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The genius of the World at War As the series marks its 50th anniversary, another conflict is breaking out

Truth, not myth (Credit: The World at War/ITV)

Truth, not myth (Credit: The World at War/ITV)


October 30, 2023   7 mins

In one of the opening scenes of Evelyn Waugh’s Men at Arms, the central character Guy Crouchback vacates his Italian castle in 1939 once the approaching conflagration can no longer be ignored. “He expected his country to go to war in a panic, for the wrong reasons or for no reason at all, with the wrong allies, in pitiful weakness,” Waugh writes of his honourable, fallible stand-in. “But now, splendidly, everything had become clear. The enemy at last was plain in view, huge and hateful, all disguise cast off. It was the Modern Age in arms.” The looming catastrophe was, in all its awful novelty, the birth pangs of our own age.

No wonder our society returns obsessively to what we still call “the war”, like an adoptee, severed from his roots, searching for meaning. But of all the explorations since, in film and fiction and popular history, one treatment cannot be bettered. It was 50 years ago this week that Thames TV broadcast what has since become renowned as the greatest documentary series ever made: The World at War. It is impossible to imagine ITV making it now, but then, it is impossible to imagine today’s BBC making it either.

The intellectual gulf between, say, 1997’s The Nazis: A Warning from History (a documentary about the rise of National Socialism) and 2019’s The Rise of the Nazis (a parable about Trump and Brexit, featuring Ash Sarkar and Sir Mike Jackson, doubtless the fruit of a researcher’s Twitter search for a communist and a general) is unbridgeable. It is, simply, unthinkable that any television station today would spend two years and vast sums of revenue hauling out unseen footage from state archives for 26 hours of prime-time history programming, nor present the results with such intellectual and moral sophistication.

But even then, it was prestige television: with an eye to international sales, Laurence Olivier was drafted in to provide the voiceover, with only his eccentric pronunciation — “Shtaleen”, “the Ukryne”— breaking the illusion of an omniscient observer detailing mankind’s foibles. In tones shifting scene by scene from sardonic dismissal of the human frailties and delusions underlying war to cold contempt and sorrowful, clipped pity at the sheer waste of it all, the pathos of Olivier’s narration is central to the series’ artistic success.

From the very first lines, opening in the ruins of the French village of Oradour-sur-Glane, whose inhabitants were massacred by the SS, the script’s spare, cold poetry builds the frame that allows the following footage to breathe. “Down the road, on a summer’s day in 1944, the soldiers came. Nobody lives here now,” Olivier intones with the mournful rhythm of a funeral bell, in a script drafted by Neal Ascherson. “They were here for only a few hours. When they left, a community which had lived for over a thousand years was dead,” and Oradour left a village whose “martyrdom stands for thousand upon thousand of other martyrdoms in Poland, in Russia, in Burma, in China — in a World at War”.

Over the 26 hour-long episodes (streamable today in truncated form on UKTV Play), the Glaswegian-Jewish auteur Jeremy Isaacs produced an epic of unimaginable scope, interweaving the grand narrative of geopolitics with the personal recollections of the soldiers, diplomats and civilians involved, across campaigns reaching from the Russian steppes to the American heartland and the jungles of the Pacific. The cast list of interviewees is extraordinary: whole documentaries could surely be pieced together today from its offcuts. Where else could Admiral Doenitz pop up as a briefly-used talking head to talk us through the intricacies of Germany’s U-boat campaign, Anthony Eden (billed as Lord Avon) and Lord Mountbatten to unveil Whitehall’s thinking, Adolf Galland outline the Luftwaffe’s failings in the Battle of Britain or Arthur Harris and Curtis LeMay give us their unrepentant insights into the virtues and limitations of strategic bombing?

Thirty years after the events themselves, the series was made at just the right time for a work of history: long enough for its participants, late-middle-aged in their Seventies suits, to achieve some distance from their younger selves, but too close to have become memorialised, locked away in myth with the rest of the distant past. The passage of time alone means the series is unreplicable now: the great work of television history has become the matter of History in itself. Even the reminiscences of the less notable participants, the French and German and Italian army officers sitting in their book-lined studies recounting their war in cut-glass English accents, the cockneys sharing stories in a smoke-filled East End pub or the Royal Navy veteran matter-of-factly, almost innocently, describing his feelings of what we would now term Post-Traumatic Stress, are visions of a lost world.

