In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Political Purges in the 20th Century

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Comparative Historical Studies
  • Communist and Nationalist Ideologies in Europe
  • Hitler’s Purges
  • Allied Purges after World War II
  • Mao’s Cultural Revolution
  • Purges under South American Dictatorships
  • Democratization after Communism and Dictatorship

Military History Political Purges in the 20th Century
Bianka Adams
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 August 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0138


The 20th century began as the old world order ended. Empires fell at the end of World War I, and new states emerged from their ashes. The unsettled political atmosphere was rife with ideological revolutionaries, who seized their chances to establish novel types of regimes. The new communist, fascist, and National Socialist systems thrived, capitalizing on the fears of uprooted populations—mostly riding waves of popular approval. The rulers wasted no time using all manner of modern bureaucratic and technological advances to purge their real or perceived political enemies. In a political purge, states or elites in power use military and police forces to remove people they consider disloyal, dangerous, or otherwise undesirable from influential positions in government or the economy, or from society as a whole. The armed forces conducting purges may be loyal to a national government, an occupying power, or a political movement trying to replace the government. Political purges, which can be peaceful or violent, can result in simple removal from office, imprisonment, exile, or death of members of political organizations or governments, or adherents of political ideologies. Another form of removal of undesirables from state or society is genocide. While a state or dominant group that engages in genocide might have political motives, its victims share communal traits such as nationality, ethnicity, race, or religion. In 1948, the United Nations General Assembly’s Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (United Nations General Assembly 1948, cited under “General Overviews”) defined what constituted genocide and provided the legal basis for prosecution of these crimes. Accordingly, genocide is the intent to destroy a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group by killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to its members; deliberately inflicting living conditions that lead to its physical destruction; imposing measures to prevent births; or forcibly transferring children of the group to another group. Not mentioned in the provisions of the convention were groups persecuted for political reasons. Historians have speculated about the abysmal human rights records of some of the signatory states, most prominently the Soviet Union, as motivation for the exclusion. For several decades after the convention went into effect in 1951, the distinction between genocide and political purges remained vague. In the mid-1990s, research into political purges adopted a new category to distinguish politicides, defined as mass killing of groups of people who are targeted because of position in society or political opposition to the government, from genocides. Still, clear differentiation in every case remains elusive, because victim groups are often ethnically defined and politically active. The concept of politicide serves as the guiding principle for the selection of works in this article.

Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government, the Department of Defense, the Department of the Army, or the US Army Corps of Engineers.

General Overviews

A number of works in historical sociology and political science provide the theoretical underpinnings of the study of political purges. While Fein 1993 advances understanding about the causation and prevention of genocides, Harff and Gurr 1988 develops a typology that distinguishes between genocides and politicides. Harff and Gurr 1998 expands on the typology and develops theoretical models as a basis for systematic early warning of future incidents. Licklider 1995 concentrates on the increased risks of mass killings of victim groups at the end of civil wars. Rummel 1994 defines “democide” broadly as encompassing genocide, political purges, and mass murder. Rummel argues that the risk of democide increases commensurately with the concentration of power in a regime. Krain 1997 disagrees with Rummel’s conclusion, instead making a case for “political opportunity structures” as causes for genocide. United Nations General Assembly 1948 provided the legal basis for the prosecution of genocide.

  • Fein, Helen. Genocide: A Sociological Perspective. London: SAGE, 1993.

    This work outlines the nature and history of genocide, summarizing the existing state and understanding of its definition, causation, and prevention. The author analyzes examples of genocide from around the world to provide a critical review of genocide scholarship.

  • Harff, Barbara, and Ted Robert Gurr. “Toward Empirical Theory of Genocides and Politicides: Identification and Measurement of Cases since 1945.” International Studies Quarterly 32.3 (1988): 359–371.

    DOI: 10.2307/2600447

    Groundbreaking article on a typology of mass killings by state actors. It distinguishes between genocide (victim groups share communal characteristics) and four different types of politicide (victim groups are defined by political status and level of opposition to the state). Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Harff, Barbara, and Ted Robert Gurr. “Systematic Early Warning of Humanitarian Emergencies.” Journal of Peace Research 35.5 (1998): 551–579.

    DOI: 10.1177/0022343398035005002

    The authors establish two theoretical models to analyze background conditions, intervening conditions, and predetermined accelerators of genocide and politicide. They aim to “operationalize” the data to provide a basis for systematic early warning of future victimization of communal and political groups. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Krain, Matthew. “State-Sponsored Mass Murder: The Onset and Severity of Genocides and Politicides.” Journal of Conflict Resolution 41.3 (1997): 331–360.

    DOI: 10.1177/0022002797041003001

    The author uses binary logic models to provide evidence that “political opportunity structures” rather than levels of concentration of power serve to predict the onset and severity of state-sponsored mass murder. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Licklider, Roy. “The Consequences of Negotiated Settlements in Civil Wars, 1945–1993.” American Political Science Review 89.3 (1995): 681–690.

    DOI: 10.2307/2082982

    Empirical study expanding on a theory of increased likelihood of genocides or political purges at the end of civil wars. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Rummel, Rudolph J. Death by Government. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1994.

    The author argues that the more power regimes have, the more likely they are to use it against their own people. He supports his theory with a wide variety of mass killings that he selected according to his own concept of “democide,” which emphasizes killing of people (Greek demos) rather than a specific kind of people.

  • United Nations General Assembly. Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. (New York, 9 December 1948). 78 U.N.T.S. 277.

    The convention provided the legal basis for prosecution of genocides. Article 2 defined genocide as “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.”

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