May 15, 2016
World War Documentary Provides Way To Learn About War
In the mid-1990s, 50 years after the end of World War II, the American essayist Lee Sandlin asked friends what they knew about the conflict. To his surprise, “Nobody could tell me the first thing about it. Once they got past who won they almost drew a blank. All they knew were those big totemic names—Pearl Harbor, D day, Auschwitz, Hiroshima—whose unfathomable reaches of experience had been boiled down to an abstract atrocity. The rest was gone. . . . What had happened, for instance, at one of the war’s biggest battles, the Battle of Midway? It was in the Pacific, there was something about aircraft carriers. Wasn’t there a movie about it, one of those Hollywood all-star behemoths in which a lot of admirals look worried while pushing toy ships around a map?” For Sandlin, this broad ignorance demonstrated “how vast the gap is between the experience of war and the experience of peace . . . . [N]obody back home has ever known much about what it was like on the battlefield.”
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Seventy years after its end, World War II, the definitive event of the twentieth century and perhaps of the entire modern age, remains enormously consequential, as the West was reminded in 2014, when Vladimir Putin annexed Crimea and menaced independent Ukraine, dredging up in the process unresolved conflicts involving the Nazis.
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Documentary may prove to be the most likely form in which younger generations first learn about the war. If so, the place to look for the definitive treatment isn’t forward but backward, to The World at War, a 23-hour opus that debuted in Britain and the United States in fall 1973 [. . .] Over 40 years later, though, the film remains vital, even as subsequent scholarship has made its omissions more apparent. In an age in which every impetus pushes us toward screens, rather than pages, The World at War can help us understand something, at least, about the deadliest conflict in history.
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Consisting of 26 episodes, each 52 minutes in length, it covers the rise of Hitler and the Nazis, the outbreak of war in Europe, the fall of France and the Battle of Britain, and the German invasion of the Soviet Union; Japanese expansionism in the Pacific, the attack on Pearl Harbor, and the early Pacific war against the United States; the U-boat war in the Atlantic and the North African, Italian, and Burmese campaigns; life on the home fronts in Nazi Germany, Britain, the Soviet Union, Japan, and the United States; the fighting on the Eastern Front, the greatest land battle in history; the Allies’ invasion of France and push eastward to Berlin, as well as the collapse of the Third Reich; the sanguinary battles on the Pacific islands; and the Holocaust, the Bomb, and the aftermath. Though most illuminating when seen together, the episodes are freestanding and can be watched in any order.
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“We’d gone to war for the defense of Poland,” says Lord Boothby, but “in the event, we did nothing to help Poland at all. We never lifted a finger.” Amid British failures in the Norwegian campaign of spring 1940, Neville Chamberlain is replaced as prime minister by Winston Churchill—who, as first lord of the admiralty, had played a key role in these failures. In “France Falls,” we watch as refugees—mothers with babies, old women—make their way on the roads of northern France. One girl, perhaps ten, walks with a wooden leg and cane while helping her younger sibling. We see the German entry into Paris, and Hitler’s lone visit to the capital, where he stares blankly at the Eiffel Tower. And we watch as the Nazis parade into Paris.
“Alone” chronicles the Battle of Britain, as London and other British cities are bombarded by the Luftwaffe. Civilians take cover, some in the subway system. Middle-aged survivors gather in a pub to swap recollections. “The bomb that hit you, you never heard,” one says. “You can get used to anything,” says another. A man remembers seeing Churchill walk down Green Street in London, where he came upon a group of women trying to recover belongings from a destroyed home. “We can take it,” the prime minister told them. “We’re the ones taking it, mister!” they shouted back. [. . .] Couples wearing gas masks dance the jitterbug.
The war’s immense scale is best captured in the material covering the Eastern Front. “The Red Army in 1941,” Olivier tells us, “was the largest in the world—in tanks it outnumbered, in airplanes it equaled the rest of the world’s armies put together.” But in the first few days of Barbarossa—the initial German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941—the Wehrmacht destroyed 2,000 Russian planes, most on the ground, shutting down the Soviet air force. The Germans wiped out 6,000 Russian tanks in two battles in July. Half a million Russians died in the first two weeks of the invasion. By the end of September, nearly 3 million had perished. No country but the Soviet Union could have withstood these losses. Hitler’s plans called for victory within four months, but the Germans stalled near Moscow with the arrival of the Russian winter, for which its troops were ill equipped. And Stalin had more manpower to call upon: his elite Siberian divisions. They ski into the frame, fully armed, called to the defense of Moscow.
In “Stalingrad,” covering the gigantic battle that raged from August 1942 to February 1943, the German Sixth Army at first routs Soviet forces, but the Russians, their resistance more effective than the previous year, turn to urban warfare and house-to-house fighting—“gangster methods,” one German soldier complained. Still, the Sixth Army pins Soviet forces against the banks of the Volga River, and the Luftwaffe turns the city into a heaping ruin. Once again, though, the Germans, losing 20,000 men a week, cannot administer the killing blow before the weather turns, and the German Sixth is eventually encircled by two Soviet armies. Joyous Red Army troops embrace one another—but Olivier informs us that the joining up of the eastern and western armies had happened so quickly that the Soviets had “no time to film it.”
