DVD Review Of The World At War
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 7/26/06
It was not long after my family moved into the very first home we had ever owned, in our line’s history, that I recall watching, with my dad, a really good television show called The World At War, which recounted the history of the Second World War. For my dad, born in 1916, it was a bittersweet look back at his early adulthood, for after having served for several years with distinction in President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps. My dad was amongst the first men to volunteer to serve in the military after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, but was rejected as 4F because of a childhood broken ankle that never fully healed, and left him a gimp. This rejection, which he personalized, never seemed to be one my dad could get over, and as I had spent many a suppertime listening to my dad rail, first at President Johnson’s, then President Nixon’s, bungling of the Vietnam War, and then Watergate, I always wondered how much of my dad’s venom toward those men, and their actions, was really because of those very things, and how much was because his own country had told him, a man with a sixth grade education, that he was not ‘good enough’ to die for it?
Yet, as we watched the series, which progressed in 26 hour long (with commercials) episodes over half a year, on WOR, Channel 9 in New York, I saw my dad mellow in his attitude toward those years, as each episode came and went. Whether it was the depictions of suffering, or a sense that he had really gotten lucky in being rejected for the carnage, in the long run, I don’t know. I do recall the black and white of the old documentary films used, and the whole series (as we only had a small black and white television in those days), which always brought me back to another place, and the great credits introduction to each episode, which included stentorian music by Carl Davis and flames devouring photographic images of famed and anonymous participants in the war. Having been so steeped by my dad in the culture of his youth- from stories of the Great Depression to the 1930s Buster Crabbe movie serials, to watching Abbott & Costello films, I’ve always felt three or four decades older than I really am. In rewatching the BBC documentary series, released on eleven DVDs for the Thirtieth Anniversary of their initial airing, this sense of returning to a childhood that predated my existence by decades also returned, as did the memories of my dad commenting on each show as it went. His favorite episode dealt with the North African theater, for he had been a big fan of the old television series, The Rat Patrol, which was then airing in reruns in the city.
The documentary series was produced between 1971 and 1974 by Jeremy Isaacs of Thames Television and featured many key interview subjects, from the common soldier in all the armies to major powerbrokers such as Lord Mountbatten, war correspondent and novelist Lawrence Durrell, Hitler’s architect and Armaments Minister Albert Speer, who disingenuously tries to weasel out of his responsibility for the Nazi genocide, German Admiral Karl Dönitz, Averell Harriman, Alger Hiss, film star James Stewart, who served in the US Army 8th Airforce, and General Eisenhower’s driver, Kay Summersby, and Adolf Hitler’s secretary Traudl Junge. There are even segments with the last survivor of the assassination plot against Hitler, Ewald Heinrich Von Kleist. It is an amazing filmic and journalistic feat that was accomplished, for so many aspects of the war that are missing from other attempts at visually documenting it are here. Isaacs got many honors for the series, from a knighthood to the Royal Television Society’s Desmond Davis Award, L’Ordre National du Mérit, and numerous Emmy Awards.
The series, narrated by Laurence Olivier, begins with scenes of a devastated small French town, during the Nazi retreat from france, and this narration:
Down this road, on a summer’s day in nineteen forty-four, the soldiers came. Nobody lives here now. They stayed only a few hours. When they had gone, the community which had lived for a thousand years was dead. This is Oradaur-Sur-Glane, in France. The day the soldiers came, the people were gathered together. The men were taken to garages and barns. The women and children were led down this road, and they were driven into this church. Here they heard the firing as their men were shot. Then they were killed too. A few weeks later, many of those who had done the killing were themselves dead in battle. They never rebuilt Oradaur. Its ruins are a memorial. Its maryrdom stands for thousands upon thousands of other martyrdoms in Poland, in Russia, in Burma, in China, in a World At War.
Each of the twenty-six original episodes began similarly, with a fade to the memorable credit sequence described above.
On the plus side the series is the closet thing to a definitive visual history of World War Two, the television equivalent to Edward Gibbon’s The Decline And Fall Of The Roman Empire. It also avoids the cheesy melancholy, and inane talking head pontifications, that became the documentary rage when Ken and Ric Burns’ PBS historical documentaries took off in the early 1990s, after the monumental success of Ken Burns’ The Civil War. However, despite the seeming attempts at thoroughness that this BBC series aims for, just like The Civil War, it has come under scrutiny, over the years, for minor historical inaccuracies, and even more so for blatant biases.
