WWIII Pop Culture: World War III (1998) Part I

World War III is the title of an alternative history pseudo-documentary produced and released in 1998 by ZDF, a German public television broadcasting company. Two versions of the documentary were made: one German and the other English. The English version was released in 1999. From what I’ve read and been told, there are several minor but noticeable creative differences between the two versions. Since I’ve never seen the German version, this review will be centered on the English version of the film.

World War III presents viewers with a thought-provoking scenario depicting what could’ve come to pass if Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev had been removed from power by hardliners in October 1989. Only weeks before the fall of the Berlin Wall would signal the imminent Fall of Communism. Of course, Gorbachev’s forced departure from the scene would alter the trajectory of events dramatically.

The film follows the buildup to war in late 1989 and early 1990 through genuine footage of world leaders presented in an alternative history context, as well as footage of military exercises and other news events to project the unrest in Eastern Europe, followed by hostilities in Western Europe and the North Atlantic. Narration and slices of interviews with political and military figures, as well as regular people on the street lend an air of realism to World War III and really sell the film to its intended audience. 

After the opening minutes of the movie, which I’ll talk about in Part II, the stage is laid out. It is 7 October, 1989 and Eastern Europe is a growing cauldron of turmoil. Citizens from East Germany to Romania are dissatisfied with Communist leadership in their nations. Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev visits East Berlin in an attempt to quell the discontent before it boils over. On his flight back to Moscow hardline leaders launch a coup and seize control of the government. Gorbachev is removed from power and his ultimate fate is never determined. The hardliners install General Vladimir Soshkin (fictional character) as the new General Secretary of the Soviet Union.

Soshkin and his supporters move immediately to roll back the reforms introduced by Gorbachev’s perestroika and glasnost policies both at home and abroad. At Moscow’s urging, Warsaw Pact nations crackdown on their domestic uprisings in late October. In East Germany the crackdown intensified public opposition to communism. GDR security forces have difficulty containing its citizens. At the invitation of the East German government, Soviet troops move into East German cities to help control its population. A demonstration in Leipzig is crushed by the Soviet Army troops with considerable casualties being inflicted. Days later a demonstration in East Berlin near the Berlin Wall escalates into a riot as hundreds of East German civilians attempt to scale the Wall and escape into the western section of the divided city. GDR border guards and troops open fire, killing many of their countrymen, as well as a West German cameraman. Film of the incident is broadcast worldwide, leading to heavy condemnation.  Not long after the bloody incident, the East German government orders all foreign journalists out of the GDR.

Berlin is now at the center of the growing crisis. In December, 1989 US Secretary of State James Baker arrives in West Berlin for a clandestine meeting with the commander of Group Soviet Forces Germany. Information has reached the West indicating this general is opposed to Soshkin’s heavy handed crackdown. But the meeting never happens. A car bomb kills the general on his way to meet with Baker. Suspiciously, a West German neo-Nazi group claims responsibility. Tensions rise immediately and Soviet behavior grows more aggressive. The Red Banner Northern Fleet’s submarine force is sortied, and a number of Tu-95 bombers cross into Alaskan airspace prompting interception by USAF F-15 Eagles. Yet Soshkin keeps Berlin in his sights. During a globally televised interview with a Western reporter, the new Soviet leader claims West Berlin is being used as a base of operations for aggression against Eastern Europe. Whether he sincerely believes this or not is a moot point.

Soshkin was only using this alleged provocation as justification for his next move, which comes to pass in late January, 1990 when Soviet and East German forces blockade West Berlin. NATO reacts swiftly with mobilization and reinforcement of Europe. REFORGER is initiated by the United States. Great Britain begins rushing reinforcements to West Germany and enacts Queens Order Two, the calling up of the Territorial Army (the British Army’s version of the US Army Reserves and National Guard). Naturally, the US also starts preparing for the seaborne reinforcement of Europe. A massive convoy gathers on the east coast of the United States, as well as a large escorting force. The next day the Soviets announced a seaborne blockade of Western Europe, effectively setting the stage for the Third World War.

The war section of the film will be discussed on Friday in Part II, along with my take on World War III (1998) in its entirety.


11 Replies to “WWIII Pop Culture: World War III (1998) Part I”

  1. I actually have a copy of this on DVD. It is fascinating, and very well put together.

    “History does not record what happens next,” indeed.

    Happy Thanksgiving, Mike. And everyone!

    Liked by 1 person

      1. A friend sent it to me a long time ago. May he rest in peace. But it is a hell of a gripping film to watch. For me it’s kind of like reading Revelations (for the same reason). Just terrifying to even contemplate what you’re seeing, yeah?

        Liked by 1 person

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