The Political Officer is an officer attached to a unit, usually outside the regular chain of command, whose job is to ensure that the regular soldiers and officers follow the orders of the government. In essence, this is another method of civilian control of the military.
The existence of such a post is usually evidence that there is significant mistrust of the military by the government. This could be depicted as the evil military being a threat to the legitimate government, with the political officers as the good guys keeping them in line. However, the far more common depiction is for the government to be an Evil Empire, and the military to be a less than willing participant in its more repressive actions. In this instance the Political Officer's job is to keep an eye on other officials and watch for politically incorrect behavior or thought crimes. He might double as a member of the Secret Police or the Culture Police.
This type of fictional character is overwhelmingly based on the Real Life example of Political Officers in the Soviet Union, although it also tends to draw on the SS and the Nazis as well. More often than not they are amalgams of real Political Officers and NKVD (counterintelligence) officers.
The actual Soviet Political Officer is a stock character in fictional portrayals of the Cold War era. His job was to ensure that the regular soldiers and officers followed the orders of the Party leadership in Moscow, basically a leash to ensure "civilian" (i.e. Communist party) control of the military. Stereotypically, this character is unconcerned with the difficulties the unit faces in actual combat, and will insist on slavish adherence to orders no matter what the circumstances.
In reality, most commissars were capable observers sent as a response to large portions of the Soviet army veritably falling apart early in the war. The famous notion of commissars being empowered to shoot cowards stems from Stalin's orders against any fighting body retreating without specific orders to do so. Commissars were frequently on the receiving end of some of the worst treatment for POWs in the war. Since they were the ideological avatars of communism (the very thing Fascists like the Nazis formed to counter) there were explicit standing orders to execute them or torture them for information upon capture rather than adhere to the rules of war. Though neutered in effectiveness by the end of the war, civilian women in Germany were advised to yell 'Commissar' when facing rape by invading Russian soldiers because commissars would arrive and either stop the soldier or (in some cases) execute the offender. Of course this had a lot more to do with preserving the prestige of the Soviet army than altruism, but it helped codify the notion that commissars were given to shooting their own soldiers. In real life, Commissars were often observer officers with veto power over decisions made by their attached units, although they did on occasion get into frontline combat. On the frontline, Commissars were meant to inspire troops through bravery and heroism- and many did.
Note that this is the Western depiction. In Soviet fiction, the political officers often were stern but just, inspiring and actually caring, and performed major feats of heroism to inspire similar heroics in soldiers, based on the fact that the Political Officers as an institute were abolished in 1943, and had to continue as common line officers. An alternative Soviet depiction from much later years is a lazy useless paper-pusher who never does anything useful and torments other officers with filling countless forms and boring lectures about "political situation".
Often wears a Commissar Cap. See also The Inquisitor General.
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Muruta Azrael from Gundam SEED serves this role on the Dominion. While officially just an "observer" from some committee, he's in fact the head of the Blue Cosomos terrorist group. He's really there to make sure his plans go right, even undermining the ship's Captain, who eventually turns on him.
In Gundam SEED Destiny Rey Za Burrel plays a similar, though more subdued role on the Minerva, keeping the crew—and particularly Shinn—on the track that Chairman Durandal wants them on. By the end Rey, and not Captain Talia Gladys, is the one really making decisions on the Minerva.
In a manner of speaking, the Sith Lords in Star Wars: Legacy fill a similar role. Though not part of the Imperial Military hierarchy, they oversee military units to ensure they serve the will of the Big Bad and Evil Overlord Darth Krayt. Complete with an "Oops, sorry sir" fragging of Darth Maleval by disgruntled stormtroopers.
True to the book, The Hunt for Red October has a political officer accompanying Captain Ramius, who is actually trying to defect. To keep him from endangering his plan, Ramius causes him to fall into a sharp corner and tragically break his neck.
A sub sent to catch the Red October is running flat out when its reactor develops a small fault. The technician wants to fix it, but the political officer won't allow any time to be wasted when in service of the Motherland. As a result of such patriotic zeal the problem escalates, the reactor melts down and the whole sub sinks with all hands.
In Red Storm Rising we see a few political officers. They are almost invariably incompetent - when the Soviet forces in Iceland are about to be mauled by an Anglo-American task force and need to surrender, General Andreyev gets rid of his political officer by seizing on a throwaway remark the zampolit made about "true courage" by giving him a rifle and ordering him to the front, to inspire the men to some more "true courage."
In Harry Turtledove's Darkness Series, the Russia-parallel nation has a line of these people stationed half a mile behind the front with sticks (magic guns) and orders to blaze (shoot) anyone passing by them.
