[6 May 2009]
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)
On the battlefields of Italy and North Africa, soldiers were dying — they supposed — for democracy. And at a conference table in Tehran, Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill were cold-bloodedly trading it away to Josef Stalin. Stalin’s icy eyes must have sent a shiver through Churchill’s heart, for he leaned across the table and assured the Russian: “I believe that God is on our side.”
Stalin laughed. “And the devil is on my side,” he retorted. “Because, of course, everyone knows that the devil is a communist.”
Dealing with the devil is very much the subject of “WWII Behind Closed Doors,” a brilliantly damning three-part documentary about wartime diplomacy that debuts Wednesday on PBS. If it’s possible to make a war that killed more than 50 million people any uglier, “WWII Behind Closed Doors” manages the trick.
Based in large part on declassified Soviet documents and interviews with Russian military officers and intelligence officials who’ve never spoken publicly before, “WWII Behind Closed Doors” offers an inside view of wartime politics that is in some ways more appalling than anything that happened on the battlefields.
Stalin, the fang marks on his neck from the end of his alliance with Germany still bleeding, insisted from the earliest days of the war that he be allowed to keep territory he conquered with Nazi help. Churchill, fearful that the United States would leave him to face the Soviets alone once the war ended, and Roosevelt, desperately seeking Russian help to fight Japan, politely looked away from every fresh Soviet atrocity, even when he was caught torturing, imprisoning and killing mutual allies.
At summits the three men dealt entire nations like so many Monopoly deeds. At one meeting, Churchill even scribbled the names of half a dozen Eastern European countries on a napkin, offering half to Stalin and keeping half for himself. A grinning Stalin — after getting Bulgaria moved to his side of the list — happily agreed. Churchill suddenly had second thoughts — not about the deal, but the napkin. “Might this not be thought rather cynical if it seemed we had disposed of these issues so fateful to millions of people in such an offhand manner?” he wondered to Stalin. “Let us burn the paper.”
No wonder. Churchill surely knew what fate lay in store for the populations he was handing over to Stalin. Earlier in the war, a British diplomat making polite chatter with Stalin had asked if it wasn’t difficult to collectivize the Soviet economy. “What did you do with all the ‘kulaks,’ the rich peasants?” he asked. Replied Stalin matter-of-factly: “We killed them.”
If Stalin was disarmingly candid about his methods, his allies knew they had to be kept secret from their own populations, which would never have made common cause with his murderous “democracy” had they known the real story. Among the most persistent and widespread cover-ups of the war was Stalin’s massacre of 22,000 imprisoned Polish military officers, civilian officials and intellectuals.
When British intelligence learned of the killings, Churchill ordered all investigation cease: “We should none of us ever speak a word about it.” Roosevelt flatly denied that the killings had ever taken place. “This is entirely German propaganda,” he told one American diplomat who argued with him about the massacre — then promptly transferred him a safe 7,000 miles away from Washington, to the U.S. embassy in Samoa.
“WWII Behind Closed Doors” mixes archival newsreel footage (much of it, from Russia and Germany, rarely seen before by American audiences) with interviews, sharply designed graphics drawn from government documents and extensive reenactments. The latter can be a dicey business in documentaries, but they’re so well done in “WWII Behind Closed Doors” that I found myself wishing writer-producer Laurence Rees would make a feature film.
Particularly effective is the Russian actor Alexei Pretenko as Stalin, whose controlled menace is downright terrifying by the end of the series. When he maliciously mocks a Yugoslav communist leader who has protested the Red Army’s mass rapes of women in conquered territory, then brushes his waxen lips across the cheeks of the man’s wife, the revulsion and fear spring across half a century into your living room.