Top 10: Documentaries

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Alex Kershaw
January 31, 2024

Other than the first on the list that follows, there is no ranking by quality. This is simply a list of suggested documentaries that I think are well worth watching. I’ve given a short description of why I like them and how to watch them. I’ve devoted more detail as to why my favorite, The World at War, is the finest and most unmissable.

1] The World at War (1973)

The gold standard. Superlative. Never to be surpassed. Some of my fondest, earliest memories are of watching this utterly masterful series, 26 episodes long, with my father in 1970s Britain – a rather drab, deeply nostalgic country with only three television channels. There were still bomb-sites in East London, visible scars from a war that was still fresh in the minds and souls of so many. From the very opening scenes, I was transfixed, as were millions of my fellow countrymen. The narration by the truly great Sir Laurence Olivier, the doom-laden score by Carl Davis, the lyrical yet crisp writing by Neal Ascherson and others, the extraordinary archive footage: the list of reasons why so many of us become so addicted is indeed lengthy.

Created by Sir Jeremy Isaacs, The World at War took four years to produce and was the most expensive documentary series ever made. It was worth every penny. For those who know a fair bit about WWII, it still comes as a delightful shock to actually see interviews with Mark Clark, Albert Speer, Kay Summersby, Walter Warlimont, Kenneth Strong….and so, so many others. There have been many discoveries in archives since the series aired in 1974 in the US, but watching as some of the major players, members of Hitler’s inner circle, and so many veterans describe events with clarity and often profound yet controlled emotion is utterly priceless.

You can watch every episode here.

2] The Nazis: A Warning from History (1997)

A suitably chilling account of the Nazis’ rise to power with disturbing echoes for today, written by Laurence Rees with masterful insight.

(Amazon Prime)

3] Shoah (1985)

The classic series on the Holocaust, directed by Claude Lanzmann, more than nine hours long and more than a decade in the making. No archive footage – just amazing testimony from witnesses, including perpetrators.

(Youtube primetime subscription, Hulu premium subscription)

4] Triumph of the Will (1935)

Leni Riefenstahl’s unsettling masterpiece of propaganda - an account of the Nazi party’s 1934 rally in Nuremberg – is an impressive piece of film-making, innovative and spectacular, and a must-see for those wanting to watch Nazism in all its revolting, terrifying, insane pageantry.

(Apple TV)

5] World War II in Color (2009)

Relying on unseen footage and lovingly assembled with impressive, state-of-the-art production techniques, this thirteen-part series, narrated by Robert Powell, more than stands the test of time.

(Amazon Prime Video)

6] The Cold Blue (2018)

For those currently bingeing on Masters of the Air, this haunting film by Erik Nelson is unmissable, a gripping, awe-inspiring condensation of over 90 hours of original footage gathered by the great William Wyler for his 1944 film about the Memphis Belle. It includes simply stunning, color film of the war in the air as it really happened.


(Youtube prime subscription, Hulu)

7] The War (2007)

Not the best of Ken Burns, but pretty darn good, recounting the war from the highly personal point of view of men and women from four American towns. The War is often deeply moving and intimate but perhaps too insular for those wanting to understand the global conflict from a more international, strategic and tactical perspective.

(Youtube subscription, Amazon prime)

8] Battlefield (beginning in 1995)

A thorough, always compelling look at the major battles of WWII. This is very much for military buffs wanting an in-depth look at how the war was fought. Perfect for insomniacs with 42 episodes over 6 seasons.


9) Why We Fight (1942-1945)

Seven propaganda films produced by the US Department of War from 1942-1945. Directed by the legendary Frank Capra and Anatole Litvak, the series posits WWII as a just crusade, pitting the forces of good against evil, and remains an important historical record.


10) Victory at Sea (1952-53)

26 episodes devoted to naval combat, often seen as a fitting companion to The World at War, with wonderful music, incisive narration and stunning, sometimes stomach-churning footage.

(Amazon prime video)