The Great War and the Shaping of the 20th Century

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The Great War and the Shaping of the 20th Century is a 1996 documentary series that aired on PBS. It chronicles World War I over eight episodes. It was narrated by Dame Judi Dench in the UK and Salome Jens in the United States.

The series won two Primetime Emmy Awards: one for Jeremy Irons for Outstanding Voice-Over Performance, the other for Outstanding Informational Series. In 1997, it was given a Peabody Award.


The documentary series was produced by KCET/Los Angeles along with the BBC and London’s Imperial War Museum. It took five years to make[1] and cost five million dollars.[2] Blaine Baggett was the executive producer and Jay Winter was the chief historian.[3] It aired in the United States on PBS in November 1996.

In contrast to a previous (1964) BBC production titled The Great War which focused primarily on the military and political aspects of the war, this 1996 documentary, in keeping with more recent trends in historiography, used a wide variety of types of sources to cover social, cultural, economic, and personal perspectives on the war in addition to the military and political.[4]

Voice cast[edit]


  • 1. Explosion – Covers the causes of the war, focusing on international tensions resulting from rapid economic, technological, and social changes, as well as how the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria sparked a continent-wide war.
  • 2. Stalemate – Covers the German army’s initial advance through Belgium and France which was stopped at the Battle of the Marne and quickly followed by the armies digging extensive systems of trenches.
  • 3. Total War – Examines how the war spread geographically and extended beyond the front lines to civilian populations, including the Turkish massacre of Armenian civilians.
  • 4. Slaughter – Focuses on the battles at Verdun, the Somme, and Passchendaele.
  • 5. Mutiny – Examines the growing despair on all sides, culminating in revolution in Russia and a mutiny among a large portion of the French army.
  • 6. Collapse – Covers the German army’s failed offensive in spring 1918 attempting to end the war before the United States army arrived in large numbers, and the resulting collapse of the German government.
  • 7. Hatred and Hunger – Covers the continuing blockade on Germany as the Allies drew up the Treaty of Versailles, with considerable focus on Woodrow Wilson’s role in the Paris Peace Conference.
  • 8. War Without End – Examines the cost of the war and its continuing reverberations through the rest of the 20th century.


The documentary was a critical success and received several awards:[3]

  • Two Emmy Awards
  • Alfred Du Pont Journalism Award
  • George Fopster Peabody Award
  • Producers Guild of American Vision Award
  • International Documentary Association: Best Limited Series Award


A book of the same title, authored by Blaine Baggett and Jay Winter, was released along with the broadcast of the television series in 1996. Like the television series, the book covers social, cultural, economic, and other issues in addition to the political and military aspects of the war. Though the book is a companion to the television series, it is written to stand on its own as a history of the war.[5]

External links[edit]


  1. ^ Hunt, G. W. (1996). "Of many things". America 175 (14): 2. 
  2. ^ Stansky, Peter (1997). "Film reviews - The Great War and the Shaping of the 20th Century". American Historical Review 102 (2): 593–594. 
  3. ^ a b Niemi, Robert (2013). Inspired by True Events: An Illustrated Guide to More than 500 History-based Films (2nd ed.). Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO. pp. 75–77. ISBN 9781610691970. 
  4. ^ Cigognetti, L. and Sorlin, P. (2010) "History on Television: The Problem of Sources." In: Bell, E. and Gray, A. [eds] Televising History: Mediating the Past in Postwar Europe. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
  5. ^ Stuttaford, Genevieve (1996). "The Great War and the Shaping of the 20th Century". Publishers Weekly 243 (43): 63.