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20 Best Netflix History Documentaries Streaming Now

Netflix and educate.

There’s no place like Netflix for a lazy afternoon binge. But if you’d like to feel a bit more productive while relaxing on the couch, there’s no better way to spend your time than with these fascinating history documentaries on Netflix. Whether an hour and a half movie or a sprawling, multi-part series, these engrossing documentaries enlighten and entertain.

The Civil War: A Film by Ken Burns

netflix history documentaries
  • Photo Credit: Florentine Films

Ken Burns is the king of history documentaries. And The Civil War is a great place to see why. Burns’s first major documentary, The Civil War was the first documentary to use the “Burns effect”: a method of zooming and panning across images to make it seem as though they were moving. The nine episode series will keep you glued to the screen.

You’ll find a variety of Ken Burns’s films available on Netflix, including The Vietnam War, The West, Prohibition, The Roosevelts, and The War (World War I). Each of them is worth a watch.

Related: 12 Essential Civil War Books 

Five Came Back

netflix history documentaries
  • Photo Credit: Amblin Television

World War II was a whole country effort: Nobody, not even famous Hollywood stars, were exempt. In Five Came Back, Meryl Streep narrates as five current directors explore the impact of the war on five early 20th century directors. Each of the directors profiled volunteered to go to war. They were asked to help by making movies about the war from the front lines. Discover how Frank Capra, John Ford, John Huston, William Wyler, and George Stevens impacted the war–and how the war impacted them.

Related: 11 Essential World War II Books That Examine Every Angle of the Conflict 

Prelude to War

netflix documentaries
  • Photo Credit: U.S. War Department

After checking out Five Came Back, discover one of the documentaries profiled. Frank Capra’s Prelude to War was the first documentary in the U.S. government-sponsored “Why We Fight” series. Released in 1942, it was at first only shown to servicemembers as an attempt to raise morale. Later, it was released to the general public to inspire confidence in American “entanglements” in foreign wars. Capra won the Oscar for Best Documentary in 1942 for this film.

Related: 10 World War II Propaganda Posters: From Patriotic to Peculiar

Studio 54

netflix history documentaries
  • Photo Credit: Altimeter Films

Nightlife in Manhattan during the 70s was full of glitter and glitz, and iconic nightclub Studio 54 was no exception to this rule. This documentary follows the story of the rise and fall of New York City’s biggest club and its owners, Steve Rebell and Ian Schrager. While Schrager does keep some of the club’s secrets under wraps, learning about how nightlife evolved in New York City is sure to be a fun ride for history buffs with a nose for scandal.

Secrets of Great British Castles

netflix history documentaries
  • Photo Credit: Sideline Productions

This docuseries may sound twee, but historian and host Dan Jones takes his investigative work seriously, unveiling fascinating stories about Britain’s most famous castles. Covering everything from the Tower of London during the Tudor period to Edinburgh Castle in the modern day, Secrets of Great British Castles shows how a tight focus can engender broad lessons.

History's Greatest Hoaxes

netflix history documentaries
  • Photo Credit: History Channel

From the Loch Ness monster to an alien autopsy video once believed by many to be authentic, historians debunk some of history’s most infamous scams in this docuseries. Each episode centers around a particular hoax and offers insight into how it started, how it blew up, and how it was eventually exposed. Using unseen footage and brand new interviews, this series is sure to intrigue history buffs and conspiracy theorists alike. 

Related: 7 Infamous Hoaxes That Fooled the World

Paris is Burning

netflix history documentaries
  • Photo Credit: Art Matters Inc.

This iconic documentary deserves the praise it’s received over the years. Documenting the lives of young LGBTQ people in the 1980s ball scene, Paris is Burning explores how fringe or niche culture enters the mainstream. Without ball culture, there would be no “Vogue”, no RuPaul’s Drag Race, and no gifs of Broad City characters screaming “yas”.

LA 92

netflix history documentaries
  • Photo Credit: National Geographic

In 1992, Los Angeles burst into flames. The Los Angeles riots, in response to the acquittal of four LA police officers who were charged with excessive force during the arrest of Rodney King, changed the city forever. The documentary features unseen footage from the almost week-long period of civil unrest that caused over $1 billion in property damage, over 10,000 arrests, and the death of over 50 people. 

JFK: The Making of a President

netflix history documentaries
  • Photo Credit: 3DD Productions

When you think of John F. Kennedy, you probably actually think of Jackie Kennedy’s bloodstained pink suit. But this documentary focuses on Kennedy’s early life, his career before his presidency, and the relationship he had with his family. Over 45 minutes, you’ll take a deep dive into these aspects of Kennedy’s life in order to paint a more personal picture of the departed president. For those looking for a rendering of JFK outside of his assassination, this documentary is definitely worth a watch.

