On the 70th Anniversary of the Treason Trials
On the 11th of June 1937 Moscow radio announced the arrest of the former chief of the Red Army General Headquarters Marshal M. Tukhachevsky and 7 other Soviet leading military figures. The arrested were put to trial before the military branch of the USSR Supreme Court. The radio report said that they were ‘accused of having violated their duty as soldiers, of having broken their military oath of allegiance and of having committed treason against the Soviet Union in the interests of a foreign country... It was established that the defendants... had organised an anti-State movement and had been in contact with the military circles of a foreign country pursuing an anti-Soviet policy. In favour of that country the defendants conducted military espionage. Their activity was aimed at ensuring the defeat of the Red Army in the event of the country being attacked. The ultimate aim was the restoration of big land ownership and capitalism. All accused made confessions’.
After a brief trial the USSR Supreme Court passed death penalty on all the defendants. Subsequently a substantial number of other military and Party officials were arrested and put to trial.
Now these events which happened over 70 years ago are used in post-Soviet Russia as a pretext for another noisy anti-Soviet propaganda campaign. Mass meetings and marches with Christian crosses are organised to commemorate the 70th anniversary of these events. TV and other mass media use this occasion in order to continue depicting the USSR history as the time of ‘Great Terror’ against innocent people, falsely accused of crimes which they did not commit. It is also claimed that the arrest of Tukhachevsky and other Soviet military leaders seriously handicapped the Red Army which led to severe setbacks in 1941, loss of great Soviet territories and manpower.
For the first time this interpretation of the arrest and trial of Tukhachevsky and others was made public by N. S. Khrushchev over 50 years ago. The then First Secretary of the CPSU asserted that the German Gestapo concocted papers, which compromised Tukhachevsky and others in order to weaken the Red Army on the eve of World War II. These forged papers were passed to the Soviet Government. Khrushchev claimed that Stalin was pathologically suspicious and this was the reason why he took the German fabrication at its face value and ordered the arrest of Tukhachevsky and others. According to Khrushchev further arrests and trials were caused by Stalin’s paranoia and his inborn cruelty.
Though there are some real facts behind Khrushchev’s version (e.g. the existence of papers forged by the Gestapo) his explanation is refuted by a number of comparatively recent publications made by a number of Russian historians, including the author of the present article. In such books as A. Martirosyan’s ‘The Conspiracy of Marshals’ (Moscow, Veche, 2003), S. Minakov’s ‘Stalin and the Conspiracy of Generals’ (Moscow, Yauza, 2005), ‘The Conspiracies and the Struggle for Power. From Lenin to Khrushchev’ (Moscow, Veche, 2003) by R. Balandin and S. Mironov, a reader will find detailed and ample evidence which contradicts the essence of Khrushchev’s version.
But even before the publication of these and other Russian books a number of authors in the West presented some facts which proved beyond doubt that the Tukhachevsky conspiracy was not a result of Stalin’s gullibility or a figment of his imagination but a stark reality. The appropriate facts were narrated in memoirs by a former German Intelligence chief Walter Schellenberg, in a book by a former NKVD (People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs) officer Alexander Orlov, who escaped from the USSR to the West in 1938, in a book ‘The Conspirators’ by an American historian Geoffrey Bailey. A brief account of how the Tukhachevsky plot was formed and developed was given in the book ‘Hitler Moves East 1941–1943’ by a former personal interpreter of Hitler, Paul Schmidt (his literary name — Paul Carell).
Summarising all these facts narrated and analysed by Russian, German and American authors one comes to a conclusion that the origin of the June 1937 events differs radically from the explanation given by Khrushchev and modern Russian political mass media. First of all, these events were connected with the struggle going on inside the Soviet Communist Party in the 1920s. One should take into account that since 1918 L. D. Trotsky was the chairman of the Revolutionary Military Council of the Soviet Republic and its People’s Commissar for military affairs. Many of the leading figures in the Red Army were appointed by Trotsky during the Civil War. Sharing the political views of their chief they tended to overrate military methods of administration and the role of the Red Army in the world revolutionary process. Many of them continued to occupy commanding posts in the Red Army after Trotsky was ousted from his posts in 1925.
