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TV REVIEW : 'Hitler, Stalin' Documents Brutal Reality

July 21, 1994|ROBERT KOEHLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When CBS' superb "Hitler and Stalin: Legacy of Hate" was first scheduled to air last October--only to be pre-empted by the network's broadcast of the final game of the American League championship series--the siege of Sarajevo and the "ethnic cleansing" campaign in Bosnia dominated the news. The timing, and the historical connections, could not have been more potent.

Nine months later, "Hitler and Stalin" is finally being shown--an unforgivable lapse of time for such a striking piece of relevant television history. Still, with the now-retired Charles Kuralt and Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf as hosts, this is a kind of timeless piece of journalism that dramatically mirrors the rises, falls and characters of the 20th Century's bloodiest tyrants.

The sheer range of interview subjects assembled by producer and co-writer Jennifer Laird is truly epic--from Holocaust survivor Elisabeth Mann and Hitler inner-circle veteran Reinhard Spitzy to journalist (and future theater critic) Walter Kerr and U.S. Olympians Marty Glickman and Archie Williams.

More than most network documentaries, the carefully selected, astonishing archive footage tends to amplify what Laird's subjects say. Reporters recall the frozen soldiers of the bitter, seven-month Battle of Stalingrad, when Russia finally spurned the invading Nazis--and we see the obscenely contorted corpses. As military cameraman Tom Priestley shudders telling what he saw when he entered the Nazi death camps at World War II's end, we see footage of the naked victims of "The Final Solution," footage Priestley himself may have shot.

Above all, we see how the leading communist and facist of the mid-century paralleled each other in important ways. Both killed those in their own ranks as freely as their enemies. Both were consumed by paranoia and obsessed with bizarre medical notions. Both assumed they knew more than their generals about military strategy. Both even posed for postcard shots with little girls and raised the cult of the personality to religious heights.

That the cults remain is nothing compared to the fact that the tactics of death camps and extermination have returned. Perhaps the new images of the Rwandan mass murder will not make "Hitler and Stalin" nine months too late.

* "Hitler and Stalin: Legacy of Hate" airs at 9 tonight on CBS (Channels 2 and 8).

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