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.
Editor's note: This list was last updated on 8/5/2020.
This even-handed documentary of the pandemic shaking our world at this very moment is a perfect for those of us who want a better understanding of what we’re facing. Although obviously mired in COVID-19 news, Coronavirus, Explained is anything but alarmist. Its calm and clear explanations of the spread of the disease are reassuring—and they’re releasing new episodes as our understanding changes. It's rarely been clearer that we are watching history be made every day.
Women at War: 1914-1918
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.
Age of Tanks
This French documentary offers a new perspective on conflict during the 20th century, especially World War I and II, through its focus on the tank as a cause of major change. Now generally considered a waste of money and a liability on the warfront, tanks were once a key part of any battle strategy.
Five Came Back
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.
Prelude to War
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 service members 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.
Let There Be Light
Another of the documentaries featured in Five Came Back, John Huston’s Let There Be Light is markedly different from its compatriots. Deemed too inflammatory to release upon its filming in 1946, Huston’s work focused on the PTSD experienced by returning soldiers. Intended to help soldiers rehabilitate and to help their loved ones assist in their struggles, the U.S. Army instead decided that it was too demoralizing and banned its distribution. It was not released until 1981.
Hitler's Circle of Evil
This 10-episode docuseries focuses on the men around Hitler—Goebbels, Himler, Göring, and more—who executed his most evil plans. From the Beer Hall Putsch through 1945, this documentary focuses on how Hitler was not alone in his dreams of Aryan supremacy, and how each of his cohort encouraged the terror of the Third Reich.
The Accountant of Auschwitz
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.
This astonishing documentary explores the heinous crimes committed by Nazi “death squads”. 3,000 men were responsible for the death of over a million so-called undesirables. These men did not use the methods of concentration camps, murdering from a distance. They instead shot over a million Jews, Romanis, people with disabilities, and political dissenters at close range, recruiting locals to assist in the murder and mass burials.
American History Documentaries
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.
Out of Many, One
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.
Featuring interviews with scores of NASA’s less-familiar faces, this documentary gets behind-the-scenes of major space exploration moments, from Apollo 1’s fatal disaster to Apollo 11’s triumphant moon landing. With characters of all sorts, Mission Control demystifies NASA while showing the depths of their accomplishments.
European History Documentaries
The Russian Revolution
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.
Secrets of Great British Castles
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.
Rise of Empires: Ottoman
This historical recreation is, like many of its ilk, hardly 100% accurate. But it does allow an American audience a new perspective about a part of history we may be less familiar with—Mehmed the Conqueror’s victory at the Fall of Constantinople and the birth of the Ottoman Empire as a true world power. The six episodes will keep you entertained through a solid binge.
JFK: The Making of a President
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
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.
The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson
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.
Bobby Kennedy for President
This original Netflix documentary investigates the impact of Bobby Kennedy’s life—and what may have happened had he not been assassinated in 1968. The filmmakers assemble a narrative that shows how Bobby, younger and more awkward brother of JFK, could have grown into an iconic figure.
This docuseries covers some of history’s most compelling conspiracy theories, from alien contact to the disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa. With a range of theories from plausible to absurd and well-known to niche, this eight-episode series is sure to entertain.
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.
Related: 10 Illuminating Andy Warhol Books
This PBS documentary explores the three-day concert that has become shorthand for a generation. Both a concert recording and a documentary, this Academy Award-winning film adeptly centers its viewers in the shoes of those who actually attended the concert and those whose lives were impacted by the descent of hundreds of thousands of attendees.
The Story of God
The voice of God himself narrates this engaging look into the role of religion in world history. Morgan Freeman’s mellifluous tones explore God in various cultures and religions, showing how our understanding of higher powers has shifted with the times. No matter your religion—or lack thereof—you’ll find this docuseries a fascinating and even-handed look at religion and God.
They’ve Gotta Have Us
Although They’ve Gotta Have Us doesn’t go quite as deep into the history of Black cinema as one would hope, this compelling documentary includes many moving recollections from Hollywood icons like Harry Belafonte and more fresh-faced stars like Nathalie Emmanuel and John Boyega.
Featured still from "Five Came Back" via Amblin Television