The recollections of the survivors interviewed are the series’ backbone, but perhaps taken for granted is the faultless tradecraft of the researchers who tracked down and won their confidence: embedded within this work of history are moments of pure journalism at its best. Perhaps counterintuitively, for a series now coded as “male interest”, The World At War’s greatest strengths are built on the meticulous skill and craftsmanship of its little-praised female production staff. To unlock the memories of the Nazi interviewees, Isaacs wrote, “Susan McConachy, blonde and blue-eyed, was our star” finding and interviewing Hitler’s secretary, Traudl Junge, whose intimate recollections of the regime bunker GötterdĂ€merung have, via the film Downfall, since entered popular mythology. McConachy’s “worst moment”, Isaacs noted, “came when Karl Wolff, Himmler’s adjutant, put his hand on her knee and confided: ‘My dear, you are just the type from whom we liked to breed.’”

Yet her discomfort brought dividends. As McConachy later wrote of the “most charming” Wolff, “After lunch I asked him to repeat the story he had told me one evening over supper about an incident at Minsk at which he had been present, when a hundred people were shot into an open grave as a demonstration for Himmler. He looked a bit surprised. He had forgotten that he had ever mentioned that. Then the film ran out. I wondered if, with time to think, he would actually tell the story again. When we were ready to go he did in fact tell it. I was relieved, not just because I’d got the story, but because he’d had the time to reflect on what the consequences of telling it might be and I could feel less responsible if he did in fact end up in court again when the programme was shown.”

The scene itself, with the mixed emotions playing across Wolff’s face as he tells the story of Himmler turning green beside the pit as his face was splashed with a victim’s brains, is extraordinary. No less powerful, or compelling in its moral complexity, is episode director Martin Smith’s interview with Albert Speer in the Holocaust episode Genocide, the single episode screened without accompanying music or advertising breaks. Hitler’s armaments minister recounts, with a sort of hesitant uncertainty as to how his testimony will be received, being warned not to visit the camps “because horrible things would happen. This, together with other hints I got, should have made — should have made my decision to go to Hitler immediately, or to Himmler, and to ask them what is going on and to take my own steps, but I didn’t do it, and not doing it was, so I think nowadays, the biggest fault in my life.” As Isaacs later noted laconically, “Albert Speer, surely, was economical with the truth,” but the episode doesn’t labour the point and moves on swiftly to the next scene: the viewer was trusted, once again, to make up his own mind.

As our distance from the war itself has increased, the more rigid and formulaic our emotional responses to it have become: it has become a moral parable, justifying all manner of political malignancies, rather than a narrative of the tragedy inherent in international politics. It is doubtful that, even if we still had access to senior Nazi officials, contemporary mores would allow them to be interviewed dispassionately as witnesses to history. While Smith restrained his personal disgust, it is all too easy to imagine Stacey Dooley storming out of an interview with Speer after giving him a piece of her mind. Yet the series did not shy away from the war’s horrors: if anything, its sheer sparseness made them more vivid, as in the episode intercutting the testimony of Holocaust survivors with the reminiscences of an SS camp guard throwing children into the gas chamber, blankly remarking that “you get used to anything in time”. The war itself has passed into myth: The World at War returns it to the realm of human memory.

When I was young, The World at War made me want to see war for myself, and record it for posterity. Rewatching it now, having experienced a decade of close combat and great human suffering in the intervening period, what strikes me most is the sheer quality of the combat footage, obtained by unnamed cameramen on all sides who may or may not have survived their labours. The intensity reminds us that even the most experienced journalist today has never seen war on such a scale: at least, not yet. The almost expressionist editing of their uncredited footage, the long periods when the voiceover and music trails off for bricolaged images of pure chaos, still pays the appropriate honour to their work.

In her finding and choosing of footage, another of Isaacs’ female production staff, the archive researcher Raye Farr, was responsible for the extraordinary vividness of the series. Realising that the propaganda newsreels of the day provided only stilted, sanitised highlights, Farr searched the state archives of Europe for unused offcuts, too strange or uncomfortable for showing at the time. In the German Bundesarchiv in Koblenz, Farr pestered the director for access to uncatalogued treasures, noting later that “not until you have made a nuisance of yourself do the staff throw up their hands in exasperation and say, ‘See for yourself’ — which is what you’ve been waiting for”.

