped Stalin into attacking his own military.
The problem with this line of story is that the various memoir accounts that at one time supported it have since been proven inaccurate. Absolutely no corroborating evidence has surfaced from the Russian archives when these were partially opened in the early 1990s. In materials now available, we know that Stalin never mentioned a dossier in key military meetings in 1937 and 1938, moments when he relayed the details of ‘military plot’ to the wider army. This is certainly strange if such a cache of documents was in fact the central piece of ‘evidence’ against the Tukhachevsky group. The whole story of a faked dossier is in all likelihood nothing but a myth and has been rejected by many historians today. If we want to explain the military purge, we need think beyond the framing of the ‘Tukhachevsky Affair’.
The high command remained loyal to Stalin
It is often said that Tukhachevsky was increasingly unhappy with Stalin’s lust for power, particularly the dictator’s use of political violence. This was the chief reason why Stalin decided to have him arrested and executed in 1937, many maintain. But there is little to suggest this is true. Tukhachevsky was in fact an enthusiastic supporter of some of the Stalinist regime’s most repressive policies, particularly the collectivization of agriculture in the late 1920s and early 1930s. The widespread seizure of private property and land sparked mass violence in the Russian countryside and led to the displacement and incarceration of hundreds of thousands of peasants in the sprawling network of Gulag camps. Yet Tukhachevsky believed that collectivization would help release vital resources that could be funnelled into the Red Army. Maximizing military power was his overriding concern, not the well-being of the peasantry. Tukhachevsky’s only clashes with Stalin came when he pushed too far and demanded too much for the Red Army.
Other senior officers executed during the military purge, such as Iona Yakir, also seem unlikely candidates to have taken a stand against Stalinist repression. Only months before his arrest, Yakir was one of the few senior party members who voted for the death penalty for Nikolai Bukharin, the most prominent victim of the Great Terror. There were figures in the military establishment who did show some opposition to state repression in the mid-1930s. The head of the main administration of the Red Army, Boris Fel’dman, frequently challenged the legality of the bogus investigations launched by the political police; but on a whole, the group of supposed military conspirators executed for coordinating the military-fascist plot cannot be said to have represented any kind of united opposition to Stalin.
The final death toll remains a mystery
While we do have a better knowledge of the number of army leaders arrested by Soviet authorities — approximately 35,000 over the course of 1937 and 1938 — the numbers of rank-and-file affected are unclear. Although the upper ranks were certainly hit harder by the purge, ordinary soldiers and NCOs suffered as well. As was true for the violence of the wider Great Terror, much of the military purge was driven by a wave of denunciations from below. Connections from the Tukhachevsky group also ran deep throughout the army hierarchy providing momentum to the purge. A complex series of behaviours played out in the lower ranks — soldiers undeniably denounced each other for different reasons. These ranged from a sincere belief that their peers and superiors were actually ‘counterrevolutionaries’, from a fear of the consequences of not denouncing another person. Others likely acted out of malice or perhaps even to get revenge for some past slight. Understanding the social dynamic of the military purge and the panic that spread throughout the lower ranks is another important reason to reject the idea of there being a ‘Tukhachevsky Affair’. The military purge was a more complex phenomenon than the arrest and execution of a small group of senior officers in the high command.
Did the purge really weaken Soviet defences?
Opinions vary on how severely Stalin’s decapitation of the Red Army in 1937 and 1938 affected its performance in the summer of 1941 when the Soviet Union fell prey to German invasion. To be sure, many of the country’s most experienced officers were lost in the purge. Tukhachevsky was one of the finest minds in the Red Army. At the same time, a number of victims were eventually reinstated to their pre-purge positions before or after Operation Barbarossa. As early as 1938, the regime was already making good for driving innocent soldiers and commanders from the service. The promotion of new officers eventually began to outstrip the discharges. In this respect, the impact of the long-term military purge is not as clear-cut as many believe. It certainly should be regarded as a factor in the disastrous performance of the Red Army in 1941, but it was not the single cause. The impact of the military purge must be seen alongside serious intelligence failures leading up to the German onslaught as well as Stalin’s stubborn refusal to accept the reality of the danger facing the Soviet Union.
Purges were nothing new in Stalin’s U.S.S.R.
Political violence in the Red Army was not confined to the years 1937 and 38. As early as 1918, the Soviet leadership was racked with suspicions about the loyalty and reliability of the army. Throughout the 1920s and early 1930s there were frequent murmurings of betrayal in the high command as well as talk of the emergence of a ‘Russian Bonaparte’ who would seize power. The political police intensely scrutinized the Red Army and regularly drummed up cases of supposed counterrevolution and espionage in the ranks. Purges occurred before 1937 to drum undesirables from uniform. In one incident in 1930, the Red Army was scoured of officers from the old regime. Tukhachevsky, being of bourgeois background, was incriminated during this period as a member of a supposed counterrevolutionary military plot.
After personally intervening in the investigation, Stalin himself had the charges against Tukhachevsky dropped, but the 1930 sweep is a reminder that we need to consider the longer history of Soviet civil-military relations if we want to better understand Stalin’s attack on the Red Army in 1937.
Peter Whitewood is a lecturer of history at York St. John University in the United Kingdom. His latest book, The Red Army and the Great Terror: Stalin’s Purge of the Soviet Military his shelves on Sept. 25.