The Stalinist Era: The Great Purges--Show Trials


Figure 1.--.

Stalin ordered a series of spectacular show as the center pices of the Great Terror--a term historians have appropriated from the French Revolution. At the show trial, prominent officials and military officers including many Old Bolshevicks who made the Revolution were forced to admit to ludicrous accounts of treason. The Great Terror included a series of three elaborately staged and publicized show trials. The first Show Trial (July-August 1936) which shocked the world included high-ranking Communists who had dared to question Stalin. The defendents included Lev Kamenev, Grigorii Zinoviev, and fourteen others. They were accused of organizing a Trotskyite-Zinovievite terrorist center in 1932. Thus was in keeping with Stalin's first tactic of attacking left-wing critics allied with Trotsky within the Party. Trotsky was the former commander of the Red Army and Stalin's rival in his rise to power. They were accused of assassinating of popular Lenningrad boss Sergei Kirov in December 1934. (Most historians believe Stalin was actually responsible.) Stalin was reportedly dissatisfied with Yagoda's handling of the investigation and number of executions. Other historians believe he wanted to eliminate all knowledge of his involvement in the Kirov assasination. Stalin thus replaced Yagoda with Yezhov as head of the NKVD following the first trials.. The Second Show Trial (September 1936) quickly followed Yezhov's promotion. The defendents with the Old Bolshevicks now eliminated included Iurii Piatakov and other leading figures in the industrialization drive. The Third Show Trials were launched at the plenary session of the Party's Central Committee (February-March 1937). The defebdents jncluded Nikolai Bukharin and Aleksei Rykov They were the leading Party members associated with what Stalin described as the the so-called Rightist deviation (late-1920s and early-1930s) who had questioned Stalin;s leadership. They were accused of having collaborated with the Trotskyite-Zinovievite terrorists as well as with foreign intelligence agencies. They along with Yagoda and others were in due course tried, convicted, and sentenced to death (March 1938).

Preparation (October 1936 - February 1937)

The first step was to prepare the security organizations and to develop specifics plans on purging the elites.

First Show Trial (July-August 1936)

The purging of the existing Soviet elite was Stlin's first objective. This began with the arrest of the Old Bolsevicks that had prominant roles in the Revolution, including many of Stalin's closest associates. The first Show Trial (July-August 1936) which shocked the world included high-ranking Communists who had dared to question Stalin. The defendents included Lev Kamenev, Grigorii Zinoviev, and fourteen others. They were accused of organizing a Trotskyite-Zinovievite terrorist center in 1932. Thus was in keeping with Stalin's first tactic of attacking left-wing critics allied with Trotsky within the Party. Trotsky was the former commander of the Red Army and Stalin's rival in his rise to power. They were accused of assassinating of popular Lenningrad boss Sergei Kirov in December 1934. (Most historians believe Stalin was actually responsible.)

Second Show (September 1936)

Stalin was reportedly dissatisfied with Yagoda's handling of the investigation and number of executions. Other historians believe he wanted to eliminate all knowledge of his involvement in the Kirov assasination. Stalin thus replaced Yagoda with Yezhov as head of the NKVD following the first trials.. The Second Show Trial (September 1936) quickly followed Yezhov's promotion. The defendents with the Old Bolshevicks now eliminated included Iurii Piatakov and other leading figures in the industrialization drive.

Third Show Trial (February-March 1937)

The Third Show Trials were launched at the plenary session of the Party's Central Committee (February-March 1937). The defebdents jncluded Nikolai Bukharin and Aleksei Rykov They were the leading Party members associated with what Stalin described as the the so-called Rightist deviation (late-1920s and early-1930s) who had questioned Stalin;s leadership. They were accused of having collaborated with the Trotskyite-Zinovievite terrorists as well as with foreign intelligence agencies. They along with Yagoda and others were in due course tried, convicted, and sentenced to death (March 1938).

Secret Red Army Court Martial (June 1937)

Stalin and his principal instrument, the NKVD, go around to the Red Army. Stalin ordered the arrest of General Mikhail Tukhachevsky (May 22, 1937). He and seven other senior Red Army commanders were charged with organizing a "right-wing-Trotskyist" military conspiracy and spying for NAZI Germany. The arrests were reportedlu based on confessions obtained from other arrested officers. Of course in the Soviet system this meant that these officers were simply tortured until they confessed to what Stalin wanted them to say. Some Western historians until the collapse of the Soviet Union (1991), insusted that the case against the Red Army generals was based on forged documents planted by Admiral Canaris' Abwehr in an effort to weaken the Red army. It was argued that the Abwehr documents convinced Stalin that Tukhachevsky was orcestrating a Red Army plot to depose him. Following the disolution of the Soviet Union, Soviet archieves were partially opened to Western researchers. Most historians now believe that Stalin from the beggining concocted an entirely fictitious plot as [part of his wider program of purges. He chose the best known and most respected of his generals-- Tukhachevsky. And the charges of treason were used to eliminate him and others in a believable manner. [Lukes, p. 95.] There was a German connection. Stalin's ordered NKVD agent Nikolai Skoblin to pass information to Reinhard Heydrich, chief of the German Sicherheitsdienst (SD) intelligence unit fabricated information proving that Tukhachevsky and the other Soviet generals were plotting to depose Stalin. (Heydrich was earlier involved with forging documents in the Night of the Long Knives operation.) Heydrich saw an opprtunity to not only weaken the Red Army, but also undermine his rival, Admiral Canaris. He ordered that documents be forged implicating Tukhachevsky and other Red Army commanders. As a result of the Rapollo Accords, many Red army commanders had contacts with Wehrmacgt officers. These documents were passed to the Soviets through Czech President Beneš and other neutral parties. Stalin's archives were found to include some of these documents which puport to show a connection between Tukhachevsky and the NAZI leadership. Heydrich and other NAZIs were convinced that they had tricked Stalin into executing his best generals. It now appears that they had simply aided Stalin in pusuing the purge that he had concoted on his own. Of course it could be that they did help convince Stalin that there were in reality traitors working against him. It is difficult to know just what was happening in the depths of Stalin's mind. Unlike many other important officials tried as part of the purges, Tukhachevsky and other top generals were not tried in public. The court martial to the extent it actually occurred was conducted in secret (June 11). The German documents apparently were not used, but rather confessions extracted through torture or extortion (threats asgainst the family) was the principal evidence. Tukhachevsky and his fellow officers were shot immediately after the court martial. [Rayfield, p. 324.] While the German role appears to have been minimal. The impact on the Red Army was not.

Mass Repression (July 1937 - October 1938)

The groups targeted for mass repression was the kulaks, selected ethnic minorities, family members of those purged, military officers, and so-called saboteurs in agriculture and industry. Orders went out to NKVD offices throughout the country with quotas to be filled. Some NKVD offices sought to impress headquaters by exceeding their quota. The height of the trrror was 1937-38. The institutions of the Soviet state were affected, including the Red Army. Not only was this the only institution that could threaten Stalin. As a result of the Rapollo Treaty (1922), large numbers of Red Armny officers had associations wih German officers. The secret trial and execution of General Tukhachevsky and his colleagues was just the beginning. A massive purge of the Red Army followed which eliminated many of the most competent and experienced commanders and officers. The result was a severe loss of some of the best trained and most professionl military officers. This undoubtedly was a factor in the poor perfornmance of the Red Army at the onset of Barbarossa (June 1941).






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Created: 7:50 PM 12/7/2007
Last updated: 8:42 PM 5/21/2012



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