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Issue #1588      April 10, 2013

Culture & Life

The Unknown War

Last February 13, the regular Press Fund segment under the editorial on page two of this paper carried the news that the American version of the 26-part Soviet TV documentary series The Great Patriotic War was finally available on DVD. “Hosted” and narrated by Burt Lancaster, the American version was retitled The Unknown War. During WW2, the Soviet role in the war was anything but unknown. The rest of the world watched it in awe. The new title referred to the way the Soviet role in the great struggle against fascism had been effectively written out of history by imperialist (especially US imperialist) propaganda.

Soviet infantry unit at the Leningrad front, 1942.

For years I had been plagued by enquiries from Guardian readers including some from the USA wanting to know where they could get a copy of the series. I have always told them what most people told me: that it simply wasn’t available anywhere.

Now, suddenly, The Unknown War seems to be available everywhere. The Press Fund note in The Guardian said it was available from “mail order company Entertainment Masters” and they certainly have it, but actually you can also get it from your local ABC shop for $39.99. (If they don’t have it in stock they will order it in for you).

The series was originally made and released in 1978, as a response to and rebuttal of the hopelessly biased British series The World At War, which had infuriated Soviet historians and war veterans by devoting only three of its 26 one-hour episodes to the war on the Eastern front, even though that was where the Axis lost most of their casualties, most of their tanks, most of their planes and in every real sense was where they lost the war.

The British producers of The World At War naturally sought access to Soviet archival film and eyewitness accounts, but when the relevant Soviet authorities discovered the extent of the proposed series’ Cold War bias, they declined to assist. Undeterred, the Brits went ahead anyway, using Nazi archive material and using Nazis and Nazi collaborators for their eyewitness accounts. Did I say it was biased?

When the Soviet response, The Unknown War, was first released, Channel Seven bought it for Australia and screened the first few episodes in prime time before shoving the rest of it back into a slot near midnight. Meanwhile, the national democratic revolution had taken place in Afghanistan and the CIA was busy opposing it by arming and funding the feudal beys and the religious fanatics who followed them. The latter would eventually become well known as the Taliban. In the meantime they waged a murderous war of terror against the supporters of the revolution, just as the same class forces had in Central Asia after the Russian Revolution.

When the USSR sent troops to Afghanistan to help defend it against this aggression by a proxy US army of bandits and religious fanatics, the propagandists of imperialism screamed “Soviet invasion”. One response to this was the Australian government’s attempt to stop our athletes from competing in the Moscow Olympics. Another was the virtual suppression of The Unknown War which disappeared from television and video. Its recent return on DVD is good news.

If you choose to get it from Entertainment Masters just make sure you specify “The Unknown War narrated by Burt Lancaster”, for Entertainment Masters have another documentary series, also in a boxed set, called Russia’s War: Blood Upon The Snow. Like The World At War, this is also a British series, and also like The World At War, this is a thoroughly biased Cold-War type program.

A ten-part series, it was made in 1997, and if you look it up on the Internet you will find a “review” by one Chris Neilson which gives a viciously anti-Soviet synopsis of every one of its episodes. It claims the series had “previously unavailable access to Russian and Eastern European archives and eyewitnesses”, but all that means is that since Gorbachev it is easier for Westerners with money (and TV cameras) to find anti-Communist elements in the former USSR who will speak out against the Soviet Union’s war record (and anything else Soviet, if it comes to that).

The series seeks to portray the War on the Eastern Front as a struggle between two dictators – Hitler and Stalin – but is actually mainly interested in blaming Stalin for the whole thing.

Neilson does have the grace to acknowledge that the earlier series The World At War was “a product of the Cold War” but he has a ready excuse for the extreme right-wing bias on the part of The World At War: it was the fault of the socialist countries! According to Neilson: “This cursory coverage of the Eastern Front can be chalked up to a lack of access to the Soviet and Eastern European archival materials and eyewitnesses still locked behind the iron curtain when The World at War was made.”

As I have already explained, the anti-Soviet bias on the part of the makers of The World At War was already evident in the project’s planning stages, which is why the Soviet and East European archives declined to participate. It was adding insult to injury to expect them to supply material and eyewitnesses for a series that was determined to slander the leaders, the generals, the people and the soldiers of the USSR and the East European partisan armies that fought so courageously and suffered such horrendous losses to save Europe and the world from Hitlerite barbarism.

The most important point to remember about all this is that the forces who want the world to forget the USSR’s vital role in the defeat of fascism are still at it: lying, distorting, falsifying history. We must not let them get away with it.   

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