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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 multimillion-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.

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 Popu-lar 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.

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 riot 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."

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. 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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