The world of documentary filmmaking has changed since the debut of this 26-part television series. I mention this upfront because of how history is now presented through recreation, actors, animation, point-of-view, CGI and other film techniques can, and does, change the viewer’s perception of historical events and the emotional connection to the story as depicted. The production team behind The World at War were intentional about using only authentic film and interviews. Producers were also sensitive to how war footage was edited as propaganda tools for the war effort.
The World at War took nearly four years to produce and involved a team of 50 researchers, editors, producers and historians. Produced by British Thames Television, it was sold all around the world. It debuted in America in 1974, and later shown at the same time as I began my freshman year of college, and enrolled in a history elective about the Second World War. The timing could not have been better for this young mind to tackle the most important event in world history. Each Sunday night at 10:30 pm, I tuned in to learn about an event or issue of the war. This was pretty heady stuff for an 18-year old mind, and the horrors of war did not disappear quietly into the night.
The thing about World War II that I always thought about is that it as a personal war. One of the text books for my history class was Total War, which conveyed the gigantic scope of that war. (I still have that text book.)
In some ways, WW II impacted every person on the planet. There were many battlefields and beachheads, and unlike some other wars, civilians were in the crosshairs. This was not just a war of conquest, it was a campaign of ethnic cleansing, the Holocaust.
In the early 1970s, many of the principals and witnesses to the Second World War were still alive. In addition, there were filmed interviews of others, and millions of feet of film in vaults all over the world, much of it not seen or catalogued. Program researchers also looked for high ranking members of the military and government who had not told their stories or had not participated in in-depth interviews. Contrast that, with many witnesses who were civilians in each of the major conflict areas talking about the struggles of daily life, losing family, or grappling with issues like the treatment of Jews. These stories and views, presented in their own words are incredibly strong.
Sir Laurence Olivier was hired to narrate the series, a job he reportedly hated doing, even though it paid well. His voice, and precise diction, not only lent class, but emphasized the importance of the project.
The World at War is not simply a year by year, or battle by battle, but each 51 minute program encompasses something significant in the nearly decade-long war. From the rebirth of Germany in the 1930s to the postwar geopolitical changes, the series traces a world where societies fractured, generations were lost, empires left in tatters and warfare became more deadly.
The series was produced by David Isaacs who was given a large budget to produce the most ambitious docuseries ever. Authentic and accurate were the keywords he used to explain his approach, along with verify, verify, verify. Memories of witnesses could be unreliable and open to coloring facts. Isaacs generally avoided using newsreels, which were edited as propaganda, unless propaganda was his point. Great caches of film were found in dusty vaults all over the world.
Sometimes a small bit of film had a sobering effect. Isaacs found film of German soldiers in a small Russian village. This was not battle footage, rather the residents were being sorted by men and women, divided by families to be sent to different destinations, likely to never see each other again. Even without sound and aged film stock, the fear and raw emotions of the villagers is haunting.
Susan McConachy was a researcher on the series. Her job was to find old soldiers and other witnesses who could tell their stories and relate perspectives on events. She found Hitler’s secretary, Traudl Junge, and Himmler’s adjutant, SS General Karl Wolff. She said each took a year to build enough trust to be interviewed on film. Wolff related a story where 100 town’s people were executed in front of Himmler as a demonstration. They were dumped into a mass grave. Wolff told the story matter-of-factly, even as he described Himmler vomiting after the event.
Wolff was relaxed enough around McConachy, even flirtatious, putting his hand on her knee and telling her that she had the attractive qualities that SS officers like for breeding. Unbelievable. An example of the evil and inhumanity rampant during this war.
World War II reshuffled the world and changed life forever. It was really the first war extensively filmed. These 26 episodes are over twenty-five hours of war and is the definitive story of WW II, even though the producers had to judiciously pick the campaigns and subjects to feature. There are simply too many stories to tell, but what you get is amazing to watch.
My stepfather loved history. He bought this series on DVD, but never got to watch them all before he passed away. I inherited the series and gave it a view. It is an incredible slice of world history. Hard to watch? Often it is, and as often as you see death and carnage, the impact never loses the horror or senselessness.
1. New Germany (1933–1939) – Adolf Hitler wins support from millions of Germans as he offers new hope to a country recovering from depression.