Despite their public recantations, many of them continued to share Trotsky’s views and attitudes with their typical blend of adventurism and disregard for ideological principles, especially when dealing with the enemies of the Soviet Revolution. The adventurist approach to the problems of military strategy and organisation of the Red Army was characteristic for Tukhachevsky and the group of his supporters. The differences on these issues led to latent but growing confrontation of this group with the majority of the Red Army commanders.
Like Trotsky himself many of the Trotskyists in the Red Army were prone to put their personal ambitions above the interests of the working class and the Soviet state. Some of them dreamt of Bonapartist careers.
The tendency to conclude alliances with politically and ideologically alien forces for the sake of personal struggle for power (so typical for Trotsky during his political career) revealed itself in establishing close relations between some Soviet and German officers. At that time the Versailles treaty barred Germany from having military educational establishments. According to a secret Soviet-German agreement concluded at the initiative of Trotskyist Karl Radek who was then influential in the Soviet Government, a large group of German officers set up their military schools in Soviet Russia thus by-passing the clauses of the Versailles treaty. Not only Radek, but other Soviet leaders supported this agreement since at that time the cooperation of Soviet Russia with Germany was seen as a breakthrough of the united Anti-Soviet front of capitalist states. The possible negative consequences of the agreement were not taken into account.
While the Soviet-German agreement existed Tukhachevsky and a number of other Soviet military commanders cultivated friendly relations with their German colleagues. The latter often invited the Soviet officers to Germany. Unfortunately such contacts were not limited to exchanges of opinions in the field of purely professional problems. Some of the military of both countries tended to discuss the benefits of military rule and possibilities of joint interference of the military into civilian lives of both countries. Plans for mutual assistance of the military of the two countries in case of political changes in the two countries began to evolve.
The Nazi takeover in 1933 interrupted the active military cooperation between Germany and the USSR. Though at that time the German military wholly supported Hitler, they were keen to mind their own interests and were ready to take power if the Nazi regime was to totter. (The German military plotters almost performed a coup d’etat in September 1938. Then they were afraid that Germany would lose the war in case Britain and France would take a resolute stand and defend Czechoslovakia. Only the capitulation of France and Britain at Munich made the plotters discard their plans. Another attempt to overthrow the Hitler government was undertaken by them in July 1944 at the time when the Nazi regime was already doomed.)
Their own plans of military takeover in the USSR were nourished by Tukhachevsky and his supporters. At the same time Tukhachevsky and others tried to enlist support of some ambitious Party leaders for realisation of their Bonapartist plans. According to Paul Carell, ‘since 1935 Tukhachevsky had maintained a kind of revolutionary committee in Khabarovsk... Its members included senior administrative officials and Army commanders, but also some young Party functionaries in high posts, such as the Party leader in the Northern Caucasus, Boris Sheboldayev’.
Despite the termination of the Soviet-German military agreement Tukhachevsky maintained close cooperation with the German generals. Carell wrote: ‘In the spring of 1936 Tukhachevsky went to London as the leader of the Soviet delegation attending the funeral of the King George V. Both his outward and homeward journeys led him through Berlin. He used the opportunity for talks with leading German generals. He wanted to make sure that Germany would not use any possible revolutionary unrest in the Soviet Union as a pretext for marching against the East. What mattered to him most was his idea of a German-Russian alliance after overthrow of Stalin... Tukhachevsky became increasingly convinced that the alliance between Germany and the Soviet Union was an inescapable commandment of history’.
In his book ‘The Conspirators’ Geoffrey Bailey quotes an attested remark by Tukhachevsky made at that time to the Rumanian Foreign Minister Titulescu. He said: ‘You are wrong to tie the fate of your country to countries which are old and finished, such as France and Britain. We ought to turn towards new Germany. For some at least Germany will assume the leading position on the continent of Europe’.
