This means that for a UK audience the content is different from what we have seen before. It was Dominic Sandbrook who wrote not too long ago that “the military history of WWII has become overwhelmingly and exhaustingly all too familiar.”
The framing is methodical: a countdown to January 28, 1945. At the end of this first episode, there were still 66 days before the end of the war. We were taken through the military maneuvers and Hitler lost his grip, but we also got a glimpse into the lives of civilians.
Even with only 100 days to go, ordinary Germans were largely ignorant of what was going on, thanks to the Third Reich’s propaganda machine. “The population is not yet aware of the strength of the advancing troops,” reads a military report. A young man serving in the Luftwaffe had to know more, but he wrote to his wife nonetheless: “I am consumed with joy and tears fill my eyes with gratitude for having our Führer, who lifts us so high- above all.
Of course, this can only be a partial history, compressed into three hours. But, as with the best history books, events were brought to life through the inclusion of individual stories. For example: we learned that an American air assault on Berlin in February 1945 killed Roland Freisler, a “fanatic” Nazi judge who had sent 2,600 people to their deaths, including 21-year-old resistance fighter Sophie Scholl.
The program was as impartial as it gets, both reporting the bombing of Dresden and the brutality of the Red Army. One historian has suggested that Russian peasant soldiers were motivated by fury that Germany was a country of relative comfort. “They have china and curtains… what do they want from us in the name of God?” Wrote a soldier.
There was a bit of trouble: a repeat of the anecdote written by Field Marshal Alanbrooke in his diaries that Churchill urinated on the Siegfried Line. But in a television landscape where so many historical documentaries make headlines, the series felt like serious work. This continues tonight and tomorrow.