Erich Wollenberg’s

The Red Army


Few foreigners to the Soviet Union have been in a better position than Erich Wollenberg to write about the foundation and early history of the Red Army. Despite some political weaknesses, his book offers valuable testimony to the character of the Red Army in its early years as well as to its degeneration and decapitation under Stalin. The qualitative change it underwent in the 1930s, nowhere more vividly described than here, is an indispensable aspect of the rise of Stalinism. The whole previous history of the Red Army was subsequently rewritten and distorted. The role of its founder, Leon Trotsky, was expunged from the record altogether, while that of Stalin and his supporters was grossly exaggerated. A major virtue of Wollenberg’s book is that it sets the record straight on these matters.

Wollenberg himself was born into a middle-class German family in 1892. His father was a doctor and he was studying medicine when World War I broke out. He volunteered for the imperial army and became a lieutenant. As a front-line fighter he was wounded five times, but disgust with the slaughter brought him into contact with the working-class movement. In 1918 he jointed the revolutionary movement which swept Germany as the Kaiser’s regime went down to defeat. He became a member of the Independent Social Democratic Party and later of the Communist Party of Germany (KPD). In 1918 he led a group of Red sailors in Konigsberg and he was one of the military leaders of the short-lived Bavarian Soviet, commanding the infantry of the Dachau Army Group. Under the name of Walter he was later one of the chief military experts of the Communist movement in Germany and internationally. His part in preparing for the rising of 1923 forced him to leave Germany where a court had described him as one of the most dangerous men in the country. In 1929 he was to write Als Rotarmist von Munchen describing his experiences.

In Moscow Wollenberg completed his military studies and in turn became a Red Army instructor, coming into close contact, as his book shows, with brilliant young commanders like Tukhachevsky who had risen to positions of leadership during the Civil War. Evidently at this period he was completely at one with the revolution, seeing the Russian Revolution of 1917 as only the first stage in the world revolution, and the Red Army itself not as a national army, but as an army at the service of the world working class. Disillusionment set in as Stalin’s policy of ‘socialism in one country’ was imposed upon the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and the Communist International as a whole. Wollenberg could not stomach this change. He fell foul of Stalinism and was forced to quit the Soviet Union. He was unable to return to his native Germany where he was a wanted man. He took refuge in France and then in North Africa and it was there, apparently, that he linked up with the American Forces after the landings of November 1942. He was Press Officer for the US Army in Bavaria after World War II and became a journalist and writer on Soviet and military matters. Although he drifted into some dangerous political positions, as his book already indicates, Wollenberg remained loyal to his own past. There is no sign that he had any regrets about the part he had played as the organiser and leader of insurrection in Germany or his connection with the Red Army when it was still the army of international revolution.

From the opening pages of his book Wollenberg insists that the study of the Red Army is not an academic question but part of the preparation for revolution. In his native land he had witnessed the /destruction of the old army, but only in Russia, where the revolution was successful, was it followed by the building of a new army. The conditions for this were, however, most unfavourable. The old Russian Imperial army largely disintegrated and melted away in the course of the revolution. It had been composed mainly of peasants, many of whom hastened back to their villages to take part in the seizure and redistribution of land made possible by the overthrow of Tsarism. On the side of the revolution at the outset there were only the Red Guards, formed to carry through the insurrection and protect the gains of the revolution, and the guerrilla bands of armed peasants formed to defend the land won during the revolution. From this sprang a conflict of some importance in Soviet military circles, in which guerrilla warfare was counterposed to the need for a disciplined modern army.

It was soon evident that to combat the counterrevolutionary forces based upon the old officer corps, led by professional soldiers and backed by foreign imperialism, the revolution would have to build its own army. This task was entrusted to Leon Trotsky as People’s Commissar of War. Undoubtedly Trotsky was the dominating influence in the early history of the Red Army and, as Wollenberg conclusively shows, its main architect. The scale of the Civil War and foreign intervention meant that the survival of the Soviet regime depended entirely upon the Red Army and particularly its leadership. As Trotsky saw from the start, improvisation was inevitable, making use of what material lay at hand, including military specialists from the old army not sympathetic towards the aims of the revolution.

The Red Army, Trotsky saw, had to be based upon the ideas of the worldwide socialist revolution. Like all great revolutions, the Bolshevik Revolution had to arm itself, but the Red Army, issuing from a proletarian revolution, was from the start quite different from any previous army in history. It had to create a new body of qualified officers while maintaining the closest class solidarity between all ranks. While calling upon the old military cadres who possessed knowledge of military science without which the army could not be built, everything was done to raise the level of political consciousness of the soldiers. Although Trotsky was dismissed from his post when Stalin, flanked by Zinoviev and Kamenev, assumed power after Lenin’s death, down until the 1930s the Red Army continued to display many of the traits he had stamped upon it: its internationalism, its comradeship and its political consciousness. Despite all the pressure from Stalin and the bureaucracy, commanders like Tukhachevsky would never say a word publicly against their old chief.

