You can learn more about our review process here. Our editors independently research, test, and recommend the best products. If you click on our links and make a purchase, we may receive a commission.
Television producers around the world (and a few cable channels) have made it possible for you to learn about World War II without having to read books or search online. This fascinating period of history can be enjoyed with the help of one of these World War II documentaries, complete with authentic historical footage.
Table of Contents
The World at War
There is no doubt that The World at War is the best documentary ever made. There is no doubt that this clinical survey of the entire Second World War is a mandatory viewing for anyone claiming an interest in the topic; it is 32 hours long, packed with interviews with the men and women involved, conveyed entirely through real footage, and boasts a script free of chauvinism. Others will want to view the entire series, while students may want to focus on key episodes.
The Battlefield series on PBS explores key battles of the Second World War, and although some prior knowledge is required, the documentaries are very educational. Film footage is used throughout the film. There are some episodes that can be purchased separately.
World War II: The Lost Color Archives
It’s WWII in color, and that’s the appeal of this DVD. Although The World at War is brilliant, many people crave something more vivid and immediate than black and white footage; The Lost Color Archives fits the bill perfectly. It contains footage from Europe and the Pacific, but little from Africa, so Western Front fans may be disappointed. Although this is a two-DVD set, the scenes from Nazi-occupied areas are deeply moving.
Triumph of the Will
A masterpiece of propaganda, Leni Riefenstahl’s 1934 Nuremberg Rally account contributed to the seductive and powerful image of Nazism as a whole. It offers a deep insight into Nazi culture and control, as well as answering a key question about art: it is not apolitical. Students of film, politics, and world war should be required to watch it. Germany’s fascism can be understood through this film.
Its focus on only the American experience is a problem when it comes to the European theatre, where a more global understanding is needed of the decisive Eastern Front struggle. Therefore, The War provides a good overview of American involvement, but is not a complete history, as filmmaker Ken Burns readily admits.
World War II: Behind Closed Doors
BBC documentary examines the politics behind the war, particularly the interactions between Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin, the rulers of Britain, Russia, and the United States. There were plenty of misjudgments, but perhaps less from the always cynical Stalin.
WWII in Color
The market for color footage of the Second World War is growing rapidly. As a result of its focus on U.S. involvement, this DVD stands out among the many others. The Lost Color Archives is the perfect follow-up to World War II: The Lost Color Archives.
Why We Fight: The Complete Series
Often, this is dismissed as mid-war propaganda, but that misses the point. A series of films entitled Why We Fight was made in 1943 to explain to the American people why their support was so crucial to the war. Even though it isn’t an accurate representation of what was happening, it is a good example of the documentaries being made and shown at the time. Each of the seven films is included in this set.