Behind Closed Doors: Stalin, Churchill and the secret history of the Second World War

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When do you think the Second World War ended? In August 1945 after the surrender of the Japanese? Well, it depends how you look at it. If you believe that the end of the war was supposed to have brought “freedom” to the countries which had suffered under Nazi occupation, then for millions of people the war did not really end until the fall of Communism less than 20 years ago; because in the summer of 1945 the people of Poland, of the Baltic States and of a number of other countries in Eastern Europe simply swapped the rule of one tyrant – Adolf Hitler – for another – Joseph Stalin. It was in order to demonstrate this unpleasant reality that the presidents of both Estonia and Lithuania refused to visit Moscow in 2005 to participate in “celebrations” marking the 60th anniversary of the “end of the war” in Europe.

How did this injustice happen? That’s one of the questions posed in my six-part BBC2 series World War Two: Behind Closed Doors – Stalin, the Nazis and the West, which uses fresh evidence to illuminate the complex relationships Stalin had with his allies. It is a history that can only be told since the fall of Communism. Not just because the many eyewitnesses I met in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe would never have been able to speak frankly under Communist rule, but also because only recently has key archival material been made available that successive Soviet governments did all they could to hide.

Only since the collapse of the Soviet empire have we learnt the full truth, for example, about the horrors of Katyn – when Stalin in the spring of 1940 authorised the murder of thousands of members of the Polish elite. Indeed, the crime of Katyn runs like a cancer through this history, as we see how the Western leaders helped suppress the truth about the murders during the war. “We should none of us ever speak a word about it,” wrote Winston Churchill on a memo in 1943, referring to a secret Foreign Office investigation that was to show that the Soviets had most likely committed the crime. The American President, Franklin D Roosevelt, went further. When a functionary threatened to go to the press revealing that Stalin had almost certainly ordered these murders, Roosevelt promptly had him sent off to what was effectively exile – to work as a government official on the other side of the world in Samoa.

It’s not hard to see why, during the conflict, Churchill and Roosevelt felt they had to prevent the full truth about Stalin getting out. The reality was that the Soviet Union was a vital ally and the West needed to keep the Red Army fighting the Germans. Indeed, the relative scale of sacrifice between the Allies is still not as known here in the West as it should be. The British and Americans, between them, lost about 800,000 dead, soldiers and civilians, in the Second World War. The Soviet Union suffered a death toll of 27million.

Behind Closed Doors reveals this untold, behind-the-scenes history in a fresh way. Not only do we employ the traditional techniques of newsreel archive and eyewitness testimony, but we also use minutes of meetings and diaries to dramatically reconstruct – as far as we can judge – precisely what was said at the key secret encounters; when Stalin met the Nazi Foreign Secretary or when the Soviets dealt with Churchill and Roosevelt. The words spoken in these reconstructions are not fiction but – within the limits set by the available material – fact. And, at least in my view, the portrayal of Stalin by the Russian film star Alexei Petrenko is particularly effective...

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Dalek Dukat - 5/21/2009

On the plus side, "Behind Closed Doors" did mention Operation Bagration, albeit not by name.

This will come as a great relief to students of military history everywhere, but it will be particularly useful in North America.

If one goes to a bookstore in either America or Canada, one sees rows after rows after rows of books about D-Day, as if it was D-Day that actually brought down the Third Reich. In reality, Operation Bagration neutralized more Germans and took more mileage than did the Normandy campaign, and it did so even faster than the Normandy campaign.

One sees a similar situation in Canada, where one can find an unlimited number of books about Vimy Ridge in any given bookstore while being concomittantly extremely hard pressed to find a single book about the much larger, much more significant Brusilov Offensive.

Dalek Dukat - 5/21/2009

I saw this recently on Public Broadcasting Service in America.

One of the first things that leaps out at you is the fact that the "American soldiers at the Battle of the Bulge" are clearly carrying British Lee Enfield No. 4 Rifles. The front sight of this rifle, as shown in "Behind Closed Doors" is unmistakable and quite distinct from the M-1 Rifles that GI's used.

As well, the "making of" at the end of the series clearly states, via the actor who plays FDR, that the series has a bias towards the Poles.

Don't get me wrong, it is good that someone is finally getting around to condemning Stalin, Beria and the NKVD for what they were. However, we must also remember that films like these are not made in a vacuum. Nor is history written in a vacuum.

It is quite something to focus today on Katyn. It diverts attention from the current "Plombier Polonais" situation wherein Polish plumbers are stealing jobs from native Frenchmen and Britons. In fact, one of the Polish interviewees made some comment about some Englishmen telling him in 1945 that the war is over and questioning why he was still eating British bread.

It is funny how Katyn has become an excuse for le Plombier Polonais, how the suffering of Poles and Poland six decades ago has been translated into a license for the Poles and Poland of today to exercise unfettered economic rapacity in Western Europe. History can be a very useful tool indeed.

Nor is this the first time such has been done. For years, Goldhagen, Hocchuth etc have been hammering away at what Pius XII did during WWII. Yet, none of these individuals said word one about Popes Paul VI through Benedict XVI's glaring refusals to excommunicate the Irish Republican Army or MS-12, which, unlike the Third Reich and Pius XII, were quite active during these authors' working lifetimes.