Related: 10 Books About the Kennedys

The Russian Revolution

netflix history documentaries
  • Photo Credit: Netflix

In 1917, the Romanovs were deposed from their royal perches, then executed six months later. 100 years later, this documentary takes a bird’s-eye view of the Revolution, starting in 1881 and continuing through the Stalinist regime. This short but informative documentary is a great introduction for those who have interest in but little exposure to Russian history at the turn of the century.

Related: 8 Surprising Facts About Grigori Rasputin, Russia's "Mad Monk"

Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise

netflix history documentaries
  • Photo Credit: ITVS

Discover the woman behind some of the most vital modern American literature. Perhaps most well-known for her memoir of her early years, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, this documentary delves not only into her lesser known work, but also into the cultural and political moments that made her work possible.

Related: 15 Important Women in History You May Not Have Heard Of 

Vikings Unearthed

netflix history documentaries
  • Photo Credit: PBS

Vikings were notoriously known for being fierce conquerors, skilled traders, and brave travelers who explored parts of Europe and Asia. Unearthed goes beyond what you may already know about the Vikings, offering fresh insight and a reevaluation of what you think you already know. After the discovery of new evidence surrounding the tribe, esteemed archeologist Sarah Parcak traces these clues to uncover secrets about how far the Vikings actually traveled. Parcak’s discoveries and theories are sure to leave viewers astonished.

The Accountant of Auschwitz

netflix documentaries
  • Photo Credit: Good Soup Productions

Less than 50 of the 6,500 Auschwitz SS guards were prosecuted for their role in the heinous war crimes during the Holocaust. In 2014, one man named Oskar Gröning was brought to trial for his role in the deaths. Charged with accessory to murder in 300,000 deaths, Gröning had managed to live a normal life for nearly 70 years. This gripping documentary follows his trial and raises deeply complicated moral questions.

Related: 15 Eye-Opening Books About the Holocaust 

Chasing Trane

netflix documentaries
  • Photo Credit: Meteor 17

John Coltrane’s is one of the most recognizable names in jazz. Born in 1926, Coltrane made an out-sized impact in his 40 years of life. This documentary includes rare video of Coltrane performances and deeply felt, insightful conversations with Coltrane’s loved ones and colleagues. Whether or not you’re already a Coltrane fan, this doc will enlighten and inspire.

Out of Many, One

netflix history documentaries
  • Photo Credit: Netflix

This Netflix documentary re-humanizes the issue of immigration by following a group of men and women preparing to take the U.S. Citizenship test.. The film takes a deep dive into the current political climate of the United States and focuses on the country’s history and reputation of being a home for immigrants all over the world.

The Seventies

netflix history documentaries
  • Photo Credit: CNN

This CNN docuseries focuses on a decade of American history and examines its major events and trends. The 70s were an era of extreme tension in the United States. Moments this series unravels include the resignation of President Richard Nixon, the rise of television, the aftermath of the Vietnam War, and the battle for gender equality. For those interested in this subsection of history, The Seventies is sure to offer an interesting glimpse into the decade. Other decades this docu-series covers are worth a watch–and are available on Netflix–like The Sixties, The Eighties, The Nineties, and The 2000s.

Related: Game On: 10 Best Sports Books Ever Written


netflix history documentaries
  • Photo Credit: BBC

A follow-up to and expansion of a 1969 docuseries, this British show is a feast for the eyes and the mind. Each episode focuses on one aspect of culture and art through civilizations throughout human history. From cave paintings to Kehinde Wiley, the effects of human growth and change is charted through our art and our societies around the world.

Women at War: 1914-1918

netflix history documentaries
  • Photo Credit: Netflix

This French documentary features footage from WWI alongside its tales from women on the front lines. From spies like Mata Hari to the scientific contributions of Marie Curie, fascinating stories from all angles are covered.

Related: 14 Fascinating Books About the War to End All Wars

Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story

netflix history documentaries
  • Photo Credit: Reframed Pictures

Hedy Lamarr, once called the world’s most beautiful woman, was far more than just a beauty or a movie star. She also invented the code-hopping mechanism that made cell phones and wireless connections possible. This fascinating biographical doc charts her life, from its beginning as an immigrant traveling from Austria to the United States to her final days as a recluse.

Related: 13 Female Scientists Who Shaped Our Understanding of the World

The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson

netflix history documentaries
  • Photo Credit: Public Square Films

This documentary investigates the strange death of Marsha P. Johnson, a black gay rights activist and drag queen. Johnson was one of the prominent figures during the riots at Stonewall in 1969. Supposedly, when she threw a shot glass into a mirror at the Stonewall Inn and shouted “I got my civil rights”, the riot ignited.  After dedicating years of her life in service of the LGBTQ community, Johnson’s body was mysteriously discovered floating in the Hudson River in 1992. While the police ruled it as a suicide, new interviews with Johnson’s family and friends hint that foul play may have been involved. Although this documentary centers questions around Johnson’s death, her striking life is what makes her memorable.

Related: 11 Fascinating LGBT History Books to Read for Pride Month

Featured still from "American Experience" via WHGB

Published on 25 Apr 2019

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