Best World War II Documentary Series
This list contains WWII series which have made a lasting impression over the years for one reason or the other. These documentaries are warmly recommended to anyone interested in history, and especially to those keen to learn more about the Second World War. In addition to concise evaluation of each series, various pros and cons are contemplated.
Note: This list only includes series with multiple parts. Individual WWII related documentary films are excluded.
The World at War
(1973 -- 26 regular episodes plus 8 extras, totalling over 22 hours)
The World at War is by far the most prominent documentary film series about the Second World War. Accurate and impressively comprehensive - from the battle of Stalingrad and the U-boat campaigns to the Atomic Bombs and the ruined post-war Europe - it includes a lot of original WW2 era footage. Even the extras are worth mentioning separately, since they include some very interesting topics, such as Adolf Hitler's secretary Traudl Junge speaking about her experiences.
Pros: Lot of content and wide range of topics covered. Has survived time amazingly well.
Cons: Inevitably, one or two aspects are out-dated because so much new research has been carried out after the Soviet archives finally opened in the 1990s.
Episodes: (1) A New Germany (2) Distant War (3) France Falls (4) Alone (5) Barbarossa (6) Banzai!: Japan (7) On Our Way: U.S.A. (8) The Desert: North Africa (9) Stalingrad (10) Wolf Pack: U-Boats in the Atlantic (11) Red Star: The Soviet Union (12) Whirlwind: Bombing Germany (13) Tough Old Gut: Italy (14) It's A Lovely Day Tomorrow: Burma (15) Home Fires: Britain (16) Inside the Reich: Germany (17) Morning (18) Occupation: Holland (19) Pincers (20) Genocide (21) Nemesis: Germany (22) Japan (23) Pacific (24) The Bomb (25) Reckoning (26) Remember --- Extras: (1) Secretary to Hitler (2) Warrior (3) Hitler's Germany: The People's Community (4) Hitler's Germany: Total War (5) The Two Deaths of Adolf Hitler (6) The Final Solution: Part One (7) The Final Solution: Part Two (8) From War to Peace
The Nazis: A Warning from History
(1997 -- 6 episodes totalling almost 6 hours)
How could the Nazis rise to power in a civilized country like Germany? Why was Hitler so popular? All this and much more explained by Germans who experienced the rise and fall of the Third Reich either in the Nazi Party, the Hitler Youth, the SA, or the SS. The greatness of this series is underlined by the fact that the topic - the Nazi phenomenon - is very difficult to approach without getting judgmental or ending up being entangled in the details. It is not too much of an exaggeration to state that this is the most underrated WWII related documentary series ever made.
Pros: If you want to understand the Nazi-era, Hitler's rise to power, and what it was like to live in the Third Reich - This is the series to watch. Great interviews.
Cons: It is difficult to come up with a more unappealing title for a series covering such an interesting and extreme period in history.
Episodes: (1) Helped into Power (2) Chaos and Consent (3) The Wrong War (4) The Wild East (5) The Road to Treblinka (6) Fighting to the End
The Color of War
(2001 -- 17 episodes, totalling about 13 hours)
This all-color series about World War II combines color film and photographs taken from government archives and private collections with first-person commentary from the combatants and the photographers who lived trough this global struggle.
Pros: Color footage takes the entire war and soldiers' everyday struggles to a complete different level. Does not avoid sensitive subjects like American officers living a luxury life behind the front-lines or the poor treatment of black soldiers.
Episodes: (1) Why We Fight (2) Victory (3) The Price of War (4) Silent and Deep (5) Man and Machine (6) Into the Breach (7) Homefront (8) Fueling the Fire (9) Face to Face (10) Dressed to Kill (11) Covering the War (12) Clearing the Way (13) Battleground (14) At Ease (15) Anchors Aweigh (16) Air War (17) Aftermath
Russia's War - Blood Upon the Snow
(1997 -- 10 episodes, totalling 8 hours)
The Second World War was decided on the eastern front in 1941-1945, where the two extreme social experiments -- the fascist Third Reich and the socialist Soviet Union -- faced each other off in a gigantic death match. If you watch this series and read "Absolute War: Soviet Russia in the Second World War" by Chris Bellamy you will be very well informed on this topic.
Pros: Interviews which could not have been possible before the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Cons: Maybe not the world's most sparkling production and narration, but it should not bother if you are interested in the eastern front.
Episodes: (1) The Darkness Descends (2) The Hour Before Midnight (3) The Goths Ride East (4) Between Life and Death (5) The Fight From Within (6) The Cauldron Boils (7) The Citadel (8) False Dawn (9) The Fall of the Swastikas (10) The Cult of Personality
The War of the Century: When Hitler Fought Stalin
(1999 -- 4 episodes, totalling 3+ hours)
This is the second series - in addition to the one mentioned above - focusing on the Eastern Front that is worth including in this list. In spite of being a mix of countless different views, footages and interviews the production still somehow manages to be coherent. Interviews range from German soldiers to Stalin's friends, while the footage varies from black-and-white combat footage to present-day color film of the battle locations.
