Sunday, March 29, 2015

The War of the Century: When Hitler Fought Stalin (1999)

Written By:   Laurence Rees
Narrated By: Samuel West

'The War of the Century' is a four part BBC documentary series which examines the Eastern front during the second world war. Eastern front began with Adolf Hitler's invasion of Russia in 1941 and what followed was a no-holds barred approach from both sides. It not only examines the war but also the terror inside Soviet Union during the campaign through the witness accounts from all sides-the ultimate Victors (Red Army), the vanquished (German Army) and the eternally oppressed people of Soviet Union. Why the Eastern Front serves as a testament for what humans are capable of doing to each other in 20th century is explained through the policies followed by both Hitler and Stalin. 

The late 90s and early 2000s were like last chance saloon for documentary makers to capture accounts of people who actually participated in the war and by then almost all the war documents that could be declassified were declassified. I had seen the 1974 documentary 'World At War' which is like a definitive account of the second world war. One drawback with it was that they couldn't use some of the documents that were declassified later which kind of made some of it inaccurate. Still it is very powerful and a must watch. By the time 'The War of the Century' came, there were numerous documentaries made on almost all the aspects of war. How WotC differentiates itself is by telling the story of Eastern Front primarily using witness accounts and providing substantiation through recently declassified war documents from Russia. 

The four episodes are:

1) High Hopes: This episode deals with Hitler's invasion of Russia in 1941 till the siege of Moscow where they were thwarted by the Russian winter as well as the Red Army counterattack using reinforcements from Siberia, who were adept at battles during winter. It also looks at the attitude of German army regarding the occupied people and the culpability of it in implementing the Nazi agenda. They looked at the Soviet people as an uncivilized bunch and Hitler's tactic was to oppress them so that they will serve the German masters.

2) Spiral of Terror: Attitudes of both Hitler and Stalin was to meet terror with terror. This is why the Eastern Front turned out to be the most brutal as the orders were duly followed and things were taken to their logical conclusion. Stalin ordered for resistance against Germans in the occupied land and partisans became a feature in the occupied territories as they mount attacks against German occupiers and people who were suspected  to have co-operated with the Germans. Captured Germans soldiers were brutalized and mutilated which further escalated the violence due to German reprisals. Ukrainians suffered most as there were three groups doing the fighting-German Army, Soviet Partisans and Ukraine nationalist partisans who preferred independence. The Ukrainians had initially treated the Germans as liberators only to find their situation even more worse under them. 

3) Learning to Win: This episode describes the battle of Stalingrad at the end of which Russians began their ascendancy in war. Hitler had seen Volga river as the natural border for his German empire and he sent two army groups: one to the South towards the Caucasus to capture Russian oil sources and another one to north-east towards the city of Stalingrad which bordered with the Western banks of Volga. Stalingrad was the last of the Russian resistance against Germans in their quest of forming their lines along Volga and Stalin ordered the Red Army to defend the city. What followed was a brutal resistance characterized by close combat between the two armies. The distance between the two were a mere hundred meters but the Germans found it impossible to break through since things like their tanks were not useful in such a kind of battle. By this time, after several setbacks prior  to it when Stalin overrode his generals' advise, Stalin started to follow his generals's advise and a decision was taken to encircle the German sixth army who were laying siege to Stalingrad. Strategy was successful and the field marshal of the sixth army surrendered against Hitler's orders. 110,000 Germans surrendered and 95% of them died during their time under the Soviets.

4) Vengeance: The final episode documents what happened leading up to the Red Army occupation of Berlin. The German occupying force in Soviet Russia followed a 'Scorched Earth' policy during their retreat which meant that the suffering of the occupied people continued. To compound matters Stalin began deportation of his own people, who belonged to ethnic minorities like Chechens, Tartars, Kalmyks etc, to Gulags in Siberia. He targeted all those groups who were suspected to have misgivings with the idea of Soviet Union. When the Red Army reached Eastern Prussia and Germany, it marched ahead pillaging and raping its way through. Even the Russian prisoners of war were not spared as Stalin didn't believe in the idea of it. Russians were not supposed to surrender and he treated PoWs as traitors and they were sent to gulags. As the war ended Stalin began manufacturing his legacy as the commanding figure who won the war. Within a year after the end of war, he took actions against all three of the Army, Navy and Air-force generals to seal his legacy. In effect half of Europe exchanged one tyrant for another.

Overall the documentary is a great watch and I quite liked the dispassionate way in which it was presented, especially when it comes to the narration. I do recommend Dan Carlin's podcast 'Ghosts of the Ostfront' as the best account of the Eastern Front- for information as well as for the passionate delivery. All these ideologically pure movements, be it the Nazis, Islamic State or Hindutva movement in India, seeds of their own destruction are contained within them. The only question is how much damage they can inflict upon people before they destroy themselves. As for the the Eastern Front-everything ran into millions-tens of million dead, millions captured & deported, million raped etc.

Rating: 4/5