What I don’t know about WWII could fit in a U-boat

World War II Monument

I finally watched Band of Brothers this year, something I’ve been meaning to do for, oh, ten years. Band of Brothers is a TV mini-series about an American airborne infantry company that fought in Europe during World War II. I’d stumble across it occasionally during a Labor Day marathon on TBS, but I wanted to watch it from the beginning, so I never stopped to watch for long.

It’s a good series, and it’s fun to play “spot the future star” while watching. There’s James MacAvoy! Simon Pegg just delivered a telegram! Jamie Bamber fought Nazis before he fought cylons! Moriarty from Sherlock just arrived! That guy looks sort of like Michael Fassbender, probably because he *is* Michael Fassbender.

Spoiler alert: President Roosevelt dies before the end of the war. I preface this with the words “spoiler alert” because I am the nitwit who was shocked by this plot development. Yes, I graduated from high school. I even got all A’s. Oh, Kentucky public school system, how you have failed me. I should have been able to figure it out on my own because I knew Truman had to make the decision to nuke Japan. So, obviously Roosevelt was out of the picture by then. The problem with my history education is that the teachers always ran out of time before they got to modern history. So if you wanted to learn about the French and Indian war, you were good. If you wanted to learn anything about events that directly affected today’s foreign policy, good luck to you!

I have the decency to be embarrassed about this, so I’ve decided to educate myself about World War II. After some Googling, I decided The World at War TV mini-series was the best source. There are 26 episodes, each one 52 minutes long, so it lasts almost as long as the war itself. It was created in the 70’s, so there were able to interview lots of people who were actually involved in the war. It was evidently a landmark achievement in documentary filmmaking at the time for its thorough exploration of the topic. It was created by a British team, so they cover everything leading up to the war, whereas most American films about World War II act like it started on December 7, 1941.

I’ve only watched the first eight episodes, but I’ve already learned a lot that I should have already known. Stalin was on our side! There was fighting in Alaska! France had a huge line of underground forts that did absolutely no good! When invading Russia, check The Weather Channel first!

My only complaint so far is that the interviews are not subtitled, which makes them harder to understand. This was a world war after all, so even though most of the interviews are in English the interviewees accents are French, German, Russian, and Japanese, just to name a few. Even the American accents sometimes sound a bit odd, which further makes me believe accents change over the years. (I’d recently been surprised to learn that what we consider an American accent is what a British accent used to sound like.)

I’ve still got many, many hours to watch, but hopefully it will expand my knowledge of the war beyond what I’ve learned in movies and Emmy-award winning mini-series. No spoilers, please!

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  1. Laura says

    The man who plays “Maj. Winters” in “Band of Brothers” is Damian Lewis, who now plays Iraqi Freedom POW Nicholas Brody on “Homeland.” He sure has changed since he was in WWII.

    I have this weird fascination bordering on obsession with WWII so I watch those documentaries for fun. Another good WWII documentary is Ken Burns’ “The War”, it’s great if you want an American perspective. “The Pacific” was an HBO mini-series followup for “Band of Brothers” and is just as good. If you want to learn more about the Holocaust, you cannot go wrong with “Shoah.” I believe all of these documentaries can be found on Netflix.

  2. says

    I have also watched historical dramas and been BLINDSIDED by events — like the start of WWI, who saw that coming! — so I’m right there with you.

  3. says

    I know people who were shocked at what happened to the Titanic when they watched the movie. Nobody told them that was going to happen.

    My perspective on WWII films were a bit personal. Once, I was idly watching an old movie about bombing a heavy water plant in Norway, and my father wandered in and started correcting the movie’s details. Turns out he had been one of the pilots on that mission.

  4. Sherry says

    I bet I would win the “woefully undereducated on history” category. I have begun correcting this. My co-workers are amazed when I come in with a crazy fact previously unknown to only me. Lucky I have a good self-concept or I might start to think less of myself.

  5. Brandy E. says

    I’ve been helping my son with his homework and I’m just now realizing how much I must have missed in high school. Apparently while I was flirting with boys and going to football games the USSR dissolved and Czechoslovakia became two seperate countries. Who knew? 😉

  6. Susan says

    I had never heard of this series before, but my husband and I are looking for a new series to watch. I wonder if they have it on Hulu?

  7. Michelle says

    Band of Brothers is a great series, there’s another one that HBO put out about the war in the Pacific (also very good) as a companion but for the life of me I can’t think of what it’s called. PBS has a recent Ken Burns about “The War” which is also worthwhile, especially because they interview the sister of Sidney Phillps (he’s written a book which the HBO series about the Pacific is based on) and she has the most charming Alabama accent. . .the words “war” and “boys” have two syllables when she says them.

  8. Kate says

    I like your assessment of the history you learned in school. I feel like I got that same progression of history from the Founding Fathers to the civil war and then back to the beginning again. I was really bored and uninterested in history in school, now I feel like it wasn’t the subject as much as the limited range that we got!

