The Unknown War: WWII and the Epic Battles of the Russian Front is the DVD of the Week

May 25, 2011

It’s a little ironic that the Allied victory in World War II was due in considerable part to our alliance with Stalin’s Soviet Union. And so the war on its Eastern front is usually given relatively short shrift in U.S. history books. Hence the importance of this 20-part documentary series from 1978.

The major value of The Unknown War: WWII and the Epic Battles of the Russian Front (5 discs, Shout! Factory, $39.97, not rated), narrated by Burt Lancaster, is its footage taken by Soviet filmmakers as well as film captured from the German army. It shows how the Red Army beat back the first large-scale invasion of Russia since Napoleon, albeit it at the coast of more than 20 million lives. The onset of the Cold War shortly after the end of combat no doubt contributed to a lack of recognition, at least in the West, of the importance of the Soviets’ defeat of Hitler’s army.

The Unknown War is itself a controversial project. With a screenplay by a seeming unlikely candidate — poet-writer-composer Rod McKuen — and co-directed by American military documentarian Isaac Kleinerman and Russian filmmaker Roman Karmen, the series took a fairly sympathetic view towards the Soviet war effort — too sympathetic for some after the 1978 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. And so the series was quietly withdrawn.

And the series does seem softpedal Stalin’s purge of many of the Russian army’s top commanders, thus weakening the Red Army just before the war broke out. And it rationalizes the Hitler-Stalin Pact (aka the Molotov-von Ribbentrop Non-Aggression pact) of 1939 as “a way to buy time.” And it basically reiterates the Soviet Army version of the Katyn forest murder of some 20,000 Polish officers and others in April and May 1940. It blames the Germans for the atrocities, while the bulk of the evidence suggest the murders were carried out by Soviet secret police.

Yet while one should take many of the filmmakers’ assertions with a grain of salt, The Unknown War fills in important gaps in most Americans’ understanding of the last good war.

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