My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Consisting of 26 episodes, each about 50 minutes long, The World at War traces the history of the Second World War from its pre-War beginnings to its aftermath. The program is remarkable in scope, covering the relevant political history of the United States, England, Germany, and Japan; the war efforts in north Africa and southeast Asia; the Russian and the Western front, as well as the final push against Japan; the bombing campaigns and their effects on civilian life; the struggle of the Allied shipping fleet against the German U-boats; the final peace negotiations in Europe and Asia, and the concomitant haggling between the U.S.S.R. and the West; the horrors of the Holocaust; and much else.
But the series has depth as well as breadth. There are hours and hours of archival footage—of battles, bombings, bombardments, protests, speeches, life on the front line, civilian life, negotiations, military parades, invasions, celebrations, triumphs, massacres, tragedies—much of it never used before, unearthed by the program’s research team.
Even more impressively, there are hours of interview footage, from from Poles, Russians, French, Germans, English, Americans, Japanese. There are interviews of gunners, tank crew, infantrymen, sailors, pilots; interviews of housewives, firefighters, barmen, taxi drivers; as well as from politicians, advisors, generals, and even Hitler’s personal secretary and chauffeur. Considering that these interviews were made specifically for the series, from people directly involved in the action, this makes the raw footage (most of it unused) a valuable primary historical document. And this is not to mention the wonderful narration by Laurence Olivier, which is always tasteful, often moving, and sometimes chilling.
In short, the documentary is a masterpiece, bringing the drama of the war to life while also being supremely informative. If you want to watch any documentary about World War II, make it this one.
To speak personally, watching this documentary had a strange effect on me, because it made me realize how much my perspective has changed since I was a kid. Back then, I used to watch World War II documentaries because the war seemed like a comic book. It was a story with clear bad guys and good guys, and the good guys won in the end. It was a story of personal heroism and bravery, of self-sacrifice and honor, of hardships endured and battles fought for the greater good. I was even fascinated with the military technology, the tanks, war planes, battleships, and guns. I remember going to the military museum at West Point, and seeing replicas of the nuclear bombs used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There was something undeniably awe-inspiring about the ability to create so much destruction, to wield so much power.
This time around, I had a different reaction. The more I watched, the more I became overwhelmed with a sense of pointless loss, destruction, and violence. Millions of young men marching off to shoot other young men, and for what? Towns blown to pieces, cities burned to the ground, and, most of all, countless lives lost. People shot, stabbed, drowned, burned; people executed by firing squad, hanging, the gas chamber. Beaches filled with bloated bodies, corpses rotting in the road, the remains grandmothers and children buried under piles of rubble. And it just kept going, the planes kept dropping bombs, the men kept throwing grenades, the tanks kept rolling on. By the end of the series, every episode made me feel sick.
When you see the numbers of the dead, it’s easy to grow numb. The totals become mere, meaningless statistics. But when you realize that those millions were composed of individuals, people with their own favorite song to whistle, shade of blue, local restaurant, people with their own quirks of personality, their own flaws and virtues, people who were loved and who loved in return, people who might have done anything had they survived the war, the enormity of the tragedy dawns on you. No matter what the aggressors hoped to gain from the war, no matter how glorious it seemed, it could not have been worth it.
The documentary does not shy away from the horrors of war, but dwells on them, and for good reason. For if there is any lesson to be learned from World War II, it is simply this: We must do everything in our power to avoid repeating that catastrophe.