WWII: Behind Closed Doors

Wed, 05/13/2009 - 9:00pm
Pictured: Alexei Petrenko as Joseph Stalin
Photo credit: Mateusz Skalski/©BBC
As aerial bombardments devastated cities, and soldiers and civilians died by the millions, World War II was also being fought on a much quieter, but no less heated battlefield.  In confidential meetings held during the war, Joseph Stalin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) and Winston Churchill sparred and negotiated for the political and economic interests of their nations – making deals that sometimes had less to do with right or wrong, than the expediency of their individual wartime goals.

Rare wartime documents made briefly available only after the fall of the Soviet Union help reveal the real story – presented in WWII Behind Closed Doors: Stalin, the Nazis and the West, a six-hour series, airing Wednesdays, May 6, 13 and 20 at 9 p.m. on WXXI-TV 21 (cable 11) and WXXI-HD (DT21.1/cable 1011). Award-winning historian and filmmaker Laurence Rees (Auschwitz: Inside the Nazi State, Nazis – A Warning from History) tells the hidden story of Stalin’s backroom dealings – first with the Nazis and then with Roosevelt and Churchill.  By juxtaposing conventional documentary elements with dramatic recreations, WWII Behind Closed Doors breaks through the myths of the Allied powers, illuminating the hidden motivations of “The Big Three” and creating a dynamic reappraisal of one of the seminal events in world history.

These dramatic recreations are intertwined with a propulsive documentary narrated by Keith David that draws on fresh research in the Soviet archives and on the testimony from witnesses of the time who have not spoken publicly before, including former Soviet secret policemen, Allied seamen who served on the Arctic convoys and Red Army veterans who experienced hand-to-hand fighting on the Eastern Front.

When the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939, they ignited a conflagration that would engulf the world.  What went unrevealed for half a century was that despite their polarized ideologies, Stalin had met secretly with Nazi officials and pledged his support to Hitler’s imperial war.  Two years later, however, Hitler’s armies would invade Russia, and Stalin, betrayed, would find himself turning to the West – to Churchill and Roosevelt – to save his own country. For the leaders of the Western powers, making a pact with Stalin – a tyrant already responsible for the death of millions – had extremely questionable moral implications. While the newspapers and newsreels portrayed the Soviets as brave heroes against the Nazis, Stalin was continually angling to expand the communist empire.  And, to his satisfaction, Stalin found that both Churchill and Roosevelt were sometimes willing to work with him to divide up Europe while ignoring evidence of his atrocities – especially Stalin’s notorious execution of about 22,000 Poles in the Katyn Forest in 1940.

Employing a unique approach to historical documentary, WWII Behind Closed Doors: Stalin, the Nazis and the West brings viewers an understanding of war through the prism of the confidential meetings between the three leaders, asking how it was possible for Churchill and Roosevelt to deal with one tyrant – Stalin – in order to beat another, Hitler.

This enthralling mix of high politics brings to life not only the political decisions that would determine the course of the war and the fate of millions; it also probes the personalities and motivations of the famous leaders through detailed, dramatic recreations of the meetings. With the help of exclusive evidence released only in the last few years from archives in Germany, Britain, Russia, America and Poland, what appears is what was actually said – as far as we can know – accurately sourced and checked by key academic advisors to WWII Behind Closed Doors, including renowned U.S. presidential historian Robert Dallek.
In the series, Stalin, played by Alexei Petrenko (Lilacs, Doktor Zhivago, 12, Grachi, The Russian Idea), is seen developing from the weakened and tentative commander of a besieged nation to an imperial dictator, ready to imprison, exile and execute even his closest confidants on a whim.  Winston Churchill, played by Paul Humpoletz (Losing It), comes to life as a conflicted leader caught between his war hero image and the necessary compromises of politics – trying to maintain the balance of power in Europe by sitting down with his enemy, Stalin, to divide up the nations of the continent.   And FDR, played by Bob Gunton (24, Shawshank Redemption, Desperate Housewives), comes through as an imperious and stoic leader, less interested in the fate of Europe than in gearing up the United States for its role as a post-war superpower and gaining Soviet support for the war against Japan.  From Tehran to Yalta to Potsdam – and many meetings in between – these intriguing recreations peer past the public images to uncover the motivations in the heads and hearts of these three larger-than-life men.


WWII Behind CLosed Doors

Fascinating television. Presents new information that helps explain why things happened. GIves great insight into how, at times, leaders have to compromise personal principles for the greater good. This is why Public Television is such an important assett to our community. Thank you WXXI!