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WW II: Behind Closed Doors

Stalin, the Nazis and the West

Episode 1: Unlikely Friends (Summer 1939 to Autumn 1941)

The first episode in the series lays bare a history of secret allegiances with the Nazis that Stalin wanted to hide. Before he was allied with Churchill and Roosevelt, Stalin offered help to Hitler and the Nazis – much more help than the rest of the world knew.

In 1939, less than two weeks before the outbreak of the Second World War, the foreign minister of Nazi Germany, Joachim von Ribbentrop, visited the Soviet Union to negotiate an agreement with Stalin. The signing of a non-aggression pact between them surprised many – Soviet Communists and German Fascists alike. Though the two nations were careful to convey that they had merely signed a pact, they were allies in all but name.

After waging war on Poland, Ribbentrop and Stalin would meet again and Stalin would make a statement that remained secret until it was discovered in the Nineties. He promised to support the Germans and not to allow their defeat, which went well beyond anything that the Soviet Union later admitted had been said at these meetings. In a bid to keep his secret ally happy, Stalin also allowed the Nazis a base in a remote part of the North of the Soviet Union and helped them with a clandestine naval voyage to the Pacific.

But it was the division of Poland that became the key factor in the story of Stalin’s shifting alliances. In the early hours of March 5th, 1940, the Soviet leader signed one of the most notorious documents of the whole war – a document the Soviet Union denied even existed until the fall of Communism. His decree would lead to the murder of nearly 22,000 members of the Polish elite. Infamously known as the Katyn Forest Massacre, this crime would later come to haunt relations between the Soviet Union and its Western Allies for years to come.

And it would not be long before Stalin would be looking to the West for support in his most desperate hours.

In June 1941, reality hit, as Hitler invaded Russia and Stalin realized he had been betrayed by the Nazis. The Soviets struggled to repel the Nazi invasion. Stalin knew he was up against the most powerful army in the world. They had crushed France the year before and forced them to sign a humiliating peace. Britain, under Churchill, was soldiering on but weakened and almost alone. America was providing material support but a strong pacifist movement in the United States was preventing FDR from joining the war.

The Red Army was simply too ill-trained and too ill-equipped to stop the Germans. In just seven days, the Soviets had lost over 100,000 soldiers.

But the Soviets would not accept defeat and were forced to fight to the death. In a riveting scene, Stalin is seen telling one of his officers that his troops should take their spades and dig their own graves.

Stalin was now at his weakest and he thought his new allies, the British, were doing little help. Churchill was of two minds about the Soviet Union. He despised Communism, but he also valued anyone who fought against the Nazis.

Stalin knew he needed all the allies he could get. And he was about to gain another much more powerful one in America, when Germany and Japan joined forces. Could he trust these Western powers that he so desperately needed to save his nation? Having been betrayed by his first ally, as the war progressed, Stalin became convinced that the British and the Americans might be almost as duplicitous.