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The Sixth Army’s commander, Friedrich Paulus, signals Hitler: “Troops without munitions or food. Effective command no longer possible. Collapse inevitable. Army requests permission to surrender in order to save lives of remaining troops.” Hitler responds: “The Sixth Army will do its historic duty at Stalingrad until the last man.” Hitler had expected Paulus to shoot himself; instead, the general surrendered. Amazed, General Shumilov asks Paulus for proof of his identity and proof of his command of the Sixth Army. “Germans are funny fellows,” a Russian soldier says. “Coming to conquer Stalingrad in shiny leather boots. They thought it would be a joyride.”
In 1930, says Marquis Kido, billed as the “emperor’s chief adviser,” Japan “entered what might be called her convulsive period of history.” Ultranationalists took power and transformed the military through the “patriotic societies.” We see footage of these young men training in martial arts and other disciplines; their fanaticism conjures ISIS. Confident after its conquest of Manchuria in 1931, Japan invaded China in July 1937, taking Peking and Shanghai, before advancing up the Yangtze toward China’s then-capital, Nanking, where in December the army committed one of the century’s infamous atrocities, slaughtering hundreds of thousands of Chinese. Japanese troops shoot victims execution-style. “Even the Nazis were shocked,”
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at Pearl Harbor, the Japanese had destroyed much of America’s Pacific fleet—but not a single U.S. aircraft carrier, since those vessels were out at sea on December 7. At Midway, American planes launched from those same carriers destroyed four of the Japanese carriers that had launched the Pearl Harbor attack. The smashing victory, accomplished in the “fatal five minutes” that saw all four Japanese carriers ignited by American bombs, put an end to Japanese advances in the Pacific and set the stage for Allied victory.
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The war had turned against Japan and its ally Germany. Hitler spent more time at his “wolf’s lair” in the German countryside, where, in 1944, the plot to kill him came within a whisker of succeeding. But the generals’ plot was not the only form of resistance. Some Germans hid Jews from the Gestapo. One, Christabel Bielenberg, sheltered a Jewish couple in her cellar. Fearing for her children, she told them that it could only be for two days. Awaking on the third day, she found that the couple had already gone. They were apprehended trying to buy a rail ticket, and sent to Auschwitz. Wringing her hands in memory 30 years later, she says: “Hitler had turned me into a murderer.” Emmie Bonhoeffer remembers friends’ reactions when she tells them that Jews are being sent to their deaths: hold your tongue, they say, or they’ll send you away, too, and your children. “A dictatorship is like a snake,” her husband warns her. “If you put your foot on its tail, it will just bite you. You have to strike the head.”
Whether it’s footage of Russian soldiers in the Battle of Kursk, crawling on their bellies to avoid bombardment and cutting through German fortifications with what look like lopping shears, or desperate scenes shot inside German U-boats under attack from depth charges; or testimonies, ranging from Traudl Junge, Hitler’s secretary, giving intimate details of the Führer’s final days in the bunker, to a surviving Japanese soldier, who remembers the bitterness he felt when, going off to what he felt was his certain death, he receives a good-luck belt from a young woman and wonders why she can’t just sleep with him instead, The World at War’s richness of detail rewards repeated viewings.
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“Down this road, on a summer day in 1944, 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 Oradour-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 Oradour. Its ruins are a memorial. Its martyrdom stands for thousand upon thousand of other martyrdoms in Poland, in Russia, in Burma, in China, in a World at War.”
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“Bread was now made with sweepings, cattle cake, sawdust. People ate soap, linseed oil, the paste for wallpaper. Frozen and silent, Leningrad refused to die.”
“The Germans murdered Jews and Communists. They murdered those suspected of supporting the partisans. They murdered hostages. After battle, in retreat, they just murdered.”
“Russia was saved by its soldiers and by its people. But in the earth, never to welcome the coming of peace, lay 20 million dead.”
“Germany was an ant heap some giant had kicked to pieces.”
Perhaps the most vivid example of this frugal eloquence comes at the end of “Inside the Reich,” where Germany’s crumbling fortunes spark the creation of the Volkssturm, or “people’s storm”—a rounding up of every remaining male to fight for the fatherland. We see thousands being sworn in, and then Goebbels speaks, exhorting them “never to strike our colors and surrender like cowards” (Goebbels, who would poison his six children, pronouncing on cowardice!). Goebbels then reviews the men parading by.
