History documentaries

From the dawn of civilization to the emergence of modern-day superpowers, BBC Select hosts a wide-ranging collection of world history documentaries. If you live in the US or Canada, you can sign up to watch these BBC history documentaries hosted by the likes of Bettany Hughes, Lucy Worsley, Simon Schama and David Olusoga today.

African Apocalypse

Image the silhouette of a head with a map and British soldier inside the silhouette

This critically acclaimed documentary film tells the story of British-Nigerian activist Femi Nylander’s journey across Africa in search of a colonial killer and to bring attention to the forgotten victims of colonial atrocity.

With a copy of Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness in hand, he seeks to discover the shocking reality of the book and the meaning and legacy of colonial horror in West Africa.

Femi learns about French army officer Paul Voulet, who forged a path of unspeakable barbarity in an attempt to expand France’s colonial empire. He also meets communities still traumatised by the violence and still feeling the impact today. But amongst the tragic history, Femi discovers a spirit of hope and young people learning to find a way out of colonialism.

African Apocalypse is a film by Rob Lemkin and was a BFI London Film Festival Official Selection in 2020, an official selection at Docville International Documentary Film Festival in 2021, The British Documentary Awards Nominee in 2021 and nominated as Best Arts Documentary 2022 by the Royal Television Society.

Countdown to War

Watch Countdown to World War II documentary on BBC Select

This fascinating World War 2 documentary explores the three days leading up to war. On Friday 1st September 1939, Hitler’s Nazi forces invaded Poland. By Sunday morning, Britain had declared war. JJ Chalmers and Raksha Dave visit key locations, meet World War II historians and unearth startling archive material. Just how did ordinary Brits react to the prospect of war?

With war about to be declared, how did Britain prepare for battle with the Nazis? This World War 2 history documentary explores Britain on the eve of war. It’s 1939 and Britain could soon be under attack. How will the British public react as the Second World War looms? Panic sets in as Europe goes to war, a war Britain is ill prepared for. How could the country ready itself for war with the Nazis?

The Story of the Jews

The Story of the Jews

Acclaimed historian Simon Schama looks at the impact of the Jews and those moments when the Jewish experience has changed the fate of the world. This ground-breaking history documentary series travels the globe from New York to Odessa, Berlin to Jerusalem, to tell ancient and modern stories that illuminate the passions and perplexities of the Jewish people today.

In the Beginning

Simon Schama begins his exploration of the Jewish story at the start, 3,000 years ago.  Drawing on a rich store of archaeological and historical sources, Simon Schama explores how a distinct Jewish identity began to emerge more than 3,000 years ago. Traveling to Israel, Egypt and Jordan, this fascinating history documentary traces the slow crystallization of a religion whose radical notion of a singular, faceless formless God was expressed in a radical artifact: the Hebrew Bible.

Among Believers

How medieval Jews struggled to preserve their identity under Christian and Islamic rule.

In medieval times, Jews struggled to survive in a world dominated by two rival religions: Christianity and Islam. Historian Simon Schama traces the history of the Jews from the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70AD to the ghetto in 17th century Venice in this history documentary. He explores how Jews adapted to life outside of Jerusalem, the city at the heart of their religion.

A Leap of Faith

How the Enlightenment allowed Jews to integrate into modern European culture and commerce.

After centuries of being cast out of gentile society, the dawn of the Enlightenment promised the Jews a stake in nations where they had long been kept apart. Historian Simon Schama charts their struggles in this engrossing history documentary. From the late 18th century, many left ghettos and mingled with other communities. Their hope was to become fellow citizens, and finally treated as equals.

Over the Rainbow

How the Jewish people of eastern Europe made their mark on the modern world.

Traveling to Slovakia, Lithuania, Russia, Ukraine and America, historian Simon Schama explores the rich history of the Jews of Eastern Europe. In this vivid history documentary, he conjures up the unique culture of faith and ferment, poetry and music that was inspired by the struggle against oppression and how that rich culture found a new home with the mass Jewish emigration to America.


How the Holocaust and the creation of Israel have changed what it means to be Jewish.

Two recent historical events, the Holocaust and the creation of Israel, have changed  in profound ways what being Jewish means. Simon Schama attempts to place these two events in the broader sweep of the story of the Jews in this enlightening history documentary. The Hebrew Bible describes the ‘Promised Land’, the ideas of which continue in Israel, where around half the world’s Jews now live.

The Rebel Queen: Eleanor of Aquitaine

The Rebel Queen: Eleanor of Aquitaine

Eleanor of Aquitaine already possessed huge wealth when she married Louis, son of the French king. She became Queen of France when only a teenager. But, as this history documentary reveals, that wasn’t the end of the story. After that marriage was annulled, she married English heir Henry and then became Queen of England. But she was no quiet Queen, having a strong influence on both Kings’ reigns.

The Warrior Queen: Boudica

The Warrior Queen: Boudica

After being betrayed and humiliated by Britain’s Roman overlords once her chieftain husband died, Queen Boudica turned on her masters. She set about planning her revenge, building an army and uniting warring tribes by focusing on a common enemy. She razed cities and defeated Roman legions, but her resistance finally came to an end at the Battle of Watling Street, where 200,000 Britons died.