  9. mstoddard says

    A good vacation after you watch the series would be a
    vacation to New Orleans, LA. There is a wonderful WWII museum in New Orleans. The Higgins boats were built there. We live in Louisiana and have spent several days in the museum when to travel to NOLA.

  10. Sheila says

    During college in the mid-70s, I was aghast to learn of the attempted 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba by the US. My pre-school memories did include the great concern adults had about Cuba, but I guess they spared me the details. As a daughter and niece of WWII vets, I was clued into that conflict, maybe because that was safely in the past.

  11. says

    I started homeschooling my 3 kids a few years ago and I have learned SO MUCH!! I was embarrassed by how much I didn’t know. I find history SO interesting, especially now that I GET it. Even science, I think I know about photosynthesis and all that stuff but when you re-learn it, it brings a depth of understanding that you never knew. It has been GREAT homeschooling. Just learning 3 grade science and history is facinating! That mine series and documentary sound interesting. The documentary sounds a LITTLE long though. I’ll stick with the kids’ textbooks for the time being!

  12. KLCtheBookWorm says

    Back in high school, I noticed that issue when I really great world history class got derailed by the teacher having to take medical leave. Her replacement spent three weeks on Napoleon (I think she had a crush). We just reached the 20th century when it was the end of the year. My bright idea then was to start teaching history backwards. Start off with stuff that happened in the last decade and keep going.

    Now I think history starting with the 20th century should be a separate and required class. The idea of tracing the developments from their murky beginnings to what we have now isn’t a bad way to teach history (when done well), but starting back with ancient civilizations or the Vikings really discovered America in U.S. history, you miss the stuff still affecting us now.

    And Band of Brothers is one of the few WWII films I will drop everything for and shove at other people with a you-must-watch-this! All because of Neal McDonough who played Buck Campton. But Ross being such a dick at the beginning always throws me.

  13. Neilam says

    Same experience here – i’ve been embarrassingly ignorant of 20th century history (even major events that happened during my own lifetime). This year i started reading books to start filling in the gaps; World War I was particularly enlightening (and horrifying) and really laid the groundwork for understanding the origins of WWII and everything else that followed.

    Also, wanted to mention that i’ve really been enjoying your month-o-blogging. Hope to see some posts continue into November!

  14. Alison C. says

    I second (or third or fourth) the recommendation that you watch Ken Burns’ “The War.” I found it absolutely fascinating. I knew about the Nazis and the Holocaust, mostly because I had an 8th grade teacher who was incredibly passionate about making sure those awful events were not lost to history, but I didn’t know a whole lot about the actual War. I’ve gone to the Pearl Harbor Memorial site in Hawaii, and visited the WWII Monument in DC (beautiful!), and am trying to round out my knowledge of the war. I think it is vital that we learn about it, lest we repeat it of course.

  15. says

    I’ve always been intrigued by WWII, probably because my dad fought in it, and my Mom’s first husband died in it. But in school, we never finished the history books by the end of the year, so never got to study much about it. (This was back in the 60’s, and WWII was fairly recently history then, so it was in the BACK of the books.–I’m dating myself.)
    I did know Roosevelt died before the end of the war, however, because I have visited the Truman museum near Kansas City, MO, since I’m a Midwest girl and we travel to K.C. often. I even heard that FDR’s last words were, “I’ve got a terrible headache!” right before he collapsed in his wheelchair and died of a stroke evidently. But I would love to watch that World at War series you are watching now. I’ll have to check that out this summer when TV shows are all in re-runs. At my house, we have watched Band of Brothers repeatedly. We own the DVD set, but also watch it everytime it’s shown on TV in marathon style on one of the “patriotic” holidays. It’s that GOOD!
    I too love Captain Winters. Everytime I watch Homeland, I am amazed that he has been turned to the other side!!

  16. says

    @KLCtheBookWorm – Had to laugh at your “Ross being a dick” line. So true. I love Archie too, he went on to play in ER, I forget his real name, but on ER he was Archie, the red-headed guy who always got the worst assignments in B of B.

  17. says

    Oh man I love this post and glad you are enjoying the War!

    During high school in Australia my favourite subject was Modern History i.e. 20th century. Once you’re done with WWII, You Might Also Like WWI! There are some really great doco series out there about it, and some great movies too (Gallipoli; All Quiet on the Western Front to name a couple)

    A detour through the Russian Revolution is also fab. The whole Cold War is awesome. And Vietnam! I won’t go on or you may deck me 😛

    Don’t you love that you could live to 150 and would never run out of things to learn about? I find that both overwhelming and awesome :)

  18. jAMIE says

    I failed a graduate level class for the same exact reason. We never had enought time in history class to learn about such “recent” events. My professor was shocked by my lack of knowledge. The second time around things were no longer shocking to me and I could do more graduate level thinking about them.

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