Just when you thought everything had been said about World War II, a PBS program has shed new light on that conflict, suggesting there are new lessons to learn from it. “World War II: Behind Closed Doors,” originally produced by the British Broadcasting Co., looks at the war from a British perspective. It also relies on documents that became available in the early 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The three-part program, broadcast last month on MPBN, focused on the relationship between U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. Though wartime propaganda painted a picture of the three leaders locking arms in their fight against Hitler and Germany, the truth was more complicated.
Stalin is the figure Americans probably know the least about in relation to the war. History books tell us Hitler and Stalin signed a nonaggression treaty before the war. But what emerges in the PBS series is that Stalin — according to notes of a meeting with a German emissary in the late 1930s — actually pledged to enter the war on the side of the Nazis, if the Germans began losing to the English and French. When Hitler invaded Poland in 1939, Stalin simultaneously moved his forces into the eastern part of the country, meeting the Germans along a pre-arranged line.
The German invasion of Poland triggered the British entering the war against Germany, a fact that plays a key part in the documentary’s conclusions.
After the Germans invaded the Soviet Union, Stalin’s emissaries met with Roosevelt and Churchill, urging them to open a second front on the west to ease the pressure on Soviet troops. In one key meeting with Roosevelt, notes show, the president seemed to suggest a second front would be opened in 1942. The second front wasn’t established until June 1944.
Consider, from Stalin’s perspective, the cost of that decision. By the time the war was over, 27 million Russian civilians and troops were killed. Combined, the British and Americans lost 800,000.
Stalin felt betrayed and never trusted the West again.
After the war, the Polish government in exile was invited to return from London. Soviet officials met with them and invited them to a lunch several kilometers away, they said. Instead, on Stalin’s orders, they were taken 700 kilometers away to Moscow and imprisoned.
Though more distrustful of and adversarial with Stalin than Roosevelt, Churchill can be accused of selling out the Poles. Meeting privately with Stalin, the two men redrew Poland’s borders, giving the Soviets more of the territory and taking some land from Germany.
“The British went to war over the future of Poland”said Laurence Rees, writer and producer of the series, “and what happened at the end of the war [was] Poland swaps the rule of one horrendous tyrant [Hitler] for the rule of another horrendous tyrant [Stalin]. The question has to be asked, if [the freedom of Poland] was the fundamental reason [the British] went to war, to what extent was that a war that was won?”
Interestingly, Mr. Rees notes, the spirit that rose up against and ended the Soviet domination of Eastern Europe was born in Poland, in the Solidarity movement.