War Documentaries Of Doom: A Visual Remembrance

war documentaries

Over the last few months I’ve found myself watching more documentaries than anything else, specifically the plethora of World War II ones on the Smithsonian Channel. Admittedly, they’ve been edited into outrageous themes and even worse titles“The Nazi Temple of Doom,” “Treblinka: Hitler’s Killing Machine,” “The Seven Dwarfs of Auschwitz,” “Secrets of the Third Reich,” “The Teacher Who Defied Hitler,” and my personal favorite, “Apocalypse: The Second World War.”

Merely reading their names makes you cringe and think of terrible propaganda films and/or wonder if George Lucas produced them. At any moment you expect Indiana Jones to swing through and punch Hitler on the nose and save the world. If they were articles online, we’d call these click bait, but the fact is as you’re skimming through a couple hundred channels and you see those titles, you stop because the name intrigued you.

And once you’ve tuned in, despite the cringeworthy titles, you’re there for a front row view of history. Through remastered and colorized footage of the war from not only official government-released material, but also amateur photographers at the time, you have the incredible ability to watch the unfathomable.

Unsurprisingly, many of the documentaries have taken a particular interest in showing the final newsreel of Hitler, his Palsy-riddled hands shaking as he greets the promising members of the Hitler Youth a few short weeks before his suicide. It’s a disturbing look at the obviously failing health of one of the most terrifying men in history, and stirs a deep-seated anger. How dare the man who committed the most unspeakable of horrors have the audacity to be human?

As you progress through the other films, you get a chilling up-close view of those atrocities. In “Treblinka” you learn how the Nazis began streamlining murder. They show actual footage of the Nazi Occupied Poland extermination camp, with countless lines of Poles and Polish Jews lined up waiting to die. You see photos taken by people who came out to watch families being stripped, separated and shot. You see them queued to go into the depths of this camp only to never return, and the rest being forced to carry and bury the bodies coming out. It is unspeakable, and God forbid you ate before watching, because it’s only going to come back up again. There on your TV, as you’re curled up on your couch with your takeout and blanket, is the Holocaust.

I am avid imbiber of history, and war history in particular. My plane reading this weekend is Churchill’s recollections of World War II, I watch countless documentaries, and there’s rarely a war movie that comes out I don’t see. I am not ignorant of the atrocities of what occurred, but it has always been secondary or tertiary accounts, or recreations. I’ve been told, given the figures, and seen a few printed photos on a museum wall, or names on a memorial. But I have never been shown, and now I will never be able to unsee it. Again, though through a very different lens, I have seen the humanity of the horror through this footage.

There’s something chilling in being able to sit in my living room and be able to queue up the death of millions and the man who ordered it. The inane titles are almost offensive when you think that they had to be packaged in this light to get people to to care. Yet at the same time, especially around Memorial Day, I can’t help but be thankful that these exist, in whatever form they may take. I will never be able to unsee the footage from Treblinka, even months and months later I can close my eyes and recall it vividly, but nor should I. The obsession with Hitler’s final days may be lurid history, but by being able to see that this monster was actually a man, that he could condemn millions to death but could no longer stand without a hunch, or keep his hands from shaking, is a slap in the face reminder that one of us did this. A person, a human being, a man who once lived and breathed, feared and ego-tripped his way through life not so very long ago single-handedly destroyed races, nations, and full generations and there he is, in our home, and on our TV screens.

And that is terrifying and something that should never, ever be forgotten. One person can change the world and be the onus for it crumbling. We should see Hitler as human, and see what humanity can do and invite that knowledge into our home. It may help us sleep better at night to forget or to relegate Hitler as a one-off psycho, but it opens the door to let someone else do it again. I believe there is power in the horror of those photos and film clips: the power to shock the system into a reboot of how we perceive humanity and the world, the power to make us rethink the atrocities we know occur and choose to turn a blind eye toward, and the power to perhaps act as a deterrent in the future.

That’s why I will always stop and watch these war documentaries, no matter how offensive or absurd the title, so I can see, so I can remember, and so the visual history lives on.


*edited May 29th to clarify that the “Polish extermination camps” were located in Nazi Occupied Poland and run by German Nazis.

View Comments (10)
  • In 9th grade my teacher showed us footage from a family member who was in the army when the US was freeing camps, and he warned us it was graphic and we couldn’t un-see it, and promised if anyone snickered, giggled, or laughed they would have to leave the room. Those images have never left me-the horror and terror humans are capable of is branded on my brain.

  • Katie, there were no “Polish extermination camps” (or death camps, labor camps, concentration camps, work camps, ghettos, etc.); there were only Polish victims. Polish Christians were the first victims sent to the German camps; they were the largest group until March 1942; by war’s end, their number was exceeded only by Jewish victims. Please refrain from using terminology which shifts the blame from the perpetrators — Nazi Germany — to a nation they brutalized. Even the Association of German Historians has condemned the use of language which falsely accuses Poland of war crimes committed on its soil by the Germans.

    • You are right that there were no Polish-sponsored extermination camps those were entirely Nazi Germany, however Treblinka I and II were both located within Poland, which is what I was referring to as Polish extermination camps which implies both the location and who were targeted, not that they were perpetrators. I apologize for any confusion, but what I put was in fact accurate.

      • Katie,

        I beg to differ – the term Polish extermination camp does not carry the sense that they were German camps located in German occupied Poland but rather that the Poles were in some way owners of the camps. This impression is endorsed by the allusion that local community members came out to photograph what was going on. This implies callous indifference at a time that hundreds of thousands of gentile Poles were being murdered, whether in street round-ups and executions or in the prison and concentration camps. I must remind you that the Polish underground state sent an officer (Witold Pilecki) to set up a resistance cell and document the Holocaust and sent his documentation via Jan Karski to the Western Allies with a plea to bomb the gas chambers and crematoria – something that Churchill and Roosevelt dismissed as Polish propagand.

      • Katie, it is still incorrect to conflate the location of the camps and the perpetrators; it can be misleading to readers who, unlike you, are not well-versed in WW2 history. There were tens of thousands of German camps spread throughout Europe, from the Channel Islands to the Soviet Union. We would not call them “British” or “Dutch”, just as it would be incorrect to call Japanese POW camps “Thai” or “Philippino.” For that matter, Guantanamo is not a “Cuban” camp. If President Obama could apologize to Poland for saying “Polish death camp,” I think that a conscientious blogger could do the same.

  • Dear Katie,
    There is an inaccuracy in paragraph 4, sentence 2. “They show actual footage of the Polish extermination camp,…” This is probably inadvertent but you should be aware that many would find that term very insulting and offensive.
    All these camps were NAZI GERMAN. There was NO Polish collaboration or complicity, If you wish to denote geography you should have stated “Nazi German extermination camp in OCCUPIED Poland”.
    You may recall President Obama caused a diplomatic incident when he “misspoke” and used a similar phrase. He had the decency to apologize and issue a prompt correction. See link.
    Also, as a history buff, you should know that Non-Jewish Poles were also victims of the Holocaust. The Germans were killing Poles for 2-3 years before they started – on a much bigger scale – with the Jews.
    Please amend the words.

      • Thank you for the amendment Katie.

        By the way, when I wrote about the Polish Underground sending Witold Pilecki, I should have made it clear that I was referring to Auschwitz, where he set up a Resistance cell and documented the crimes happening there.

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