The biases are certainly far more rampant, and part of the problem with the series comes from a decision that Isaacs explains in the 30th Anniversary documentary. Early on he says he decided that each show would be self-contained on an aspect of the war, for ‘every good film tells only one story.’ Well, this is simply not true, but, even were it true, it is a specious reasoning to be applied to the construction of the series. The result is that, while the whole series progresses somewhat chronologically, it does so only in fits and starts, with many episodes having to waste time going over the same ground as before. A much smarter approach would have been a straightforward month by month chronological approach, with a broad-based approach to the war on all theaters, fronts, and aspects- cultural, political, economic, etc. After all, a bit more thoroughness could only have improved the series.
Another decision Isaacs made, but a good one, this time, was to not focus on the Nazi genocide, nor other wartime atrocities, but paint them as the mere outgrowths of a worldwide culture of war, which they were, rather as the sole reasons for the war. While the ‘real’ reason for the American Civil War was slavery, not the ‘States Rights’ argument (which was merely the right for states to keep slavery legal), the ‘real’ reason for German and Japanese aggression was not to murder millions of Jews, Slavs, Russians, Chinese, and Filipinos, but to gain more land and resources for their relatively small and resource lacking homelands. The murder of innocents was simply to facilitate that end. Yet, in the Thirtieth Anniversary show, Isaacs states were he to redo the series he would focus more on ‘The Holocaust’, a term that did not even exist back then, for the series devoted only one episode to what was called by it ‘The Final Solution’- a more historically accurate and less politically motivated term. Luckily, Isaacs’ younger self showed more wisdom than his later self would have. This is proved in the contrast between the single canonical episode of the series that deals with the Nazi genocide, and the two part bonus documentary produced thirty years later. In the earlier show the death camp dead are related as ten million, with no more than five million Jewish dead, which reflects the Nazis’ own meticulous recordkeeping, and the historical totals deemed accurate for nearly thirty years after the war, whereas the later documentaries inflate those numbers to the Politically Correct and now iconic ‘Six Million’, and even one reference at seven million, and from twelve to fourteen million total. How this change in body count was arrived at is never explained, although it’s manifest that political forces, such as the Holocaust, Inc. mentality derided by such writers as novelist and essayist Philp Lopate, that were nonexistent, or negligible, in the early 1970s have clearly exerted their influence by the time of the Thirtieth Anniversary documentary.
But, without a doubt, the most ridiculous, and historically damning, bias the series displays is its pro-British bias. Granted, the series was produced in Britain, but the diminution of America’s role in defeating the Axis powers is unforgivable, as is the scant attention paid to the Pacific theater of the war, where a larger portion of people actually died than in Europe. Modern estimates place the dead in World War Two at close to 70 million, with forty million of them coming in Asia- Japan, Korea, China, Manchuria, Burma, Indochina, the Philippines, and Indonesia, yet this series devotes only a quarter of its episodes to that theater. Germany is portrayed as the greater global threat, even though they crumbled earlier, and subjugated far fewer people and conquered less land area. Russia’s 20 or so million dead are given several episodes, but China’s equal numbers are barely mentioned. Chiang-Kai-shek’s ruinous and murderous regime, and its two front war, with Mao Tse-Tung’s Communists and the invading genocidal Japanese, is not mentioned at all- not a word. The obvious ethnic and racial biases in such omissions really damage the credibility of the series as an objective history, especially since World War Two started with the 1931 invasion of Manchuria.
We also get interesting films on the Scandinavian aspects of the war- such as Finland’s alliance with Nazi Germany against the Soviet Union, and Holland’s capitulation, but nothing of the Balkans and their suffering. Benito Mussolini, the man Hitler looked to as a hero, is a mere blip in the war as presented in this series, as is his murderous yet bungling invasion of Ethiopia. Worst of all, major U.S. Generals like Patton and MacArthur are given no accord, while minor British politicians are hailed as heroes. Without Patton’s successes there would likely have been no D-Day attempted, and the Germans may have been able to hold off the Russian counter-offensives from Stalingrad onward. The Battle of The Bulge, the final nail in the Nazi coffin, is barely grazed, nor is the heroic American repulsion discussed in length. Simply put, without America’s help and entry into the war, Germany would have defeated both Great Britain and the Soviet Union, despite Hitler’s military misjudgments, and Japan would have had an Empire stretching from India to Australia and north to the Kamchatka peninsula. No amount of Russian human cannon fodder would have done in the Nazi war machine without America’s industrial might bleeding Hitler in the west, yet one would believe, from this series, that it was Winston Churchill who was the senior partner to Franklin Roosevelt, not the other way around.
