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Review: "The Red Army and the Great Terror: Stalin's Purge of the Soviet Military"

Updated on May 17, 2018
Larry Slawson profile image

Larry Slawson received his Masters Degree in History at UNC Charlotte. He specializes in Russian and Ukrainian history.

"The Red Army and the Great Terror"
"The Red Army and the Great Terror" | Source


Throughout historian Peter Whitewood’s book, The Red Army and the Great Terror: Stalin’s Purge of the Soviet Military, the author provides a detailed and thorough analysis of the Soviet military during the Great Purges of the 1930s. By examining this particular time period, Whitewood’s book provides a detailed account about the countless officers (as well as enlisted men) who were imprisoned or executed as a result of Stalin’s decision to purge his officer corps. Why did Stalin purge his military forces, particularly with the threat of Nazi Germany building in the West? More importantly, why did Stalin feel that a purge of the military was even necessary during this time, given the Soviet Union's relative economic and political stability? Whitewood’s work provides answers to all of these questions, and argues that the purges were a direct result of fear and paranoia that had swept the upper echelons of the Soviet regime for years. Rather than being part of an intricate and long-term plan, however, Whitewood argues that Stalin’s desire to eliminate top members of the military was more of a “spur of the moment” event that reflected his desire to root out “enemies” to the Soviet regime – particularly, followers of his former enemy, Leon Trotsky.

Whitewood's Main Points

Convinced by falsified reports and unsubstantiated information that dated all the way back to the time of the Russian Civil War (1917), Whitewood proclaims that Stalin greatly (and genuinely) feared the possibility of a large insurrection within the Soviet Army that would topple his regime. For Stalin, this was even more of a threat than the potential of a Nazi-led invasion of the USSR, given that the army represented an internal threat capable of rapid mobilization. Therefore, as Whitewood asserts, Stalin undertook plans aimed at dismantling and destroying any potential enemies within the Soviet military that could disrupt Soviet expansion, and that could potentially weaken his grip over society in general.

Concluding Thoughts

For his research, Whitewood focuses primarily on archival evidence that incorporates secret police reports (OGPU documents), as well as correspondence between Stalin and his party leaders. In doing so, Whitewood’s account of the purges is unique in that it highlights an aspect of the Great Purges that is often ignored by modern historians; namely, that the Stalinist regime possessed no prior plans to eliminate its own military members. As Whitewood clearly demonstrates in this work, the decision to purge was a direct result of conspiracies and beliefs that flooded Soviet society and culture in the years prior to 1936. As such, this is a work that should not be ignored by amateur and professional historians who are interested in the historiographical debates surrounding the Soviet Union's "Great Purges."

All in all, I give this work 5/5 Stars and highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in an early history of the Soviet era; particularly the years surrounding Stalin's rise to power. This work offers a unique perspective to the purges and the years building up to the Second World War. Definitely check it out if you get the opportunity! You will not be disappointed.

Questions to Facilitate Group Discussion:

1.) What was Whitewood's main thesis? What argument(s) does the author make in his analysis of the Great Purges? Do you agree or disagree with his overall findings? Why or why not?

2.) What sort of primary source material does Whitewood rely on in this book? Does this reliance help or hinder his overall argument(s)?

3.) Who is the intended audience for this piece? Can scholars and general audiences appreciate (and benefit) from the contents of this work?

4.) What were some of the strengths and weaknesses of this book? In what ways could Whitewood have improved this work?

5.) Does the author organize this book in a logical and convincing manner? Do each of the chapters flow naturally and smoothly with one another? Why or why not?

6.) What did you learn after reading this book? Were you surprised by any of the author's findings?

7.) Would you be willing to recommend this work to a family member or friend? Why or why not?

8.) Are the author's findings significant? In other words, does this reinterpretation of the Great Purges affect modern historiography in a profound manner? Why or why not?

9.) What contributions do you feel that Whitewood makes to the field of history? Can other scholarly fields benefit from this work as well?

Do you agree with Whitewood's overall argument?

See results

Works Cited:

Whitewood, Peter. The Red Army and the Great Terror: Stalin’s Purge of the Soviet Military. (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2015).

© 2017 Larry Slawson


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