The Best World War II Documentaries

Unidentified re-enactors dressed as World War II German soldiers
bruev / Getty Images

Thanks to the valiant efforts of television producers the world over (and a few cable channels), you don't have to learn about World War II through books and online searches. Instead, you can sit back and enjoy a documentary complete with genuine historical footage—an immersive experience of this fascinating period of human history.

01
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The World at War

"The World at War" is quite simply the best documentary ever made. Approximately 32 hours long, packed with interviews from the men and women involved, conveyed entirely through real footage, and boasting a script free of chauvinism, this clinical survey of the entire Second World War is mandatory viewing for anyone claiming an interest in the topic. Students may wish to focus their viewing on key episodes, but others will want to see the whole series.

02
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Battlefield

"Battlefield" is a PBS series that breaks down key battles of the Second World War and, although some prior knowledge is required to add context, the documentaries are very educational. Film footage is used as support throughout. Some episodes are available to buy individually.

03
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World War II: The Lost Color Archives

The attraction of this DVD is simple: it's WWII in color. As brilliant as "The World at War" is, many people want something more vivid and immediate than black and white footage; "The Lost Color Archives" fills that gap with ease. There is footage from both Europe and the Pacific, but little from Africa and Western Front fanatics might be disappointed. That said, this is two DVDs' worth of film and the scenes from Nazi-occupied regions are deeply affecting.

04
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Blood Upon the Snow: Russia's War

This 10-hour documentary covers a longer period than the war, focusing on Stalin’s regime, including the purges and the five-year plan, and so explains how the nation that was able to defeat Hitler was bloodily forged. There are some questionable decisions which might put you off, but otherwise, it’s very good.

05
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Triumph of the Will

The single greatest propaganda film ever made, Leni Riefenstahl's account of the 1934 Nuremberg Rally is a masterpiece that contributed to the seductive and powerful image of Nazism. As such, it should be required watching for students of film, politics, and world war alike, offering deep insight into Nazi culture and control, as well as answering a key question about art: it is not apolitical. Through this film, you can begin to understand how fascism came to grip Germany.

06
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The War

While this film has received great praise, its focus on just the American experience is a problem when it comes to the European theatre, where what’s needed is a greater global understanding of the decisive Eastern Front struggle. As such, "The War" is excellent on the American involvement, but not, as filmmaker Ken Burns is the first to admit, a complete history.

07
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World War II: Behind Closed Doors

This excellent BBC documentary looks at the politics behind the war, in particular how the rulers of Britain, Russia, and the United States—Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin—interacted with each other. It was not a smooth relationship, and there was plenty of misjudgment, but perhaps less from the always cynical Stalin.

08
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The Battle of San Pietro

During the Allied invasion of Italy, film director John Huston and his unit were sent to record a documentary by the U.S. military. The idea was that filming real battles would help train soldiers for the reality of war. Unfortunately for all parties involved, the reality was deemed too brutal to show soldiers, and the film was temporarily shelved. Now, we can all see "The Battle of San Pietro," and, although some scenes were re-staged afterward, it's still quality material.

09
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Death on the Eastern Front

This is actually a collection of three documentaries, all looking at the crucial Russian front and experience. Now, there’s nothing wrong with "The World at War," but "Death on the Eastern Front" is how modern documentaries are made. It is Russia-centric, but most World War II documentaries could benefit from a stronger focus on Russia anyway.

10
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WWII in Color

Color footage of the Second World War is a rapidly growing market. This DVD stands out over the many others because it focuses on U.S. involvement. It's the perfect followup for viewers who enjoyed "World War II: The Lost Color Archives."

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Russian Front

Written and presented by John Erickson, author of two key texts on the Eastern Front, this documentary is told in four parts. Alongside the incisive commentary, you'll find maps and archive footage—some allegedly never seen before. However, the content is flawed and Erickson presents a potentially misleading account of the Russian forces, whose atrocities are overlooked.

12
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Why We Fight: The Complete Series

Many are quick to dismiss this as the mid-war propaganda it clearly is, but they're missing the point. The "Why We Fight" series was made in 1943 and shown to the U.S. public as an explanation of why their support was so vital to the war. It isn't an accurate picture of what was happening, but it's a good example of the documentaries that were being made and shown at the time. This set contains all seven films.

13
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World War II Battle Force: Panzer

Following the development of tanks and tank warfare across the Second World War, the producers have made use of archived film, maps, diagrams, and other materials to provide a solid visual guide. Despite the title, this isn't just about German Panzers but all tanks, although the Eastern Front—home of the largest WWII tank battle—deservedly dominates.

14
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World War II: The British Movietone Newsreel Years

Who doesn’t want to learn about the Second World War through contemporary British news footage? Well, probably a few people, but there’s a great hunger for classically styled footage and there’s a lot of it in this selection, shown during the war in cinemas.