The Pacific War gets only a couple of episodes- on Pearl Harbor and British involvement in Asia- until the fall of Germany is covered, then a few episodes near the end; one entirely on the Atom Bomb, although with scant discussion of the Manhattan Project- the single most important thing that happened in the war years, from a historical perspective. Instead of episodes on the Japanese push toward Australia, and MacArthur’s heroic push back, the Bataan Death March, the atrocities across Asia, etc., all we get is a full episode of the British follies at Singapore and in Burma, which were really minor skirmishes where only a few hundred died on either side. The American island hopping campaign- unprecedented in human history, and producing bloodbaths from Tarawa to Okinawa, the real focus of the Pacific War, and ever bit as important as the D-Day Invasion, is utterly shortshrifted, with nothing mentioned of Guadalcanal and a dozen other major battles. Only the air battles over Midway and the Mariana Islands are covered with more than a passing mention. Nothing is stated about the American Pacific submarine battles with the Japanese, although the U-Boat battles of the North Atlantic get a whole episode.
The episode on the atomic bomb suffers from any number of biases, which were especially rampant when the series was produced and Western guilt over atrocities in Vietnam were at their height: from the claims of some Japanese apologists that the bomb was not necessary to get Japan to surrender, and somehow was an atrocity, even though it doubtlessly saved many more American lives than Japanese lives it took. Unlike Dresden, in Germany, which was a bombing raid that served no military nor strategic purpose, the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki wiped out major industrial productivity centers. Had we not dropped the bomb when we did, Stalin, who already was assured a disproportionate slice of the post-War pie, would have gotten far more in Asia, and Japan may have come away with Korea and Manchuria still in their Empire. Even after the bomb was dropped, Japan was still sinking American warships. The assertion that Japan was not ready to fight to the last man has been shown, time and again, to be mere wishful historical revisionism. Proof of this comes from hundreds of internal documents, and the fact that the last Japanese soldier to surrender in the war was discovered, still alive on a Pacific atoll, in the mid-1970s.
Yet, despite these many flaws, the series does far more than any other series dedicated to the Second World War, or any other war. Here are some highlights from, and comments on, each of the DVD disks, and the constituent documentaries:
The series starts memorably, with the opening lines and shots of a ruined city, then details the disastrous Weimar Republic, and how Hitler used their failure to slowly insinuate himself into power. This show gives an excellent portrayal of the indoctrination for war and how slow changes creep up and gather unstoppable inertia.
This show details the months of English, and world inactivity, over the German advance into several regions, climaxing with their invasion of Poland, and the atrocities the Nazis committed. Little known facts, such as Russia’s almost simultaneous invasion and defeat by Finland are recounted. This defeat would embolden Hitler to see Russia as a paper tiger, whose military leadership was ravaged by Stalin’s disastrous political purges.
This show deals with France’s cultural arrogance, military stupidity, and general confusion in dealing with Hitler, and how early shows of French strength could have forestalled Germany’s lightning quick taking and occupation of that country.
Bonus Documentary: The Making of The Series
This is a 48 minute long documentary made on the 15th Anniversary of the series, in 1989. It gives some good insights.
Focuses on the fall of Dunkirk, and British humiliation, then redemption, during the Battle Of Britain. Agitprop reigns, such as the UK’s pots and pans drives for steel for munitions. Greece and Yugoslavia fall to the Nazis. Hitler seems on the verge of defeating Britain, but reveals to his stunned generals that Britain was a feint to lull Stalin into complacency. Russia, and its material riches, is the main target, although the failure to finish off the UK will haunt Hitler.
A highlight is the interview with Hitler’s main architect, Albert Speer, who ineffectively passes the buck on his many crimes. Early Nazi gains in Russia are because of Stalin’s own purge-happy folly in the 1930s. Moscow is saved by the Russian winter, which also repelled Napoleon, and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, which preempts Japanese plans for a Siberian campaign. This allows Eastern troops to aid Mother Russia under General Zhukov.
The European bias of the series shows as this is the first show to deal with Japan, whose attack on Manchuria in 1931 was the actual start of the Second World War. Interesting things discussed are small Japanese defeats to the Russians, and how that changed Japanese strategy for the Asian war, how they used bicycles to conquer Malaya, how Singapore lacked landward defenses, which allowed 130,000 British to be captured, and how the Japanese needed to develop shallow water torpedoes to succeed at Pearl Harbor. A lingering question, unasked, is if FDR knew Pearl Harbor was coming, and that was the reason only outdated battleships were left in the port. All the modern aircraft carriers were out in the sea, on maneuvers.
