The World at War at 40

Perhaps what is just as interesting as the detail of WW2 are the gaps and silences in our historical accounts.
October 31, 2013
On 31 October 1973, ITV started showing The World at War. Forty years on, it remains a landmark in historical programme-making. There is no better historical TV series. But perhaps what is just as interesting are the gaps and silences, which tell us so much about how differently we view the 20th century today.

In a talk about the making of the series, recorded in 1989, Jeremy Isaacs laid out the objectives of The World at War. First, to tell the story of World War II and the fighting, but also the social and political experience of the war; to tell the story of Britain’s war; to be aware of different audiences of very different ages; ‘to omit nothing of supreme consequence’; and to help us understand the times in which we live. ‘Old men forget,’ said Isaacs, ‘particularly when it hurts to remember.’ As Isaacs spoke, in short, sharp, punchy sentences you could tell at once that his was the voice behind the series.

Isaacs acknowledged that there were significant problems and omissions. Many vital witnesses had already died. Above all, there were inevitable absences: Yugoslavia, the Arctic convoys, Gypsies, Poland, resistance in Europe, sea battles. Sometimes the problem was the lack of archive film. Sometimes, it was the difficulty in finding relevant witnesses. And sometimes, hard choices had to be made.

The style is so different from much of today’s historical programming. Namely, there was no presenter. The great historical documentaries of the 1960s and ‘70s consisted of archive and interview illuminated by commentary. No Paxman and Marr, no Starkey or Schama. Secondly, no dramatic reconstructions (contrast, for example, with Laurencee Rees’s BBC series on Auschwitz). Thirdly, to learn the lessons from the BBC’s 1964 series, The Great War, made less than ten years before, which had been accused of misusing archive film. Is the archive film authentic? How has it been edited and constructed? ‘More honest,’ said Isaacs, ‘are the cameraman’s rushes.’ Some of the most astonishing sequences in The World at War are mute sequences, shot for the newsreel but not yet edited, with no music or commentary, such as a village being ‘cleansed’ on the Eastern Front in the final episode, produced by Isaacs himself.

The quality of the film research is astonishing, from the home movie footage of Hitler at Berchtesgaden in the opening episode of the programme on Stalingrad, which consists entirely of archive and maps, no interviews, nothing specially shot. There are unforgettable images of Nazi atrocities on the Eastern Front. And in every episode there is footage of dead bodies: from Dunkirk to Iwo Jima, from the Eastern Front to North Africa. This is not just military history. This is a deeply humane series, which insisted, from the famous opening sequence of the uninhabited remains of Oradour-sur-Glane, where the Waffen-SS massacred all 642 inhabitants on 10 June 1944 (‘Down this road... the soldiers came’), that war is always about brutality, devastation and loss. From beginning to end, The World at War reminds us that The Second World War meant loss on an unbelievable scale. It never flinched from showing us the bodies.

John Rowe, Raye Farr and Michael Fox found the archive film, scouring archives on both sides of the Atlantic. But then, directors and film editors created remarkable sequences with the archive film. I have already mentioned Jeremy Isaacs’ use of footage from the Eastern Front of an unnamed village being ‘cleansed’, with no music, no words, just mute, perhaps the most haunting sequence in the 26-part series. Compare this with Peter Batty’s sequence in Barbarossa, in which he and his editor cut footage of Siberian forces coming through the snow at tremendous speed, to contrast their energy and power with the German forces, bogged down in snow and mud, and then haunting shots of corpses hanging from trees and gallows, to illustrate the horrors of the Nazi occupation of Ukraine and Belarus. The power of these sequences was all achieved through editing. Batty was one of the unsung heroes of The World at War. The opening four episodes feel low-key, a little parochial, and are largely set on the Western Front. Then come episodes 5-7, introducing the other big players: the Soviet Union, Japan and the USA, all directed by Batty. He filmed some memorable specially-shot sequences of Ukrainian wheatfields and the Ardennes, and used contemporary music superbly to create sequences about industrial production which might otherwise have felt slow and uninteresting.

