Political commissar

Last updated

In the military, a political commissar or political officer (or politruk, a portmanteau word from Russian : политический руководитель, pronounced politicheskiy rukovoditel, translated "political leader", "political official"), is a supervisory officer responsible for the political education (ideology) and organization of the unit they are assigned to, this being intended to ensure civilian control of the military.


The function first appeared as commissaire politique (political commissioner) or représentant en mission (representative on mission) in the French Revolutionary Army during the Revolution (1789–99). [1] Political commissars were heavily used within the International Brigades during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). They also existed, with interruptions, in the Soviet Red Army from 1918 to 1942, as well as in the armed forces of Nazi Germany from 1943 to 1945 as Nationalsozialistischer Führungsoffiziere (national-socialist leadership officers). The function remains in use in China's People's Liberation Army.

Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc

An early kind of political commissar was established during the February Revolution 1917 as the Ispolkom issued the controversial Order no 1. [2] As the Bolsheviks came to power through the October Revolution 1917, and as the Russian Civil War began, Leon Trotsky gradually established the Red Army and imposed political officers. They were tasked with making sure that the communist party of the respective country could count on the loyalty of the Army. Although there was a huge difference between the February Revolution and the October Revolution, their leaders in each case feared a counter-revolution, and both regarded the military officers as the most likely counter-revolutionary threat. [3] [4]

In the Soviet Union

Heroic image of a Soviet political commissar of the 220th Infantry Regiment calling soldiers to an assault, Eastern Front, in Soviet Ukraine, 12 July 1942. RIAN archive 543 A battalion commander.jpg
Heroic image of a Soviet political commissar of the 220th Infantry Regiment calling soldiers to an assault, Eastern Front, in Soviet Ukraine, 12 July 1942.
Kombrig Leonid Brezhnev (right) giving a Communist Party membership card to a soldier (1942) Brezhnev 1942.jpg
Kombrig Leonid Brezhnev (right) giving a Communist Party membership card to a soldier (1942)

The political commissar is often associated with the Soviet Union (1922–91). The reasoning at start of this period was because the revolutionary military units were associated with different, and often conflicting, political goals, and there were many marxist political parties and movements at that time who despite differing doctrines supported the Bolsheviks' seizure of power. Each had party members and sympathizers among the military, and tried to use that to benefit their goals. The Left SRs and the Anarchists were vicious competitors, less popular among the lower ranks than Bolsheviks and often contesting them brutally. The Bolsheviks saw this as a matter of life and death during the ongoing civil war against the White movement. To gain permanent control over the entire military, they introduced the position of commissar. Another reason was the frequent appointment of ex-Tsarist officers to command positions. Worried about the influence of officers with potential White Army sympathies, the commissars helped to ensure that soldiers remained loyal to the Bolsheviks. After the Left SRs were left behind, the forces loyal to them split from the Red Army to create the Green armies, and guerrilla war soon erupted in the countryside along with civil war. The commissars' task was to prevent troops, both commanding officers and other soldiers, from leaning towards other forces. There were many examples of defiance and outspoken disobedience, with soldiers killing or exiling their commissars, and then switching sides to the Greens.[ citation needed ] After the Bolsheviks exterminated all rival armies, they became the one and only political entity.

In the Red Army and the Soviet Army, the political commissar (Russian : комиссар, romanized: komissar) existed, by name, only during the 1918–24, 1937–40, and 1941–42 periods; not every Red Army political officer was a commissar. The political commissar held military rank equaling the unit commander to whom he was attached; moreover, the commissar also had the military authority to countermand the unit commander’s orders at any time. During the other periods of the Red Army's history political officers were militarily subordinate to unit commanders, the position of political commissar did not exist.

The political supervision of the Russian military was effected by the political commissar, who was present in every unit and formation, from company- to division-level, including the navy. Revolutionary Military Councils (or Revvoyensoviets, RVS) were established at army-, front-, fleet-, and flotilla-level, comprising at least three members—commander and two political workers. The political workers were denominated "members of the RVS", not "commissars", despite their position as official political commissars.