Honor Harrington: The People's Commissioners of Haven's second regime fit this to a tee. Their dampening effect on the competence of "elitist, recidivist" officers (who were liable to get shot, along with their entire extended families, for the slightest imagined disloyalty or failure in battle-based on the French Revolution) was half the reason Manticore won that war. Most of the political officers that have significant time on screen, however, tend to work with their assigned personnel instead of against them, as generally Reasonable Authority Figures. Some even go beyond that, actively concealing outright treasonous activities and planning, including ultimately overthrowing the Committee for Public Safety and restoring the original Republic of Haven.
And even further beyond that, some of the commissioners not only become friends of the officers they are supposed to oversee, but in the most famous case, become lovers — and one of the most touching love stories of the whole series, to boot!
Strappi from Monstrous Regiment, a particularly loathsome example. He takes cruel delight in bullying his soldiers (to the point that one of them throws up whenever he starts yelling), talks big about patriotism, and when it looks like he's actually going to get sent to the front, wets himself and deserts.
Oddly, the identities of Borogravian political officers seems to be a secret - Strappi's status is just rumoured at first, until The Reveal. As such they're probably more of a cross between this trope and Stasi-esque informants, presumably to avert the inherent risk of fragging that comes with the role.
Barrayar has political officers in the early parts of the Vorkosigan Saga. Admiral Aral Vorkosigan notoriously murdered his own particularly scheming one with his bare hands on his flag bridge during the invasion of Komarr, and only dodged serious consequences (other than a demotion to Captain) due to his bloodline. Later, another political officer tries to murder him in return.
It is implied that while the outcry was intentionally high, he was demoted only to keep the official face on the thing, political officers being a rather new institution and just another tool in the Ezar's box.
Broken Angels by Richard K. Morgan. The Wedge are kept under the surveillance of a political officer, so to avoid any problems with him they forcefully addict him to "the wire", threatening to withhold it if he causes trouble. The political officer gets his revenge when his surveillance reveals the protagonist is planning to kill his former colleagues — he 'forgets' to inform the Wedge commander of this.
Commissar Ciaphas Cain, HERO OF THE IMPERIUM, is actually an aversion. While a great many commissars are the shoot-the-men-if-they-get-rowdy type who happily pull rank (they technically outrank anyone who's not a senior commissar, Inquisitor, or Space Marine) to ensure regulations are followed, he carefully cultivates bonds of camaraderie with the troops under him so he's less likely to suffer an "unfortunate accident" (see Catachans below).
In Falkenberg's Legions, the Soviet-backed International Brigades sent to the Santiago Civil War are controlled by Political Officers. Very much in the Soviet zampolit style, the one featured takes on the Western stereotype.
In Dorsai!, the Friendlies have "Conscience Guardians" who seek out heresy among their troops. Interestingly enough, the Guardians authority is only over their Chruch members and not foreign mercenaries. In addition, they keep their forces from bickering with each other over issues of religious doctrine, preventing tensions within their army.
Grunts!: Having spent a lot of time reading over the political philosophy texts in Dagurashibanipal's hoard, Marine Razitshakra turns into Marine Commissar Razitshakra, complete with Commissar Cap and Russian Army greatcoat, monitoring her fellow orcs for "ideological instability".
A democratic variant in Ian Douglas's Star Carrier series with the Senate assigning their "political liaisons" to fleet carriers in order to make sure their orders are carried out. In the first book, Admiral Alexander Koenig ends up at odds with John Quintanilla, the Senate's liaison to the America, who keeps criticizing Koenig's orders and the overall battleplan, even though Koenig's wasn't the one who came up with it. Koenig ends up kicking Quintanilla out of the CIC, which later has political repercussions. For someone who's supposed to "liaise" with the military, Quintanilla doesn't even know how this 'verse's method of FTL works. Naturally, the author only does this for an As You Know exposition.
Cordwainer Smith presents an imaginative variant of this trope in one of his Instrumentality stories. Monitors are criminals modified to simply do nothing but watch and record events in their memories. Secretly, if a military commander attempts to defect or run away during a war, the Monitor will act and destroy the captain.
Live Action TV
One major sign of EarthGov's slide into dictatorship was the assignment of a political officer to Babylon 5. A very hot female political officer. Who can go from fully clothed to stark naked in the time it takes someone to turn around (neat trick).
It's implied in "Mirror, Mirror" and the Expanded Universe that Security Chiefs in the mirror universe are also political officers, with the power to assassinate their ship's captain and/or first officer if they begin to deviate from Terran Empire doctrine.
