For the past month I’ve been eagerly awaiting the premier of “The World Wars” on History Channel. In addition to being thrilled that there would be a history based program on the channel again (I miss you, Wild West Tech), I thought what a great feature to air for Memorial Day. In recent years it’s become clear that history isn’t quite as important to youth as it once was. Proven true by the vast amount of people who watched “Killing Kennedy” and tweeted their amazement at how much footage existed of President Kennedy in private… that’s Rob Lowe playing Kennedy. I’m legitimately concerned for the generation coming up behind mine.
This docu-series focused on the men who came of age during World War I and went on to fight and navigate World War II. The content is made up of dramatic reenactments, pictures, actual footage, and interviews with historians, politicians who have been involved with war, and retired military. The program begins in the German trenches during WWI, in the midst of the fighting a can of mustard gas comes flying into the trench prompting all soldiers to rush for their gasmasks. There’s one young man who can’t get his mask to seal for the interference of his creeping mustache. He screams that he can’t get the mask to work properly and ultimately ends up holding his breath, desperately pressing up against the dirt wall in the hopes of surviving the attack. Some how he does, later adjourning to the latrine he takes out a mirror and knife to see to the removal of the edges of his mustache. Suddenly it becomes clear, this young German soldier is Hitler.
Right off the bat the image of Hitler is different from most all documentaries that have come before. We don’t come to the table with the madman screaming and shouting in front of a fleet of microphones. Instead we see Adolf Hitler pre-notorious title, instead we see the whiny, hipster, art-school reject that he was. As the narrator summarized the dictator’s youth one couldn’t help but notice how similar the story resembled that of the mass shooters we see in the news so often now. There’s a very clear difference between the strong leaders who overcame their hardships (FDR) and the leaders who were megalomaniacal egotists.
The program also follows young Winston Churchill, General Patton, Douglas MacArthur, FDR, and Stalin. Some things we already knew were confirmed, Patton and MacArthur are badass soldiers who got things done. FDR and Churchill were both strong leaders who tried to do best by their countries. I’m not a big FDR fan but this combined with a few other things I’ve seen on him recently certainly leaves me with more respect than I had prior. Although that wavered slightly when he pulled Patton out of battle for slapping a shell-shocked officer. The main interest I took away from the program was Churchill, whom I realized I did not know much about outside of his work as Prime Minister during WWII.
Per usual there are people who don’t care for the program, but with all documentaries there should be a grain of salt taken with viewing. The show isn’t being made for historians who know this material forwards and backwards. You’ve got three episodes, each running just shy of an hour and a half, because let’s face it History Channel has episodes of “Pawn Stars” and “American Pickers” to get back to. In that time they’re trying to cover the span of two wars. Many commented on the lack of Holocaust coverage, to which I would say I can point you towards at least ten documentaries focusing just on the Holocaust for those interested in learning more. There was a lack of coverage on the victims of the wars, but that’s because they were not the topic, the men behind the scenes and commanding the battlefields were.
It’s an engaging documentary that will provide a starting foundation of information to those who aren’t coming to the table with a lot of prior knowledge. The best thing to come of this is the engagement of young people, a spark of interest can end up going a long way. The World Wars hash tag on Twitter was full of teenagers marveling at things they didn’t know before. Isn’t it a great thing if something catches a viewers attention and leads them to further education on the topic? I myself walked away with three books on Churchill to read.
There has been a fair amount of bashing in the other reviews I’ve seen for “The World Wars.” Most of which then prompt comments from people saying that they aren’t going to bother. Don’t base your decision on what someone else says, if you’re interested in watching then do so, see what you can get out of it on your own. Personally I thought it was well worth the time and quite nice to see what strong American leaders once looked like.