Reflections on ‘The World At War’

DANIEL ADAMSON

I was recently intrigued to find a repeat of the 1973 documentary The World at War buried in the depths of Freeview television. Across 26 hour-long episodes, this series chronicled the course of the Second World War and charted the key experiences of the conflict.

Figure 1. Opening titles to The World at War (1973).

The reputation of The World at War preceded the programme: in 2000, the British Film Institute placed it amongst the 100 Greatest British Television Programmes. However, it was with some apprehension that I embarked upon viewing the series. It is not uncommon for televisual output to have aged in an unfortunate manner. But within the space of a few episodes, my fears had been allayed. The documentary’s potent combination of nuance, factuality, and sensitivity left me with few doubts that the series was deserving of its vaunted position in the pantheon of British television. Even in the twenty first century, The World at War possesses significant gravity as both an educational tool and a work of entertainment. 

Background and format

The World at War was commissioned by Thames Television in 1969 and screened four years later, in an era of growing public appetite for weighty documentary output. In 1964, the BBC produced the 26-episode The Great War, whilst Kenneth Clark’s acclaimed Civilisation debuted in 1969. Despite the Herculean scope of its remit, The World at War benefited from close collaboration with the Imperial War Museum and a budget of nearly £12 million in modern currency, which made it  the most expensive British series ever produced at this time.

Narrated by the revered thespian Sir Laurence Olivier, The World at War followed a distinctive template. Archive footage and illustrative graphics were interspersed with first-hand accounts of the Second World War from nearly 400 interviewees. To a modern viewer such as myself, the impact of The World at War on contemporary documentary-making – inadvertent or not – was striking. The style of American filmmaker Ken Burns, in particular, displays clear parallels with that characteristic of The World at War. One cannot help but feel that The World at War is underpinned by a desire for true authenticity.

Figure 2. Sir Laurence Olivier narrates The World at War (1973).
A holistic outlook on the Second World War

In historical terms, The World at War draws much of its strength from its efforts to create a holistic impression of the conflict addressed. Despite being a British production, the series avoids any sense of Eurocentrism, and instead presents a genuinely international outlook. ‘Episode 6 – Banzai!: Japan (1931-1942)’, ‘Episode 8 – The Desert: North Africa (1940-1943)’, and ‘Episode 14 – It’s a Lovely Day Tomorrow: Burma (1942–1944)’ provide just a few examples of how the series touches upon all four corners of the globe. As such, there is a prevention of a parochial interpretation of the conflict, which might otherwise be evidenced by the ongoing fascination of the British pubic with the Home Front and the ‘Blitz Spirit’. Moreover, The World at War does not concern itself solely with the hallmark actions of the Second World War. For a series shown in 1973, it is remarkable how the programme addresses issues which – to date – have still not received mainstream historical attention. 

‘Episode 18 – Occupation: Holland (1940-1944)’ provides a case in point. The ambiguous experiences of the Netherlands under German occupation are explored on multiple level, even though public appreciation of the competing resistance, passivity and collaboration of the Dutch people in wartime is still not necessarily widespread today. Nor does The World at War confine itself to the parameters of 1939 to 1945. ‘Episode 1 – A New Germany (1933-1939)’ provides essential background context, whilst ‘Episode 25 – Reckoning (April 1945)’ demonstrates conclusively how issues in Europe were far from resolved by the ending of formal conflict.

Figure 3. George Harding, Over The Top ( US Army Art Collection).

It is also difficult to underestimate the significance of The World at War in methodological terms. The programme functions both as a public educational tool, and as a receptacle of primary source material. The oral testimonies that form the basis of each episode build an invaluable repository of first-hand accounts of the war. In the process of creating a television series, the production team behind The World at War created a historical catalogue for posterity. 

The holistic geographical approach of The World at War is mirrored in its wide-ranging selection of interviewees. Creator Jeremy Isaacs was determined to feature input from all aspects of society, rather than just established figures. As such, each episode typically featured interviews with civilians, members of the military, and politicians alike. The series is not simply a military account, but also considers wider social, political, and cultural issues. Crucially, therefore, the viewer is therefore left with a holistic impression of the experiences – not just the events – of the Second World War. 

Certainly, The World at War is far from flawless in a modern context. Unavoidably, it is a product of its time. The programme’s graphics appear outdated to twenty-first century eyes. At times, there is a detectable sense of jingoistic narrative, with the ‘plucky’ British pitted against a mechanical foe. Equally, given the continued growth of gender history, it now appears notable that the series focuses primarily on male experiences of the conflict. 

Nevertheless, in several other ways, The World at War seems ahead of its time. The nuance and accessibility with which numerous complex topics are tackled is impressive. Particularly striking is the way in which the final installment, ‘Episode 26 – ‘Remember”, considers the distortion of memory and the impact of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), long before such conversations became mainstream. 