2. Distant War (September 1939 – May 1940) – France and England enter World War 2 after Germany’s invasion of Poland. Except for its navy, England is uncertain how to prepare. After a failed operation in Norway lead by Churchill, Chamberlain is, ironically, replaced as Prime Minister by Churchill.
3. France Falls (May–June 1940) – The Germans skirt the French’s heavily fortified Maginot line and defeat them in six weeks with newer techniques and equipment.
4. Alone (May 1940 – May 1941) – British morale plunges as 350,000 allied troops are barely rescued at Dunkirk and the RAF battles the Luftwaffe over London skies. After losing the Battle of Britain, Germany begins bombing British cities. The British launch an offensive in North Africa hoping to distract the Germans attention from the British Isles.
5. Barbarossa (June–December 1941) – Germany turns against Russia, but fatal German delays hold the advance a few kilometers outside Moscow in the mud and cold.
6. Banzai:Japan (1931–1942) – The rise of the Japanese Empire, the Sino-Japanese War, the Soviet-Japanese border conflicts, Pearl Harbor and the early Japanese successes in the fall of Malaya and Singapore.
7. On Our Way: USA (1939–1942) – FDR, determined to fight Germany as well as Japan, cannot sway Congress until Hitler declares war on the United States.
8. The Desert: North Africa (1940–1943) – Montgomery’s Desert Rats defeat Rommel’s Africa Korps at El Alamein after fighting for nearly three years for 600 miles of desert.
9. Stalingrad (June 1942 – February 1943) – The German army’s defeat at Stalingrad, with 70,000 Germans killed and 100,000 captured, dispels the myth of German invincibility.
10. Wolf Pack: U-Boats in the Atlantic (1939–1944) – U-boat attacks on U.S. supply ships nearly starve Britain despite convoys, escorts and underwater detection devices.
11. Red Star: The Soviet Union (1941–1943) – Germany attacks the Soviet Union in June 1941, unsuccessfully laying siege to Leningrad from September 1941 until January 1944.
12. Whirlwind: Bombing Germany (September 1939 – April 1944) – Arthur “Bomber” Harris takes over Bomber Command with the demand for revenge sorties as a means to defeat Germany.
13. Tough Old Gut: Italy (November 1942 – June 1944) – Churchill staunchly supports an Allied invasion of Italy, which he sees as the “soft underbelly” of Europe.
14. It’s a Lovely Day Tomorrow: Burma (1942–1944) – The Japanese build a “superman” myth as they thrive in the nightmarish conditions of monsoons and jungles.
15. Home Fires: Britain (1940–1944) – The Luftwaffe changes the targets of its bombing raids to outlying cities after its defeat in the Battle of Britain.
16. Inside the Reich: Germany (1940–1944) – Germany’s people do not feel the effects of World War II at home until the German army begins to lose key battles.
17. Morning (June–August 1944) – Americans, Britons and Canadians attack on five Normandy beaches in history’s largest amphibious invasion, on D-Day — June 6, 1944.
18. Occupation: Holland (1940–1944) – The neutral Netherlands live under increasingly harsh Nazi rule for four years, dividing citizens’ loyalties.
19. Pincers (August 1944 – March 1945) – Paris is liberated in 1944, but as Russians and Allies advance on Germany, Allied commanders cannot agree on an attack plan.
20. Genocide (1941–1945) – The Nazis kill 6 million Jews in specially created death camps in their determination to create a purified Aryan race.
21. Nemesis: Germany (February–May 1945) – The RAF and the USAF attack night and day; Goering and Himmler betray Hitler, who marries Eva Braun and commits suicide.
22. Japan (1941–1945) – Early victories led the Japanese to believe they would be victorious against the West, but severe supply shortages and increased Allied victories dimmed this hope.
23. Pacific (February 1942 – July 1945) – Gen. MacArthur sweeps upward from the Solomons and New Guinea, as rival Adm. Nimitz begins an offensive in the Gilberts.
24. The Bomb (February–September 1945) – A B-29 drops the first uranium bomb on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945. Four days later, a second bomb hits Nagasaki.
25. Reckoning (April 1945) – At Yalta, the four armies of occupation agree to supervise Germany’s recovery and divide the country into different zones.
26. Remember – Survivors relate memories of World War II and remember the millions of combatants and civilians killed.