139: The Military Purges


The military would not escape the purges.



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Second World War Episode 139 - The Soviet Union Part 9 - The Military Purge. This week a big thank you goes out to TKDman, Tim, Chuck, James, Mike, Béla, Vlodymyr, Zak, and Rob for choosing to support the podcast by becoming members, head on over to historyofthesecondworldwar.com/members to find out more. I would also like to thank Vlodymyr for the donation. Last episode covered some of the events that led to the Great Purge, a large series of arrests that would sweep through the Soviet Union from 1917 to 1938. While the wider purge was occurring throughout society there was also a focused purge occurring of the Red Army, particularly among its officers. This would be a critical event because it would see thousands of Red Army officers, up to and including Marshall Tukachevsky, hero of the Civil War and head of the Red Army for much of the interwar period. As a result of the purges the leadership structure of the Red Army would be gutted, and many of its most experienced officers would be removed from their positions, and many were executed. Thousands of officers at all levels would be relieved of their positions, with many arrested and executed, while thousands of others were expelled from the party. This would have had a very negative effect on any military in the world, experienced officers are a precious commodity that are so hard to replace, but it was particularly challenging for the Red Army to recover because of the massive expansion that it would go through in the following years. Even before the purges the Red Army was finding it difficult to train enough officers to keep up with its need to grow in size, and removing thousands of the existing officers did not help the situation at all. These actions are even more perplexing due to the strong belief among Soviet leadership, including Stalin, that war could be just around the corner, and that the threat of an attack from the other nations of Europe and from Japan was more likely than ever before. So the question becomes a simple one, why? As with the other purges the threat from the army was discussed as a threat to the entire Soviet Union, with the concern being that there was a plot within the Army to launch a coup, fueled by counterrevolutionary, maybe in fascist, infiltration of the highest ranks of the Red Army. When the information was brought to Stalin, he believed that the only path forward was to do what had already been done to perceived political threats, and the purge was initiated. In practice it would not look greatly different than the political purges, there was a wave of arrests of those closely associated to the source, in this case Tukhachevsky, and then there was a wave of denunciations among the officer corps as various individuals claimed others were involved in the plot. Once that happened, the arrests grew to an incredible number, and a simple leadership purge became the Great Purge. There was just one problem. There is no evidence of any kind of conspiracy among the military leadership to do anything like what was suspected. At the time there was a claim that there was proof, of course, but nothing has ever been found, even after the Soviet archives were open to full research in the 1990s. It was all a lie, a fabrication, but the results were still very real. This episode will look at the relationship between the Red Army and the political leadership of the Soviet Union, the actions taken as part of the purges, and the consequences for the Red Army and for the Soviet Union when, in 1941, the Red Army would be faced with its greatest challenge.

During the revolution the Red Army had been created as a workers army and over the course of the revolution and the civil war this had changed. The hard truth was that to be at its most efficient the red army could not be a revolutionary army, but had to instead adopt many of the structures of the old tsarist army that it had replaced. Professional officers, hierarchy, structure where all reintroduced throughout the civil war to answer the threats posed by the Whites and their allies. The army that was defeated at the gates of Warsaw was closer in structure to the Russian Army of 1916 than the revolutionary army of 1917. This continued during the 1920s and 1930s and men like Tukhachevsky pushed the Red army forward into a new age of modernization and mechanization powered by the industrialization of the Five Year Plans. But there had always been some tension between the Party leaders and the leaders of the Army, with the very real concern that the Red Army had the structure and power to overthrow the Soviet leaders if they really wanted to. In theory the way to fix this was to make the army impotent, but it was still important that the army was kept strong due to the threats posed by external powers. It made for a difficult balancing act. One of the ways that this was balanced was through the use of the NKVD, which had its own military units that numbered around 150,000 in 1936. These were not combat troops though, and instead were used as behind the lines logistical, communication, and transportation troops. This allowed them to exercise some control while also not requiring them to be structured like combat units. Tukhachevsky was also not a close associate of Stalin, and certainly did not owe his position to Stalin’s patronage. But the idea that the Red Army leadership posed a threat would never be fully extinguished, and as the overall threat level was amplified by the political purges, the military would drift into the spotlight. The purges of the late 1930s would also not be the only purges of the military, and in fact there had been several smaller instances of mass arrests and repression within the Army earlier during the 1930s. These events in the earlier years were often focused around a specific event or a specific group of individuals. For example with so many soldiers coming from the poor rural families there had been some protests among lower ranked soldiers around the collectivization efforts, and these protests had resulted in a wave of arrests. But all of the earlier instances of military purges had paled in comparison to what would happen during 1937.

