Early this date in 1937,* Soviet Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevsky was executed by a gunshot to the head for allegedly plotting a coup d’etat against Stalin.
One of the most infamous trials** of the Soviet Union’s Great Purge, which would strip the Red Army of much of its officer corps on the eve of its existential test against the Wehrmacht, the Case of the Trotskyist Anti-Soviet Military Organization has always offered fodder for debating the whys and wherefores.
The bare facts are that nine extremely high-ranking members of the military brass were suddenly arrested and within a few weeks (except the one who committed suicide first) shot on the staggering charge of counterrevolutionary conspiracy. Foremost among the victims was Marshal of the Soviet Union Mikhail Tukhachevsky, notable in the annals of military history for pioneering (along with several other Soviet officers, notably Triandafillov) the military doctrine of “deep battle” or “deep operations”.
Reflecting on the grinding, indecisive struggles of attrition that characterized World War I and the Russian Civil War (both conflicts Tukhachevsky served in), he sought a theory of offensive warfare for modern armies fighting in large and complex engagements — the operational art. In an early (1923) formulation, Tukhachevsky noted
the impossibility in the presence of modern wide fronts to destroy an enemy army by a single blow compels us to achieve this by a series of successive operations … A series of annihilating operations, introduced successively and combined by continuous pursuit, can replace the annihilating engagement, which in former armies was a better type of combat. (Cited here.)
Deep operations would require sophisticated application of technology to strike an opposing army’s entire support structure behind its lines in coordinated operations, rather than the unproductive World War I tactic of throwing waves of cannon fodder across No Man’s Land in the hope of achieving a breakthrough by sheer mass alone. It ripened into official Red Army doctrine in the 1930’s, decreeing
[s]imultaneous assault on enemy defenses by aviation and artillery to the depths of the defense, penetration of the tactical zone of the defense by attacking units with widespread use of tank forces and violent development of tactical success into operational success with the aim of the complete encirclement and destruction of the enemy. The main role is performed by the infantry, and the mutual support of all types of forces are organized in its interests. (Cited here.)
The mystery has always been exactly why Stalin should shoot Tukhachevsky, even if any question beginning “why should Stalin shoot …” nearly answers itself.
Explanations particular to Tukhachevsky range from rivalries within the army (early blocs of officers appointed by Trotsky and Stalin formed professional rivalries; Trotsky had given Tukhachevsky his first Soviet command) to purely personal enmity between the two men. Many have speculated that a genuine “plot” of some sort — whether a coup or assassination, or more mundane political scheming — was indeed afoot against the Soviet dictator. Tukhachevsky’s (officially sanctioned) links with a German military then developing its own similar operational concepts have told against him in some readings.
Author Robert Conquest put about the theory that Heinrich Himmler’s intelligence operatives had contrived to pass the Soviets forged documents pointing to Tukhachevsky’s German collaboration, the better to weaken the Bolshevik defenses. Conversely — and in his diary, Goebbels attributed this riff on the Dolchstosslegende to Hitler himself — a contrarian take has long defended at least this particular purge as a judicious one by Uncle Joe, insuring that wartime Russia would not be hamstrung by “defeatist” elements or other players who might develop both the means and motive for ending the war on German terms.
Inquiries along these lines, of course, expand beyond the particular case into the larger questions of why Stalin purged the army as a whole, and what ultimate effect that purge had on the Soviets’ military readiness in 1941.
With Tukhachevsky’s fall, accompanied by other military reformers, the “deep operations” school acquired sufficient taint to abjure the company of the judicious officer. Nevertheless, Tukhachevsky’s influence would play its part in the Great War: his onetime associate Georgy Zhukov, who may have only accidentally avoided being purged himself, deployed Tukhachevskian mobile tactics to crush Japan’s Siberian aspirations at the Battle of Khalkhin-Gol in 1939; duly elevated for this victory to the precarious post of Marshal of the Soviet Union, Zhukov was a crucial commander in the defeat of Nazi Germany.
Tukhachevsky, along with all those shot this day, was rehabilitated during the Khrushchev era.
* The condemned received their death sentence at 23:35 on June 11, the sentence to be carried out “immediately” — it seems likely but not completely certain that it had become the 12th by the time the executions actually took place, and different sources report different different dates of death. According to the contemporaneous New York Times report, Soviet authorities announced that the executions had taken place on the 12th. (As an interesting side note, the Times that day also blurbed exiled Stalin rival Leon Trotsky reading in the tea leaves of Tukhachevsky’s death “the beginning of the end for the Stalinist dictatorship.”)
** Not, however, a show trial — Tukhachevsky et al were tried in secret.