Episode 20 – Genocide (1941-1945)’: a landmark in Holocaust consciousness

As a Holocaust researcher, ‘Episode 20 – Genocide (1941-1945)’ was of particular interest. I was met with a surprisingly lucid interpretation of the extreme complexity of the Holocaust. In the past decade or so, evidence-based research has pointed towards the need to equip school students with an understanding that the Holocaust was not a self-contained episode. Yet, The World at War also had the awareness to point out that antisemitism had a long history, and one common to the whole of Europe, not just Germany. In 1973, ‘Genocide’ complexified the Holocaust long before it was educational de rigeur.

The World at War also stresses that individual responsibility for the Holocaust, attributed to the likes of SS leader Heinrich Himmler, is only part of the story. ‘Genocide’ touches on the tricky issue of collective responsibility, alongside murky concepts such as ‘bystanders’. The details on hand are harrowing. SS lance-corporal, Richard Boch, recalls in an interview how he witnessed pyramids of corpses in an Auschwitz gas chamber. 

Figure 4. Auschwitz, Poland.

By avoiding the sense that the Holocaust was simply inexplicable, ‘Genocide’ also performs a valuable social function. Implicitly, it encourages viewers to reflect on the conditions that might still allow a similar atrocity to occur again. 

The content of ‘Genocide’ is significant. But it is the context of the episode itself that is arguably of greatest importance. ‘Genocide’ represented a milestone in public consciousness of the Holocaust. The idea of post-war ‘silence’ regarding the Holocaust has since received challenge.[1] However, by 1973, the details of the Holocaust were still not well-known.[2]The war crimes trial of Adolf Eichmann in 1961 had raised the profile of the genocide, but The World at War was still amongst the first primetime television considerations of the Holocaust. The frankness with which the Holocaust is related is equally impressive, given the contemporary momentum of television censorship campaigns led by individuals such as Mary Whitehouse

The World at War was watched by an average weekly audience of ten million UK viewers. The series therefore brought historical knowledge to a large portion of the population. Andy Pearce, a leading authority of British Holocaust memory, has identified ‘Genocide’ as ‘one of the major events in the history of British Holocaust consciousness’, and noted the ground-breaking way it focussed on ‘the Jewish experience’ and employed a new ‘representational approach’.[3] James Jordan’s analysis of BBC programming between 1955 and 1978 has suggested that the Holocaust, despite being a ‘regular presence on British television’, was previously only dealt with in tangential ways.[4]

An example to others?
Figure 5. Holocaust Memorial, Hyde Park

Nearly four decades after its original transmission in 1973, The World at War remains a masterful piece of televisual work. It provides a nuanced assessment of the Second World War, and draws together a staggering range of source material: all in a time when technological resources were limited. The programme had a profound impact on public historical consciousness, and itself functions as an indispensable archive of primary evidence. Television, clearly, has long been a powerful vehicle of cultural understanding. 

The series further provides a strong argument against a teleological view of documentary-making: that ‘newer’ necessarily means ‘better’. Manifestly, accessibility need not come at the expense of intelligent output. 

In many ways, The World at War was prescient. ‘Genocide’, for example, encourages a meaningful reflection on how exactly Britain responded to the Holocaust. In 2021, the need for national self-reflection and challenging of entrenched national myths has arguably never been more pressing. Finally, special mention must go to Carl Davis’ iconic theme music. The ominous orchestration ingeniously captures the horror, dynamism, and sorrow of the Second World War itself.

Daniel Adamson is a PhD student in the Department of History at Durham University. His research centres on educational portrayals of the relationship between Britain and the Holocaust. He can be found on Twitter as @DanielEAdamson.


[1] Sharples, Caroline, and Olaf Jensen. Britain and the Holocaust : Remembering and Representing War and Genocide. (2013)., p.54.

[2] Lawson, Tom. Debates on the Holocaust. (Manchester University Press, 2010), p.17.

[3] Pearce, Andy. Holocaust Consciousness in Contemporary Britain. (2014)., p.30.

[4] Quoted., Pearce, Andy. Holocaust Consciousness in Contemporary Britain. (2014)., p.167.


Cover image and Figure 3. George Harding, ‘Over the Top’, (US Army Art Collection, Catalogue Number: 11.1.84). Available in the Public Domain.

Figure 1. Video still of The World at War (1973) opening titles. Available via Creative Commons License. Suggested by the author.

Figure 2. Sir Laurence Olivier narrates The World at War (1973). Available in the Public Domain.

Figure 4. Image of Auschwitz, Poland. Available in the Public Domain.

Figure 5. Unknown photographer, Holocaust Memorial Garden, Hyde Park. Available in the Public Domain.

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