Apocalypse: The Second World War, Reviewed by David

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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.

Introduction

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.[1] 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.”[2] 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.”[3] 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).[4] 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.[5] 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.[6] 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.[7] 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.[8] 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.[9] 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.[10] 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.

Conclusion

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.


[1] Apocalypse: The Second World War, documentary, created by Daniel Costelle and Isabelle Clarke (2009; Paris, France: CC&C and ECPAD, 2009.), television, episode: Aggression.

[2] Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History, (Boston, Massachusetts: ‪Beacon Press, 1995), 6-7.

[3] Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History, 53-59.

[4] 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.

[5] Apocalypse: The Second World War, documentary, created by Daniel Costelle and Isabelle Clarke (2009; Paris, France: CC&C and ECPAD, 2009.), television, episode: Shock.

[6] Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History, 53-59.

[7] Robert O. Paxton, La France de Vichy: 1940-1944 (New York, New York: Random House, 1972), 71-78.

[8] Robert O. Paxton, La France de Vichy: 1940-1944, 240-244.

[9] Ibid., 11-13.

[10] Ibid.

3 responses to “Apocalypse: The Second World War, Reviewed by David”

  1. Charles says:

    I remember the success Apocalypse: La deuxième guerre mondiale met when it came out a couple years ago, especially in a province like Québec where the teaching of history at the primary and high school levels is relatively driven towards France (arguably more than towards Britain). Public television broadcasting channels like Télé-Québec would air the documentary in different sections, history teachers would present it in class. In front of such a success, pieces of work sometimes create for themselves a kind of aura, making criticism towards them difficult. However, I find that you pointed out clearly and efficiently the flaws of the documentary, while still stressing the numerous qualities of it.
    I really enjoyed the strong link you made between the flaws you pointed out and Trouillot’s conception of silencing the past. It is made very clear how the documentary silences the Pacific theatre as a whole, even though it had such an impact on the war, and how it also stresses Eastern European countries’ collaboration with Nazis, but barely France’s collabo and the Vichy regime. This might be explained by one of the sentences that struck me in your text, pointing out the fact that the documentary was intended for a French public, and then exported due to its success. It is fascinating to see how narratives change depending on whom it is presented to. The objective was to present the Second World War to a large public, but acknowledging the fact that part of the past was silenced, can there be another objective that can be seen, a political project perhaps, or is it just that the Vichy regime is still a sensitive subject in France? Those questions are left unanswered by the documentary, and you made a good job at pointing them out.

  2. Jonathan Hou says:

    I am really impressed by how you integrate Trouillot’s arguments into your analysis. Being a documentary series produced for a French audience, one would expect it to highlight France’s role in the victory of the Allies. You commended the series for breaking the existing taboos and discussing civilian collaboration with Nazi Germany, but I argue that the series chooses to highlight collaboration in order to juxtapose the French resistance (which the series heavily favored in in its portrayal) with them. The cowardice of the French collaborators and their punishment after the war served to teach the next generation that betrayal had its consequences while loyalty to the French nation would be rewarded by historical memory. The addition of historical information (in this case, the French collaborators), ironically, silenced the idea that the French contributions to victory against Nazi Germany were relatively minimal.

    You are very critical of the lack of attention given to the Pacific Theater of WWII. While I would certainly appreciate more attention given towards the atrocities of Japanese imperialism, it is necessary to take into account the limited resources that this documentary series has. Considering that the series is intended to focus on Europe in the war, the producers must make full use of the limited space they have and decide what information should be prioritized. I have also noticed that you did not mention North Africa at all in your review. North Africa was not the most important battlefield for Nazi Germany, but Italy’s decisions forced Germany to send troops to North Africa, effectively preventing Germany from dedicating all of its resources to its war against the Soviet Union. I would have been more critical of the absence of the North African Theater in a review on the first episodes of this documentary series.

  3. Jeremy Lieberman says:

    David. Your decent review has thoroughly convinced me to watch the documentary. I particularly appreciated you references to Trouillot’s silenced histories. Apocalypse’s inclusion of previously silenced narratives such as Nazi persecutions against homosexuals and the instrumental role of local collaborators in the Holocaust (even in reputably more “civilized” countries like France) is commendable. At the same time, it is true that other narratives were intentionally or unintentionally silenced from the silver screen. But some of these silences are understandable considering the colossal amount of knowledge we have on what was the most global war known to humanity. For instance, it would be impossible to sufficiently treat developments in both the European and Pacific theatres in sufficient depth without producing a 70-hour documentary!

    I had two reservations about your review. Firstly, although the focus of the documentary may very well have been the human aspects of the war (how it impacted individuals), I think it would have been beneficial to be more critical of how the documentary depicts political and military developments. Does it reproduce these in a satisfying way and introduce us to varying historical opinions? Or does the documentary simply gloss over events such as the Munich conference without explaining the factors behind Anglo-French appeasement. Understanding how the directors depicted and dealt with the War’s significant events should have been addressed.

    Secondly, I am inclined to disagree with your assessments concerning occupied France. While France was garrisoned by a mere 60 battalions by 1941, you unfairly exaggerate the French ability to resist effectively. The French population knew, based on resistance movements in Eastern Europe, notably Czechoslovakia, that any major resistance would be met with considerable German reinforcements and collective punishment. That fact alone would be sufficient to deter a nationwide revolt. Your dismissal of an unjustified French reluctance is not fair. While the series may have exaggerated the role of the French resistance in other ways, that particular criticism of the series was unconvincing.

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