The Best World War II Documentaries

Thanks to the valiant efforts of television producers the world over (and a few dubious cable channels), you don't have to learn about the past through books and online searches. Instead, you can sit back, relax and have your history accompanied by genuine footage from the time -- immerse yourself in this list of the best World War II documentaries you can buy.

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World at War: The Complete Set

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, narrated with suitable gravitas and boasting a script free of chauvinism, this clinical survey of the entire Second World War is mandatory for anyone claiming an above average interest in the topic. Students may wish to focus their viewing on key episodes, but others will watch it again and again.

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These documentaries break down key battles and areas of the Second World War and, although some prior knowledge is required to add context, they are very educational. Film footage is used as a support throughout. Some are available to buy individually.

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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 "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 2 DVDs worth of film and the scenes from Nazi-occupied regions are deeply affecting.

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Blood Upon the Snow - Russia's War

This ten-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.

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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 which partly forged 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 really can begin to understand why fascism gripped much of Germany.

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The War

While this has received great praise, choosing to 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 Ken Burns is the first to admit, a complete history.

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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 US -- Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin -- orbited each other. It was not a smooth relationship, and there was plenty of misjudgment, but perhaps less from the always cynical Stalin. It’s written and produced by Laurence Rees, and anything he’s involved in is worth watching.

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The Battle of San Pietro

During the Allied invasion of Italy, director John Huston and his unit were sent to record a documentary by the US military: film real battle to help train soldiers for the reality of war. Unfortunately for all parties involved, the 'reality' was too strong 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.

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Death on the Eastern Front

This is actually three documentaries across more discs, all looking at the crucial Russian front and experience. Now, there’s nothing wrong with "World at War", but "Death on the Eastern Front" is how modern documentaries are made. It is Russian-centric, but most documentaries need more Russia anyway.

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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 US involvement. We recommend "World War II: The Lost Color Archives" as a starting point for color and then this, but shop around for other material: there is something very bizarre about seeing Hitler dressed the same hue as a banana.

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Russian Front

Written and presented by John Erickson, author of two key texts on the Eastern Front, this documentary spans four videos with a program on each. Alongside the incisive commentary, you'll find maps, archive footage -- some allegedly not seen before -- and enjoy a great educational experience. However, the content is flawed and Erickson presents a potentially misleading account of the Russian forces, whose atrocities and dominion is overlooked.

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Why We Fight World War II -- 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 US 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 100% authentic example of documentaries made and shown at the time: keep the context in mind. This set contains all seven films and represents a better investment than purchasing each singly.

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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, examples from museums, maps, diagrams and more examples from museums 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 WW2 tank battle -- deservedly dominates. One of the Battle Force series of 6 -- a boxset is available.

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World War II -- The British Movietone Newsreel Years

Who doesn’t want to watch the Second World War as narrated by 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. It’s probably best to spread it out rather than binge watch, or you may develop a certain speech.