May 17, 2016

THE GREATEST DOCUMENTARY: “The World at War, a 1973 series, remains an essential primer on history’s deadliest conflict,” Paul Beston writes at City Journal:

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.

As I’ve written before, The World At War came at just the right time, when filmed television documentary techniques were sophisticated enough to tell the story of WWII in a multifaceted manner, including color (then still a recent addition to British TV), animated maps, newsreel footage and interviews. The interviews might be the key — in the late 1960s and early ‘70s, while production of the miniseries was in full swing, the soldiers were still relatively young, and there were still enough of the military commanders and politicians on each side of the conflict still alive and eager to talk. But as Beston hints above, the series was made in the years before political correctness and its related disease, massive self-doubt, began to infect the left.

Who knows how distorted a modern-day version of The World At War could be?

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