Learning history has never been as enjoyable when done inside the classroom or when read from books alone. Most of the time, supplementary visits to museums or film viewing provide a more visual appreciation of the events that helped shape human civilization.
From the ancient Romans to the two World Wars, to the space program disaster at the tail-end of the Cold War, historical documentaries provide a concise yet compelling visual presentation of the events that brought us to where we are now.
Here are some historical documentaries from Netflix worth bingeing on:
Hitler’s Circle of Evil
A 10-part docuseries originally released in 2017, “Hitler’s Circle of Evil” focuses on the lives and careers of the men who had a profound influence on Adolf Hitler: his mentor, his military officers, his private secretary, and his architect.
These men are known to have worked closely with the Fuhrer, from his rise to power to his eventual downfall during the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II.
Instead of the usual pictures and video clips, the series is a blend of newsreels, reenactments, and commentaries provided by British and German historians.
The Last Czars
First released in 2019, “The Last Czars” is a six-episode hybrid documentary-drama that focuses on the final years of Russia’s Romanov dynasty. It also features one of the most prominent figures hanging on the precipice of the imperial family’s circle of power: Grigori Rasputin.
The story behind this documentary-drama begins with the death of Czar Alexander III, and his son Nicholas ascending to the throne. Side by side Nicholas II’s story, is a timeline showing Grigori Rasputin’s expulsion from his hometown in Siberia, his entry into the Russian imperial court, and his influence on the seat of power in Russia.
Secrets of Great British Castles
Originally released in 2015, this six-part, two-season series on Netflix features Dan Jones guiding us around six of the United Kingdom’s most famous castles: Warwick, Dover, Caernarfon, The Tower of London, Carrickfergus, and Stirling.
Like many old buildings, the documentary series maintains that castles are littered with the secrets of battles, sieges, intrigues, and murders. Filmed in England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, the program combines dramatic reenactments and insightful interviews as we are given a well-guided tour of each castle.
We unfold their histories, notorious residents, renowned battles, and the local communities that helped shape these structures into the iconic landmarks they are today.
Roman Empire: Reign of Blood
Roman Empire: Reign of Blood, released in 2016, is a documentary that recounts the tumultuous and violent reigns of three of the most famous Roman emperors: Commodus, Julius Caesar, and Caligula.
The documentary series provides viewers with unfiltered reenactments of scenes from ancient Rome. And when we say unfiltered, we mean they are bloody, violent, and dramatic. As the cherry on top, Sean Bean, aka Ned Stark in Game of Thrones, serves as the narrator.
Like any self-respecting historical documentary, Roman Empire: Reign of Blood combines expert commentary from historians and scholars with compelling dramatic visualizations. If you love to know more about the Roman Empire’s history through the lens of the times, this series is highly recommended.
Rise of Empires: Ottoman
Rise of Empires: Ottoman is an English-language Turkish docudrama miniseries that chronicles The Fall of Constantinople from the perspective of the young Ottoman Sultan, Mehmet II.
Narrated by Charles Dance, this historical documentary released in 2020 is based on the events of 1453 that led to the fall of Constantinople, a Byzantine Empire stronghold, into the hands of the Ottoman Empire.
The series presents how the Ottomans conquered an invincible city using the newest technological warfare of the time: canons. This new weapon of war conveyed a clear message to civilizations that the city walls were no longer enough to defend their territories. This conquest led to the eventual capture of Constantinople by the Ottomans, and the city becoming the Ottoman Empire capital. In the early 20th century, Constantinople was renamed Istanbul.
Challenger: The Final Flight
A 20th-century disaster that significantly influenced an entire generation, the Cold War, and the space program. Challenger: The Final Flight is a four-part docuseries that scrutinizes the Challenger space shuttle catastrophe through archival clips, never-before-seen home videos, and new interviews with former shuttle program personnel and relatives of those who died in the fatal launch.
Released in 2020, the docuseries explains the significance of the space shuttle Challenger at the time: the race to win the Cold War via the space program; the US’ need to recover from the embarrassment that was the Vietnam War; and the country’s need to prove to the world its supremacy.
The pressure on the US to be the best led to the disaster that the entire world witnessed, both live and via newsreels. Ultimately, the tragedy influenced the way space programs and space travel are approached in the present.
Age of Samurai: Battle for Japan
Hankering for Japanese history before the Tokugawa Shogunate’s time? Then the 2021 documentary Age of Samurai: Battle for Japan is up your alley.
This program is a six-part documentary that blends conversations with historians and visual interpretations of the events from the 16th-century Warring States Period in Japanese history.
Age of Samurai: Battle for Japan chronicles how the Samurai class rose from the rank of servant to become a respected warrior class until its gradual decline after the end of Japan’s isolation from the world.
Age of Tanks
Unique to the 20th century, tanks are weapons that became the byproduct of the effects of the Great War or World War I.
Originally released in 2017, this four-part documentary series traces the history of military tanks, from their paper designs in the early part of the 1900s to the highly sophisticated weapons of war we know today.
The documentary tackles how tanks are made and operated. It also delves into the experiences, pains, and struggles of people tasked with operating these war machines during battles.
WWII in Color: Road to Victory
Many of us have seen videos and footage from World War II. However, the films are all in black and white. This ten-part documentary series, originally released in 2021, presents the significant events of the war in vivid colorized versions of historical reels.
Guiding us on our tour across time are narrations by experts and historians as they recount the negotiations, battles, victories, and defeats of the Axis and Allied powers.
We hope that this list will sate your appetite for history. These are just 10 out of the many selections available on Netflix. There are several others to choose from. Take your pick from ancient civilizations to World War I and II, as well as important people who shaped our world today.
Happy watching and learning!