It was ironic that the Red Army should fall under the control of Stalin, his cronies and toadies whose irresponsibility, indiscipline and tactical errors had caused it serious damage. Against the Stalinist myths, Wollenberg tells the true story of the Civil War and the Polish campaign. In the first, it was Voroshilov, backed by Stalin, whose insubordination led to the failure of the southern army around Simbirsk. According to Tukhachevsky this caused the Civil War to be prolonged by two years. Trotsky, working from, his famous armoured train, had to take personal charge of the operations at Sviyazhsk to retrive the situation in the campaign brilliantly described by Larissa Reissner in an article quoted by Wollenberg. In a similar disregard for orders during the Polish campaign, the armies on the south-western front under the command of Voroshilov and Yegorin, with Stalin’s support, disregarded orders to march against Lublin and instead dissipated their cavalry and other troops in a fruitless assault on Lwow. Again, Tukhachevsky was the severest critic of this blunder which cost the war and forced the Red Army to retreat.

Clearly, Stalin never forgot nor did he forgive Tukhachevsky, undoubtedly the most brilliant of the Red Army commanders, for his criticisms. Stalin’s revenge was bloody: it was to cost the lives not only of Tukhachevsky but of the leading figures of the General Staff and tens of thousands of the best military cadres of the Soviet forces in 1938.

Wollenberg devotes a special chapter to Trotsky and the Red Army and generally supports his views on military doctrine. Trotsky was a determined opponent of those who idealised guerrilla methods or who worshipped ‘the total offensive’. He saw that the Red Army had to be built up in the most methodical way with the emphasis on training, organisation and technical efficiency as well as on political consciousness. Although generally an admirer of Tukhachevsky who, like himself, had come over to the side of the revolution from the officer corps of the old army, Wollenberg comes down decidedly on Trotsky’s side over the Polish campaign. Tukhachevsky put too much confidence in the ability of the Red Army to awaken working class support against the Polish bourgeoisie. Trotsky was the only member of the Central Committee to warn of the dangers of trying to carry the revolution into ethnic Poland on the point of the bayonet, and he was proved right.

Although Wollenberg supported Trotsky on military questions, he was a critic of Trotsky’s political line in the 1920s and 1930s as this book shows. A word of caution is therefore necessary about his own political standpoint. Wollenberg knew at first hand of the Stalinist degeneration and his witness to its effects on the Red Army is one of the most valuable parts of this book. However, there seems little doubt that the effect of Stalinism was to disorient him politically and he lost confidence in the working class.

This tendency is still more evident in the later edition of this book to which he added several chapters on the political developments in the Soviet Union. Even in this edition he speaks of the bureaucracy as a new ruling class and he was later to adopt the view that the Soviet Union had become a state capitalist country. Wollenberg fails to defend this thesis with any convincing analysis, nor does he give any substance to his criticisms of Trotsky’s policies or propose an alternative. Disillusioned with the Stalinist course during which the officers of the Red Army to whom he had been closely attached were sent wantonly to their death, he turned into an aimless commentator. This reaction is understandable, but it is not excusable. Wollenberg was better versed in military science than in Marxism.

The reader should thus be alerted to the political weaknesses and dangers of this book, which were to be demonstrated in Wollenberg’s own evolution. Nevertheless it conserves considerable value as both historical evidence and personal testimony regarding the Russian Revolution and its degeneration. In its early years the Red Army was indeed an army of a new type, the product of a great revolution like Cromwell’s New Model Army and the armies of the French Revolution. Unlike them it was a working class army, an army of the future. It was already showing that the proletariat was capable of mastering the most advanced military techniques necessary in the struggle against capitalism and able to make innovations of its own. To the surprise of some, they will learn that it was Trotsky and not Guderian or De Gaulle who was the first advocate of mechanised divisions. It was the Red Army, under Tukhachevsky, which first trained parachute regiments, the idea being that they would drop behind enemy lines and link up with detachments of workers fighting against their imperialist rulers.

Unfortunately the Red Army fell victim to the dead hand of the Stalinist bureaucracy. The devastation wrought in its ranks by the murder of Tukhachevsky and his companions and the mass purges of the command structure meant that when the Wehrmacht struck in June 1941, the Soviet forces had to retreat hundreds of miles and were brought to the brink of defeat. Only the resurgence during the war of the same revolutionary spirit which had animated the Red Army during the Civil War made victory possible. It was no thanks to the Voroshilovs and Budennys, Stalin’s favourites, who proved to be spent forces. But once victory had been assured Stalin made sure that the army was brought strictly under control. Above all he feared that the truth would become known about the past. In the course of the political revolution against the bureaucracy the Soviet working class will have to open up all the archives and discover the truth. This book by Wollenberg is a contribution to setting history straight as far as the Red Army is concerned.

New Park Publications, Ltd,