In 1919, the title politruk (Russian : политрук, from политический руководитель, political leader) was assigned to political officers at company level. Despite their position as official political commissars, they were not addressed as "commissar". Beginning in 1925, the politico-military doctrinal course toward edinonachalie (Russian : единоначалие, single command) was established, and the political commissar, as a military institution, faded. The introduction of edinonachalie was two-fold, either the military commander joined the Communist Party and became his unit’s political officer, or a pompolit (Russian : помполит, assistant commander for political work) officer was commissioned sub-ordinate to him. Earlier, in 1924, the RVSs were renamed as Military Councils, such high-level political officers were known as ChVS (Chlen Voennogo Soveta, Member of the Military Council); they were abolished in 1934.

On 10 May 1937, the political commissar was re-instated to the Red Army, and Military Councils were created. These derived from the political purges in the Soviet armed forces. Again, in August 1940, the political commissars was abolished, yet the Military Councils continued throughout the German-Soviet War (1941–45), and after. Below army level, the edinonachalie (single command) system was restored. In July 1941, consequent to the Red Army’s defeats at the war’s start, the position of political commissar reappeared. The commissar had an influential role as a "second commander" within the military units during this time. Their rank and insignia generally paralleled those of officers. [5] Because this was ineffective, General Konev asked Stalin to subordinate the political officer to commanding officers: the commissars' work was re-focused to morale-related functions. The term "commissar" was abolished in August 1942, and at the company- and regiment-level, the pompolit officer was replaced with the zampolit (deputy for political matters). Although no longer known by the original "commissar" title, political officers were retained by all the Soviet Armed Forces, e.g., Army, Navy, Air Force, Strategic Missile Troops, et al, until the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Eastern Bloc armies

After World War II, other Eastern Bloc armies also used political officers patterned on the Soviet model. For example, East Germany's Nationale Volksarmee used Politoffiziere as the unit commander's deputy responsible for political education.

Red Army rank designations

Nazi Germany

From December 1943 until the defeat of Nazi Germany, the German armed forces created a network of political instructors to maintain National Socialist indoctrination of the Wehrmacht . [6] The officers, called Nationalsozialistische Führungsoffiziere (NSFO; "National Socialist Leadership Officers"), drawn from convinced officers and approved by Martin Bormann, head of the Nazi Party Chancellery, to instill ideological conviction and reinforce combat morale through training lessons and teaching. They had no direct influence on combat decisions as had the political commissar in the Soviet Army. At the end of 1944 more than 1,100 full-time and about 47,000 part-time instructors had been trained under the overall control of General Hermann Reinecke, commander of the National Socialist leadership staff at the OKW.

The NSFO Chiefs of Staff of the Service Branches were:


The position of political commissar (zhengwei, Chinese : 政治 委员 , 政委 ) also exists in the People's Liberation Army of China. Usually, the political commissar is a uniformed military officer and Communist Party cadre, although this position has been used to give civilian party officials some experience with the military. The political commissar was head of a party cell within the military; [ clarification needed ][ citation needed ] however, military membership in the party has been restricted to the lower ranks since the 1980s. Today the political commissar is largely responsible for administrative tasks such as public relations and counseling, and mainly serves as second-in-command.

The position of political commissar (Chinese : ) also exists in the Republic of China Army of the Republic of China (Taiwan). Chiang Ching-kuo, appointed as Kuomintang (Chinese Nationalist Party) director of Secret Police in 1950, was educated in the Soviet Union, and initiated Soviet style military organization in the Republic of China Military, reorganizing and Sovietizing the political officer corps, surveillance, and Kuomintang party activities were propagated throughout the military. Opposed to this was Sun Li-jen, who was educated at the American Virginia Military Institute. [7] Chiang Ching-kuo then arrested Sun Li-jen, charging him of conspiring with the American CIA of plotting to overthrow Chiang Kai-shek and the Kuomintang. Sun was placed under house arrest in 1955. [8] [9]

See also

Related Research Articles

Red Army 1917–1946 Soviet army and air force

The Workers' and Peasants' Red Army, frequently shortened to Red Army was the army and the air force of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic and, after 1922, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The army was established immediately after the 1917 October Revolution. The Bolsheviks raised an army to oppose the military confederations of their adversaries during the Russian Civil War. Beginning in February 1946, the Red Army, along with the Soviet Navy, embodied the main component of the Soviet Armed Forces; taking the official name of "Soviet Army", until its dissolution in December 1991.

