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Interview with Laurence Rees

By Gene Santoro 
Originally published by World War II magazine. Published Online: May 06, 2009 
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Josef Stalin, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Winston Churchill at the Tehran Conference in November 1943 (National Archives)
Josef Stalin, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Winston Churchill at the Tehran Conference in November 1943 (National Archives)
Award-winning historian and producer Laurence Rees, creator of the BBC documentary series and book Auschwitz: The Nazis and the "Final Solution", is no stranger to the war's moral quandaries. But his latest dual-media project—a book, World War II Behind Closed Doors: Stalin, the Nazis, and the West, and a series of the same name now airing on PBS—recreates a largely unknown tangle, and places the 1940 Soviet massacre of Poles at Katyn into chilling contexts: how Stalin played Roosevelt and Churchill, how they tried to play him, and what happened to the Poles and their country.

Drawing on fresh archival data and eyewitnesses, Rees weaves newsreel and interview footage with docudrama in the series while amplifying startling details and analysis in the book. His thesis: "The sordid realities of war and power forced the West into an alliance with one extremely bad man to get rid of another. What else could they do? But what happens to you when you do that?"

Why this project?
We British were taught we went to war to preserve the integrity of Poland. But what happened to Poland? It swapped one despot for another and had another 40 years of oppression. So this is a huge inconvenient history. The eastern front raises difficult questions, especially via new materials since Communism's fall. A recent Russian poll ranked Stalin number three of the greatest Russians. Imagine if that happened in Germany with Hitler!

What is Hitler's role in your story?
Everyone else reacts to him. Look at Stalin, one of the most extraordinary people who ever lived. He dominates every room, frightens people, and is extremely intelligent, subtle, and sophisticated. Anthony Eden, the British foreign minister, said, "In my 30 years of diplomacy, if I had to choose one person to negotiate for me, it would be Stalin." And yet even Stalin falls apart in 1941 in anticipation of what Hitler might do.

What about Churchill?
His warmth and emotion are extraordinary. But he's forced to live through a horrendous awakening: his realization that England is second-rate. You see this in his dealings with FDR at Quebec in 1944, when he angrily rejects, then accepts, the Morgenthau Plan to deindustrialize postwar Germany. In May 1945 he comes up with Operation Unthinkable—a moment where he decides to invade Poland to save it from Stalin, and everyone else is going, "No, no." One of so many wacko plans.

And FDR?
Of them all, he is the one who is hardest to read and most intrigues me. He didn't write a memoir, keep a diary, or confide in any other living person about more than he thought they needed to know at that moment. He's an incredibly sophisticated, clever politician, always dealing through intermediaries like Harry Hopkins. Nobody had the full picture.

For example?
In May 1942, [Soviet foreign minister Vyacheslav] Molotov visits the White House, and FDR promises D-Day that autumn. Even Gen. [George C.] Marshall, who's pushing for an early second front, wants to hedge. So what is going on? We can only speculate. He's stringing them along; he's thinking, "The Russians are going through a tough time; gotta give them hope. Come autumn, something else may turn up." This is exactly the wrong way to deal with Stalin, who needs the second front to take the pressure off and sees its delays as betrayals. Roosevelt's arrogance is that he can "handle" anyone. I think he thought Stalin was like a union boss from Chicago.

What was Stalin like?
An aggressive listener. He could take over a room just by listening. Stepan Mikoyan, who grew up in the Kremlin leadership compound and knew Stalin from childhood, told me, "Stalin was so suspicious, you had to watch your eye contact. Not enough, and he'd think you were trying to hide something. Too much, and he'd think you were overconfident and plotting against him. Managing eye contact was crucial." My God! Yet Stalin has a good sense of humor and controls every meeting he's in.

Doesn't he charm the West?
Eden comes back in late 1941 from his trip to Moscow and says, "I tried to imagine Stalin dripping with the blood of his opponents, but the picture won't fit." All the Western leaders had some form of this problem. There's Hitler and Mussolini, ranting and raving—and Stalin's not like that at all! He's calm, seems to be reasonable, listens—and he doesn't talk very much, which is what the rest of them absolutely love to do.

So he seems like someone they can deal with.
He seems like a top-level civil servant, an apparatchik—which is where they get the idea there's someone behind him, the Politburo, pulling strings to make deals go bad. His lack of apparent ego is extraordinary in a major world figure.

How does Katyn reveal the West's moral dilemma about Stalin?
It shows beyond question what Roosevelt and Churchill know: not just that they are dealing with a prewar mass murderer, but that one of their allies appears to have murdered the entire officer corps of another of their allies, the Poles. The Nazis make huge propaganda out of Katyn, but the Allies pretend it hasn't happened or that someone else—the Nazis—did it. Moreover, they stop the Poles from publicizing what they both know to be the truth.

Does anyone admit this?
In May 1943 Sir Owen O'Malley, ambassador to the Polish government, writes a caustic memo saying the Soviets committed murder at Katyn. His career gets screwed because of this. Sir Alexander Cadogan, chief of the Foreign Office, looks at it and writes, "Oh dear, I had turned my head away from this for fear of what I would find." Which is just how Roosevelt works as well.

Meaning?
[American historian] Robert Dallek told me, "To understand FDR, imagine you're someone who 90 percent of the time has one thought: How will this play in the States?" Yet he's also got this huge Wilsonian vision: he dreams up the United Nations on the back of an envelope. He's not a cynical politician. But the amazing duality is extraordinary, and reveals itself at Yalta. Roosevelt knew what he wanted: Russian participation in the UN after the war, and Russian troops to help defeat Japan so fewer Americans would die. So when someone comes up and says, "Here's the border of Poland," he nods. It isn't important to him.

Where does that dynamic leave Churchill?
Here's his realization that the British are screwed as a major power, and he wants absolutely to be at the top table discussing the future of continents. He has two meetings with Stalin alone. In Tehran in 1943, he uses matchsticks to negotiate Poland's new borders. In Moscow in 1944, he writes a "naughty document" with percentages of influence for the Soviets and western Allies in eastern European countries. It's important that these meetings happened when Roosevelt wasn't there.

Doesn't Churchill play a double game with the Poles?
He knows in the abstract he's got to hand over half of Poland, because the facts are: one, the Soviets are there already and we ain't gonna have a war to get 'em out; and two, there's a sense that, well, they have been dying for us, haven't they? Roosevelt and Churchill talk about everything, but they never talk about the Russian losses vis-à-vis our losses: nearly 27 million vs. some 800,000. That's precisely because they know it's so core. But when Churchill meets Gen. [Wladyslaw] Anders and the Polish Division who've taken Monte Cassino, he sees the brave suffering and breaks down: "Trust us, trust us." He's got this terrible dichotomy.

What does all this add up to?
The complexity of the truth. There's no moral certainty here. I don't think Churchill and Roosevelt were bad people. My God, I would have collapsed in 20 seconds under any of the pressures they faced! Moreover, what could they have done? Try to take Poland at a loss of two or three million men? But what's important is this: World War II is becoming a mythic story of good vs. evil. Of course we should remember D-Day and liberating Auschwitz and all the glorious things. But we mustn't understand it just in those terms. We mustn't cherry-pick history for what makes us feel morally superior.

World War II Behind Closed Doors airs on PBS on May 6, May 13, and May 20 at 9 p.m. Rees's book of the same name was published by Pantheon in April 2009.



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