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Though most of the political and military participants were practiced at speaking with media, the ordinary civilians were not. Born early in the twentieth century—and some in the nineteenth—they don’t talk in the more self-conscious manner of interviewees today, who, even if anonymous, are familiar with the ubiquity of video, the vague notion that we could all be recorded at any moment. They suggest a bygone world, and they remind us that The World at War was made before documentaries were thought of as “movies.”
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It is a disarming experience, in one’s living room, to watch and listen to former SS officers; to Hitler’s valet; and to Albert Speer, Hitler’s architect and munitions chief, who had narrowly escaped execution at Nuremberg. Released from Spandau Prison in 1966, he appears in several installments, lending the film inside perspectives available nowhere else but prompting, at least in this viewer, a recurring question: Shouldn’t you be dead?
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When the series debuted, the Holocaust had not attained the cultural preeminence it now holds. The 32-minute French documentary Night and Fogappeared in 1955. The 1961 Hollywood drama Judgment at Nuremberg became one of the first mainstream films to show footage of the camps. But by and large, few Holocaust films had garnered even a fraction of the audience that Schindler’s List would one day command. And, though Holocaust denial was already well under way, no major program about the event had ever been shown in Britain, let alone in prime time.
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Eventually, “Genocide” becomes the story of survivors. Avraham Kochavi, a Polish Jew and Auschwitz survivor, describes the conditions of the railway cars that transported Jews to the camps and how, concerned with protecting his father, he beat other passengers to keep them away. “I didn’t care about the suffering of others, their cries, their threats—only that father should get up.” Another Polish Jew, Rivka Yosilevska, tells an inconceivable story of surviving a mass shooting, at which her mother, father, sister, and young daughter—who was forced out of her arms—were murdered. Yosilevska spent an entire night in a pile of corpses, alive. Czechoslovakian Jew Rudolf Vrba, who, incredibly, escaped from Auschwitz and authored a famous report on the camp, watched as lorries transported a group of Jewish women, already skeletal, to the gas chambers. Some cried out in terror; others tried to jump out of the lorries. A rabbi’s son, Moshe Sonnenshein, standing with Vrba, called out: “God—show them your power—this is against you!” But “nothing happened,” Vrba remembered. Sonnenshein then cried: “There is no God.”
The unfortunate souls whom Boch had described separating the dead in the gas chamber were members of the Sonderkommando, Jewish death-camp inmates tasked with hauling bodies, burying corpses, and the like. To cooperate was to survive another day. “No one who hasn’t gone through such a thing,” says Dov Paisikovic, a Hungarian Jew, “can imagine what the will to live is; what a moment of life is. Every person, without exception, is capable of doing the worst things just to live another minute.” He relates how the victims fought one another during the gassings to try to survive.
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Paisikovic concludes: “When the Americans entered, I weighed 42 kilos . . . . I bless every day that I continue to live because every day that I live is pure profit . . . . I was dead in the camp—and reborn after the liberation.”
Liberation did come, in 1945, for survivors of the camps and of the war itself, though the years ahead saw plentiful suffering, especially for inhabitants of what historian Timothy Snyder calls the bloodlands—the swath of Eastern Europe between Berlin and Moscow, subject to the brutalities of both Hitler and Stalin. These and other agonies—of those bombed to death or deformity, slaughtered or enslaved, mistreated or maligned—have become an increasing focus of cultural memory and scholarship. The World at War offers enough military history to please traditionalists, but it also focuses intently on human costs, reflecting some of the transition already under way in the early 1970s, when the full breadth of this catalog of savagery was not yet understood. (The Soviet archives hadn’t been opened, for example.) By now, fascination with human victims and Allied (not just Axis) sins can overwhelm other considerations, especially regarding the brute reality of the war’s necessity.
In this context, the appearance of the series’ lone historian—a thirtysomething, long-haired Stephen Ambrose—is compelling. Perhaps Isaacs reconsidered his reluctance to use historians; maybe the cataclysm needed some framing, after all. Ambrose offers a timeless judgment: “The most important single result of World War II is that the Nazis were crushed. The militarists in Japan were crushed. The fascists in Italy were crushed. Surely justice has never been better served.” This was not triumphalism but empiricism. Ambrose’s words were broadcast just as the relative hopefulness of the postwar era had begun to sour. Britain was headed for a strife-ridden period of inflation and labor unrest, and the United States, already scarred from Vietnam, had Watergate and other woes to face. The generation that won the war felt the ground shifting under its feet. Ambrose’s verdict sounds almost preemptive now, like an attempt to shore up a people’s self-confidence: Whatever else you’re going to apologize for, don’t apologize for ridding the world of these monsters. Yet 40 years later, we’re less certain about everything—sometimes, it seems, even about this.
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War can never fully translate to those who don’t experience it, but The World at War is a valuable primer on the objective truths of what occurred and the realities that those truths imposed. The more elusive truths, of meaning and morality, we’re still working out.
The Greatest Documentary
The World at War, a 1973 series, remains an essential primer on history’s deadliest conflict.