Subversion in the Red Army and the Military Purge of 1937–1938

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Subversion in the Red Army and the Military Purge of 1937–1938
Peter Whitewood

Stalin’s purge of his military elite during 1937–1938 is one of the most unusual events of the Great Terror.

Why would Stalin execute his most qualified officers at the same time as defence spending was rising and a world war was approaching? This article argues that a long history of the Red Army being perceived as vulnerable to subversion is central to understanding this military purge. When faced with perceived plots in the military Stalin tended to lean towards restraint, but by 1937 he felt he could no longer hesitate, and finally cracked down on what he saw as a compromised army.

During 1937 and 1938 Stalin purged his military, leading to the expulsion and execution of thousands of experienced officers. This purge began in June 1937 with a closed military trial of Mikhail Tukhachevskii and other senior officers, charged with membership of a ‘Military–Fascist Plot’.(1) Striking out at the military elite when war was approaching was dangerous. In destroying his officer corps at a time of international crisis, Stalin risked fighting a costly war with a decapitated army. As such, the military purge is difficult to reconcile with the common argument that Stalin attacked the army elite to further consolidate his power.(2) Indeed, to explain such an action as the military purge requires an understanding of why Stalin thought this was necessary, and that to do nothing was not worth the risk. Stalin would only take action against the army if he perceived it to be a threat and when he felt compelled to act. Starting from the Civil War, this article will argue that a long history of perceived threats to the Red Army from ‘military specialists’, the ‘Trotskyist Opposition’ and foreign agents undermined Stalin’s trust in his military. Yet, Stalin consistently leaned towards restraint and resisted a serious crackdown to improve army security. But in the face of a large spy scare in 1937 Stalin was forced to change his approach and was finally compelled to move against the army elite, taking drastic action which he saw as unavoidable.

The arrest of the ‘Trotskyist Military Centre’

(1)The other defendants included Iona Yakir, Ieronim Uborevich, Boris Feldman, Avgust Kork, Robert Eideman, Vitovt Putna and Vasily Primakov.

(2)That Stalin purged the Red Army in order to consolidate his power is an argument that dominated the post-war literature on the Soviet military and the Great Terror. For instance, in his influential work on the Red Army, John Erickson argued that by purging the military Stalin ‘rid himself of the last potential source of leadership that could rival his own’ (Erickson 1962, p. 465). Similarly, Robert Conquest argued that Stalin attacked the army to remove any possibility of a military coup (Conquest 1968, pp. 201–35). This explanation of the military purge can still be seen in more recent work (Tucker 1990; Nichols 1990; Ziemke 2004).

Vol. 67, No. 1, January 2015, 102–122
ISSN 0966-8136 print; ISSN 1465-3427 online/15/100102–21 q 2015 University of Glasgow

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