Mikhail Tukhachevsky was only 42 years old when Joseph Stalin promoted him to the highest possible military rank in the Soviet Union.
As “Marshall of the Soviet Union”, Tukhachevsky had near supreme authority over all Soviet military forces. And he had been personally tasked by Stalin to modernize the military and prepare for war.
But Tukhachevsky’s new authority didn’t last very long. Shortly after assuming his duties as Marshall, he was quietly reassigned to an unimportant post… and subsequently arrested.
The year was 1936. And Tukhachevsky was suspected of plotting with the Germans to overthrow Stalin and implement a military dictatorship.
Tukhachevsky was brutally beaten while in captivity, and he confessed to being a Nazi spy after two days of relentless torture.
He was branded a traitor and executed.
Tukhachevsky wasn’t the only one, either. This was a period in Soviet history called the Great Terror, in which an extremely paranoid Stalin purged the military of anyone who showed any sign of ideological dissent.
The rest of the officers were quick to show Stalin that they were worthy, loyal comrades. Soldiers routinely ratted each other out and put each other on phony trials where a guilty verdict was a foregone conclusion.
During Tukhachevsky’s trial, one of the judges passionately recounted to the Soviet press how much he loathed traitors who were disloyal to Stalin:
“When I saw those scoundrels in the courtroom, I was shivering. A beast was in me. I didn’t want to judge them, but beat and beat them in a wild frenzy.”
This judge’s name was General Ivan Belov. And even though he tried so desperately to prove that he was a loyal party member by eagerly participating in the purge, Belov knew that the purge would eventually come for him:
“Tomorrow I shall be put in the same place [as Tukhachevsky].”
Belov was himself arrested, tried, and executed within eighteen months.
Over 36,000 Red Army officers were executed, sent to the gulag, or removed from command.
This included the vast majority of the upper ranks— people like Tukhachevsky who had designed the modern Red Army, and knew best how to run it.
The end result was that Stalin had severely weakened his own military, which is why the Soviets were totally unprepared when Hitler’s forces invaded a few years later.
In fact Stalin was at such a tactical disadvantage in the early days of World War II that he released many of the purged officers from the Gulag, and forced them back into the military to help fight off the Nazis.
Paranoid authoritarian leaders often fall victim to this impulse to demand ideological purity from their soldiers.
And in a bizarre way, this is what’s happening in the United States now that the Defense Department has ordered its own purge of “extremism” in the ranks.
Last month, the Secretary of Defense issued a memo on “Immediate Actions to Counter Extremism in the Military”and chose a man named Bishop Garrison to head the “Countering Extremism Working Group.”