History documentaries mixing expert analysis and dramatic reconstructions are commonplace, but the BBC’s Rise of the Nazis has been a fine example of the genre. In order to get these shows right, the experts have to know their stuff (not always a given) and the reconstructions have to add something to the narrative without straying into terrible am-dram (more difficult than you would think).
The final instalment, Rise of the Nazis: Downfall (BBC Two), was excellent in both respects. The focus was on those at the heart of the Third Reich – Göring, Speer, Goebbels and Himmler – and how they behaved as the regime collapsed.
As psychological studies, they were fascinating. Speer and Himmler attempted clandestinely to detach themselves from the Nazi project and reframe themselves as opponents of Hitler, in the hope that the Allies would look favourably on them. Göring was depicted puffing on a cigar after being taken into custody by the Americans, in the mistaken belief that he would be invited to talks with Eisenhower rather than put on trial.
Goebbels, the most ideologically committed of all Hitler’s men, chose to die in the Führerbunker alongside his wife Magda, having first killed their children. This was a scene depicted in all its horror in Downfall, the 2004 film. But not here, as we see with rather chilling images of the Goebbels children playing with their toys while unaware of their fates.
Sometimes it was the small details which proved so telling: Hitler insisting that the blinds be shut as his train pulled into Berlin, refusing to accept the city was in ruins; soldiers smoking and drinking in his presence, all respect for their Führer now gone. Meanwhile, Eva Braun was throwing a birthday celebration for Hitler and partying while Germany burned.
The programme also featured the story of Hélène Podliasky, a French Resistance fighter who sabotaged shells while forced to work in a German armaments factory – a footnote in history, but the dramatisation of her escape was a powerful reminder of human resilience.