This show documents Lend-Lease, which saved Britain, and the folly of Hitler’s declaring war on the US, which would otherwise not have legally been able to get into the European war. This show is one of the earliest public statements of the American internment of Japanese-American citizens, although it understates the number as 100,000, when it’s now known to be about 220,000. The Bataan Death March kills thousands as 80,000 Americans surrender, and MacArthur is forced to retreat. Japanese expansion is stopped at the Battle Of Midway, and the folly of America’s focus on the European side of the war over the Pacific goes unquestioned, even in 1974, although we know better now.
Focuses on the North African campaigns, Italy’s follies in Ethiopia, and the growing legend of German General Rommel and his Panzer tanks.
This show is very heavily militarily slanted, as a show on war should be. The mass killings of the Nazi genocide and Japanese atrocities were secondary, and later documentaries have unfortunately elevated these elements, thus decontextualizing them as outgrowths of the war, not causes for it. This show is one of the better episodes.
This show deals with the brilliance of German Admiral Karl Dönitz, whose U-boats caused early havoc in the war, as America was only able to guard British ships as far as Iceland, across the North Atlantic, until Pearl Harbor. Dönitz later became the second and final Führer of the Third Reich after Hitler’s suicide, a forgotten footnote of the war.
Leningrad’s siege is explored, as well the frozen lifeline across Lake Ladoga. Stalin grouses over the West’s lack of help, even as Russian failures are directly tied to Stalin’s own genocidal streak and military incompetence.
British vengeance for the Battle Of Britain rains death on Germany, and America joins in as the Allies come to dominate the European airways.
The defeat of the Germans in North Africa sends them scrambling back to Sicily, then Rome, as the Italians switch sides in the war and join the Allies. Mussolini falls, and the Allies land at Anzio, eventually take Rome and push the Germans back to the Alps.
Another show heavily biased toward Britain. Burma was a minor theater in the war, yet it is treated with more detail than the unprecedented island-hopping campaign of America. The Japanese are better jungle warriors early on, but pressures elsewhere in their Empire allow the British to retake the country.
Winston Churchill is hagiographized by his speeches, and The Isle Of Man becomes a giant British internment camp for Germans, Italians, and others suspected of Nazi sympathizing. Internal British politics dominates this episode. It is one of the duller episodes.
This episode details internal German politic, agitprop, and the plots to assassinate Hitler.
This show focuses almost entirely on D-Day, and the weather problems that almost canceled Operation: Overlord. Nine thousand men die on the beaches of Normandy. This is an effective episode with a straight ahead style that’s been lost in the post-Ken Burns documentary era of talking heads and overt sentimentality.
The tightrope between complicity, collaboration, and resistance is explored. Mere passing reference to Anne Frank is a welcome relief, as her story is so overdone it’s become a cliché.
Poland’s almost forgotten, as the Warsaw Ghetto erupts. The Nazis withdraw and the Russians move in. The war in Europe is coming to an end as Hitler’s last gamble at the Battle of The Bulge fails, and Germany is besieged on all fronts.
This episode deals with the Final Solution. Interestingly, this series, when made in the early 1970s, lacks the polarized politicization later accounts would hold, starting with the usage of the term The Final Solution over the more Politically Correct The Holocaust. There is also a more accurate tolling of the Nazi estimates of numbers of Jews in Europe- six million, and five million more in Russia. Estimates on death camp deaths is about ten million, with no more than five million Jews killed. Nowhere is the now sanctified ‘Six Million’ Jewish dead mentioned. This stands in marked contrast to a later documentary in the DVD set.
The bombing of Dresden shocks German resolve. Hitler loses touch with reality and poisons his dog, then shoots himself. His mistress-cum-wife, Eva Braun takes cyanide capsule. Their bodies are burnt.
VE Day arrives on May 8th, 1945, but Japan proves to be the strongest of the three Axis powers. Although as many or more people died in Asia than did in Europe (reportage and body counts were far more nebulous in that theater, even to this day), this series’ greatest flaw is how it shamefully shortshrifts the Pacific theater of the war, focusing on it only after the European war has ended.
The forgotten battle of Tarawa is an American prelude to hell, as the Japanese would rather die than surrender. Iwo Jima and the other memorable Pacific battles lay ahead. Just as General Patton barely gets a mention in the episodes on Africa and Sicily, General MacArthur’s odyssey is an afterthought.
This interesting episode features comments from State Department employee Alger Hiss, the man whose reputation Richard Nixon later baselessly smeared, and actor Jimmy Stewart, who was an American flyer. The conference at Yalta divvies up the post-war world, and this show explodes the myth that the Japanese need not have been atom bombed into surrender.