The results of her tradecraft, perhaps taken for granted by viewers, are central to the series’ success. As Isaacs later wrote, among Farr’s uncatalogued finds “was material shot behind the German lines on the Eastern Front by a gifted documentary cameraman. He appears not to have been shooting for the newsreel. Some of his footage was almost idyllic, showing soldiers at rest and leisure. Other sequences were more menacing. He filmed three German soldiers gently, almost reluctantly, but, in the end, firmly clearing a village of its people, sending the men in one direction, the women and children in another. Somehow, we know they will never see each other again.”

As we wait in 2023, hoping to evade what may be an equally great conflagration, both Crouchback’s fictional insight in Men at Arms, and The World at War’s wise and humane cataloguing of the real-world results seem unbearably poignant. The flames of war are already engulfing the world that came into being in 1945: what comes after may be better or worse, but it will be different from anything we have ever known — just as much as the proud, globe-spanning Britain of 1939 differed from the humbled, impoverished Britain of 1945.

Within nations as well as between them, the battle lines are already being drawn. Cities will be levelled, entire peoples exiled, humans killed in hi-definition video for the applause of social media spectators. Our own age is taking up arms, waiting to usher us into its cold embrace. May future generations judge us as soberly and compassionately as the makers of The World At War.


Aris Roussinos is an UnHerd columnist and a former war reporter.

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RM Parker
RM Parker
8 months ago

In describing “The World At War”, this comment stood out to me: “a series now coded as “male interest””.
So are we softened and fattened for the knife. This programme ought to be of interest to everyone, but here we are, debating points of no worth as the world and civilisation we knew is p1$$ed away by its spoiled inheritors.

Nardo Flopsey
Nardo Flopsey
8 months ago
Reply to  RM Parker

That’s the way the biscuit bounces, innit?

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
8 months ago

Great piece, thank you Aris.

The episodes, including the extra episodes narrated by Eric Porter which are as important, can all be found here:

https://archive.org/details/the-world-at-war-1973-thames-television-world-war-two

Luke Piggott
Luke Piggott
8 months ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

Thank you kind sir.

J.P Malaszek
J.P Malaszek
8 months ago

I watched ‘World at war’ as kid in the ’70’s sitting next to my dad who had taken part in it. Without exaggeration it was a formative experience for me. The theme music also deserves a mention, haunting, poignant and unforgettable, like the series.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
8 months ago
Reply to  J.P Malaszek

AIso the music used during the episodes including Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7
Rarely can a piece of music have so successfully captured time and place

Warren Trees
Warren Trees
8 months ago
Reply to  J.P Malaszek

Me too! Well said.

chris sullivan
chris sullivan
8 months ago
Reply to  J.P Malaszek

yup – there was my life before the bulldozing of bodies at Auschwitz news reel and my life changed forever afterwards…..

William Goodwin
William Goodwin
8 months ago
Reply to  J.P Malaszek

My experience too as a child, watching it with the assured certainty that right had won, a certainty that my parents’ generation could not afford and did not experience for six long years.

Paddy O'Gorman
Paddy O'Gorman
8 months ago
Reply to  J.P Malaszek

Me too. Watched it with my mum (English) and my dad (Irish). My dad was in the Royal Navy. Both my mum and dad were in London during the blitz. Watching that series with them helped me to understand what they had lived through.

Nancy G
Nancy G
8 months ago
Reply to  J.P Malaszek

Theme music by Carl Davis. The Dona Nobis Pacem from Haydn’s St Nicholas Mass is played during the Remember segment.

Karl Juhnke
Karl Juhnke
8 months ago
Reply to  J.P Malaszek

I sat and watched as a young child, with my Dad whose mother was taken away when he was born in 1931. He wept and swore and I watched and tried to understand. Dad was given to a German family who looked after him and loved him as their own. His father was imprisoned for being a communist and came and took Dad away from that love as a four year old not knowing what was going on. His stepmother tied, beat and kept him in an underground basement whilst his half brother and sister were taught to hate and beat him also. My Dad is 93 having come to Australia in 1931. We still discuss the war and his upbringing to this day. The stories have had profound influence upon my life and attitudes.

Martin Butler
Martin Butler
8 months ago

Remember watching it the time. Even then it was recognised as something special. But more generally I do think the collective cultural memory of ‘the war’ in the UK has had a negative influence. Particularly on Baby boomers like me. Our parents who actually fought seem to want to look to the future and move on – my parents, who were both in the forces, certainly did. But as my generation has aged and the future hasn’t perhaps turned out as well as our parents would have hoped, we have created a slightly cartoonish overly sentimental narrative that harks back to ‘our’ glory days. But of course they weren’t our glory days at all – they were the glory days of our parents.

