Old movies and unwelcome history

The moment the Japanese Empire bombed Pearl Harbor, the vast majority of Americans were committed heart and soul to winning the world war that the sneak attack abruptly brought our nation into. But as welcome as the ultimate victory was, World War II’s conclusion was, like most wars, a mixed blessing. For while the Nazis, fascists and warlords were thoroughly defeated, one of our principal allies, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (deceased, 1991) was in command of central Europe and portions of the Far East. No less pleased at the outcome as the western allies–the United States, Great Britain and France–the USSR nevertheless was a regime no less hateful than the ones defeated in war. In Europe, a divided continent entailed further divisions within defeated countries, specifically, Germany and Austria. In both countries, four zones of occupation were established at the Potsdam Conference, not only for these countries but for their capital cities, Berlin and Vienna. The division of Germany epitomized the tragic results of the "good war," as it came to be called, with crises in 1948 and 1961 that threatened another world war, and the remarkably peaceful outcome of 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall, erected in 1961. Austria was more fortunate, as the four-power occupation of the country and its capital ended with its official neutrality, agreed to at a summit conference in 1955.

But, of course, this was not the case in the immediate aftermath of the war, as painfully the true nature of our Soviet allies became clear. It was bad enough that Soviet troops remained from the Baltic republics to Bulgaria. But even those persons in Russia and its satellites who managed to flee ahead of those troops to the western democracies were relentlessly pursued by Soviet authorities.

Operation Keelhaul was the wrenching obligation of Western powers to deal with the Soviet refugee "problem." Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the heroic Russian writer who took on the Communist colossus and ultimately won, denounced even the estimable Winston Churchill for consenting to this massive human tragedy. Because the operation mocked everything the victorious allies fought (and prosecuted German and Japanese leaders) for, it was given little publicity.

But movie makers in those days took note. "The Red Danube," an MGM production of 1949, (shown on TCM) zeroed in on the grisly work of Soviet repatriation with telling effect. Despite the British occupation forces’ determination to carry out their orders to deliver thousands of unhappy and unwilling refugees from Soviet tyranny to their horrible and undeserved fate, the truth obtrudes itself.

Here is a useful plot summary from IMDb (Internet Movie Database):

"Shortly after the end of World War II, British Colonel Michael 'Hooky' Nicobar (Walter Pidgeon) is assigned to a unit in the British Zone of Vienna. His duty is to aid the Soviet authorities to repatriate citizens of the Soviet Union, many of whom prefer not to return to their home country. Billeted in the convent run by Mother Auxilia (Ethel Barrymore), Nicobar, and his military aides Major John 'Twingo' McPhimister (Peter Lawford) and Audrey Quail (Angela Lansbury), become involved in the plight of a young ballerina (Janet Leigh) who is trying to avoid being returned to Moscow. Nicobar's sense of duty is tested as he sees first hand the plight of the people he is helping return to the Soviet Union; his lack of religious faith is also shaken by his contact with the Mother Superior."

I read several of these plot summaries, all of which equivocated in some way on the momentous issues involved. To say that "many" of the Soviet citizens "prefer[red] not to return to their home country" is a huge understatement. All were actively hostile to the idea, for it does not take a genius to figure out that a regime that deprives you of your liberty is to be avoided at all costs. Other summaries called the movie "propaganda" and "heavy handed." That’s how things appear to those who are either ignorant of political realities or wilfully blind for the sake of avoiding conflict.

But the summaries indicate that there are several threads in this movie. Front and center is the painful dilemma of the officers of a good regime being ordered to deliver unwilling people to an evil one. The film "humanizes" this weighty issue with a young officer’s passion for a beautiful victim of the massive roundup. (The officer’s aide is also in love with him.) So our hearts tug for the young couple’s fight to avoid her repatriation and hurt badly when events conspire against them.

Col. Nicobar’s sense of duty, reinforced at all levels of the British command, is not hard to admire, but our awareness of the evils it brings about forces us to stop and think. As determined as he is to carry out his orders, a combination of the true facts of the repatriation and his being prodded by the mother superior, produce a far different outcome. Looking back at the event, today’s reviewers reflect the influence of postwar revisionism that refuses to acknowledge that the Cold War was rooted in Soviet tyranny, and of "political correctness" that all too incorrectly seeks to banish religious issues from public discussion.

The good-hearted and honest colonel has difficulty reconciling the existence of massive evil in the world with the promise of love and peace that is the Christian message. He is not one to change his mind easily for, as John Adams long ago observed, "facts are stubborn things." Not only Nazi atrocities but, as he is painfully learning, Soviet atrocities shake the world, leaving men like him with the unending duty of opposing them by force. Religious sentiment, he believes, is no better than rank superstition in the face of these great evils.

Gently, but firmly, the mother superior reminds him, by her persistence in fighting for Maria’s release and even publicizing the whole repatriation issue with the Pope, as well as by her pointed observation that God did not do these wicked deeds but man, Nicobar sees a new and more compelling duty to risk his position and his sustenance by refusing to carry out any further cooperation with the Soviets’ nefarious project. The denouement will bring delight to every lover of liberty and freedom of conscience.

Momentous issues at mid century gave many people a sense of moral clarity than has seldom been seen since. We can be grateful to old Hollywood (and Turner Classic Movies) that it made films worthy of the best characters that humanity has put forth. May it plague the consciences of those who will not see the truth that is right in front of them.