It is easy to think of The World at War as a single entity. What is striking, forty years on, is its diversity. Batty directed six programmes, one quarter of the series. His style could hardly be more different from David Elstein’s stories of high politics and decision making, intercutting interviews with Lord Boothby, RA Butler and John Colville to tell the story of the fall of Chamberlain in episode two, or the decision to drop the bomb on Hiroshima. Then there is a very different kind of film-making by Martin Smith, using Soviet poems to bring the Eastern Front to life in episode eleven, Red Star, or Jeremy Isaacs’ concluding film Remember, a stunning meditation on memory and loss. Hugh Raggett’s episode on Stalingrad had no interviewees. Michael Darlow’s famous film, ‘Genocide’- which introduced countless Britons in the 1970s to the story of the Holocaust- included unforgettable personal testimony from survivors. The programme concludes with the words of an Hungarian Jew, Dov Paisikowic: ‘I had a belt, with a plate, a spoon and revolver. This was all my property after the liberation.’

The series researchers made extraordinary efforts to find what Isaacs called ‘lower-rank’ witnesses. This was not just a war as seen only by the top brass. There were plenty of these: Mountbatten, Eden and Boothby, Curtis LeMay and ‘Bomber’ Harris, Admiral Doenitz and Speer. But there were also aides to Roosevelt and Truman, Eisenhower’s driver and the Chief Met Officer who brought Allied leaders the weather forecasts around D-Day, Hitler’s typist and Himmler’s adjutant who stood next to the SS head at the shootings at Minsk. We hear from James Stewart, not as a Hollywood actor but as an American airman; and from Primo Levi, not as a famous writer, but as a prisoner at Auschwitz. There is something tremendously democratic about the series though its omissions – no Poles, no Yugoslavs, no Partisans – are telling.

This was classic TV narrative history; there were complicated issues to weigh up. Was Bomber Command right to bomb German cities like Hamburg and Dresden? Was it justifiable to drop the atomic bomb? How could the Western Allies hand over east Europe to Stalin? ‘We made up our minds what we believed and we gave you that,’ said Isaacs. There were two thousand words of narration in each episode. Some programmes, like David Elstein’s The Bomb, about the decision to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, are masterly accounts of political decision-making.

And everywhere there are astonishing statistics: 12 million people on the road during the Fall of France in 1940. Fighter Command lost half its strength in the 1940 French campaign. German fighters only had enough fuel to fight for half an hour over south-east Britain. 3% of Soviet POWs returned alive. Mountbatten described his area of command in south-east Asia in 1945: 6,000 miles as far as from London to Bombay, 128 million starving, rebellious people, 123,000 POWs, 700,000 Japanese POWs, some of whom had to be used as police because there was no other source of law and order.

There is, however, one major criticism that should be leveled against The World at War. Made in the early 1970s, it focused too much on the Western Front, inevitably for a British television audience. The Soviet Union barely appears before episode five. East Europe didn't matter much then. There are passing references to Yugoslavia and the Balkans, the Baltic Republics, even Poland. The invasion of Poland is dealt with in six minutes. The Soviet invasion of east Poland in 1939 doesn't even last a minute. As for the Soviet Union, the Thirties barely feature. The Famine in the Ukraine is hardly mentioned; nor Belarus and the Ukraine. When a country had to be chosen to represent the dilemmas of occupation, Holland was chosen. Michael Darlow’s film is fascinating but Holland was hardly representative. There were two European wars, fought by completely different rules. The Eastern Front was not just a different military campaign, fought on a massive scale, with the mass murder of civilians and POWs (blink and you will miss the figures). The Soviet Union is still presented in an almost heroic light. Stalin’s security policy barely features, and there are few references to the purges or the Terror of the Thirties. It is as if the Soviet Union pre-1939 hardly existed.

This epitomizes British thinking about east Europe in the 1970s: Little-known, far away countries. Their suffering during the war, and after, was barely understood. We shouldn’t rush to condemn. Next year begin the First World War centenary programmes. How much will focus on the Eastern Front? Jeremy Paxman’s latest book of his BBC series is called Great Britain’s Great War. Parochialism remains the greatest enemy of the TV historian.

Nothing we see over the coming few years about the First World War will match the ambition, the humanity or the rigour of The World at War. It was a great achievement and is still watched around the world today, forty years on.