Judy Englander
Judy Englander
8 months ago
Reply to  Martin Butler

Very perceptive, Martin.

Nell Clover
Nell Clover
8 months ago

We in the West are conditioned to see war as a conflict between clearly defined states. This is because for many centuries this is how our wars have been fought. So when we imagine a future war, we see it between two or more states and then we conclude a major war is no longer possible due to the likelihood of total destruction of all the states involved.

Yet we forget the other types of war that occur independent of states that have been far more common in history:
– Intercommunal war. Such wars lessened over the long arc of time because these wars generally make areas more homogenous by eliminating one of the communities.
– Piratical wars, including warlords (Vikings) and private companies (East India Company). The emergence of the bureaucratic nation state and the hardening of the borders of nation states and empires largely ended such wars during the period of the European empires.

The last 70 years have slowly recreated the conditions in which intercommunal and piratical wars can be fought. Firstly, the borders of nation states have been weakened everywhere for many different reasons, but mainly the collapse of old empires and the proliferation of weak new states. Secondly, and very much related to the first, we are seeing migration flows never before seen in history creating new, very large and very distinct communities within existing states.

Humans haven’t changed so it follows that we will see more intercommunal and piratical fighting in places not usually associated with such conflict, such as the old Western nation states. In turn, this will weaken those nation states, eroding the will and capability of the Western states to suppress more violent intercommunal and piratical wars. In one sense, the West will regress to the mean and become like South America and Africa. What is certain is if such conditions do arise again, the cumulative death toll will be far greater than the old nation state conflicts, but the wars themselves will not be anywhere near as written about.

As an aside, there are places where homogeneity is increasing and borders are hardening. In the last century the Middle East has seen the elimination of many minorities leaving behind more homogenous populations within hardening borders. Examples include Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran.

Last edited 8 months ago by Nell Clover
laurence scaduto
laurence scaduto
8 months ago
Reply to  Nell Clover

“Predictions are difficult, especially about the future”, Y. Berra.
Your analysis seems a bit far-fetched. And hopelessly colored by your feelings about the whole concept of immigration.
Perhaps in a thousand years some pieces might manifest themselves. But by then so many completely unpredictable things will occur that the narrative would be unrecognizable to us.
Remember: “The future ain’t what it used to be.”, ditto

Nell Clover
Nell Clover
8 months ago

For decades an intercommunal war simmered in Northern Ireland. It did so between the descendents of two communities, one that arrived from Scotland several centuries ago. This stuff is not far-fetched, it is the reality for countless regions around the world.

A week ago in the North East of England a confirmed terror attack occurred. At least one man was killed because he was not of the religion of the killer, and the killer was seeking revenge for events 1000s of miles away. There are reporting restrictions to prevent copycat incidents so you can only read that it was discussed in Parliament but not where nor how many were killed. This is intercommunal violence.

Last edited 8 months ago by Nell Clover
J. Hale
J. Hale
8 months ago
Reply to  Nell Clover

“the wars themselves will not be anywhere near as written about.” The vast majority of wars in human history were never written about because the combatants were illiterate.

Mick Davis
Mick Davis
8 months ago
Reply to  Nell Clover

Excellent, thank you

Simon
Simon
8 months ago

I haven’t seen the whole series, only individual episodes scattered here and there, but it is all too clear that you will never be able to replicate this kind of production through modern day television. Fortunately, there are a number of talented and dedicated creators on YouTube who have done sensational jobs of bringing factual history to the masses, and free of charge too.

Naturally, I do hope the author is wrong on his assumption that a global war, or series of wars is inevitable. This will be a hard couple of decades as we and many other countries come to terms with demographic time bombs and the potential collapses of our social and economic orders, and the potential to lash out is great. It’s going to be a wild ride, just like our forebears went through within the last century.

David B
David B
8 months ago
Reply to  Simon

Without in any way belittling the efforts and achievements of the YT creators, their level of resource and access is necessarily orders if magnitude less than those of even a modest regional TV company of the 1960s and 70s.

Inevitably, their output will thus be severely limited, and come to be collation of existing public domain media with a modicum of personal enthusiasm and amateur history.

Simon
Simon
8 months ago
Reply to  David B

While the creators aren’t likely to have doctorate in history, the larger ones in particular dedicate their efforts to their Channels and content on a full time basis so there is some level of professionalism there, certainly not amateurish. Most also clearly list their sources showing they’ve done their academic research and haven’t just copied and pasted Wikipedia.