Russian Civil War 1917–1922 multi-party conflict in Russia

The Russian Civil War was a multi-party civil war in the former Russian Empire immediately after the two Russian revolutions of 1917, as many factions vied to determine Russia's political future. The two largest combatant groups were the Red Army, fighting for the Bolshevik form of socialism led by Vladimir Lenin, and the loosely allied forces known as the White Army, which included diverse interests favouring political monarchism, capitalism and social democracy, each with democratic and anti-democratic variants. In addition, rival militant socialists, notably Makhnovia anarchists and Left SRs, as well as non-ideological Green armies, fought against both the Reds and the Whites. Thirteen foreign nations intervened against the Red Army, notably the former Allied military forces from the just-concluded World War with the goal of re-establishing the Eastern Front. Three foreign nations of the Central Powers also intervened, rivaling the Allied intervention with the main goal of retaining the territory they had received in the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk.

Long March Military campaign during the Chinese Civil War

The Long March was a military retreat undertaken by the Red Army of the Communist Party of China, the forerunner of the People's Liberation Army, to evade the pursuit of the Kuomintang army. There was not just one Long March, but a series of marches, as various Communist armies in the south escaped to the north and west. The best known is the march from Jiangxi province which began in October 1934 and ended in Yan'an, Shaanxi province in October 1935. The First Front Army of the Chinese Soviet Republic, led by an inexperienced military commission, was on the brink of annihilation by Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek's troops in their stronghold in Jiangxi province. The Communists, under the eventual command of Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai, escaped in a circling retreat to the west and north, which reportedly traversed over 9,000 kilometers over 370 days. The route passed through some of the most difficult terrain of western China by traveling west, then north, to Shaanxi.

Peng Dehuai Chinese politician and general

Peng Dehuai was a prominent Chinese Communist military leader, who served as China's Defense Minister from 1954 to 1959. Peng was born into a poor peasant family, and received several years of primary education before his family's poverty forced him to suspend his education at the age of ten, and to work for several years as a manual laborer. When he was sixteen, Peng became a professional soldier. Over the next ten years Peng served in the armies of several Hunan-based warlord armies, raising himself from the rank of private second class to major. In 1926 Peng's forces joined the Kuomintang, and Peng was first introduced to communism. Peng participated in the Northern Expedition, and supported Wang Jingwei's attempt to form a left-leaning Kuomintang government based in Wuhan. After Wang was defeated, Peng briefly rejoined Chiang Kai-shek's forces before joining the Communist Party of China, allying himself with Mao Zedong and Zhu De.

Xu Xiangqian

Xu Xiangqian was a Chinese Communist military leader and one of the Ten Marshals of the People's Liberation Army. He was the son of a wealthy landowner, but joined Chiang Kai-shek's National Revolutionary Army, against his parents' wishes, in 1924. When the Kuomintang began to fight the Communists in 1927, Xu left Chiang's forces and led a Communist army based in Sichuan under the political authority of Zhang Guotao. After Zhang was purged in the early 1930s, Xu survived politically and rejoined the Red Army, in a less senior position, under the leadership of Mao Zedong.

Commissar is an English transliteration of the Russian комиссáр (komissar), which means "commissary". In English, the transliteration "commissar" often refers specifically to the political commissars of Soviet and Eastern-bloc armies or to the people's commissars, while administrative officers are called "commissaries".

Vasily Blyukher

Vasily Konstantinovich Blyukher was a Soviet military commander and Marshal of the Soviet Union.

The 28 Bolsheviks (二十八个半布尔什维克) were a group of Chinese students who studied at the Moscow Sun Yat-sen University from the late 1920s until early 1935, also known as the "Returned Students". The university was founded in 1925 as a result of Kuomintang's founder Sun Yat-Sen's policy of alliance with the Soviet Union, and was named after him. The university had an important influence on modern Chinese history by educating many prominent Chinese political figures. The most famous of these were collectively called the 28 Bolsheviks.

Zunyi Conference

The Zunyi Conference was a meeting of the Communist Party of China (CPC) in January 1935 during the Long March. This meeting involved a power struggle between the leadership of Bo Gu and Otto Braun and the opposition led by Mao Zedong. The result was that Mao left the meeting in position to take over military command and become the leader of the Communist Party. The conference was completely unacknowledged until the 1950s and still no detailed descriptions were available until the fiftieth anniversary in 1985.

He Long

He Long was a Chinese Communist revolutionary and one of the ten marshals of the People's Liberation Army. He was from a poor rural family in Hunan, and his family was not able to provide him with any formal education. He began his revolutionary career after avenging the death of his uncle, when he fled to become an outlaw and attracted a small personal army around him. Later his forces joined the Kuomintang, and he participated in the Northern Expedition.

