by Allan Fish
(UK 1973 1,352m) DVD1
p Jeremy Isaacs d Peter Batty, David Elstein, Phillip Whitehead, Michael Darlow w Peter Batty, Neal Ascherson, Charles Bloomberg, Courtney Brown, Angus Calder, Charles Douglas Home, David Elstein, Stuart Hood, Jerome Kuehl, Jeremy Isaacs, J.P.W.Mallalieu, Laurence Thompson, David Wheeler, John Williams m Carl Davis narrated by Laurence Olivier
The title of the last of this monumental factual series’ twenty-six episodes is as good a tagline to use as any. Series such as this are all about remembering, acting as testimony. Testimony to what had happened, testimony to uncover the truth, testimony even to the talents of the people who made it. When the series finished its run, thirty years after the end of the conflict it covered, it was an astonishing coup. It was compared to the dimly recalled BBC masterpiece of a decade previously, The Great War. That somehow had needed to be done in the days of black and white, whereas Jeremy Isaacs’ baby used colour where possible. From every critical pulpit, praise was unanimous, but another three decades on, does it remain so?
In general, I’d reply in the affirmative. Even in this era of information overload of so many by-the-numbers documentaries on each individual incident of World War II on The History Channel that one almost sees it as The War Channel, it still has an inherent addictive, horrifying power. Its narrative and structure detailed enough to overcome familiarity with the subject, rather like learning history from a new teacher. Not until the BBC set about the marathon People’s Century a quarter of a century later was its scope and cost matched. It doesn’t try to be an all-encompassing master-class on the conflict, as the detail included in each episode could easily be expanded into a whole set of books the size of Encyclopaedia Britannica, but it does serve as the best introduction at a basic, scholarly level, to the conflict one could ask for. If one wants detail on specific events in the war, there are other places to go. For example, one episode on the Holocaust is meagre indeed, but we have Shoah and the Beeb’s recent Auschwitz for that. It more than deserves its place chronologically on the shelf alongside Ken Burns’ The Civil War and Tony Essex’s aforementioned The Great War.
The epic commences literally at the beginning of the rise to power of Nazism, through the early days under Hindenburg through to dictatorship that plunged Europe into a second nightmarish conflict less than a quarter century after the first armistice. Leslie Halliwell observed that, if he had a complaint, it was that the euphoria of the final victory wasn’t really related, and this is true, but perhaps a better accusation would be that for a series that detailed every aspect of the war, it didn’t really go into detail on the first embers of hatred that lead to the war – namely, the Versailles treaty. Even that most vilified butcher Douglas Haig had foretold that too harsh a treaty on Germany would sow the seeds of future hatred, and I think Isaacs’ and his team missed a trick here. Saying that Hitler was “delivering them to the promised land” was true enough, but sort of missed the bigger question, namely why he’d been allowed into power in the first place. There was much detail and personal testimony, but little analysis, little debate. It seems churlish to pick holes in such a splendid tapestry, but the holes are there, papered over by such accurate analogies as “the new Germany was a bundle of different interests and grievances held together by the strap of the National Socialist Party, and the buckle of the strap was Hitler.”
What maintains its great status, of course, is the superb narration of Olivier and its value as testimonial reportage, with interviews from such varied people as James Stewart, Hitler’s final secretary Traudl Junge and one time Spandau prison inmate Albert Speer magnificent coups. Not to devalue the testimonies of the less famous, such as one Hungarian Jew recounting his unenviable tasks at Auschwitz, despairingly murmuring that “each person is capable of doing the worst things to live another minute.” Take time to see it, without fail, and follow the eponymous warning of that last episode.