Meanwhile the pro-German statements made by Tukhachevsky in Western European countries during his trip to Britain became known in France and Czechoslovakia. The mutual assistance treaties of both countries with the USSR concluded in 1935 united them in a joint anti-Nazi coalition. The information that such an important figure as Tukhachevsky took a pro-German stand caused grave concern in Paris and Prague. The two governments notified the Soviet Government about Tukhachevsky’s statements.
Meanwhile at the end of 1936 and the beginning of 1937 a number of Red Army officers were arrested in the USSR. During their interrogation the NKVD got information about the existence of a wide-spread plot against the Soviet Government. It was a time when arrests of some saboteurs, connected with the Trotskyist opposition revealed the lack of vigilance and political insight on the part of many Party functionaries.
It all happened at the time when the USSR adopted a new Constitution, called Stalinist, as Stalin was its initiator. Its constitution was meant to promote the democratisation of Soviet society. Unfortunately many of the Party officials, especially on a local level were reluctant to put the principles of the new Constitution into practice. Since 1917 during almost two decades they got accustomed to methods of administration used at the time of the Civil War. Many of them grew accustomed to their unchallenged high positions and they drew support from close circles of their personal friends. In fact their political attitudes were close to those of Tukhachevsky and his supporters. At the plenary session of the Central Committee of the USSR Communist Party held in February-March 1937 many of its members demanded increased repressive measures instead of the democratisation urged by the Stalinist Constitution.
In his speech at this plenary session Stalin spoke about the urgent need to raise the ideological and political level of all Party functionaries and offered a plan for their education. At the same time he severely criticised the tendency of Party officials to surround themselves by groups of their personal supporters. He suggested electing new functionaries at every Party level while the old functionaries were being educated at specially set-up schools. Stalin warned that unless the Communist Party kept close contacts with the working class it might perish. He reminded of the fate of Antaeus from Greek mythology, who lost the battle with Hercules as soon as he failed to have a contact with the Earth, who was his mother.
But the words of Stalin were unheeded by many of the Party officials. They were afraid to lose their jobs and they started to devise plans of mass reprisals in order to get rid of potential competitors for their posts.
Meanwhile Tukhachevsky and other conspirators, using unrest among the Party functionaries, accelerated preparations for a coup d’etat. Tukhachevsky intended to ask the USSR People’s Commissar for Defence K.E. Voroshilov to convene a conference on military problems in the Kremlin. Tukhachevsky planned to come to the conference with his supporters and to surround the Kremlin with troops loyal to him. Stalin and some of his Politbureau colleagues were to be arrested and shot immediately.
After the end of the plenary session of the Central Committee the conspirators increased their preparations. Carell wrote: ‘In March 1937 the race between Stalin and Tukhachevsky was becoming increasingly dramatic... Why did the Marshal not act then? Why was he still hesitating? The answer is simple enough. The moves of General Staff officers and Army commanders, whose headquarters were often thousands of miles apart, were difficult to coordinate especially as their strict surveillance by the secret police forced them to act with the utmost caution. The coup against Stalin was fixed for the 1st of May 1937, mainly because the May Day Parades would make it possible to move substantial troop contingents to Moscow without arousing suspicion’.
At that time Trotsky in his ‘Bulletin of the Opposition’ wrote about a probable rebellion of the Soviet military against Stalin. On the 9th of April 1937 the chief of the Red Army Intelligence Board S. Uritsky informed Stalin and Voroshilov that in Berlin there were rumours about the opposition of the Soviet military to the Soviet leadership.
By that time the Gestapo got wind of the negotiations of Tukhachevsky with the German military leaders. In order to get fuller information about relations between the military leaders of the two countries Gestapo agents penetrated the archives of the Wehrmacht and stole some of the documents pertaining to the contacts of the German military with the Soviet. The Gestapo agents tried to conceal the theft of documents by setting fire to the archives. After the stolen documents were analysed the Gestapo deputy chief Heydrich came to the conclusion that there was ample evidence of the secret cooperation between the leaders of the Wehrmacht and the Red Army. The Gestapo informed Hitler about the documents.
