"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 thousands upon thousands of other martyrdoms in Poland, in Russia, in Burma, China, in a world at war."
– Sir Laurence Olivier reading the opening lines to "The World at War," 1973
World War II officially ended on September 2, 1945, almost 72 years ago. Anyone officially old enough to fight in that year would be ninety years old now. In context, when I was a child in the 1980's, there were still thousands of World War I veterans still alive, but they were in their 90's. Now, the experience of fighting in that First World War has passed from living memory. The 1980's don't seem that long ago.
Fortunately, there are many excellent chronicles of the time in the last century when we faced, and overcame, the greatest threat to human civilization since the Black Plague. Standing tall among the many excellent documentaries on the subject is the epic "The World at War," which first aired on ITV in the United Kingdom in 1973 and 1974, and eventually syndicated on PBS during the 1980's.
The World at War is special for a number of reasons, and not just because it is one of the most acclaimed series in television history. It is narrated by the great Sir Laurence Olivier, commonly regarded as the finest actor of his generation. It was made at a time when many persons with important first-hand knowledge of the War were still alive, such as Winston Churchill's personal secretary.
Most importantly, the documentary never loses sight of the human toll of the War. It successfully avoids the shallow, rah-rah heroism so often seen in films about the War, especially in the 50's and 60's. The War was a fight against evil, there's no denying that, but it's nothing to be celebrated.
The World at War is rightfully acclaimed, but it has its ups and downs too. The Burma episode feels like it goes on forever and the series itself focuses more heavily on the European War than the Pacific. Even so, the highlights greatly outnumber the missteps. The episode about The Battle of Britain is simply titled, and described, as "Alone." The episode about Stalingrad contains no battle footage, but it doesn't need any. The episode on the Holocaust is one of the most awarded episodes of television ever broadcast. The final episode ties everything up masterfully, with Olivier's voiceover hauntingly asking us to remember.
The twenty-six episode series is available from a couple of different sources, and well worth your time. Evil, after all, never really goes away, and destroying it is a ghastly affair. By remembering the War, it underlines the importance of stopping evil before it gains power. Learning this lesson is the best way to honor those who were lost.
(C) 2017 D.G. McCabe