You’re a middle-class Pole living in modest bourgeois comfort in a detached house in the handsome Austro–Hungarian city of Lwow in 1939 when there’s a knock at the door. Two officers from the newly arrived Soviet army of occupation have come to tell you that from now on all bar one of the rooms in your house are theirs. Everything in the house belongs to them too, including all your mother’s lovely clothes which you’ll soon see being flaunted by the Soviet officers’ vulgar wives.
Or maybe you live in a fine old country house and your father is one of the war heroes who saw off the Russians in 1920. Big mistake that, because one of the Russians your father beat was Stalin and he’s had a chip on his shoulder ever since. By way of revenge, he has ordered the NKVD to scour the land for Polish veterans who beat him. Now you have precisely half an hour to grab what belongings you can and leave your home for good.
That’s if your father’s lucky. If he happens to belong to the hated Polish officer class, he will perhaps end up in Kalinin prison where he’ll be extensively interrogated. There, one night, he will be led down a corridor to an empty cell with a wall of sandbags in front and worrying stains on the floor, the door will be closed behind him to muffle the noise from his comrades, and a man with a brown leather apron and brown leather gauntlets will shoot him in the back of the head. His body will then be thrown in a mass grave with some 20,000 others in the forests of Katyn.
No matter how many times you read or hear about the monstrous things Stalin did, the mind still boggles at what an unutterable bastard he was. At least as bad as Hitler — and responsible for more deaths — he has, despite the best efforts of writers from Robert Conquest to Simon Sebag Montefiore, had a relatively easier ride of it. World War II: Behind Closed Doors (BBC2, Monday) is one more step towards rectifying this ongoing imbalance.
What the first episode of Laurence Rees’s gripping new series about Stalin, the Nazis and the West made clear is how closely involved our future ally Uncle Joe was with our enemy in those first few months of the war. Subsequently explained away as nothing more than a ‘non-aggression pact’, Stalin’s 1939 agreement with Hitler was an awful lot cosier and far-reaching than that.
It involved splitting Poland down the middle (the Vistula) and taking half each; sharing intelligence between the Gestapo and the NKVD; convivial dinners and toasts of undying friendship in former Tsarist palaces; the loan to the Germans of a base, north of Murmansk, for shipping repairs; the use of a Soviet icebreaker to escort a Nazi Q-ship over the top of the Asian continent and into Eastern waters where it was able to sink 7,000 tons of Allied shipping; exchange of technology; shipments of wheat and oil from the Soviets to the Nazis; a promise from Stalin that, if Germany came unstuck in its war in the West, he would never allow his Nazi chums to go under…
This may well be why some of us, as we read Antony Beevor’s Stalingrad, found our sympathies between the two sides so torn. Sure, the Soviets with 10,700,000 military dead and 11,400,000 civilian dead bore the brunt of the suffering and fighting, killing over ten times more Germans in battle than did all the other Allied armies combined. But you still can’t help feeling that a country which allows itself to be run by such a grade A **** as Stalin kind of deserves everything that’s coming to it.
Beautifully acted (Alexei Petrenko is especially good as Stalin), authentically recreated with a script based on (often only recently unearthed) diaries and notes from the period, with lots of fascinating period footage, eyewitness testimony (can it really be that the fellow who ran Hitler’s Berghof hidey-hole is still with us?) and the statutory crisp, grim voiceover from Sam West, this series is going to be required viewing. Does rather spoil, though, one’s image of the second world war as being the one truly just war. Not where the compromises with a customer like Stalin were concerned, it wasn’t.
I think I’ve solved the mystery of Ian Hislop’s politics. Bumped into him the other day and I’m sure the sheepish grin he gave me said, ‘God, James, you were SO totally right in that last review you did about my railway programme. Nailed me in one.’
His Not Forgotten: The Men Who Wouldn’t Fight (Channel 4, Monday) was about conscientious objectors. It asked: ‘If we memorialise the courage of those who fought and died, should we not also remember and honour those who had the courage not to fight?’ Which is just the kind of question you’d expect a chap of Hislop’s persuasion to ask. But he made his case movingly, resonantly, coruscatingly and convincingly. Even if he is still a closet, semi-pinko.