Despite the pro-German statements of Tukhachevsky, Hitler and others in the Nazi leadership were not happy over clandestine contacts between the military leaders of Germany and the USSR. The Nazi leaders considered that the establishment of the military dictatorship in Russia might stimulate similar developments in Germany. And the military dictator of Russia Tukhachevsky might help his German colleagues during the future coup. Hitler decided to thwart the joint conspiracy of the military leaders of the two countries. He ordered the sending of the stolen documents to Moscow, but adding to them fabrications to make the materials even more shocking. German Intelligence chief Walter Schellenberg later wrote that the false additions constituted but a minor part of the whole collection, which was secretly sold to the Soviet Union. (Later in 1971 V. M. Molotov claimed that he, Stalin and other Politbureau members knew about the Tukhachevsky conspiracy before they got the German documents.)
There are different versions of the subsequent events. On the one hand there is substantial evidence that the military coup scheduled for the 1st of May was frustrated at the last minute. Some people present at the time at Red Square remembered that immediately after the beginning of the parade the rumours were spread about an imminent terrorist act against Stalin and other Politbureau members who at that time occupied the tribune on the Lenin Mausoleum. Later NKVD officer Pavel Meshik claimed that he personally arrested a terrorist on the upper floor of the building adjacent to Red Square just when he was getting ready to shoot. Meshik said that he was awarded the Order of Lenin for this arrest.
A British correspondent Fitzroy MacClean who was present at the May Day parade stated that he noticed nervousness in the conduct of the Politbureau members. Some of them hardly watched the parade. According to MacClean only Stalin preserved an unperturbed mien.
On the other hand there is evidence that the coup was postponed. Just before the 1st of May in London it was announced that on the 12th of May there would be the coronation of George VI who had become the King after the abdication of Edward VIII. The Soviet delegation was invited for the ceremony and the Soviet Government decided that Tukhachevsky would be a leader of the delegation. According to Carell, Tukhachevsky ‘postponed the coup by three weeks. That was his fatal mistake’.
On the 3rd of May documents of Tukhachevsky were sent to the British Embassy in connection with his visit to London. But on the next day the papers were called back and it was announced that the Soviet admiral V. M. Orlov would be a chief of the delegation.
On the 10th of May it was announced that Tukhachevsky was relieved from the duties of the deputy of the People’ Commissar for Defence and made the commander of the Volga military district. On the 24th of May Stalin sent a circular letter to all the members and alternate members of the Party Central Committee. They were informed about the conspiratorial activities of Tukhachevsky and others. Since Tukhachevsky was an alternate member of the Central Committee, other members and alternate members of this highest body of the Party were asked to vote for or against his expulsion from the Party and transfer of his case to the NKVD. All the members and alternate members of the Central Committee supported the suggested measures against Tukhachevsky.
The leader of the conspiracy was arrested on the 27th of May. Between 19 and 31 his major collaborators were arrested. But one of them, the deputy People’s Commissar for Defence Y. B. Gamarnik committed suicide just before his arrest.
On the 2nd of June the session of the Military Council of the People’s Commissary of Defence was convened. Though the investigation was not over yet and it was probable that some of the participants of the plot were present at the session Stalin attended it and spoke before it.
He began his speech, saying: ‘Comrades, I think that now nobody has doubts about the existence of military-political conspiracy against the Soviet power’. Stalin explained the reason why the conspiracy was not exposed earlier by euphoria of the Party and the Soviet people. He said: ‘The general situation, the growth of our ranks, the achievements of the Army and the country as a whole decreased our political vigilance, diminished sharpness of our sight’.
Stalin spoke about the dependence of Tukhachevsky and other arrested commanders on the German military and suggested that the conspirators did not have any profound ideological platform. Stalin said: ‘What was their weakness? They lacked contact with the people... They relied on the forces of the Germans... They were afraid of the people’.
