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The Road to World War II  

Directed by Scott Garen, 1978. 6 hours on six discs. $49.99.

 In 1978, PBS aired 12 half-hour episodes of Between the Wars, which covered the fraught ground between the Treaty of Versailles and the invasion of Poland. Respected historians glossed the good-to-excellent video footage, but the host, Eric Sevareid, carried his own authority: as a young man he reported the fall of Paris via radio and went on to be a CBS News fixture alongside other Edward R. Murrow protégés like Walter Cronkite.

The series skillfully traces how errors of judgment, political overreaching, revenge, deception, and racism inexorably eroded the uneasy, fragile peace and eventually exploded into World War II. Its episode on the 1920s attempts at naval disarmament, wryly titled “The First SALT Talks,” is a tour-de-force, dissecting how naivete, missed opportunities, incongruent expectations, and ethnic prejudice doomed this attempt to defuse the nascent arms race. It also reminds us how muddy things looked to the era’s leaders. The episode on the Italian invasion of Ethiopia demonstrates how powerful and advanced Italy’s armed forces were in 1936—not just relative to that impoverished country’s antiquated warriors, but to the British and French militaries also. This helps explain why the League of Nations was fearful of offending Mussolini, a taste of what followed with Hitler and Austria, then Czechoslovakia. Bonus: more than 50 rare Hearst newsreels of the period, the first drafts of history in the making.


Originally published in the February 2012 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.