Originally broadcast in 2011 (the 70th anniversary of the German invasion of Russia) 1941 and the Man of Steel is a two-part documentary written and presented by David Reynolds.
It’s fair to say that the battles on the Eastern Front have never attracted the same level of interest (especially in the UK) as the conflicts in the West have. But Reynolds convincingly argues that the Battle for Russia was just as critical – possibly even more so – than the Battle for Britain in deciding the future not only of the United Kingdom, but the rest of Europe as well.
Reynolds, a pleasingly idiosyncratic academic, makes this point with an amusing introductory speech, clearly designed to wrong-foot the viewer. “He was a little man, about five foot five. In his sixties. Rather tubby. Enjoyed his drinks and his smokes. An unlikely hero perhaps. But in the dark days of the twentieth century he helped save Britain. And he was one of the biggest mass-murderers in history. Stalin was his party name”.
He then deftly paints a striking picture of Stalin, from his young days as a bank robber (albeit in a good cause – or at least the cause, Bolshevism, which he believed in) through to his years of terror in the 1920’s and 1930’s, where he brutally suppressed any opposition via show trials, torture and mass executions.
But Reynolds is able to argue that it was his dominant personality which helped to bring Russia to the brink of defeat in 1941. If you create a society that functions only if the man at the top performs effectively, what happens when he begins to make mistakes? Stalin’s first major miscalculation saw him fail to believe that an attack from Germany was imminent. He had accurate intelligence from Britain, but his mistrust of the West caused him to disregard it – a fatal mistake.
The first few days of the German offensive saw them make substantial gains whilst Stalin seemed powerless to act. The news was no better during the next couple of months and Reynolds suggests that this pressure brought the Man of Steel to the point of a nervous breakdown – in a rare moment of candour he bitterly admitted to his colleagues that “Lenin founded our state and we’ve screwed it up”. This picture of Stalin – a broken man, alone in his dacha and unwilling to answer the phone – is a compelling one. When the politburo trekked out to see him, Stalin feared the worst (a coup) but in fact they wanted him back. And it was their faith (a bitter irony when you consider how ruthless he’d been with anyone who dared oppose him) which seemed to spark him back into life.
How he then managed to turn things around is the crux of the documentary and Reynolds, using official documents and telegrams, illuminates the key moments. Stalin began by falling back on his old methods of terror, but he also had to learn the gentle art of diplomacy – which wasn’t easy for someone who’d risen to the top by not listening to anybody. But listen he did – and to a most unexpected source, Winston Churchill. The British Prime Minister had been a savage opponent of Stalin’s Russia in the past, but political expediency now meant that the Man of Steel was a vital ally for the beleaguered British.
Churchill’s trip to Moscow in 1942 is a fascinating part of the story. Stalin attempted to push Churchill into launching an early invasion of France and then angrily called the British people cowards after he failed to get his own way. Churchill took great umbrage at this slight and considered returning to Britain there and then, but the next day Stalin suggested they retire to his apartment for the evening – where they consumed a great deal of alcohol, leaving Churchill with a severe hangover the next day! This moment helps to paint both leaders in a very human light and is also a good example of the strange dichotomy of Stalin’s character. On the one hand he was a brutal and utterly ruthless tyrant, but, as here, he could be approachable and amenable (and remember, it was Churchill who nicknamed him “Uncle Joe”).
Twenty eight million Soviet citizens lost their lives during WW2 – a picture of death and devastation that’s almost unimaginable. Had Stalin not been so reckless during the first year of the war, says Reynolds, then the death toll would have been considerably less, but he did ultimately achieve a crushing victory over Germany and this victory would help to shape world politics for the next four decades.
Running for ninety minutes (two 45 minute episodes) 1941 and the Man of Steel provides the viewer with a compact overview that still manages to feel quite comprehensive. Reynolds, who has helmed a number of documentaries (including Long Shadow), certainly knows his stuff, although he may be something of an acquired taste. He likes the odd dramatic flourish and his quirky sense of humour bubbles to the surface occasionally. But his arguments are cogent and well thought out and he’s a very affable guide through this complex theatre of war.
1941 and the Man of Steel is released by Simply Media on the 8th of August 2016. RRP £19.99.