This episode claims twelve million killed in the Final Solution, and features disgraced plagiarizing historian Stephen Ambrose pontificating rather speciously and moralistically. There are foreshadowings of the then-current Vietnam conflict throughout this episode.
Noble Frankland of the Imperial War Museum debunks the notion that soldiers are owed anything special by society, and leads an excellent final show on the aftermath of war- remembrances; a Keith Douglas poem- he was a British poet killed in 1944 at Normandy; and a final toll of at least 55 million dead (later figures estimate about 70 million died), including 2.5 million Japanese, 15 million Chinese, 1.5 million Yugoslavians, 3 million Poles, 5 million Jews, 20 million Russians, 400,000 British and 300,000 Americans. All these figures are the pre-politicized tolls.
This is the start of documentaries culled from excess footage, and not in the original series. This is a good look at pre-war Germany, starting with the burning of books, which, as someone states, ultimately leads to the burning of people, figuratively or not.
Hitler’s arrogance and insanity dooms the Reich.
Interesting forensic look at whether or not Hitler shot himself (a soldier’s death) or bit on a cyanide capsule (a coward’s death). The controversy is over the British claim of the former and the Soviet claim of the latter. The show ends with the matter unresolved, but we now know it was definitely by bullet.
Outtakes of interviews from Hitler’s young female secretary Traudl Junge, with insights into the last hours of his life in the bunker.
One of the few shows that focuses on America’s part in the war. An excellent mix of images and words, with the offhand poesy of common GI’s movingly wrought. It packs an emotional wallop. Highly recommended.
A whole episode devoted to disgraced historian Stephen Ambrose’s pontifications. The worst in the DVD set. Not only does Ambrose shill for the Russian ‘right’ to install terroristic totalitarian regimes after the war, as part of the war booty, but he consistently downplays American losses and sacrifices in the war. Given the pro-British cast of the series, it’s no wonder he was the only American ‘expert’ to get airtime. He’s far better on economic issues than geopolitical ones, but seeing him as a cashmere sweater wearing wannabe hippy is a hoot.
Some interesting details on Poland emerge.
An interesting contrast to the ‘canonical’ version for the original series. Here, post-PC standards have upped the death camp dead from ten to fourteen million, and Jewish dead from no more than five to the canonical six million. No proof is offered of these numerical changes, but the thirty years’ difference in the making of the canonical version for the series, and this biased follow up, can be seen.
Documentary: Making The Series: A 30th Anniversary Retrospective
This two hour retrospective is far more incisive and detailed than the 15th Anniversary show on Disk 1. Series producer Jeremy Isaacs says he regrets not focusing more on the Holocaust and the Pacific war, but while he was wrong on his first plaint he’s right on the second. The focus and strength of this series was and should have been on the war aspects, for the Nazi genocide and the Japanese atrocities at Nanking and other places (which over the course of the war killed as many or more people than the Nazi death camps did) were mere outgrowths of a larger phenomenon.
Almost as moving as the bonus documentary Warrior, on Disk 9. Excellent interviews with Dr. Vannevar Bush, a Roosevelt scientific aide who helped develop the atom bomb, provides such cogent insights as the fact that wartime Presidents are almost dictators in comparison to British Prime Ministers. Recent history has shown we’ve paid for this truth. There is also a great segment with a Hispanic American GI, who details his life’s post-war breakdown after an injury in the Pacific sends him to an asylum where his wife and kids abandon him. Just heartwrenching.
Watching this series, again on DVD, and thinking back on my dad’s removed fascination with it, when originally aired, made me realize that those days with my dad are now farther removed from the present than the war years the series documents were from his watching of them. Yet, I know why he was so rapt by the series, despite its flaws, and the fact that a more thorough and unbiased video history of the war is just begging to be made. It’s because the series wisely focused on the ordinary person, like him. This focus undoes almost all the biases the rest of the series promotes, and makes the whole DVD set an easy recommendation for history buffs, yet to be used as a starting point, not an end all and be all. This series was not just the tales of the giants: Hitler, Churchill, Stalin, Tojo, Roosevelt, Rommel, Mussolini, Eisenhower. It was tales of the ordinary man, and how his contributions changed the world.
Watching this series also nails the current lie that we are involved in some global struggle, a ‘clash of civilizations’, on par with the World Wars, when we are really avaricious and unaccountable myopics absurdly trying to fend off some puny backwater terrorists. This series shows those claims for what they are- lies. Now is not a time of giants that will be studied in the future for their contributions in moving the world forward, but of small men with small agendas, which is a thing quite different, in the worst possible ways, from being ordinary men, like my dad was; ordinary men who helped change human history for the better, in The World At War.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Retort website.]
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