Why We Fight, The Battle of Russia Part I

The Battle of Russia (1943) is the fifth film of Frank Capra’s Why We Fight documentary series, and the longest film of the series, consisting of two parts. The film was made in collaboration with Russian-born Anatole Litvak as primary director under Capra’s supervision. Litvak gave the film its “shape and orientation,” and the film had seven writers with voice narration by Walter Huston. The score was done by Russian-born Hollywood composer, Dimitri Tiomkin, and drew heavily on Tchaikovsky along with traditional Russian folk songs and ballads.

Film historian Christopher Meir notes that the film’s popularity “extended beyond the military audience for it was initially intended, and was the second in the series to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.

The film begins with an overview of previous failed attempts to conquer Russia: by the Teutonic Knights in 1242 (footage from Sergei Eisenstein’s film Alexander Nevsky is used here), by Charles XII of Sweden in 1704 (footage from Vladimir Petrov’s film Peter the First), by Napoleon I in 1812, and by Germany in World War I.

The vast natural resources of the Soviet Union are then described, showing why the land is such a hot prize for conquerors. To give a positive impression of the Soviet Union to the American audience, the country’s ethnic diversity is covered in detail, and later on, elements of Russian culture familiar to Americans, including the musical compositions of Tchaikovsky and Leo Tolstoy’s book War and Peace are also mentioned. Communism is never mentioned at any point in the film; instead, the Russian Orthodox Church is described as a force opposing Nazism. The start of the film includes a quote from U.S. Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who commended the Russian people’s defense of their nation as one of the most courageous feats in military history.

The film then covers the Nazi conquests in the Balkans, described as a preliminary to close off possible Allied counter-invasion routes, before the war against Russia was launched on June 22, 1941. The narration describes the German “keil und kessel” tactics for offensive warfare, and the Soviet “defense in depth” used to counter this. The scorched earth Soviet tactics, the room-to-room urban warfare in Soviet cities, and the guerilla warfare behind enemy lines are also used to underline the Soviet resolve for victory against the Germans. The Siege of Leningrad and the Battle of Stalingrad conclude the film.

In order to justify the Western Allies alliance with the Soviet Union, the episode, like the entire Why We Fight series, misportrayed or simply omitted many facts, which could have cast doubts on the “good guy” status of the Soviets, such as the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact, Soviet invasion of Poland; Soviet occupation of the Baltic States, Winter War, and others. Nor did the film mention the word “Communism.”

Virtually in line with the Soviet propaganda, the series was not only screened but widely acclaimed in the Soviet Union.To exonerate the Soviets, the series casts even less important Allies, like the Poles, in a bad light. The episode has been described as “a blatant pro-Soviet propaganda posing as factual analysis” and was withdrawn from circulation during the Cold War. Capra commented about why certain material was left out: