This past year, a unique series of documentary films on World War II appeared on television stations in twelve major American cities. Entitled The Unknown War, the series is based almost entirely on footage assembled by Soviet armed-forces photographers on the Eastern front, with a good deal of film captured from the Germans themselves. Much of the material has never been shown before in the United States. While many Americans remember the major battles of World War II that took place in France or in the Pacific or in North Africa, the battles between Soviet and German tanks and infantry on the Eastern front remain vague in memory, their decisive character forgotten altogether. For this reason alone The Unknown War would seem to be a worthwhile project.

On June 22, 1941, the Germans invaded the Soviet Union with the most massive military force ever assembled: over four million men, 3,500 tanks, 3,900 planes, and 50,000 pieces of artillery. The Red Army virtually collapsed. Within six months, about four million Soviet soldiers were captured and three million were killed. Most of the Ukraine, including Kiev, was occupied, Leningrad was besieged, and Moscow itself was threatened. In November, barely five months after the invasion, Soviet troops paraded through Red Square on the anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution and then marched to the front; the Germans were near the suburbs.

Parts of the Ukraine and Byelorussia were occupied for three years, during which time the Germans shot over one million Jews. Leningrad remained under siege for 900 days. Almost half of the city’s population, well over a million people, perished, mostly from hunger. There were incidents of cannibalism.

The German advance was not halted until it reached Stalingrad, on the banks of the Volga. Artillery and aerial bombardment destroyed the city, but the Red Army defended it block by block. Opposing infantry occupied different floors of apartment houses. Still, the Germans did not cross the Volga. From there, beginning in 1943, the Red Army pushed the Germans west, liberating the Ukraine and Byelorussia, the Baltic states, and then driving through Eastern Europe until the Red flag itself was unfurled above a gutted Reichstag in Berlin.

The twenty episodes of The Unknown War portray and document this terrible conflict, in which the the Russians lost at least 20 million people, over 1,700 towns and cities, and with them 32,000 factories and 70,000 villages. The series, narrated by Burt Lancaster and edited by Isaac Kleinerman (the film editor for Victory at Sea), makes use of some extraordinary footage—corpses being dragged on sleds to the cemetery in Leningrad, pictures taken by the Germans of Jews stripping and falling into the ravine at Babi Yar—to create an often devastating visual effect.

Unfortunately, this effect is achieved at the price of historical distortion and falsification. Although produced at the initiative of an American company called Air Time International, The Unknown War accepts the official Soviet interpretation of the events it portrays—in particular the idea that the struggle against the Germans was a common effort on the part of the Russian people and their government, and that sole blame for the dimension of the Soviet losses is to be laid on the fascists. In line with this, the script avoids mentioning events which Soviet authorities prefer to ignore; and where it does cover issues of controversy, it invariably adopts a point of view that coincides with official Soviet historiography.

Thus, in the first episode of The Unknown War, the situation in the Soviet Union immediately before the war is described in idyllic terms. Under Stalin’s leadership, “factories were given priority over creature comforts” but “workers learned as they labored.” We are informed that “in the 1930’s the quality of life was improving in the Soviet Union,” as images of factory workers, farm laborers, and bustling urban crowds flash across the screen. The episode goes on to relate how Stalin tried to gain time to prepare for war by signing a non-aggression pact with Germany in 1939, but Hitler surprised him anyway two years later. In describing the initial, disastrous Soviet setbacks, the script does recall that Stalin ignored intelligence reports and that the country was caught by surprise, totally unprepared for the German invasion. But there is no mention of the actual situation in the country or of the magnitude of Stalin’s responsibility for the disaster.



The Soviet Union of the 1930’s endured one of the great terrors in history. During the forced collectivization of agriculture—referred to offhandedly by the television script—a million Ukrainian peasants were allowed to starve to death, while other peasants, the so called kulaks who had a bit more land and livestock than their neighbors, were executed. In a version of The Unknown War done in book form, Harrison Salisbury recalls Stalin’s admission to Churchill that the crisis over collectivization was greater than the strain imposed by the German invasion.1 No such admission occurs in the television series.

