To what extent was German involvement responsible for the persecution of Marshal Tukhachevsky?


A: Plan of Investigation

In 1938, the world was shocked when it was announced that Marshall Tukhachevsky was a German spy. Described by a contemporary New York Times article as “an extremely able and loyal military leader”[1], removal of such a key man in the Soviet army during a time of such international tension is perplexing. The circumstances surrounding Tukhachevsky’s persecution are such that they create much room to question Stalin’s motive. An extra dimension of intrigue is introduced by the involvement of the Germans, who have long been rumoured to have forged documents leading to Tukhachevsky’s arrest. This investigation therefore aims to discover precisely why Tukhachevsky was purged at such a critical moment, and to what extent German involvement can be attributed to his persecution. To do this, Stalin’s relationship with Tukhachevsky as well as the internal and international climates will be examined, using contemporary accounts and modern historical analysis.

B: Summary of Evidence

1918: Mikhail Nikolayevich Tukhachevsky joined the Red Army after having returned from German captivity in Ingolstadt. He was a bright star in the Red Army, and seemed destined to
1920: Tukhachevsky commanded the Soviet invasion forces in the Polish-Soviet war. During his advance on Warsaw, Tukhachevsky’s forces were defeated by Józef Piłsudski, because Stalin refused to use his forces to defend the left flank. [2] This caused long lasting enmity between the two.
1930: Stalin attempted to have Tukhachevsky excised from the Party. He ordered the OGPU to investigate allegations of a military coup. The results came back with nothing to incriminate Tukhachevsky.
1934: Tukhachevsky was appointed the youngest field Marshal of the Red Army in at the age of 42, and became Deputy Defence Commissar.
December 1st, 1934: Sergei Kirov is assassinated. Stalin creates the Terror Decree, which is the beginning of the Great Purges, while simultaneously solidifying his rule.
December, 1935: Russian émigré newspaper in Czechoslovakia, Znamia Rossii names a subversive group, KRASKOMOV, and states the core of the organization comprised high ranking Red Army officers.
Throughout 1936: Further edition of the newspaper describe KRASKOMOV, including its philosophy, plans for power and addresses criticism of the newspaper opening up the organization for persecution. [3]
January, 24th 1937: Karl Radek names Tukhachevsky in his interrogation about subversive action. Although never naming him as a conspirator, his name is mentioned 11 times in the deposition, and Vshinsky pushes Radek to go into more depth regarding the Marshall. Ominously, Radek is described as grinning during his deposition.[4]
May 11th, 1937: Tukhachevsky is sacked as Deputy Commissar, and is sent to the Volga district.[5]
11th February, 1937: President Edvard Beneš becomes aware of a possible coup d’état in Russia, although peace negotiations with Hitler end as early as the 11th of January.[6]
1937: Soviet press announce that 8 High ranking Red Army officers were found working for the Germans. One of those named was Marshal Tukhachevsky.[7]
22nd May 1937: Tukhachevsky was arrested in Moscow; his captors were under the instruction from Stalin that he was “to be forced to tell everything…it is impossible he worked alone.”[8]
11th June 1937: Tortured into submission, Tukhachevsky signed a complete confession, that he had been recruited in 1928 by Yenukidze to work against Stalin, and in cahoots with Bukharin .[9]
12th June 1937: Tukhachevsky was executed in the early hours of the morning.[10]
28th August, 1939: Molotov and Ribbentrop sign the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact, ensuring neutrality if either side were involved in a war.

C: Evaluation of Sources

In Stalin’s Secret Service: Memoires of the First Soviet Master Spy to Defect by W.G Krivitsky

Walter Germanovich Krivitsky was one of the first members of the Soviet Military Intelligence to defect and publicly denounce Stalin. Most widely known because of his very heavily publicised and suspicious death in the Washington Bellevue in 1941, when he was found dead by an apparently self-inflicted gunshot to the head. Given the fact that he was on the top of the NKVD’S most wanted list, this is inherently unlikely, although no formal investigation has ever been conducted. This shows they clearly knew he had valuable information he could divulge.
He had an in depth knowledge and first-hand account of Soviet movements in Europe. The NKVD surely saw him as a threat, as they put him at the top of their hit list, after he informed to the US and British governments about the Soviet Union. Therefore, he was conveniently and qualified to comment on the happening of the Tukhachevsky affair in 1937.
However, he refers to the Marshall as “my old friend”, and His book largely blames a growing fear of Hitler’s Germany for Moscow’s policies, clearly showing his prior leanings to the case. Similarly, he states explicitly that he feels it was his duty to inform on the Soviets. He also wanted to warn the Americans about the Soviets, and even testified in front of HUAC.

Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives by Alan Bullock

Written by eminent British Historian Alan Bullock in 1998, this dual biography was written to shed light on the two most infamous people of the twentieth century. This book values rom a detached, Western perspective, when passions inflamed could have cooled, as it was written after the archives became available, and much of the other information of Tukhachevsky came to light.
The book has a broad focus, although Bullock has a detailed account of the affair, enough attention to Tukhachevsky is paid. He focuses much more closely on the general purges of the Army and other Rightists during that time. Bullock’s purpose in writing this book was to compare Hitler and Stalin, and his ability to compare the Great Purges with the Night of Long Knives changes his perception of the facts, which differ. Secondly, Bullock is predominantly a specialist in German History, with his book Hitler: A Study in Tyranny. However, does not speak Russian and had to rely on other Translations and others Historians works, and so the veracity of his interpretation of the sources is somewhat weakened by degree.