Pros: Interviews and footage are blended very well. Does not get stuck in one particular topic for too long periods - an error made by many of documentary series produced during the previous decades.
Cons: Another great WWII series ruined by a name which is very difficult to remember - even at the time you are actually watching the series. I'm not asking for a name like "blood and paranoia on the Eastern Front" - which I bet would lure youngsters into watching this - but surely it is possible to come up with a spicier name than "The War of the Century".
Episodes: (1) High Hopes (2) Spiral of Terror (3) Learning to Win (4) Vengeance
(2007 -- 5 episodes, totalling 4+ hours)
German military machine, the Wehrmacht, emerged as an unstoppable fighting force in the late 1930s and the first years of the 1940s. But in spite of some massive early victories both in the West and in the East, the campaign on the Eastern Front turned into a bitter struggle for the survival. In the last years of the war the Wehrmacht - by now inseparably entangled with the Nazi regime and its atrocities - was forced to retreat inside the borders of the Third Reich.
Pros: Gives the German side of WWII military campaigns. Interviews of German veterans.
Episodes: (1) Attack on Europe (2) The Turning Point (3) The Crimes (4) Resistance (5) To the Bitter End
(2005 -- 5 episodes, totalling 4 hours)
Children were subjected to a relentless national brainwash in Hitler's Third Reich. Youth organizations for both girls (BDM, Bund Deutscher Mädel) and boys (Jungvolk for the youngest and HitlerJugend for those aged over 13) started their indoctrination early on to make sure that the little Aryans were properly squared by the time they joined the Nazi Party, the Wehrmacht, the SA, and the SS. The state-planned youth activities included both mental - teaching nationalism, Aryan supremacy and anti-semitism - and physical side, which included camping trips with military like components.
Pros: A fascinating look into a topic that is rarely covered more than superficially. Interviews.
Episodes: (1) Seduction (2) Education (3) Dedication (4) Employment (5) Sacrifice
Voices from Hitler's Army
(2006 -- 6 episodes, totalling 5 hours)
German WWII veterans recall their sometimes shocking wartime experiences, and explain why they fought - even in 1945 as the war was clearly lost. I would like to underline that this is not a series about the Third Reich, the German high command, or the general conduct of the war, but about regular service-members voicing their tales on the background as footage rolls.
Pros: Countless interviews of German veterans who saw combat in the Second World War.
Cons: Black-and-white footage with black-and-white photographs may seem a bit unattractive compared to the latest WW2 series which mostly feature color footage. A series focused strongly on one particular topic, so if you are not interested in the personal accounts of the German WWII veterans, skip this series.
Episodes: (1) Blitzkrieg - Unleashing the Nightmare (2) The Luftwaffe - Messengers of Death (3) The Waffen SS - The Alibi for History (4) U-Boats - Iron Coffins (5) Russia - The Unholy War (6) Defending Berlin - The Last Battles
(2005 -- 13 episodes, totalling almost 10 hours)
This very promising Nazi documentary film series suffers, rather badly, from a clear-cut focus. Interesting topics like assassination attempts on Hitler, SS bodyguards and the whole Nazi security apparatus, Hitler related locations like Berghof and Wolf Lair HQ are all thrown into one big, partly overlapping, mess. Mostly consists of Black and white footage with narration, and one cannot help but complain about the limited usage of blueprints, charts, layouts, map and technical drawings which would have opened up the cases better. Hitler's Bodyguard may be a bit disappointing, but if you wish to watch a series about this topic, you are pretty much out of options.
Pros: Rarely covered aspects of Hitler's life on the spotlight.
Cons: Countless times the story wanders off into a completely off the current topic: Each episode could have been made shorter without losing anything essential. Some topics clearly require more on-the-point information and technical elements to become alive.
Episodes: (1) The Inner Circle (2) Assassination Attempts (3) Kill the New Chancellor (4) Operation Hummingbird (5) Enemies of the Fuher (6) Before the War (7) Elser's Bomb (8) The Paris Attempt (9) Hitler's Flights (10) Hitler's Train (11) The Wolf's Lair (12) The Berghof (13) The Bunker Plot
WWII in HD (also known as World War II: Lost Films)
(2009 -- 10 episodes, totalling 7½ hours)
This relatively recent WWII series zeroes in on the wartime experiences of 12 Americans, including the stories of an Army nurse, a Tuskegee fighter pilot, a Japanese American who served in the U.S. Army, a front-line reporter, and an Austrian Jew immigrant who was combat in the 7th Infantry Division. As color footage series go, this is kind of an American counterpart to to the more Euro-centric "Apocalypse: The Second World War," a series introduced below. Includes some grim footage, such as a Japanese woman jumping to her death.
