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). 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.
An early kind of political commissar was established during the February Revolution 1917 as the Ispolkom issued the controversial Order no 1. 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.
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. 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. 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.
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.
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. 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. Contrary to Soviet political commissars, NSFO united military command and political instruction. 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] 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: 政戰官) 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. 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.