Soviet Armed Forces Combined military forces of the former Soviet Union (1912–1991)

The Soviet Armed Forces, also called the Armed Forces of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and Armed Forces of the Soviet Union were the armed forces of the Russian SFSR (1917–1922), the Soviet Union (1922–1991) and the Communist Party of the Soviet Union from their beginnings in the aftermath of the Russian Civil War to its dissolution on 26 December 1991. The Soviet Armed Forces ceased to exist on 25 December 1993.

First United Front

The First United Front, also known as the KMT–CPC Alliance, of the Kuomintang (KMT) and the Communist Party of China (CPC), was formed in 1924 as an alliance to end warlordism in China. Together they formed the National Revolutionary Army and set out in 1926 on the Northern Expedition. The CPC joined the KMT as individuals, making use of KMT's superiority in numbers to help spread communism. The KMT, on the other hand, wanted to control the communists from within. Both parties had their own aims and the Front was unsustainable. In 1927, KMT leader Chiang Kai-shek purged the Communists from the Front while the Northern Expedition was still half-complete. This initiated a civil war between the two parties that lasted until the Second United Front was formed in 1936 to prepare for the coming Second Sino-Japanese War.

Second United Front

The Second United Front was the alliance between the Chinese Nationalist Party and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to resist the Japanese invasion during the Second Sino-Japanese War, which suspended the Chinese Civil War from 1937 to 1941.

Wang Sheng was a general in the Republic of China Army from 1970, head of the General Political Warfare Department (總政治作戰部), and a close confidant to President Chiang Ching-kuo.

Joseph Stalin was the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union's Central Committee from 1922 until his death in 1953. In the years following Lenin's death in 1924, he rose to become the leader of the Soviet Union.

Joseph Stalin was a Georgian-born student radical who became a member and eventually became leader of the Bolshevik faction of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party. He served as the General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union from 1922 until his death in 1953. In the years following the death of Vladimir Lenin, he became the dictator of the Soviet Union, by manipulating and terrorizing others in order to destroy his opponents.

Vasily Badanov

Vasily Mikhaylovich Badanov was a Soviet military officer and general, best known for his leadership in the Tatsinskaya Raid (1942) and subsequent command of the 4th Tank Army (1943–1944).

Aleksandr Cherepanov

Aleksandr Ivanovich Cherepanov was a Soviet military leader.

Pompolit, or in merchant navy jargon pompa, was a rank on Soviet merchant and passenger ships as well as other ships sailing outside USSR borders. It is not to be confounded with politruk, which is the equivalent rank in military units.

The Establishment of Soviet power in Russia was the process of establishing Soviet power throughout the territory of the former Russian Empire, with the exception of areas occupied by the troops of the Central Powers, following the seizure of power in Petrograd on October 25, 1917, and in mostly completed by the beginning of the German offensive along the entire front on February 18, 1918.



  1. R. Dupuy, Nouvelle histoire de la France contemporaine: La République jacobine (2005) p.156
  2. Richard Pipes, The Russian Revolution, Swedish ISBN   91-27-09935-0, pp 106-108
  3. Richard Pipes, The Russian Revolution, Swedish ISBN   91-27-09935-0, p.120
  4. Isaac Deutscher,"Stalin",2nd edition, 1961, Swedish ISBN   91-550-2469-6, pp.168-169
  5. Commissar Ranks?
  6. Müller 2016, p. 14.
  7. Jay Taylor (2000). The Generalissimo's son: Chiang Ching-kuo and the revolutions in China and Taiwan. Harvard University Press. p. 195. ISBN   0-674-00287-3 . Retrieved 2010-06-28.
  8. Peter R. Moody (1977). Opposition and dissent in contemporary China. Hoover Press. p. 302. ISBN   0-8179-6771-0 . Retrieved 2010-11-30.
  9. Nancy Bernkopf Tucker (1983). Patterns in the dust: Chinese-American relations and the recognition controversy, 1949-1950. Columbia University Press. p. 181. ISBN   0-231-05362-2 . Retrieved 2010-06-28.


Müller, Rolf-Dieter (2016). Hitler's Wehrmacht, 1935-1945. Translated by Ancker, Janice W. University Press of Kentucky. ISBN   9780813168043.