The military purges of 1936 and 1937 were rooted in fears that there was a conspiracy brewing. This included rumors and reports that the Red army was working with the Germans to undermine Stalin and the Communist Party. This connection between the Red army leaders and Germany included, allegedly, that their were meetings between the two parties. These rumors were confirmed when Pravda’s Berlin correspondent sent a letter to Lev Mekhlis, one of Pravda’s editors with information about the link between the Germans and the highest military officers, with Tukhachevsky named specifically. While these rumors circulated they fed upon the pre-existing feelings of fear and doubt that had fueled the other purges, along with some of the unique features of the Red Army. Within the Army high command there were many officers whose tenure dated back to the Civil War years, as with any military, the officers in the higher ranks often had served in the military for a good portion of their lives. But in the Red Army of 1937, these long tenures meant that their period of command overlapped back to the years when Trotsky was leading the Red Army in the years immediately after the revolution. This connection with Trotsky would tie many officers directly into the Trotsky, Zinoviev, and Kamenev counter revolutionary plot that had been an important part of the reason for Zinoviev and Kamenev’s execution. With the German connection seemingly confirmed and the known connection to Trotsky, the military purge would begin. There are two things that seem clear about the causes for the purges. The first is that there is not great evidence that there was any real connection between Red Army high command and the Germans, at least in terms of them working together to overthrow Stalin. There is more evidence that the entire thing was another set of fabricated documents by the NKVD as an excuse for the military purges than there is that there was an active plot happening with the Germans. The second is that the military purges that would follow were not some kind of long thought out plan, but were instead a decision made based on the immediate threat that it was felt the military leaders posed. There was not some kind carefully thought out and executed series of events with the military purges, but instead it simply was kicked off quickly. This is one of those instances where I also want to mention that the sources are all over the place in terms of why the military purges happened. You can find well researched sources that clearly cast the purges as a simple overreaction to a rumor, other sources claim that it was a fully fabricated set of events, the evidence was fabricated by Stalin and the NKVD specifically to use as an excuse. There are articles as recent as 2015 that discuss the causes of the purges and whether or not Stalin was just reacting to events or causing those events directly. I’m not sure I have a firm answer for you either way, it is certainly possible that all of this was a setup, but it is also possible that this is another situation where Stalin and the NKVD took an event, the existence of these rumors and quickly and expertly capitalized on it to achieve their goals. I am inclined toward the belief that events were driven by a real fear of a conspiracy in the military, which Stalin greatly overreacted to. But it cannot be argued that this overreaction served him in his goal of maintaining his control, and of gaining greater control over the Red Army, probably the last group within the Soviet Union that posed any threat to him. Regardless of the cause, the result was a massive wave of arrests. The massive purge of the military would not just happen though, it would slowly build up over time. In March 1936 Marshal Voroshilov would make a speech in which he would claim that a large Trotsky and fascist conspiracy was taking place in the Soviet Union, and that the military had to remain ever vigilant about the effects of this conspiracy on the military itself. He would also claim that the conspiracy had already infiltrated some areas of the Red Army, and that those elements had to be purged if the Red Army was to remain true to the revolution, he called for actions “to sweep out with an iron broom not only all this scum, but everything that recalls such an abomination. . . . It is necessary to purge the army literally up to the very last crack (shchelochek), the army should be clean, the army should be healthy.” Along with actions from the top Voroshilov also asked every member of the military to remain vigilant, which would also be a crucial component of the wider Great Terror, saying “They think that the center should know everything, see everything. No, the center does not see everything, nothing of the sort. The center sees only part; the rest is seen by the localities. It sends people, but it does not know these people 100 percent, you should check them. There is one way to test this—it is checking people at work, according to the results of their work.”. Voroshilov would then set out a plan of action to combat this conspiracy, including wide ranging investigations of the pasts of officers, particularly those that had access to secret documents. A new level of scrutiny should also be placed on any accidents that should happen, to root out any possible acts of sabotage that might occur. In the first days of June Yezhov would present evidence in the form of a report to the Military Soviet of the Defence Commisariat. The report would lay out the evidence that the Red Army had turned into a counter revolutionary organization and that there were many within the rank of the Red Army that had been and were actively conspiring against the Soviet leaders. A few days later on June 9th several high ranking officers, including Tukhachevsky, were relieved of their commands. The arrests would begin 1936 with groups of former officers with clear ties to Trotsky being targeted. The first group of arrests were followed by others. The arrests did not start at the top, but there was a clear theme to many of the higher profile arrests throughout the second half of 1936, officers with close ties to Tukhachevskii were the most in danger of being arrested.