During the Great Purge of 1936-37, when millions of party members and ordinary people were killed, Stalin destroyed virtually the entire high command of the Red Army, including all division and brigade commanders. He created a mood of profound insecurity in the armed forces and in industry. No one wanted to make a decision or take the initiative for any project, lest he be accused of “sabotage.” The purge is not mentioned in The Unknown War.

The Soviet-German treaties of 1939 also contributed to Russia’s collapse. The Unknown War gives no hint of the secret memoranda that accompanied the two treaties or of Soviet complicity with the Nazis until Hitler’s betrayal in June 1941. The film shows scenes of Ribbentrop and Molotov signing the non-aggression pact in August 1939, with Stalin hovering over their shoulders. But the archives must also contain scenes of the banquet at which Stalin offered a toast to the health of Himmler, and Ribbentrop responded with a toast to Beria. This morsel of history has been excluded.

Stalin’s diplomacy was a gross and immoral miscalculation. By dividing Poland with Germany and incorporating the Baltic states, Stalin created a mutual border with Germany that had never before existed. He knew that the treaties would allow Hitler to invade Poland, starting a general European war. But he hoped to stay out of it, while England and especially France kept the Nazis busy. The French collapse in June 1940 doomed Stalin’s plans.

Still, he tried to bribe Hitler. The Soviet Union agreed to exchange information with the Nazis about Polish resistance units. Stalin gave the Nazis a naval base near Murmansk, on Soviet territory, where German ships could refuel and be repaired. Soviet ships reported weather conditions to the Luftwaffe while the Nazis were bombarding England. Stalin also gave Germany the right to transport strategic raw materials from Japan over the Trans-Siberian railway. None of this is acknowledged by the series.



As Solzhenitsyn remarks in The First Circle, all his life Stalin trusted only one man—Hitler—and that one let him down. As a result of that trust, the German invasion of Russia succeeded brilliantly. Five-and-a-half million Soviet troops were taken prisoner in the course of the war. The television series makes pious remarks about their plight while ignoring the fact that they were betrayed by their own government. In October 1941, when Molotov protested their treatment at the hands of the Germans, Hitler responded by reminding the world that the Soviet regime did not adhere to the Geneva Convention on prisoners of war. The Swedish Red Cross offered to serve as a mediator between the prisoners and the USSR, but by then Stalin no longer regarded them as Soviet citizens; instead they were traitors. The consequence, well known to the world but apparently not to the producers of The Unknown War, was that only a million Soviet POW’s survived the war. These were forcibly repatriated by the British and the Americans. Most were shot outright by Stalin or shipped directly to Siberia; only a small fraction returned to their families. By ignoring their fate, The Unknown War betrays them once again, with silence.

The Soviet Union was the only country in the war whose own captured soldiers took up arms against it. Under General Andrei Vlasov, tens of thousands of Soviet POW’s offered to fight the Soviet regime. Vlasov himself had been a highly-praised commander in the battle for Moscow, and later was captured near Leningrad. In the closing days of the war, the Vlasovites, as they were called, found themselves in Czechoslovakia. They tried to surrender to the Americans but were rebuffed. As the Czechs were then revolting against the Nazis in Prague, one of Vlasov’s divisions came to their aid, capturing the airport before advancing into the city. For a time, the Vlasov banner flew beside the Czech flag over Prague’s city hall.

In his book version of The Unknown War, Harrison Salisbury describes Vlasov’s contribution to the fighting, but the televised series, although dwelling on the liberation of Eastern Europe by the Red Army, dismisses the capture of Prague with a single misleading and untrue comment: “The Americans liberated Prague from the west and the Russians from the east.” In fact, the American advance was halted at Pilsen, the agreed-upon demarcation line. Czech partisan forces, aided by Vlasov, took the city. Soviet troops were held back from Prague, as they had been outside Warsaw and Budapest, to allow the Germans time to exhaust independent partisan movements that might make trouble for the Soviets in the future.



