Tuesday, 31 May 2016

The Red Army and the Great Terror: Stalin’s Purge of the Soviet Military - Peter Whitewood

Title: The Red Army and the Great Terror: Stalin’s Purge of the Soviet Military
Author: Peter Whitewood
ISBN: 978-0-7006-2117-0
Publisher: University of Kansas Press
Year: 2015
Pages: 360
Photos/Maps: 0

The Great Terror of 1937-1938 that resulted in the decimation of the Red Army’s Officer corps at the hands of their own government, has remained an enigma in the years following; why would Stalin undertake this action when he strongly suspected war was imminent? Popular conception has it that the German’s, in an unprecedented intelligence coup, planted material that implicated the Red Army leadership in subversive activity and therefore initiated the purge. Whitewood’s research shows that, while threat of foreign subversion was definitely a factor on the purge, the seeds had been planted long before, in the decades following the Russian revolution. Whitewood has drawn upon previously classified records to shed light upon the events and activities that set the stage for one of the greatest acts of self-mutilation that a nation has undertaken in recent history.

The author traces the civil-military relationship in the nascent Soviet Union throughout the 20’s and 30’s. His research is comprehensive and in-depth and shows a difficult and, at times, challenging interaction between the two entities. Policies such as collectivization of the agriculture industry in the 1920’s stressed the Army as a majority of its soldiers were from farming communities. Additionally, the necessity to integrate former ‘White” specialist officers into its ranks following the civil war left a lingering concern regarding loyalty; moreover, the stresses within the Soviet hierarchy between the Trotsky and Stalin camps left those officers who had been supporters of Trotsky with black marks against them. Finally, the lingering discomfort of the Soviet government, built upon a foundation of communism which eschewed a professional army, with the necessary evil (in their eyes) of maintaining a military capability consistently underlined and always coloured the relationship.

A perfect storm developed for the Red Army as a government, rife with insecurity, built upon a structure that promoted interdepartmental rivalry, in an international political environment which exacerbated internal tensions and fears of espionage was led by a brutally ‘real politique’ leader who ruled with no checks or balances upon his power. Whitewood shows that perception became reality and a government, already predisposed to find disloyalty, was able to prove their suspicions through the use of torture to elicit confessions, build cases based upon guilt by association and a legal system which rubber-stamped convictions. These stressors built over the decades leading up to 1937 saw minor purges and low level sweeps of the military until finally exploding in a flurry of denunciations, convictions, executions and imprisonment of literally thousands of officers on the flimsiest of evidence.

Whitewood’s book is an excellent analysis of the events and environment within the Red Army and Soviet government during this period. It seems incredible that the military hierarchy would allow itself to be decimated as it was with such acquiescence. I have issue with only two aspects of Whitewood’s excellent book. First, I feel that it would have been beneficial to have had more discussion on the response of the senior levels within the Red Army as things degenerated for them. Individuals such as Tukhashevsky, Uborevich and Iakir must have been aware of the environment given their high rank and yet Whitewood does not discuss their responses or actions to try and counter the allegations being leveled against them. Additionally, the author does not emphasize, as a possible motive, the ongoing competition for influence and power between the Army and the NKVD. This had to be a driving force in the aggressive and brutal means by which senior officers in the Army were sacrificed.  

The book overall is a chilling read and provides an outstanding evaluation of the human psyche in an environment in which leadership unchecked combined with a siege mentality results in perception and rumour being the basis for justice. His book contains a plethora of excellent references and a comprehensive bibliography. Strongly recommended.

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