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German troops advance through the debris of the factory district in Stalingrad. National Archives.

Like two players in a game of chess—one of monumental proportions and deadly results—totalitarian leaders Adolph Hitler and Josef Stalin moved pieces on a chessboard of more than one million square miles in World War II. The 1941 invasion of the Soviet Union by the Nazi war machine produced the largest land battle the world had ever seen and led to what many say was the pivotal event in Germany’s downfall, the Battle of Stalingrad. Now Thirteen (WNET) introduces a new documentary about that battle in an episode of its popular series entitled Secrets of the Dead: Deadliest Battle, premiering May 19 on PBS (check local listings for times).

Though less familiar to American audiences than campaigns and battles in the Pacific and Western Europe, the Eastern Front war between Germany and the Soviet Union has been the subject of documentary and dramatic film treatments for years. Brian J. McDonnell, producer, director and editor of the program, explains the impetus behind the project.

“I’ve always been interested in World War II because I had so many uncles that fought in it. I started focusing more on the Eastern Front myself and I just felt a lot of people don’t know about Stalingrad, so I thought maybe I’d make my first documentary on that. It was kind of by chance that (David) Glantz was making the trilogy so it all worked out well for me.”

The Stalingrad Trilogy is a new series of books by retired U. S. Army Col. David L. Glantz, a military historian who is an accomplished chronicler of the Eastern Front in World War II but who only recently tackled the complex subject of the Stalingrad campaign. What he envisioned as one 400-page book, he explains in the program, quickly ballooned into three volumes totaling 2,700 pages. Besides unraveling material from Soviet archives that has only become available in the last decade, Glantz was able to make use of the records of the German Sixth Army, which had been lost for fifty years.

“With all this information,” says McDonnell, “Glantz started addressing what he saw was an incomplete view of Stalingrad. If you start adding in these other factors, you start to get a better picture of why the German Sixth Army and parts of the Fourth Panzer Army got annihilated at Stalingrad. It wasn’t just the city fighting.”

Using archival footage, on-camera commentary by Glantz and Col. Kevin W. Farrell, Chief of Military History at West Point, and interviews with veterans of both sides, the film tells the story of the German invasion of the USSR in June 1941, Operation Barbarossa. The rapid advance, blitzkrieg style, of the combined German armor, air and infantry forces caught the Red Army unprepared for total warfare. Men and territory were chewed up at an alarming rate across a broad front until the Ostheer (the German army in the East) began to run out of steam as the fierce Russian winter arrived. Despite this development, the Germans still managed to quell serious resistance to their occupation of a large north-south front. Even though he made crucial mistakes himself, Stalin looked for someone to blame. Among those in the firing line was his political officer, Nikita Khrushchev.

Sergei Khrushchev, now a senior fellow at Brown University, appears in this program and gives insight into how his father dealt with the volatile Soviet dictator.

“Right away he wanted me to read his father’s memoirs,” explains McDonnell. “So I read his memoirs. Then we actually spent an hour just talking about Stalin’s seizure of power, the revolution, the purges—very interesting stuff. He was very open, pleasant to talk to.”

The younger Khrushchev’s recollection of events and conversations is one of the revealing pieces of analysis that are among the strengths in this documentary. Another is how the obsessive natures of both dictators allowed them to discard advice, even intelligence, in favor of their own ideas and views. The result of this was a wasting of the equipment and soldiers’ lives at a pace never seen before or since.

In the summer of 1942 the German army was still hanging on and Hitler shifted focus to the south, to the Soviet oil fields and the industrial city of Stalingrad—the latter an objective more symbolic than strategic. Part of the new thinking of this film is that the initial withdrawals of the Red Army during the campaign, called by the Germans Fall Blau (Case Blue, the summer 1942 German offensive in the southern USSR), were acts of desperation, not tactical moves planned by Stalin. The Soviet dictator ordered no pullbacks—and even created “blocking detachments” of secret police to hold impossible positions. The result was the same: an unprecedented urban battle occurred in which the German forces weakened as the Red Army found strength.

The key points leading to the Soviet counterattack that cut off and strangled a German force of more than 108,000 in Stalingrad are carefully laid out. Throughout the film, actor Liev Schreiber (Defiance, The Manchurian Candidate) clearly and skillfully narrates the events and decisions of the monumental struggle. The veterans interviewed give emotional details of life at the front. A few different visual elements (animation of a T-34 tank, Stalingrad monuments today) break up the carefully researched and edited period clips. Other documentaries, however, have good, sometimes rarely seen archival clips as well. The BBC’s The World at War series, for example, has a better combat camera look and more specific clips of the city fighting and Stalingrad events. Secrets of the Dead: Deadliest Battle also contains little on the contributions of the field commanders, especially the Red Army’s Georgi Zhukov and Vasili Chuikov. However, in analyzing the campaign’s development with fresh thought and evidence, the program is first-rate and is sure to raise suppositions about what might have happened if the most deadly military campaign in history had not been run by two complete egomaniacs.