Stalin`s Purges Less than a month before Hitler invaded Poland on September 1, 1939 and started World War II, he signed a non-aggression pact with Stalin. Less than two years later, he broke the pact and invaded the Soviet Union in the early morning hours of June 22, 1941. There were plenty of evidence for German aggression before the war broke out, yet Stalin nevertheless signed the pact which contained the secret protocol that divided Poland between Germany and the Soviet Union. The reason for signing the pact were complex, yet one of the most important ones were the domestic factors. Among them, the terrible effect of the purges during the 1930s on the population, economy and especially the army.
The purges were set off on December 1, 1934 with the murder of Sergei Kirov. He was a member of the Politburo, leader of the Leningrad party apparatus and had considerable influence in the ruling elite. His concern for the workers in Leningrad and his skill as an orator earned him considerable popularity. Stalin used his murder as a pretext for launching a broad purge that would claim hundreds of thousands of victims and have lasting repercussion felt to this day. Stalin never visited Leningrad again and directed one of his most vicious post-War purges against the city — Russia’s historic window to the West.
No segment of the society was left untouched by the purges. Anyone who caused the slightest suspicion was removed and numerous legislature was enacted to help enforce them. In 1935 a law was passed which lowered the age of criminal responsibility. That meant the death penalty could be applied to twelve-year-old children (McCauley, p.93). There was also a panic response in the primary party organizations to expel and “expose” people in order to protect oneself and to show “vigilance” (Getty, p.213) The slaughter of armed forces began on 12 June 1937 when Tukhachevsky and some top army men were executed, then spread to lower ranks and then to political comissars.
The nave was completely decapitated, all eight admirals perishing. Here’s a grave list of the top dead: ” 3 out of 5 marshals, 14 out of 16 Army commanders Class I and II, 8 out of 8 Admirals, 60 out of 67 Corps Commanders, 136 out of 199 Divisional Commanders, 221 out of 397 Brigade Commanders” (McCauley, p.95) In November 1939, Stalin ordered an attack on Finland to move the frontier further away from Leningrad after the Finns did not agree to the concessions Soviets offered. This expedition was a complete fiasco. It cost the already decimated Red Army around 200,000 dead and more were wounded, while only 23,000 Finns died (McCauley, p.101). A peace treaty was signed on 12 March, 1940, but the incompetence and weakness of the Red Army was revealed to the rest of the world.
This is something Hitler filed it away for future use. After that, and faced with increasing German aggression, Stalin could not risk being embroiled in a war. Hitler was in a great hurry. An attack on Poland was scheduled for late August. By the end of July the Nazis realized that they must reach agreement with the Soviets very soon if these plans were to be safely implemented. Hitler agreed to pay the Soviet price for a pact.
The public text of the Nazi-Soviet Pact was simply an agreement of nonaggression and neutrality, referring as a precedent to the German-Soviet neutrality pact of 1926 (Berlin Treaty). The real agreement was in a secret protocol which in effect partitioned not only Poland (along the line of the Vistula), but much of Eastern Europe. To the Soviets were allotted Finland, Estonia, Latvia, and Bessarabia; to the Nazis, everything to the West of these regions, including Lithuania. Each of the two signatories was to ask the other no questions about the disposition of its own ”sphere of interest.” This nonaggression pact, coupled with the trade treaty and arrangements for large-scale exchange of raw materials and armaments, amounted to an alliance. Appeasement in Eastern Europe would deflect German aggression to the west.
Taking into account the disastrous condition of Russian forces brought about from within and the severe problems of the economy, this was necessary for Stalin. In a way, by signing the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact, he was buying as much time as possible to try prepare for the inevitable. The inevitable happened on June 22, 1941. Molotov broke to the Russian people the grim news about the German attack. Stalin, as if embarrassed by the disastrous collapse of his hopes, shunned the limelight.
He did not utter a single word in public for almost two weeks. He apparently waited to see what the results of the first battles would be, what the attitude of Great Britain and the United States would be, and what the feeling in his own country would be. Locked up with his military leaders, he discussed measures of mobilization and strategic plans. In the first years of the war, Soviet losses were much higher than necessary. The true cost of the purges had now to be paid.
Morale was not very high in the army. About two million prisoners were taken in the first year of the war. The total reached five million in November 943, and there was widespread defeatism among the public (McCauley, p.113). However, not all Soviet casualties were due to the Germans. Many senior officers were court-martialed during this period. “Colonel-General D.G.Pavlov, commander of the Western Front, his chief of staff and some other officers were called to Moscow, court-martialed and shot on 30 June, 1941 for incompetence.
They were unfairly treated, as was later admitted. Stalin loosed the NKVD on the military, reminiscent of 1937, and the political police exacted savage retribution on anyone who did not fulfil orders or who had carried out his orders unsuccessfully”(McCauley, p.129). Only at Stalingrad, in 1943, did the tide of war turn in favor of the Soviet Union. There are all indication that Hitler could have easily taken Moscow and Leningrad had he continued north and not turned his attention south towards Ukraine. Although there is no dispute as to the horror and losses brought on by Stalin’s paranoid decisions in the 1930s, the actual number of casualties remains uncertain. Only recently have some of the most significant archives been declassified and allowed a new wave of research to start up.
In addition, many of the records were destroyed at the time, presumably those with the most sensitive information. Some researchers claim that “in its worst year approximately only 7.7% of the Red army’s leadership was discharged” (Getty, p.213). Another factor complicating ascertaining the actual casualties is political. Subject of Stalin is inextricably linked to ideology, communism, and socialism, topics that hardly leave anyone without strong emotions on one or the other side. Thus, many works even with the best intentions of unbiased research can be subconsciously marred by political bias. There’s hope that with the continued declassification more documents will appear from the archives that will be able to shed more light on this very dark subject.
The dispute as to the exact toll of the purges will probably never be settled. The final count may never be known. However, it will always remain undisputed that the purges during the 1930s initiated by Joseph Stalin brought massive repercussion in all sectors of the society and greatly endangered Soviet Union’s sovereignty and viability. Bibliography Stalinist Terror: New Perspectives, edited by J. Arch Getty and Roberta T. Manning, Cambridge University Press, 1993 William R. Keylor, The Twentieth Century World: An International History, Oxford University Press, New York, 1996 Martin McCauley, The Soviet Union Since 1917, Longman Group Limited, New York, 1981 Revelations from the Russian Archives, Library of Congress, 1996 http://lcweb.loc.gov/exhibits/archives/intro.html.