Stalin suggested that some of the military officers got involved into conspiracy out of sheer opportunism. At the same time Stalin spoke about some of the plotters who were intimidated by Tukhachevsky and others and were forced to join them. Stalin proposed to forgive such people if they came and honestly told about their participation in the plot.
Refuting concern expressed by some of the speakers at the session that the arrests among the military might weaken the Red Army Stalin said: ‘We have in our army unlimited reserves of talents... One should not be afraid to move people upwards’.
Though Stalin expressed hope that the number of conspirators was not great, soon many of the military, including some of those who participated at the 2nd of June session, were arrested. Among those who were arrested many were innocent. First and foremost their arrests were caused by the atmosphere created by many local Party officials (and Khrushchev was among the most active) who, instead of searching for political and social reasons for the military conspiracy started to foment mass hysteria. They used the Tukhachevsky conspiracy as a pretext to prove that the USSR was full of foreign spies and thus to retain administrative methods typical of the Civil War. (Later Khrushchev tried to conceal his participation in this witch hunt by putting all the blame for it upon Stalin.) The toll of arrested increased also due to slanderous accusations made by careerists in the NKVD, ready to get promotion for their successes in exposing ‘enemies of the people’, or by career-minded military officers, eager to take the posts of those who were arrested.
Now the Russian mass-media assert that the arrests and executions of the Red Army commanding officers were fatal for the development of the Great Patriotic War. It is claimed that the officers’ corps of the Red Army was almost decimated. Some point out that 40 thousand of the commanding officers were subjected to various reprisals in 1937 – 1939. In fact out of 37 thousand officers who were dismissed from the Army in this period about 9 thousand were those who died due to natural causes, got severe chronic diseases or were punished for non-political crimes and misbehaviour. Out of 29 thousand officers sacked for political offences 13 thousand were later restored to the Army. Many of them (like Marshal Rokossovsky) fought heroically in the Great Patriotic War. Four thousand were executed and about 12 thousand served their terms in the labour camps. Though these are large numbers, one should be aware that the total number of the Army officers in 1941 was 680 thousand.
In place of Tukhachevsky and his supporters came a new cohort of generals and marshals who proved quite worthy in performing their military duties. The recognition of this fact came from none other than Joseph Goebbels. When Nazi Germany was practically defeated he recognised at last the merits of those whom he for many years treated as representatives of an inferior race. In his personal diary Goebbels wrote on the 16th of March, 1945: ‘The General Staff presented me a book with biographies of Soviet generals and marshals... Most of them are young; almost none of them is over 50 years. They have a rich experience of revolutionary-political activity. They are convinced Bolsheviks, very energetic people. When one looks upon their faces one can see that they are made of healthy folk staff. Most of them are sons of workers, cobblers, small holding peasants, etc. In short, I must make an unpleasant conclusion that the military leaders of the Soviet Union are of better social origin than our own... From this book it is easy to see what mistakes we made in the previous years’.
Belatedly lamenting that Nazi Germany did not get rid of its own Tukhachevskys before it was too late, Goebbels explained the strength of the Red Army in the fact that it had strong ties with the popular masses. Inadvertently the chief of Nazi propaganda recognised the truth of Stalin when the latter spoke about ‘unlimited reserves of talents’ in the ranks of the Red Army and stated that Tukhachevsky and others ‘lacked contact with the people’ and ‘were afraid of the people’.
The victory over Nazi Germany and its allies achieved mostly by the Soviet effort would not be possible if the Soviet leadership failed to get rid of its ‘Fifth Column’, similar to those which existed in many countries of the world and which allowed Hitler to establish his control over half of Europe. Unfortunately by 1991 both the Soviet Army and the Party changed their character and lost most of their staunch ties with the people. These changes facilitated the temporary triumph of capitalist restoration forces over socialism.
Click here to return to the
September 2007 index.