In addition to these major distortions of the historical record, The Unknown War commits a number of subtle half-truths that coincide with a peculiarly Soviet approach to history. We see a young Andrei Gromyko when he was the Soviet Ambassador to Washington (from late 1943 to 1946), but we do not see the man he succeeded, Maxim Litvinov, who served as Ambassador at the height of the war. Litvinov had been the first Soviet Foreign Minister; he was sacked from that position before the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. He was Jewish and it would have been awkward for him to negotiate such a treaty. A case was prepared against him by the secret police, but the German invasion changed Stalin’s mind. Only then was Litvinov sent to Washington. Now he has been consigned to the memory hole, with the help of The Unknown War.

An important dimension of the war that passes unnoticed concerns several small ethnic minorities, totaling about a million people, that were uprooted by Stalin: the Crimean Tatars, the Chichen, Ingush, Kalmyk, and Meskhetian peoples. The Tatars were accused of betraying the Soviet motherland. On one day, May 18, 1944, about 200,000 defenseless women, children, and infirm people were deported on trains and closed trucks to Soviet Central Asia. (The able-bodied men were in the army; the others were in labor camps.) As a result of the deportation and the intolerable conditions they encountered, over half the Tatars perished. In 1967, the Supreme Soviet cleared the Crimean Tatars of the charge of treason. Even so, they are not permitted to return to their ancestral homes. Stalin committed such acts of genocide against several ethnic minorities, in effect exploiting the wartime crisis to pursue cruel population transfers. No episode of The Unknown War mentions these historical events.

Other facts must be similarly too “delicate” to mention. Several of the generals who had been arrested during Stalin’s purge of the army in the late 1930’s were released and returned to positions of responsibility after the German invasion. The final episode shows one of them, General Rokossovsky, commanding the victory parade in Red Square. His arrest goes unacknowledged.

Another episode dwells on a little-known battle at Malaya Zemlya in the Caucasus. It turns out that Leonid Brezhnev was a political officer there. (The series never explains why political officers accompanied Red Army commanders on all fronts.) We are also treated to several minutes of Brezhev, now old, weary, and dignified, surveying the landscape of battle from a motor boat. One wonders who convinced the scriptwriters that Malaya Zemlya was a significant battle.

In its episode on the war in Poland, the show tells how Goebbels first accused the Soviets of murdering over 14,000 Polish reserve officers at Katyn forest near Smolensk. Then we learn that an investigative committee of Soviet citizens, including an army pathologist and the writer Alexei Tolstoy, with U.S. Ambassador Averell Harriman’s daughter as an observer, concluded that the massacre was a German atrocity. The script, however, fails to inform the unwary viewer that every responsible Western historian regards the Katyn massacre as a Soviet atrocity. (The authors of the script apparently did not think to read the memoirs of Nadezhda Mandelstam or of Olga Ivinskaya, Pasternak’s companion, to examine this particular Tolstoy’s credentials.)



Harrison Salisbury’s book version of The Unknown War provides much information that does not appear in the televised series and would not appear in present-day Soviet accounts of the war. Air Time International, the producer of the series, controls part of the rights to Salisbury’s book; the still photographs in the book are from the archive that supplied the televised series. A note inside the book refers to the TV series. So it seems fair to assume that the producers are aware of the differences between Salisbury’s text and the television script. Presumably Salisbury also recognizes these differences. How then did he, the author of 900 Days, a masterly account of the Leningrad blockade, come to be associated with a script that coincides with Soviet propaganda?

And why has the National Education Association recommended this program for high-school students?

The producers say they retained absolute “creative” control of the project, although in the February 25, 1979 issue of Izvestia, the Soviets announced that Roman Karmen, a Soviet cinematographer, directed the series with American help. The producers also claim that the Soviets have themselves agreed to show it to their own people in exactly the form it was produced. Hardly surprising, since from a Soviet point of view there can be nothing objectionable in this account of the war. The series does emphasize the magnitude of the conflict and the genuine suffering of the people. Only the truth has been sacrificed.

1 The Unknown War, by Harrison Salisbury, Bantam Books, 224 pp., $8.95.

+ A A -
You may also like
Share via
Copy link