Peter B
Peter B
8 months ago
Reply to  David B

See my comment above – the YT material (not all of which was produced originally for YT) can be excellent and at least as good as “The World at War”.

Katalin Kish
Katalin Kish
8 months ago
Reply to  David B

People no longer have access to unadulterated information – paradoxically in the West!
And, we don’t know when the information we access is filtered / adjusted to fit ideology.
In dictatorships people expect to have to dig for reliable information, to infer “the truth” from what is missing, etc.
Douglas Murray documented this in some detail in the The Madness of Crowds.

Last edited 8 months ago by Katalin Kish
Peter B
Peter B
8 months ago
Reply to  Simon

I’m not convinced that we can’t still produce documentaries this good. With ever better technology and access to information, it’s certainly technically easier to do so. Whether it is organisationally and culturally possible is more open to question.
But I agree with you – there is quite outstanding material being produced right now on YouTube about World War II. Try Indy Neidell’s “World War II” series where we covers the war one week at a time, with a new episode each week. He’s now in the final year.
Or the “Best Documentary” channel’s multi-part documentary series on Adolf H which is constructed from period films (many rendered in colour), photographs, diaries and quotes in fantastic detail. This is really going back to the source material and showing more clearly how these events were seen at the time.
If you’re into military history, there’s never been better, more easily available material.

Simon
Simon
8 months ago
Reply to  Peter B

I’ve been following that guy since the Great War when I stumbled across it in 2015. Always nice to meet a fellow fan

Jambon Beurre
Jambon Beurre
8 months ago

I quite agree with Aris’ summary. I remember watching it last year assuming it would be just another “we won the war” documentary that litters channels such as Discovery, only to be absolutely rivetted from the opening 5 minutes of the aerial pan views over Oradur Sur Glane.

The most poignant moment for me was Laurence Olivier repeating quite plainly and simply, “remember”, reminding us of what remembrance actually is about, who it is for, and that it is not an act on performance.

The only other documentary I have seen that equals it is ‘Shoah’ which is a unique, 9-hour testimony of the Holocaust from the survivors and perpetrators. Shoah took longer to make and was started at around the same time as World at War. A few of the same people appear, including Rudolph Vyrba. There is a particularly moving interview with a Jewish man who, as a Kappo, had to shave the heads of his old friends and neighbours as they entered the gas chambers. There is also a moving hidden-camera interview with an ex SS camp guard who detailed what he did and saw: sadly, the documentary ommited to say that the Guard had in fact helped Jewish prisoners and treated them well, and had had supportive testimonies from holocaust survivors during the subsequent trials.

Both are absolute masterpieces and historical artefacts in their own right.

J Bryant
J Bryant
8 months ago

There appears to be an assumption in this article that the world might once again be on the brink of major war. I suppose that’s based on what’s happening in Ukraine and Israel/Gaza.
But Ukraine appears to have settled into a war of attrition with little indication it will spill into neighboring countries. With regard to Israel, from articles I’ve read on Unherd and elsewhere, there appears to be considerable effort by the US, and by Middle East nations, to prevent that conflict expanding into a more general Middle East war.
I realize any conflict has some potential to ignite other conflicts, but is there a realistic possibility (as distinct from internet fearmongering) of a more general war spreading from Ukraine and/or Israel? Would that war even begin to approach the scope of WWII?

Eleanor Barlow
Eleanor Barlow
8 months ago
Reply to  J Bryant

I think there’s more chance of a world war coming about as a result of events in Israel/Palestine than Ukraine. Iran is flexing its muscles and making threats. If it attacks Israel it might bring in Russia as its ally and the US as Israel’s ally. Unfortunately there’s nobody left from WW2 who can give personal witness to the massive destruction and loss of life that took place between 1939 & 1945, so now the younger generation may be labouring under the delusion that a future world war would be winnable.

Rocky Martiano
Rocky Martiano
8 months ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Any situation like this has the potential to degenerate into a much wider conflict, via accident, unintended consequences or simple hubris of the state actors involved.
In 1938 Chamberlain was declaring ‘peace in our time, At the time of Sarajevo in 1914 no-one could have conceived that with six months the world would be at war. In these very dangerous times we are at the mercy of our ‘leaders’…..God help us.

Last edited 8 months ago by Rocky Martiano
Bret Larson
Bret Larson
8 months ago
Reply to  Rocky Martiano

Chamberlin wasn’t a bad guy. Yes, he said peace in our time.
But he prepared for war.

