Monday, March 5, 2012

The World At War

I've been watching again the massive BBC Second World War documentary, The World At War (1974). A huge historical undertaking, the series was commissioned in the late '60s for TV and features 26 hour-long episodes plus half again as many related documentaries and special features.

It's quite too much to review like a movie, but a number of impressions stand out for me: these events, the fact of the war, what brought it on and how it unfolded; this is all a story so grand and terrible and glorious as to captivate me beyond any other story in life. The endless shades between absolute good and absolute evil, the terrible consequences riding on so many decisions (and the heartrending loss of life to dead-end decisions and bungling), the sickening baseness and heart-stopping courage and bravery, all demonstrate the full range of at least one part of the human experience.

Many times I've said that Hitler is the most fascinating of stories to me, and so he remains in this series. Outwardly very ordinary, there is something fantastically lurid in the heroic mythology that was constructed around him and in the diabolical and megalomaniacal character that lived inside such a mundane wrapper. And that this could all unfold to such a dark and unforgiveable place in such a civilized and educated part of the world is--it must be said--a truth stranger than fiction.

Naturally, I have a special interest in America's entry into the fracas. There really is a sense (despite plenty of evidence of darkness) of a fairly innocent country sending its troops and materiel to aid in the plights of others that is remarkable and moving. To see the US and Britain ramping their manufacturing up to and beyond maximum capacity and see the massive output of planes and ships and tanks and arms and everything else is to witness the rarity of whole societies pulling together for a common goal--something not often seen, and something far removed from today's world.

What must it have been like to be in a group of 156,000 men making a mass invasion of France? I imagine Eisenhower and his group assigning various tasks to this and that division or corps, knowing that the first wave would take very high casualties. How to reconcile yourself to looking at individuals as a statistic, knowing that with 70% casualties we'll need to throw, say, 11,000 men at this particular problem? And what was it like to walk among those men before the invasion began, knowing that many of them would have to die or be horribly maimed for life? And what other choice was there except to let Hitler keep killing and destroying? There are few things in our lives that play out with these consequences.

Thinking about the gigantic D-Day invasion, there's such a sense of the extraordinary difficulty of the task and of the huge resources marshaled to make it happen. I love that artificial harbors were conceived and built (knowing that no natural harbors would be available until they were conquered--and then rebuilt), plus all the tons and tons of stuff needed to make them function. When horrible weather heavily damaged the harbors shortly after the invasion--threatening the entire mission--additional resources were marshaled to quickly repair the damage and get the invasion back under way. And there are a zillion such stories, all a scale that's almost unimaginable now. This "can-do" sense in horrid conditions is inspiring.

What was it like to have your whole country conquered, overrun by brutality and murder and torture? If you collaborated, you may survive, but at the cost of sending others to the camps and to death. If you resisted, you would surely be tortured and killed if caught. At the war's end, survivors had to answer for what they had done. What a horrible calculus.

The scenes of some of these occupied countries as they are being liberated by the Allies bring quite a lump to the throat. What a deliverance! To have been under such a yoke as the Nazis imposed--the total destruction of personal liberty to be replaced by a brutal simulacrum of civilization--and to see soldiers from foreign nations who have come at unbelievable expense and with the highest sacrifice to give you your humanity back; well, it just doesn't get more moving than this.

In Mein Kampf, Hitler had written "Even if we cannot conquer, we shall drag the world into destruction with us." Fascinating to see how German citizens swung from euphoria at the Wehrmacht's long string of victories at the war's beginning to despair and shame as their fortunes turned. The bombing of cities and civilians is only what Hitler himself unleashed against everyone else; there was no grounds for objecting to the Allies' annihilation of everything they encountered. In so many scenes as the war turned against the Germans one sees this realization in their eyes: we have earned any brutality that awaits us; we have no foothold to ask for humane treatment or clemency.

The series covers the war in the Pacific as well, though I've always had a harder time sinking my teeth into this part of the conflict. The settings are so foreign and everything seems reduced simply to two warring bands, each trying to best the other. The comparative lack of political intrigue or close political alliance--to say nothing of cultural roots--just make this an ugly part of the war that had to be won with brute force.

The production is fine, though it has a made-for-TV aura about it. Laurence Olivier narrates throughout, and Carl Davis has written a memorable theme song. I do find myself a bit tweaked at the foley work. In all the vast footage from the war, sound effects have been dubbed in to everything: horse hooves on cobbles, men traipsing through muck, motorized vehicles, the sound of guns and artillery, everything. And once it becomes clear that none of it is authentic to the footage being watched, I couldn't stop thinking about how contrived it sounded. Better than silence, I suppose, or, worse yet, than "mood music."

But I'd still recommend it to anyone with even a remote interest.


Vancouver Voyeur said...

I use short clips from various parts of this series for my history classes. It is an astounding event in history, the scale of it is amazing. What fascinates me most about this event, is how little we understand its full breadth. You have to remember, the Nazis did not conquer and rule in a vacuum, they had help. They had people of like-mindedness. If you look at the racism and Social Darwinism in Europe (and around the world) at the time, you can understand why there were so many genocides across Europe during this war. It wasn't just the Nazis killing. When the Nazis go into Yugoslavia and want their Jews, they say, sure, we'll give you the Jews if you help use get the Serbs. When the Nazis collaborate with the Russians and they say, we want your Jews, they Russians say, sure, let's also get the Ukrainians while we're at it. This happened on some scale in every country the Nazis went in. There was always some group that was targeted for elimination in addition to the Jews. Oops, just saw the time, gotta run, otherwise I'd ramble on for quite some time on this topic.

wunelle said...

You can ramble on with this topic to your heart's content!

I haven't noted that specifically, but it all rings true when you say it. The Nazis seemed willing to make any deal with people for immediate political expediency, and then were happy to renege on their promises when it suited them.

I'm mesmerized by the whole thing, the old newsreel footage, the grand sweep of it all. I think of Patton (in the movie) looking around a battlefield strewn with death and wreckage and saying "God help me but I do love it so!" That would go away in a hurry if I were facing hostile fire I'm sure--I have no bravery to speak of--but in the abstract I'm amazed at it.

payingattention said...

Sounds like a potential gift for my dad, who liked to watch the WWII programs when I was growing up. Victory at Sea comes to mind. He probably also watched this - on PBS, no doubt.