D Analysis

The incredible ring of espionage and intrigue involving both the German and Soviet secret services makes the persecution of Tukachevsky all the more interesting. The only evidence used against Tukhachevsky in his actual trial in 1937 was his blood-spattered confession. Therefore, Stalin’s motivation and reasoning behind persecuting his most accomplished general remains under debate. Robert Conquest, in his 1968 book The Great Terror, points to Nazi forgeries, intended to weaken the Soviet Military platform.
These documents, supposedly planted through President Beneš of Czechoslovakia, were intended by Heinrich Himmler and Reinhard Heydrich to cause Stalin to purge his best General’s, thus weakening the USSRs defense capability. Having stopped in Berlin en route to Moscow (returning from George V’s funeral in London)[11], Tukhachevsky supposedly came into contact with German intelligence officials, who decided to use him. By copying his signature from the 1926 Soviet-Weimar military agreement, Heydrich was able to produce convincing documentation, incriminating Tukhachevsky.[12] However, recent evidence since the collapse of the Soviet Union, has actually pointed to the creation of this double false-hood to the NKVD. This interpretation is corroborated by the evidence W.G Krivitsky presents in his book, which sheds light on the vast intricacies of the Soviet intelligence agency. The hoax was so convincing that it even persuaded New York Times analysts, who were well away of the previous show trials; they actually believed a Red Army coup was planned.

The fact that so many high ranking Red Army officials were purged for being German spies, the year before Stalin signed the Nazi-Soviet pact, is also telling. By Stalin agreeing to the Nazi-Soviet Pact, it is clear that he predicted a German invasion. As early as 1931, Stalin was saying that the USSR only had 10 years to prepare for an attack. Why then, he needed to get rid of his most able military commander on the eve of such a conflict, points to the immediacy and expediency he saw necessary in the case. Stalin missed his own mother’s funeral to be present for the Tukhachevsky trial, which is especially enlightening about his reaction to these purges.

However, the reason for Tukhachevsky’s persecution cannot be only drawn from that evidence. His position within the party may have been doomed from time of the Polish-Soviet war. Stalin did not agree with High Command that he had to accept orders from Tukhachevsky, and from his failure to defend Tukhachevsky’s left flank, the Soviet Union missed the opportunity to take Poland. The deep enmity the two men felt towards each other cannot be understated, and so when seen in the context of Stalin’s perpetual paranoia, it is evident that the seeds of Tukhachevsky’s destruction were sown in the 1920’s. Stalin’s attempt to purge Tukhachevsky in 1930, 8 years before the beginning of the Great Purges, shows his impatience to be rid of him. Perhaps his impotence to do anything then solidified for him the real danger posed by the Red Army. Stalin knew they posed a real threat, and his inability to do anything in 1930 almost certainly heightened his need to be rid of Tukhachevsky as soon as an opportunity arose.

C Conclusion

The intelligence ring and creation of the double forgery are sufficiently complex for us to assume that they played a vital role in Tukhachevsky’s downfall. So much effort and intrigue was involved that the forged documents must have had an effect on his subsequent arrest. However, as it was not used in his trial, and only his tortured confession, which makes only vague allusion to the document, we cannot see for certain it being a cause. However, as it has already been shown that Stalin was searching for a reason to eject the Marshall from the Party, we see this new information from a different light. The intelligence ‘gained’ from Germany, can be therefore seen as having a catalysing effect on the Tukhachevsky trial. While Stalin was clearly paranoid, and carried a personal vendetta against Tukhachevsky, he was unable to touch him prior to receiving the condemnation, no matter how fake, of espionage.


Bullock, Alan. Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives. London: FontanaPress, 1998.
Getty, J. Arch and Oleg V. Naumov. The Road to Terror: Stalin and the Self´-Destruction of the Bolsheviks, 1932-1939. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999.
Krivitsky, W.G. In Stalin's Secret Service. New York: ENigma Books, 2000.
Lukes, Igor. Czechoslovakia between Stalin and Hitler. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.
Montefiore, Simon Seabad. Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar. New York: Random House, 2003.
New York Times Corportation. "Two High Officials Suspect in Soviet Trial." The New York Times. New York, 12 February 1937.
Rayfield, Donald. Stalin and His Hangmen. London: Penguin Publishing, 2004.
Waller, John H. The unseen war in Europe: espionage and conspiracy in the Second World War. n.d.

[1] (New York Times Corportation)
[2] (Bullock)pp.109
[3] (Lukes)pp. 94
[4] Ibid.
[5] (Montefiore) pp.222
[6] (Lukes) pp. 99
[7] (Getty und Naumov)pp. 444
[8] (Montefiore)pp. 222
[9] Ibid. pp223
[10] Ibid. pp225
[11] (Waller)
[12] (Waller)