Benedict Waterson
Benedict Waterson
8 months ago
Reply to  J Bryant

The problem of mutually assured destruction makes a global war between nation states less likely. Technologies like drones being used en masse in Western cities might become more likely.

Last edited 8 months ago by Benedict Waterson
Katalin Kish
Katalin Kish
8 months ago

May there be a future generation in the first place, and may that future generation understand written words and context.

From what I am being forced to learn in Melbourne, Australia about both our authorities’ incompetent, naive hubris and government/military technology in bikie arsenals, I am not optimistic.
Hug your loved ones folks while you can.

Ray Ward
Ray Ward
8 months ago
Reply to  Katalin Kish

Don’t know what “bikie” means, and cannot find it in the Oxford English Dictionary (except for an obviously irrelevant sense).

Geoff W
Geoff W
8 months ago
Reply to  Ray Ward

In Australian English, “bikies” are motorcycle gangs (parallel to the US English “bikers”)..
If that’s what you found in the OED, but couldn’t make sense with it of what KK said, perhaps she meant that the criminals are better armed than the police?

Katalin Kish
Katalin Kish
8 months ago
Reply to  Geoff W

Australia’s criminals aren’t just better armed (and informed) than the police: they ARE the police, gleefully flashing their Victoria Police uniforms participating in bikie crimes in broad daylight. Since 2019 from what I have witnessed.
Victoria Police officers’ apathy, cluelessness and incompetence are limited to dealing with crime reporting attempts.

Last edited 8 months ago by Katalin Kish
R E P
R E P
8 months ago

This makes me want to watch The World at War again. The Brexiteers + Trump = Nazis programme made by the BBC was the nadir of the BBC’s agit prop history which continues with its ‘decolonization’ histories (code white men are awful.)

Last edited 8 months ago by R E P
J. Hale
J. Hale
8 months ago

What’s interesting now is that in WWII both sides at least tried to shelter their civilian citizens away from harm. For example the British sent their children to the countryside. Even the Russans evacuated to the east. In contrast in the current Gaza war, Hamas uses civilians as human shields, and blames the Israelis for civilian deaths. Amazingly a lot of people in the West agree with them.
I would also note that in WWII aggressor nations paid for their aggression by losing territory.. Much of eastern Germany went to Poland and Russia. Japan also lost one of their northern Islands to Russia. In contrast even though the Arabs started at least three wars against Israel, (and lost them all) it’s considered unfair that they lost territory.

Last edited 8 months ago by J. Hale
Peter B
Peter B
8 months ago
Reply to  J. Hale

To be fair, in a place as small and densely populated as Gaza, there isn’t really anywhere they can send them. And the neighbouring contries don’t seem over keen to help out. Not to excuse Hamas’ lack of concern for their own people though.
Youre second point about losing territory is certainly interesting and worth thinking about. But also interesting that the UK and USA didn’t pick up any new territory (not that we should have), so doesn’t always work out that way. Nor did Italy or Hungary lose anything (Italian colonies aside).

J. Hale
J. Hale
8 months ago
Reply to  Peter B

Good points. But I would note that when the Red Army invaded East Prussia and Pomerania, Germans farther to the west tolerated the arrival of their fellow German refugees. The Arabs seem to be a more tribal society. Arab states have never granted Palestinians citizenship. Instead they just use them as pawns in an endless struggle.

Peter B
Peter B
8 months ago
Reply to  J. Hale

It is indeed astonishing that the residue of Germany after WWII was able to so quickly absorb so many refugees from those areas as well as Czechoslovakia and Poland. And ultimately better for all concerned that the large German minorities in the other countries were reduced.
Interesting also that both Germany and Israel have a “right to return” for all ethnic Germans and Jews respectively. Although I’m not sure how you can “prove” you’re an ethnic German and more than I could that I’m “English” (other than just knowing it). And yet both states have sometimes had difficulty with full citizenship rights for other residents. As you point out, have many Arab states.
Pleasant to be having a civilised debate on this subject ! The range of permitted opinions without triggering criticism has become rather narrow.

Jaden Johnson
Jaden Johnson
8 months ago

A tremendous article that does full justice to a piece of serious television that will never be bettered. I have long thought that it would be instructive if a short coda / commentary was added to each episode by a contemporary historian relating how our understanding of WW2 has changed in the period since the series was made to reflect the opening up of archives that were firmly closed in 1973. (e.g. from the former Soviet Union, the work of Bletchley Park etc.). I’d nominate Richard Overy. His book – Why The Allies Won – is my go-to on WW2.