Pros: Color footage, that was originally shot in color, not just colorized afterwards. Takes on often ignored subjects such as soldiers suffering from the cold.
Cons: The storyline which follows a selected goupr of individuals may not please everybody. Includes only a few solid but nonstriking interviews. Jumping between the European and the Pacific theater withina single episode can be annoying.
Episodes: (1) Darkness Falls (2) Hard Way Back (3) Bloody Resolve (4) Battle Stations (5) Day of Days (6) Point of No Return (7) Striking Distance (8) Glory and Guts (9) Edge of the Abyss (10) End Game
Apocalypse: The Second World War
(2009 -- 6 episodes, totalling 5+ hours)
This French documentary series is comprised exclusively of actual footage of the war filmed by war correspondents, soldiers, resistance fighters and private citizens. Meanwhile the narration gives voice to soldiers, civilians, and military and political leaders. The series is shown almost completely in color, as the black and white footage has been colorized. Some of the footage is pretty grim, and was therefore previously not shown to civilians, and this should be kept in mind if any younger audience is present during the viewing.
Pros: Impressive, even touching, rare color or colorized footage. Does not shy away from the gruesome, but often avoided, realities of war. Refreshingly, this series balances out the countless number of WWII documentary films focusing on the US and the UK.
Cons: Some parts of the series have a pro-French bias.
Episodes: (1) Aggression (2) Crushing Defeat (3) Shock (4) World Ablaze (5) The Great Landings (6) Inferno
Gladiators of World War II
(2002 -- 13 episodes, totalling about 11 hours)
World War II special forces and other noteworthy formations - from the small Norwegian Resistance groups to the Waffen SS which comprised of dozens of divisions - get their due in this interestingly named series. It is difficult not to notice the fact that some of the episodes deal with rather "ordinary" elements - like The Royal Navy, RAF Fighter Command and the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (the Anzacs) - instead of more elite units which really did consist of hand-picked warriors.
Pros: Includes coverage of some rarely explored groups, like the SAS and the SOE. Good black-and-white footage.
Cons: Too many of the episodes deal with the British and/or Allied formations. More special forces - like the Brandenburgers - could have been covered instead of regular forces. Includes some rudimentary CGI-animations - fortunately these are rare.
Episodes: (1) The Desert Rats (2) The Free Polish Forces (3) The Special Operations Executive (4) The Waffen SS (5) The SAS (6) RAF Fighter Command (7) The Paras and Commandos (8) The Royal Navy (9) The Free French (10) The Anzacs (11) The Chindits (12) The Norwegian Resistance (13) The Kamikazes
Unsolved Mysteries of World War II
(1998 -- 16 episodes, totalling 4½ hours)
While some may, understandably, sniff at this WWII series, it is still a very good series in some aspects - like for example getting more mystery minded people interested in the Second World War. This series explores various WWII "mysteries" - of which some - like Himmler's Wewelsburb and Geli Raubal case - are more mysterious than others. Especially the evacuation at Dunkirk and the development of the V-2 rocket can hardly be classified as "unsolved mysteries".
Pros: Some of the less covered topics get their due. Episodes are only 20+ minutes long, so you can show them to even those of your friends who are not history buffs.
Cons: Topics are a bit too varied, and some of them are better covered in other, dedicated, documentary films.
Episodes: The Riddle of Rudolph Hess, The Strange Death of Geli Raubal, Drugs and the Fuhrer, Hitler's Secret War (espionage warfare and the allied breaking of the German military codes), Kill Hitler (various assassinations attempts on Hitler), Hitler's Secret Weapons (V-2 rocket), Enigma of the Swastika, Himmler's Castle (Wewelsburg), The Eagle and the Swastika, The Last Days of Hitler, Decision at Dunkirk (Why Hitler stopped German armies allowing British to evacuate their troops), The Stop Order, Stalin's Secret Armies (men that Stalin used to surround German forces at the Battle of Stalingrad), Objective Stalingrad, Stalin's Deception.
(2007 -- 7 episodes, totalling 14 hours)
The War, a solid but not an amazing WWII series, focuses on the many ways in which the Second World War impacted the people in four U.S. towns (Luverne, Minnesota - Mobile, Alabama - Sacramento, California - Waterbury, Connecticut). Although this series will not blow your mind away, it is still hard to leave it outside of this list due to the big effect it had when it was released just a couple of years ago.
Pros: Brings to the surface the fact the not just the soldiers - but indeed the entire society - was affected by the war.
Cons: The slow-paced production style is focused towards older generations. How interested people outside of the United States are about the life in some random American town?
Episodes: (1) A Necessary War (2) When Things Get Tough (3) A Deadly Calling (4) Pride of Our Nation (5) FUBAR (6) The Ghost Front (7) A World Without War
© Joni Nuutinen
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