On August 12th, 1942, Stalin finally came face-to-face with Churchill in Moscow. Despite the upbeat newsreels of the time, however, it was hardly a meeting of minds. As one of Churchill’s generals later remarked: “We were going into the lion’s den and we weren’t going to feed him.”
The Western leaders knew Stalin was a tyrant who had ordered the death of hundreds of his own citizens. The problem was, just how were they to work with one tyrant to defeat another?
Stalin had a deep mistrust of the West and believed the Western Allies were betraying him – not least by failing to launch D-Day as early as he thought they had promised (in order to help relieve the pressure on the Eastern front).
To appease Stalin, Churchill enthusiastically insisted that the British would mercilessly bomb German civilian targets into the ground – statements that Churchill later tried to distance himself from. He also promised to attack German forces in North Africa to help take pressure off the Russian front.
Stalin also hated Poles, and designs on regaining Polish territory that he had lost to the advancing German army in 1941 was a continuing obsession.
Featuring exclusive interviews with surviving Russian, Polish, American and British veterans, and based in part on rare wartime documents made briefly available only after the fall of the Soviet Union, this episode illustrates the tenuous, and often perilous, bond that dogged the alliance between the West and Stalin.
But all was not rosy with the alliance between the Western powers either. In America, as popular magazines and feature films continued to portray the Soviets in a heroic light, behind the scenes, Roosevelt – his eye on the post-war spoils – was trying to meet with Stalin, without Churchill’s knowledge. When Churchill learned of the plans, Roosevelt told a “barefaced lie” to the British Prime Minister and the planned meeting between Russia and the United States was scuttled.
But in 1943, all three leaders met in Tehran. As records from confidential talks show, Churchill is seen meeting with Stalin late at night and drawing the new lines of post-war Poland with matchsticks on a map. Territory in eastern Poland would be given back to the Russians, while the new Poland would be compensated with land taken from Germany. Through this ploy, Churchill thought Stalin would be more cooperative over allowing an independent government for the new Poland. It was a problematic move on the part of Churchill – in large part because Poland was the very country the British had gone to war to protect. Many Poles would come to see Churchill not as a hero, but as a gangster.
As the Soviets began to push the Nazis back and reclaim ground in eastern Poland, they engaged in one of the most startling cover-ups in the war. In a carefully orchestrated move, they planted evidence to blame the Katyn Forest massacre on the Nazis. Presented with proof of the fraud, Churchill wrote a memo insisting “We should none of us ever speak a word about it.” For his part, Roosevelt, ever expedient, did his best to ignore the evidence as well, and went so far as to betray his close friend and confidante to keep it quiet.
In another shocking moment, Stalin is seen suggesting to Roosevelt and Churchill that after the war, the German officers be executed en masse. Churchill was incensed but Roosevelt just made a joke, continuing to cultivate his relationship with the tyrant at the expense of his relationship with Churchill.
This episode also covers the brutal and heroic Warsaw uprising and Churchill is seen assuring the Poles that “we will never desert you,” but Churchill was ultimately helpless to save Warsaw and the Soviets were free to capture the city.
At a meeting in Quebec, Roosevelt proposed to divide up Germany, destroy its industry and reduce it to an agricultural society. Churchill had great reservations about what it would mean for the balance of power in Europe, but was finally convinced. As it turned out, Roosevelt’s plan was drawn up by Harry Dexter White, a Soviet spy in Washington, and it suited Stalin’s aims perfectly.
Meanwhile, Stalin’s secret police were solidifying their hold on Poland through the most brutal of means.