Mike MacCormack
Mike MacCormack
8 months ago

I worked, as a film laboratory assistant, on preparing for printing the 35mm negatives that were used to make new 16mm negatives that were compatible with TV practices in the early seventies. I clearly recall being told that much if not most of the used material was provided by the Russians – they had taken the Nazi – shot footage at the end of the war and had finally agreed to let the rest of the world see it. Whether that influenced Thames’s editorial stance on Russian behaviour as the war ended I can only guess; for many people in eastern Europe it must have seemed as if the war went on far beyond 1945.

P Branagan
P Branagan
8 months ago

Thanks Aris – really impressed by your piece.

Neil Stanworth
Neil Stanworth
8 months ago

I have been rewatching this on UKTV Play having read a similar article in the Spectator last week, and only seen the original in my early teens. This article is entirely right about its brilliance compared to the overwrought documentaries of today. Both the war footage and the interviews are astonishing. Any attempt to make something similar today would be doomed, and almost certainly drown in performative condemnation of interview decisions by one tribe or another. It would also be quite impossible to make something that similarly stuck largely to facts, with very little attempt to influence the viewer’s opinion.
And while recent events are harrowing, any episode of The World at War lends a certain perspective, simply because of the sheer numbers, provided with minimum hysterics by Olivier. If only today’s newsreaders could do the same.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
8 months ago

There is today an added poignancy to the series’ closing line, when Olivier says, almost wistfully, “For 30 years now, there has been peace in Europe…”

Su Mac
Su Mac
8 months ago

Great article Aris! Yes, an outstanding pinnacle of documentary making.

From the stirring, unsettling music to the incredible interviews, neat structure and balanced, humane script. We too laugh/wince everytime we rewatch at Olivier’s twittish “Stahleen” and “Ukryne”!

I think TWaW is my “How many times do you think about the Roman Empire” as it constantly resonates and adds perspective to current events.

I must have watched it ( don’t fret, I was accompanied by a man) end to end 6+ times over 30 years with husband although I seem to find new, unremembered stuff in the later Eps now. He also says it was the only time his father ever revealed anything about his gruelling war.

The Episode about Imperial Japan programming a militarised, war ready, “superior” race from childhood is amazingly relevant.

Also the self satisfied German woman blithely denying all when being confronted with her signature on a report to the Gestapo of a woman neighbour and her un-German behaviour.

Basically, the last few years have taught us most people we know would have been just like most Germans…gone along/persuaded in one degree or another.

Truly the interviewing is masterful and restrained and I was fascinated to learn of the blonde, blue eyed researcher and her techniques. Cunning!

There are a few truths ommitted to be sure, but there will never be it’s like again, that moment is gone.

Jane H
Jane H
8 months ago

There will always be wars primarily because they are immensely profitable. Arms trading, rebuilding contracts, natural resource plundering and land acquisition. Conflict is in the nature of man and less often, women.

Matt Hindman
Matt Hindman
8 months ago

Anyone know a good place to watch this series? I love in depth history pieces like this.

J Bryant
J Bryant
8 months ago
Reply to  Matt Hindman

I don’t know where you can get the full series, but a quick Google search reveals the early episodes are available on youtube.

N Satori
N Satori
8 months ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Available as a boxed set from Amazon.
I collected the full series for free back in 2006 when it was given away by The Daily Mail. The Mail also followed it with a give-away of BBC’s long-forgotten and almost as impressive series on WW1, The Great War. First broadcast in 1964 this series may have provided a model and inspiration for The World at War.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
8 months ago
Reply to  N Satori

Good shout for The Great War. I had forgotten about that

Graham Ward
Graham Ward
8 months ago

Used the link provided by Prashant to do a search.

https://archive.org/details/the-great-war-1964

Tom Graham
Tom Graham
8 months ago
Reply to  N Satori

The Great War is also brilliant – also because it captured so may veterans on film while they were still alive.
Saying that such great television could not be make now – I found that Once Upon a Time in Iraq is a stunning series, although much shorter.

J Bryant
J Bryant
8 months ago
Reply to  N Satori

Thanks. Incredible, and somewhat depressing, that such fine TV series are now given away almost as stocking fillers.

N Satori
N Satori
8 months ago
Reply to  J Bryant

More depressing is the fact that Thames Television ceased to produce such high quality programming after its franchise was put up for sale under some half-baked Thatcherite scheme intended to increase competition in the industry. The franchise was sold off to a consortium of money-grubbers and broadcasting standards sank to a very low level.

