Or maybe it would be truer to say exactly a century ago, in 1914, at the beginning of the two world wars that in many ways were phases of the same conflict.
While the allies emerged militarily and politically victorious at the end of World War II, the artistic and spiritual traditions that had sustained Europe and its derivatives through all its previous trials and disasters were buried in the ruins. They were buried with the bodies in the cemeteries and unmarked graves, and under the shattered cities.
All that is left today is economics, "fun," and technology. Economics is the contemporary religion, entertainment venues our places of congregation, new gadgets our icons.
Such melancholy thoughts are my take-away from watching, over the course of half a year (with breaks between discs -- it would be unbearable otherwise) The World at War. By almost universal agreement, this series made by Thames TV and first broadcast in the U.K. in 1973-74 is the best documentary on World War II ever. Because it includes commentary from many who participated in the war, nothing like it can be produced again.
Interviewees, some still looking surprisingly young three decades after the war, include British, Americans, Germans, and Japanese. Some were simply survivors, others high-ranking officials. No one expresses much regret for their personal decisions and actions, although many deplore the events and carnage.
The very first scene in the first of the 26 episodes (as well as the final scene in the last) sets the tone. We see a ruined village, Oradour-sur-Glane in France, in which almost all the occupants were murdered by the SS. It has not been rebuilt, although signage and a memorial indicate the atrocity. No one lives there.
The long series has time to show the war in depth, including Europe, the Pacific and Far East (and such nearly forgotten campaigns as Burma, where British soldiers fought under the most harrowing conditions imaginable or unimaginable, recalled onscreen by veterans). Needless to say, much of the film is immensely painful viewing. The editing is relatively kind: unsparing in picturing the gore, but only quickly enough to make its impact before cutting away.
Some of the most moving and disturbing scenes are not overtly violent. We see the Germans separating the men and women in an occupied Russian town. The men are sent away, presumably for slave labor. There are pitiful last embraces. Husbands and wives must have known they would not see each other again in this world.
Sound effects have obviously been added to much of the footage. Few battlefield cameramen were accompanied by sound recordists. Some purists might object to this ex post facto application, but it adds to the realism and immediacy.
The voice-over is contributed by Laurence Oliver, with understated drama and an air of sadness held in check. Olivier was a superb voice actor, as in every other aspect of his art.
While the war fades in our time to a few trite images (Pearl Harbor, Normandy Invasion, Iwo Jima, Hiroshima, etc.), it is urgent to be reminded of how savage and encompassing it actually was. The World at War accomplishes that.
To have the grand scale of the war's madness and suffering brought home to us helps to explain, if not justify, why most of Europe has given up the defense of its heritage. It is natural to say, "Never again." But trying to abolish national borders, even inviting colonization by militant Islam, is the wrong way to insure peace. Pretending there are no longer differences among countries and cultures, while ignoring the massive population replacement by Muslims and Africans, may well culminate in yet another terrible chapter of history.