Apocalypse: The Second World War, Reviewed by David
Foreword: Due to the length and complexity of the series, Apocalypse: The Second World War, as well as the word count limit, I have chosen to analyze the first three episodes: Aggression (1933-1939), Crushing Defeat (1939-1940), and Shock (1940-1941). This has permitted me to provide a through critique and review, without being restricted by the assignment’s guidelines.
Daniel Costelle and Isabelle Clark’s documentary, Apocalypse: The Second World War (Apocalypse: La deuxième guerre mondiale), chronicles the titanic struggle between Axis and Allied powers during the course of WWII. Released in 2009 and earning a great deal of praise, the acclaimed six episode series covers WWII from 1939-1945, and explores both the defeats and victories of the Axis, Allied and Comintern alliances. The series uniquely presents WWII in colour footage as well as using film from soldiers, resistance fighters and citizens from various nations. Thus, the series can be considered to use both a macro and microhistorical approach to WWII, despite the complexity and length required to explain the conflict to society at large.
The series’ production and presentation as popular history to its audience is done so in such a way that it may answer the curiosities of nearly everyone. Ranging from historians to laymen, Apocalypse attempts to make sense of the complexities surrounding WWII in order for it to be understood by even a mere novice in the subject. Nonetheless, one must take into account that the series was initially produced for a French audience and later for other countries, but still suffers from a clear bias as well as omitting key details that could potentially alter the audiences’ perception of WWII.
As forwarded by historian Michel-Rolph Trouillot in Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History, the production of historical narratives by competing groups or individuals determines what will constitute “historical truth.” As a result, Apocalypse suffers an enormous weakness in its presentation of WWII. As Trouillot would agree, the series is undermined from its entirely Western-European approach when presenting the conflict, by explicitly omitting an entire portion of WWII, the Pacific Theatre of war. Therefore, despite Apocalypse’s sincere intentions, it nonetheless suffers from a Western-European narrative of WWII as well as omitting key facts that would potentially alter the perception audiences would have of the conflict.
Apocalypse’s Methodology and Merit as a Work of Popular History
Regardless of the complexities and heated emotions that surround WWII, Apocalypse truly does justice to the war’s victims since great attention is paid to the plight and persecution of Jews, Roma, homosexuals, communists, etc. Therefore, since the documentary has made a clear effort to acknowledge all victims of such a destructive conflict, it must be commended. One must note that until recently, historians have largely excluded highlighting the wartime and post-war maltreatment of homosexuals (especially by their Western “liberators,”) but the series nonetheless devotes time to pay tribute to these unfortunate victims of totalitarianism.
Furthermore, Apocalypse provides a fairly descriptive background prior to 1939 in order for its audience to properly understand the grievances expressed by the German population, which permitted Adolf Hitler to seize power as Chancellor in 1933. Though the series does not spend a great deal of time discussing the events that eventually lead to the outbreak of war, it still provides a sufficient explanation for audiences to comprehend that Germany possessed a political agenda entailing aggressive expansionism throughout central and eastern Europe.
Regarding interpretation, Apocalypse makes use of historical revisionism in a positive sense, wherein “unpleasant” topics such as the rounding up and murder of Jews, untermensch (e.g. Slavs), and asocials (e.g. communists) could not have been achieved without the active collaboration between civilians in occupied territories and the German SS. As Trouillot expands upon in his book, the victors write history and thus, consequently create historical narratives that suit their needs. Such a dilemma leads to many current preconceptions from the general public regarding what constitutes “historical truths.” Nothing could be truer in the context of WWII, since civilian collaboration with the occupiers was widespread, but is considered a taboo subject in early post-war years. Surprisingly, Apocalypse does not shy away from such taboos and goes as far as addressing Vichy France’s collaboration with Germany, but to a limited certain extent.
Lastly, regarding methodology, the series makes great use of film archives as well as government documents that have only been recently released (e.g. details surrounding the Katyn Massacre). The purpose such uses of film serve is that it accurately portrays both the brutality and widespread destruction the conflict inflicted upon civilians and soldiers alike. Notably, the series uses both a micro and macrohistorical approach to explain WWII. Though one may question whether this is the best way to go about explaining such a complex war, it nonetheless provides both greater humanity and socio-political context to the audience of how civilians, soldiers and leaders went about their lives. The use of diaries in order to portray soldiers on every side as other than merely villains or heroes is quite striking. For instance, Apocalypse cites German lieutenant August von Kageneck’s diary explaining how his father (a general), did not agree with the Nazi salute despite owing his career’s successes to Hitler’s military aggression. Therefore, the series must foremost be commended on the humanization of people on every side of the conflict, avoiding the usual pitfalls documentaries make when explaining WWII: grouping everyone’s views as the same via nationality.