RM Parker
RM Parker
8 months ago
Reply to  Matt Hindman

Happily, I bought the whole thing as a set of DVDs about 15 years ago
 unhappily, I don’t think it’s available anymore (though it really should be). Aris is spot on – it’s of a higher order than any other documentary I have encountered on the subject. Good luck searching it out – if you find it, you won’t be disappointed.

Bernard Hill
Bernard Hill
8 months ago
Reply to  Matt Hindman

….I would say, somewhere deep underground, if Aris is right. (Just not in Gaza.)

Katalin Kish
Katalin Kish
8 months ago
Reply to  Matt Hindman

The article refers to a “truncated form on UKTV Play“. I hope to buy the whole series on DVDs, so that I can watch it offline.
It probably doesn’t have much on how my Hungarian father’s generation was forced into fighting on the German side, and the horrors they went through.
I will watch it as an act of respect for my father’s involuntary sacrifice, and all those who didn’t have the luxury of choice about participation.

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
8 months ago
Reply to  Matt Hindman

My post in the comments has the link

Ray Ward
Ray Ward
8 months ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

Indeed, the whole thing seems to be there.

Matt Hindman
Matt Hindman
8 months ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

Thank you!

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
8 months ago
Reply to  Matt Hindman

I have the box set. It was not expensive

Neil Stanworth
Neil Stanworth
8 months ago
Reply to  Matt Hindman

It’s on UKTV Play in slightly truncated form (44 mins v 52 mins in the original). There are occasional ad breaks but they are short, and it is free of charge.

Matty D
Matty D
8 months ago

So, I agree that The World at War is amongst the greatest TV series ever made. But why the liberal baiting? Is it some pre-requisite for an unHerd article? The Rise of the Nazis was about Trump and Brexit? Seriously, you what? That must have been a completely different series to the one I saw. Stacey Dooley is no Laurence Olivier? How insightful. It is just totally unnecessary and adds nothing to what is for the most part an excellent and interesting article.

SIMON WOLF
SIMON WOLF
8 months ago

Would also recommend a 5 part BBC series last year on the Iraq War.
PBS America ch 174 has interesting documentaries and one wonders why does the BBC not have a similiar channel?. Sky Documentary channel 121 just appears to be wall to wall profiles on celebrities ..

rupert carnegie
rupert carnegie
8 months ago

The most striking feature of this well written piece was – for me – the ominous suggestion running through the piece that the author fears were are close to another cataclysm. The constriction of debate on the aftermath of the Hamas massacre to the single issue of whether one stands with or against Israel has left surprisingly little space for discussion of the risks of escalation.

Geoff W
Geoff W
8 months ago

“Lawrence” Olivier?

Peter B
Peter B
8 months ago

An excellent article about a documentary series we should watch several times. I’ve been highly critical of much of Aris’s work, but this is superb. Perhaps because it follows the less judgemental tone of the World at War ?

David A. Westbrook
David A. Westbrook
8 months ago

Masterful, Aris, especially coming from a war reporter.
I hope your coda is wrong.

Tony Taylor
Tony Taylor
8 months ago

Is it really “the greatest series ever made”? I can’t agree. Staying in formation: Ken Burns’ Civil War is better, and Hew Strachan’s The First World War is even better still. My only knock on TFWW is that you can’t find out who does the voices; I’ve been trying to for nearly 20 years and the only one I recognise is (I think) the always excellent Jonathan Aris.

Last edited 8 months ago by Tony Taylor
Gerard A
Gerard A
8 months ago
Reply to  Tony Taylor

It is always difficult to rank similarly great works. I would add in Civilisation and Ascent of Man, but wouldn’t like to list them in any order. Perhaps I would put World at War at the top for its sheer scale, being twice the length of the others

Juan Manuel PĂ©rez PorrĂșa
Juan Manuel PĂ©rez PorrĂșa
8 months ago

The Second World War is passing into history. And it should, as the world has moved on from it. Moreover, the world is also moving on from the dangerous romantic notion of entire countries being selflessly mobilized (that is, conscripted, drafted) to fight (and prevail) against an objectively evil enemy. There is still a lot of exaggeration, fantasy, and jacobinical democratism in the public view of the Second World War, but even this has been inexorably (and thankfully) declining along with the wretched social order that arose out of the war.

Last edited 8 months ago by Juan Manuel PĂ©rez PorrĂșa