During the early months of 1937 the targets for the purge moved towards the final destination, Tukhachevskii. Tukhachevsky and several other of the highest ranking officers were arrested during May under the charge that they were the leaders of the fascist-fueled plot. There is some evidence that, unlike in many other situations, Stalin was a bit more hesitant to sanction the arrest of some of the higher ranking military officers. On the political side of the purges the bar for what might get you arrested was quite low, but especially for Tukhachevskii greater evidence was requested before the next steps were taken. But a new set of evidence would eventually be obtained. This new set of a arrests was caused by the the testimony of a Brigade commander, Medvedev, who had been arrested in early May under the charge that he was connected to a counter-revolutionary group. He would claim that Tukhachevsky and many other high ranking officers were active participants in an organization setup to take control of the Soviet Union. It is hard to know how serious we should take this testimony given the known track record of the NKVD obtaining exactly the confessions they wanted out of people they arrested. But the end result was Tukhachevkii arrested. After being arrested, the confession from Tukhachevskii would be obtained on May 26th. “I headed a counterrevolutionary military plot, in which I fully acknowledge my guilt. The aim of the plot was the overthrow of the existing government by force of arms and the restoration of capitalism.” He would go on to claim that the plotters were connected with Zinoviev-Kamenev and their follower, that the goal was to seize power through a coup, they would seize power by causing revolts around the Soviet Union, that they hoped to sabotage the ability of the state to defend itself, that they had already been actively sabotaging the Soviet Union, and that they were working with senior German military leaders in these efforts, on May 29th Tukhachevskii would say that he was actually just a German spy. As with all interrogations and confessions during this time, the methods used to obtain the confessions were…forceful. And also, once the confession was obtained, by whatever means that it was, that sealed the guilt of the accused. Instead of a show trial, Tukhachevsky and many of the military officers would be sentenced to death in a private military trial, with Tukhachevsky being executed on June 14th, 1937. The confessions and execution of the officers would kick off a mass purge of the military, with the breadth of the accusations being much higher than in any other previous waves of arrests. It began with a new call for the military to bring any conspiracies into the light and soon the purge spread through the ranks of the military like wildfire. There were denunciations happening all over the place as soldiers of all ranks were seeing hidden conspiracies all around them.

The military purges would continue alongside the wider purges until 1938. By the time that they were over the highest ranks of the military had been cleaned out, with 3/5 Marshals, 13 of 15 Army Commanders, 57 of 85 Corps Commanders, 110 out of 195 division commanders, and 220 out of 406 brigade commanders being purged. It was worse in some areas than others, for example the Kiev military district was especially hard hit by the purges, with 90% of the corps commanders being hit by the purges, along with 84% of its divisions commanders. The total number of military officers that were purged was around 35,000, but that number seems a bit fuzzy. So many of the sources you can find out there about the military purges cite numbers only in percentages for the military purges, which makes it difficult to determine exact numbers, as most historians are far more focused on the impact that the purges had on the Soviet military between 1938 and 1941. And that impact was important. The officers that were purged from the Red Army during the Great Terror were many of the foundational pieces of the Red army that had helped to build the Red Army from its origins as a worker led militia in 1918 to one of, if not the, most feared military in the world during the mid-1930s. They had defined what the Red army was and how it planned to fight a war, that included not just strategy and tactics, but also the design of equipment, tanks, and aircraft. They were also many of the most experienced officers, who were removed at a time when the Red Army was already struggling to find and train new officers as it continued to try and expand its numbers to match the threats that were being felt from external enemies. The purges of military leaders would have been hard enough for the Red Army to absorb under completely peaceful and normal circumstances, but the years between 1937 and 1941 were anything but normal. During those four years there were constant efforts to expand the Red Army to meet the threats posed by the rearmament efforts of other European nations. These were the years when many European nations were really focusing on rearmament, and then war, to meet the threat posed by a rearming Germany. The Soviet leaders felt they had to match this military expansion, but then the Red Army was handicapped by suddenly losing thousands of officers, and especially experienced officers that were so challenging to replace. It would also have an effect on the officers that remained, something that we will dig into more next episode, but in summary it would change how the leadership of the Red army viewed the best way to fight a war, and change it in ways that would have disastrous consequences in 1941.

The Great Purge would end in November 1938. Even when it was over Soviet society would be changed. In the political sphere any and all opposition, or even those who were feared to be possibly oppose the leading group within the Politburo, were removed. Throughout society millions had been arrested, many sent to labor camps, some were executed. In the military the officer corps had been gutted, with thousands executed and even more arrested and removed from their positions. The total number of executions during the Great Purge was more than 600,000, with over 1 million arrested.