Apocalypse’s Flaws and Weaknesses
Despite the series’ best efforts, the documentary falls into the enormous pitfall that Trouillot has warned against. Notably, Apocalypse’s complete lack of attention or mere mention of the Pacific Theatre of war in the first three episodes is incomprehensible.
By the end of the third episode, the “European” date for WWII’s timeline has reached December 1941, wherein Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbour is briefly mentioned for approximately one minute. However, this was the only mention of the Pacific Theatre in any of the episodes studied. Taking into consideration how the Japanese Empire along with its puppet, Manchukuo, was waging an aggressive and brutal war against Nationalist China since 1931 onwards, one would think it ought to be mentioned. However, Apocalypse completely fails in this regard. Such an exclusion of an entire theatre of war, that involved upwards to hundreds of millions of lives only reinforces the concerns Trouillot has regarding “historical truths” and how historical narratives are created. The sole inclusion of historical narratives that are entirely centered on the product of white Western-European historians (“history proper”) could not be more evident.
It must be once again emphasized that such disregard for the Pacific Theatre is incomprehensible. Even if one were willing to solely accept the Western-European narrative as proper historical truth, the status of Vichy France’s overseas colonial possessions (notably French Indochina) is not mentioned either, despite the fact that the Japanese defacto controlled the colony from September 1940 onwards. Therefore, from a white Western-European historical narrative, the aforementioned Japanese aggression against a European colony should have received mention. However, this is not the sole illogical omission of historical facts in the series.
Selective Memory of the Past
Furthermore, Apocalypse should be commended for taking the time to explore pre-war political parties and organizations, such as the America First Committee or the British Union of Fascists led by Oswald Mosley. However, it once again selectively omits l’Action Française, a political movement considered fascist in France that ultimately contributed to the eventual establishment of the collaborationist Vichy government. It can therefore be interpreted that the creators of the series are selectively choosing historical narratives that will reflect France in the least negative way possible. Such efforts could not be more evident in the portrayal of the German occupation of France and Vichy’s active collaboration in deporting France’s Jews to death camps.
Attempting to portray the French as persistently resisting Nazi Germany is quite an exaggeration the series makes as well. As of summer 1941, merely 60 German battalions (30,000-40,000, men unfit for the Eastern Front) occupied all of metropolitan France versus a civilian population of 45 million. Without active collaboration on the part of French civilians vis-à-vis a French administration and police force to maintain order, the occupation would have been impossible. Though clearly not black and white, and likely much more complex than the numbers suggest, the series did not feel obligated to actively explore widespread French collaboration with Germany. However, Apocalypse interestingly did not hesitate to extensively cover the collaboration by civilians throughout Eastern Europe.
Therefore, actively omitting such details and attempting to create historical narratives to then constitute truth is highly problematic since it is not an objective evaluation of the facts at hand. One could argue that perhaps the creators of the series did not focus on the Pacific Theatre as much due to how enormous the global conflict was. However, if that is so, how come they discuss collaboration in great detail throughout occupied countries except for their own? Such exclusions as well as a Western-European centered approach are the most prominent weaknesses in Apocalypse.
Despite Apocalypse’s best efforts to remain objective and fair, it ultimately fails in this regard. As Trouillot has forwarded, audiences should be wary of the accepted historical narratives that constitute “truth” in our societies since they are often manipulated vis-a-vis the inclusion or exclusion of important facts. Apocalypse thus serves as a great example of such a case, since it had sincere intentions, but suffers a great deal from a narrative that is Western-European centric. The series can therefore be commended for its strides, but nonetheless serves as a reminder of the pitfalls popular history ought to avoid.
 Apocalypse: The Second World War, documentary, created by Daniel Costelle and Isabelle Clarke (2009; Paris, France: CC&C and ECPAD, 2009.), television, episode: Aggression.
 Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History, (Boston, Massachusetts: Beacon Press, 1995), 6-7.
 Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History, 53-59.
 Apocalypse: The Second World War, documentary, created by Daniel Costelle and Isabelle Clarke (2009; Paris, France: CC&C and ECPAD, 2009.), television, episode: Crushing Defeat.
 Apocalypse: The Second World War, documentary, created by Daniel Costelle and Isabelle Clarke (2009; Paris, France: CC&C and ECPAD, 2009.), television, episode: Shock.
 Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History, 53-59.
 Robert O. Paxton, La France de Vichy: 1940-1944 (New York, New York: Random House, 1972), 71-78.
 Robert O. Paxton, La France de Vichy: 1940-1944, 240-244.
 Ibid., 11-13.