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1937-1941 - Military Purges

The Red Army made the the transition from a predominantly militia force (with a regular force of only 563,000) in the 1920s to a multi-million man regular army in the late 1930s, when the industrial base to make the transformation possible had been erected. This was the heyday of Tukhachevsky's influence on the Red Army's tactics and strategy - tactics and strategy that took advantage of the mobility engendered by the acquisition of aircraft, tanks, and motor vehicles. He was even the first commander to use airborne forces in maneuvers.

At the beginning of 1931, after a decade of open and honest military-theoretical debate, Tukhachevsky organized the persecution of his main rival in the area of strategy. Tukhachevsky made a certain contribution to the strangulation of the military-theoretical discussion and, in the end, he himself fell victim to this deprofessionalization and politicization of the armed forces.

From October 1936 to February 1937, as Francisco Franco's Nationalist rebels laid siege to Republican Madrid, contemporary military theories on the use of the tank were proven wrong. Neither the German Imker Drohne group aiding Franco nor the Soviet Krivoshein Detachment, which brought the tank to the Republic's Popular Army (Ejercito Popular), possessed enough tanks to execute the tactically independent exploitations envisioned by interwar theorists.

The whole Red Army development program was nearly wrecked in the 1937-39 period when Stalin's paranoiac purge of Tukhachevsky and some 35,000 other high-ranking officers in the Red Army brought the whole military machine to the verge of chaos. As was the case with the entire Soviet military establishment, Soviet operational maneuver concepts and forces suffered severe damage in the late 1930s, in part because Stalin purged their creators.

Documents fabricated by the Nazis may have served as a pretext for the arrest in 1937 of Tukhachevsky and other military leaders accused of preparing a "military plot" to seize power, establish a military dictatorship and dismember the country. Recent archival finds show most of all the conspiracy was driven by attempts of Tukhachevsky and other senior officers to remove Voroshilov from his post for incompetence. During the years of terror, Voroshilov, skillfully using the trust of Stalin, as well as the services of secret intelligence and informers in the army, managed to get rid of his opponents. There is no evidence that Voroshilov tried to save anyone from those accused during the terror.

At the show trial on June 11, 1937, trumped-up charges were brought against Tukhachevsky and seven other senior officers. Shaposhnikov, Budyonny and other former colleagues took part in the interrogation. After the shooting of Tukhachevsky and seven other commanders, People's Commissar of Defense Voroshilov issued a directive calling for the purge of the Red Army from all participants in the "military plot". As a result, the same fate befell thousands of officers both in the central apparatus of the army and in military units.

The multiple waves of military purges, which began in 1937 and lasted into the opening months of World War II, liquidated most Red Army theoreticians and senior commanders. Inevitably, therefore, their ideas fell into disuse or outright disrepute. Incredibly, the slaughter of thousands of his military personnel was seated in Stalin's own paranoia, not any known coup attempt. The families, the friends, and the colleagues of the condemned either joined them in oblivion or sat with faces frozen in mute resignation, waiting for the summons that could arrive at any moment

Although the senior ranks experienced the most severe losses in terms of percentages (11 of 13 army commanders were shot, as were 57 of the 85 corps commanders and 110 of the 195 division commanders), the numerical bulk of the victims came from subordinates unfortunate enough to be on the wrong staff or performing the wrong mission. Estimates of the total losses created by this mass bloodletting range from 15,000 to 30,000 officers, depending upon the dates used and the figures available. And, most of the 1,836,000 surviving Red Army prisoners of war liberated from the Axis powersat the end of World War II were sent to the Gulag as "traitors to the motherland."

Despite the success of the Red Army's fledgling armored forces at Khalkhin-Gol in the Far East, Soviet military experiences in Spain, Poland, and Finland cast doubt on the combat utility of its large mechanized and armored formations. Consequently, In November 1939 the Soviet High Command abolished its four large tank corps and replaced them with smaller motorized divisions organized on a combined-arms basis.

Stalin wanted a military establishment with which he could be comfortable, a docile instrument of his will that would do his bidding and with which he would not have to negotiate in order to attain his objectives. If he lost some talent in the pruning, it was a small price to pay: Talent was expendable; peace of mind, precious.

Trotsky took the view that the purges were part of Stalin's scheme to ensure the loyalty of the Army chief, Voroshilov: "The military machine is very exacting and voracious and does not easily endure the limitations imposed upon it by politicians, by civilians. Foreseeing the possibility of conflicts with that powerful machine in the future, Stalin decided to put Voroshilov in his place before he began to get out of hand. Through the OGPU [a former Soviet secret service organization], i.e., through Yezhov, Stalin prepared the extermination of Voroshilov's closest collaborators behind his back and without his knowledge, and at the last moment confronted him with the necessity to choose. Thus trapped by Stalin's apprehensiveness and disloyalty, Voroshilov collaborated in the extermination of the flower of the commanding staff and ever after was doomed to cut a sorry and impotent figure incapable of ever opposing Stalin. Stalin is a past master of the art of tying a man to him not by winning his admiration but by forcing him into complicity in heinous and unforgivable crimes. Such are the bricks of the pyramid of which Stalin is the peak."

After the repression, few had the courage to ask questions, including about military planning. With the Soviet rear extended, distant from the front, and too little artillery support, the advancing Soviet front units would suffer heavy losses. Soviet military plans underestimated the power of the enemy defense. This threatened the advancing army with huge losses in human strength already in the first days of the war, with the extermination of the best personnel of the Red Army. Until the beginning of 1941, the General Staff, in developing military plans, proceeded from super-optimistic forecasts based on the alleged superiority of the Red Army over the likely adversary. In many respects, the heavy losses of the Red Army in the summer and autumn of 1941 can be attributed to the deliberately incorrect assessments of the enemys defense power.

Stalin's defeat in Finland in 1940 and his retreat from Hitler's forces in 1941 came from purging his own army. The results of the Stalinist bloodbath showed up in the poor performance of the Red Army in the winter war with Finland (1939-40): well over a million well-armed men were stalled for months before a thinly defended Finnish line, and the Soviet losses were almost unbelievable. This bitter experience did, however, pinpoint some of the Red Army's worst shortcomings and resulted in the replacement of Voroshilov as the defense chief, an event long overdue.

The XXII Congress of the CPSU strongly condemned the crimes and repression of Stalinism and found Voroshilov guilty of reprisals against the command of the Red Army in 1937-1938. Tukhachevsky and other marshals, executed in 1937, were rehabilitated during the first Khrushchev de-Stalinization campaign. Soviet historians, describing the development of the Red Army in the interwar period and in the first year of the Great Patriotic War, usually sought to embellish the merits of Tukhachevsky.

Historians are unable to explain why the purge happened, possibly a task for the student of abnormal psychology, not for the historian.

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Page last modified: 10-04-2019 10:16:31 ZULU