An episode of Seven Days involves a Russian submarine testing out a new sonar. The crew is surprised when a political officer is assigned to the boat, considering that a democratic government shouldn't need them. The guy is especially critical of a young sonar technician for the latter's preference of "American rock music" (apparently, no one told the guy the Cold War was over). He later forces the captain to keep the sonar focused on a foreign ship instead of using it to map the ocean floor, resulting in the sub hitting a reef and causing a reactor breach. As per protocol, the captain wishes to scuttle the boat, sacrificing the crew. However, the political officer and several of his men get guns and force the captain to surface, shooting the young sonar technician for questioning the legality of their actions. This causes massive irradiation of the surrounding area, and the political officer claims it was the captain who chose to surface, and that he tried to object. When the captain tries to claim his innocence, he is brutally beaten and taken away. Naturally, when Parker goes back to fix the situation, his main problem is this Jerkass.
Catachans, being fiercely independent badass jungle fighter Ramboes, even have a special rule ("Oops, sorry sir!") in which if a commissar is attached to them, you must roll before the game starts to find out whether or not he suffered an "unfortunate accident". Being based off of Vietnam War soldiers, such incident were commonplace. If you're an American officer and your soldiers don't like you, you ought to be prepared to get fragged. Considering that most of them were drafted, they had low morale and didn't like their authority, i.e. you.
Most Badass of them all is Commissar Sebastian J. Yarrick. He lost an arm in battle with an Ork Warboss and retorted by decapitating the Warboss, only "allowing himself the luxury of passing out" after the battle was won. He then had the Warboss's Power Klaw converted into a prosthetic for his own missing arm, powered (presumably) by the sheer badass he radiates. The Orks have immortalized him in fearful legends, believing that he cannot be killed and that a single glance from him brings death. On hearing the latter part of this legend, Yarrick decided that if the Orks believed he had an evil eye, then by the Emperor, he would HAVE an evil eye. He then proceeded to PLUCK OUT HIS OWN EYE AND HAVE IT REPLACED WITH A LASER-SHOOTING BIONIC EYE. The short version? This man makes Orks wet themselves.
Dawn of War plays the trope straight: the Winter Assault tutorial specifically mentions that the Guardsmen are simple humans fighting against the worst monstrosities of the universe, hence why they break so easily. Attaching a commissar to a squad however makes that squad near-immune to morale: not even a flamethrower will make them run. If they do break anyway, the commissar has the ability of executing a random soldier to instantly restore squad morale. And they happen to be awesome melee fighters to boot... but only three can be deployed at a time.
Commissar Dottski from Up Front. He adds +1 morale to everyone in his group ("in the Red Army, advance is less dangerous than retreat") but if any man in the group becomes pinned, draw a card to see who the commissar is watching. If he's watching the pinned soldier, BAM! Dottski takes out his pistol and executes the man. Germans score victory points for KIA.
The name Dottski was a reference to the Dotts, the owners of the game publisher. (Many of the other soldier names in the game were also references to the game designers and playtesters.)
Advanced Squad Leader allows the Russians (and a few other countries by scenario special rule) to have commissars until late in 1942. Said leaders raise the morale and improve rallying for any troops they are stacked with. But any squad that does NOT rally is lowered in quality.
The Loyalty Officer in Paranoia. Their loyalty is directly to Friend Computer, not the Team Leader. (Although the nature of Paranoia is such that neither of them are likely to be all that loyal.)
The Southern Republic of Heavy Gear has them, in addition to an entire deep cover State Sec that serves some of the same duties.
Commissar Letlev at the beginning of the Soviet campaign in Call of Duty 2. However, he was portrayed more as a gently chiding and often hilarious but still tough training officer and the only threats of being shot for cowardice came not from him but from regular officers. Except if you mess around instead of shoot a teddy bear for target practice like he ordered.
On the other hand, the first Soviet mission in the original Call of Duty had you covering a sniper while he put down a commissar that was machine-gunning fleeing Soviet soldiers.
And the next mission plays it straight: a few dozen soldiers charge at a German line of machine guns with the commissars watching from behind and shooting you if you ever move in a direction that leads away from the enemy (even if you try to collect ammo from dead friendlies).
World at War features Commissar Markhov, who mostly yells patriotic/bloodthirsty encouragement through a megaphone, but can occasionally be seen joining the front lines with a submachine gun in hand.
Confessors of Command and Conquer 3 serves as these for Nod. They serve both as intelligence and religious officers, guiding and educating Militants in the field. In-game, Confessors are an upgrade: they increase the Milita squad's effectiveness.
