Thirty years after it was first shown on British television, the mammoth documentary series the World at War still has the capacity to impress. I’m not sure exactly when my father first saw it, but in out house when I was growing up the first bars of Carl Davis’ theme music and the dulcet tones of narrator Sir Laurence Olivier were signs that something worth watching had come on the TV. Recent re-releases come with several “making of” specials, which show how the writers and producers combed through old newsreel footage, searched out eyewitnesses of all ranks and nationalities, and worked hard to make the World at War about more than just the battlefield. Starting the first episode with the 1944 massacre at Oradour-sur-Glane made it clear that the series would not sugar-coat the war, and the episodes on the Holocaust and the the home front in Britain, Germany and the Soviet Union were unflinching in their portrayals of horror and complicity. There is no shortage of good documentaries on the Second World War, but I still think there are three good reasons to take the time to track down and watch the World at War.
1) Massive scope. To create a twenty-seven part documentary series would be unthinkable today, but it gave the writers the flexibility to cover numerous parallel stories. Even with a 22-hour running time there was plenty of material left on the cutting room floor – the latest re-issue has seven DVDs for the series and four more DVDs full of extras, such as an hour-long interview with a young Stephen Ambrose (complete with long, flowing locks). This is a series that manages to find time for a full epsiode on the Dutch experience under occupation, without stinting any of the campaign narratives either.
2) Variety of interviewees. Though a British production through and through, the producers of World at War made an effort to get interviews from all the nationalities involved in the war, and got particularly good material from Germany. One of the series biggest coups was getting an interview with Karl Wolff, adjutant to SS commander Heinrich Himmler, but it also managed one with a guard at Auschwitz, SS lance-corporal Richard Böck, and with more senior figures like armaments minister Albert Speer.
3) The view from below. One thing that the multitude of interviews helped do was show the war not just through the eyes of retired admirals, generals and politicians, though the show had plenty of them, but also from the perspective of enlisted men, civilians, and minor civil servants. I’ve already mentioned Wolff and Böck, but to my mind some of the most touching testimony in the whole seriescame from Christabel Bielenberg, whose husband was loosely connected to anti-Hitler resistance in Germany. Getting the interviews wasn’t always easy, and getting everyone to talk freely took flattery, persistence, and some other inducements – one of my favourite scenes in one of the “making of” features shows a group of British former enlisted men reminiscing about their time in the desert. In the main series the shot is tight on their faces and upper bodies, but the behind-the-scenes feature pulls back to reveal the table in front of them stacked with empty pint glasses.
World at War is only one of several truly great documentaries on the Second World War, but if you have twenty-two hours to spare it’s certainly worth the time.