Among character classes in Allods Online, there is both Commissar (Imperial paladin) and Political Officer (Imperial healer). The Empire fuses the imagery of USSR and 19th century Russian Empire.
As mentioned above, Dawn of War commissars are attached to squads in order to ensure that morale and loyalty remain constant. Executing a squad member results in increased firing rate for all nearby squads. Two commissars in the last two expansions are specifically mentioned to be watching the Governor-General for signs of weakening resolve.
According to Battalion Wars II's unit dossiers, a Tundran battleship's political officer is also its head cook. Naturally, his having control over the quality of the food means the sailors never step out of line.
While not Games Workshop canon, Commissar Fuklaw◊ epitomizes the "Trigger Happy commissar" character, to the point where he automatically shoots four members of any squad he joins, for the crime of suspected-HERESY! *BLAM!*
Gentlemen, there are two things I will kill a man for: Heresy... But, sir, we were only- * BLAM* ... and interrupting me while I'm speaking. Yes, soldier? Does raising your hand count as interrupting? * BLAM* Yes.
The Civil War-era Red Army is the Trope Codifier for these guys. They also played a large role early during WWII, only to be deactivated in 1942 when a reliable structure of regular commanding officers was finally established. Later the guys were renamed "zampolits" (political assistants) or "politruks" (political guides) and became little more than advisors to commanding officers and lectors on Communism among soldiers. After The Great Politics Mess-Up, they were further nerfed and now are known as "educator officers", completely depoliticized and acting more like army psychologists than anything else.
The "shoot the cowards" function got handed over to the "barrier troops", specially created for the purpose.
Nikolai Popel, who served as the political officer in Mikhail Katukov's First Guards Tank Army was an example of a commissar who represented a personality little known in the West due to a trusting bond with his commanding officer and his competence in battle.
Dmitri Furmanov, the commissar attached to Chapaev's troops, became the epitome of the benevolent commissar after the release of The Movie about Chapaev. Later, he experienced Memetic Mutation (along with Chapaev and Petka) and became a recurring character in Russian Humour.
It should be noted that Furmanov wrote the book that made Chapaev famous in the first place.
Valery Sablin, who led a mutiny in 1975 on board the Soviet frigate Storozhevoy (a "Krivak"), aiming to sail it from Riga to Leningrad and incite a revolution against a regime that he felt was failing. A crew member escaped, alerted the authorities and the ship was stopped in international waters with the aid of Yak-28 "Brewer" bombers (they considered using Tu-16 "Badgers" but realised that launching anti-shipping missiles into a crowded shipping line was a dumb idea). The captain regained control of the ship just before the Yaks actually did some serious damage and Sablin was arrested. He was convicted of treason and shot. This was one of the incidents that inspired The Hunt for Red October.
Modern ideological dictatorships tend to have these guys in no small number. Communist regimes are perhaps the most obvious, but Those Wacky Nazis and even Chiang Kai-Shek's KMT had them. This is also Older than You Think, with their introduction early in the Napoleonic Wars by the Revolutionary government. Any general that failed in battle could expect to meet La Veuve (the Widow, i.e. the Guillotine).
Even earlier than that: the "adgitators" (from whence we get Adjutant, usually a low-ranking staff officer) during the English Civil War. They were political officers, elected from the ranks, and put forth increasingly radical demands to Cromwell's government. Many were Levelers, insisting on universal male suffrage.
In what may be a confusing aversion, some countries' police forces have a rank that is referred to as Commissar, but is essentially the equivalent of a police captain with no relation to the trope.
Stalinist NKVD (a ministry that combined Secret Police and regular police) also used the word commissar in sense of a high-ranking police officer. These commissars confusingly coexisted with the ones from this trope during early Great Patriotic War (1941-1942). The USSR abolished the police (militsiya) commissar rank in the 1970s and renamed them "generals".
There also were "People's Commissars", which is Bolshevik politically correct speak for ministers (the word "minister" was associated with the uber-corrupt Tsarist cabinet at the time). And also the even more confusing "military commissars", who still exist to this day and are in charge of draft and conscription offices. The Commies loved the word "commissar".
While the Soviet Union is the most obvious example, it was not the only modern dictatorship (communist or otherwise) to use political officers. Ironically enough, the Nazis established their own variant as the war went on and gave them increasing amounts of power over time, although they still never became as common or as powerful as their Soviet counterparts sometimes did. Maoist China, Saddam's Iraq, and theocratic Iran also had their own variants, as did many others.