Sometimes, all you can do is sit on the couch to watch television. But for those of us with a taste for history, even a lazy Netflix binge can teach you a lot about the world we share. The best history documentaries on Netflix come in a variety of shapes and cover a huge range of topics. We've collected some of our favorites to share with history lovers everywhere.
New in January
Madoff: The Monster of Wall Street
Streaming January 4
Curious about the rise and fall of corrupt financier Bernie Madoff? This thrilling docuseries will take you along the journey, all while keeping you on the edge of your seat.
The Pez Outlaw
Streaming January 19
The Pez Outlaw has a 100% score on Rotten Tomatoes at the time of this writing, with the critical consensus calling it “a true treat for fans of stranger-than-fiction documentaries.” Shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, a Michigan man journeys to a German factory on a mission to smuggle valuable Pez dispensers back to America.
Cunk on Earth
Streaming January 31
This British series landing on Netflix in 2023 is technically more of a mockumentary than a documentary. Still, it employs real experts to answer the inane questions of reporter Philomena Cunk, played hilariously by Diane Morgan. In this six-part series, Cunk explores the origins of human civilization, from prehistoric times to the present day.
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. Two seasons are out now.
Camp Confidential: America’s Secret Nazis
This animated documentary short offers a bite-sized glimpse at a little-known aspect of World War II: the secret American military camp where Jewish soldiers interrogated Nazi POWs.
Medal of Honor
Meet eight Medal of Honor recipients in this moving Netflix docuseries. Each episode recreates the circumstances under which a soldier won their Medal of Honor. With historians, family members, reporters, veterans, and even actors portraying the story, you’ll find yourself enthralled by these stories of courage.
Sir! No Sir!
This 2005 documentary investigates a fascinating moment in American history that seems to be all but forgotten today: the movement against the war in Vietnam, staged from within the ranks of the military itself. Director David Zeiger interviews veterans and uncovers previously archived material to create a full picture of the movement, from underground pamphlets distributed on military bases to outright mutiny, desertion, riots, and refusal to engage in combat. Zeiger posits that these events being largely forgotten wasn’t pure chance, but a deliberate campaign by the U.S. government to rewrite history and erase the GI antiwar movement from public memory.
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.
Greatest Events of WWII In Color
Something about black and white makes pictured events look impossibly far away. Luckily, this documentary brings World War II to life in full color, allowing viewers a new way to look at history's most famous conflict. This hour will be one you're eternally glad to have spent with Netflix.
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.
This documentary about Nazi Germany was over a decade in the making. Beginning in 2008, director and producer Nick Holland conducted interviews with over 300 Germans, the last living survivors of the Third Reich. Their complicity in war crimes ranges from former SS officers to citizens who turned a blind eye. As they approach the final days of their lives, we get to see how they’ve reckoned with their memories of the past. This documentary is both fascinating and deeply chilling, and it has a 92% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
Misha and the Wolves
As a young Jewish child in war-torn Europe, Misha Defonseca was placed in the care of a Catholic family who could keep her safe from the Nazis. But Misha, renamed Monique, was determined to preserve her heritage and reunite with her family. She secretly left her adopted parents and managed to survive in the wilderness by integrating with a pack of wolves as she wandered Europe. At least, this is the story Misha has told. But how much of it is true? Misha and the Wolves deconstructs a literary hoax and arrives at a truth stranger and more complicated than fiction, and fascinating in its own right.
Anne Frank Parallel Stories
Helen Mirren narrates this moving documentary which explores the history of five women who survived the Holocaust. Although Anne Frank is undeniably the person most people who pictured when asked to picture a specific victim of the Holocaust, there were untold others whose lives were lost—or drastically changed—by their experiences during WWII. Although these women survived, their stories have echoes of Anne's tale.
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.
The Devil Next Door
In 2009, John Demjanjuk, seemingly an average Cleveland grandfather, was deported to Germany to face a war crimes trial, accused of being “Ivan the Terrible”, a Nazi prison guard at Sobibor extermination camp. This documentary focuses on his trial, the testimony of survivors of Sobibor and Treblinka, and the final resolution of a case that continues to be a bit of an unsolved mystery.
American History Documentaries
The Clotilda was the last known ship to carry enslaved Africans to the United States, a practice which had been banned decades earlier. Some of the survivors from the ship would go on to found Africatown, an Alabama community that aimed to keep their traditional African traditions and language alive. This documentary follows the descendents of Africatown and Clotilda passengers in the present day.
The Martha Mitchell Effect
Martha Mitchell was married to the US Attorney General serving under Richard Nixon, and had a habit of making indiscreet remarks to reporters. When she became suspicious in the wake of the Watergate break-in, she was held in a hotel room against her will, beaten, and drugged. The “Martha Mitchell Effect” has come to refer to someone who is considered paranoid or delusional by mental health professionals, but is actually telling the truth. This fascinating documentary traces Mitchell’s kidnapping and the aftermath.
Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America
The Civil Rights Movement resulted in the successful passage of federal protections for people of color. But, as the last several years of racial reckoning have shown, it’d be a mistake to assume that discrimination is a thing of the past. Former ACLU director Jeffery Robinson breaks down the history of anti-Black racism, from slavery to the contemporary myth of a post-racial America.
Turning Point: 9/11 and the War on Terror
There’s no question that 9/11 was a turning point in American history, and even modern history at large. Featuring interviews with former CIA agents, administration officials, Afghan warlords, soldiers, and civilians, this five-part docuseries does a deep dive into how the nation was irrevocably changed that day. It’s especially timely as the Taliban takes over Afghanistan, forcing us to question how effective the War on Terror really was and reflect on what’s been lost and gained in the last 20 years.
Related: 7 Essential Books About Afghanistan
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.
I Am Not Your Negro
This "visual essay" combines James Baldwin's unfinished work, Remember This House, with the author's life to paint a compelling portrait of both Baldwin and America itself.
The Sons of Sam
In 1976, a shooting shook New York City. Two women sitting in a car in the Bronx were shot—one fatally. Into the fall and winter of 1976 and 1977, the shootings would become a nearly monthly occurrence across New York City. Although David Berkowitz was eventually brought to justice, some onlookers believed that his conviction would not—could not—be the end of the story.
Challenger: The Final Flight
In a less triumphant view, this brand-new docuseries reveals new details about the tragic Challenger incident of 1986. Although the grooves of this story have been well-trodden in the decades since the United States watched in horror as the rocket broke apart after its launch, killing all seven crew members aboard, the empathetically made series shows how failure after failure led to the final disaster.
European History Documentaries
Vendetta: Truth, Lies and The Mafia
In Sicily, journalist and TV host Pino Maniaci and judge Silvana Saguto teamed up to create an anti-Mafia coalition and bring down the region’s biggest crime bosses. But what happens when those who set out to catch the criminals turn out to be just as corrupt as the people they’re putting behind bars?
Related: 13 Eye-Opening Books About the Mafia
The Royal House of Windsor
Looking for the true story behind The Crown? Beginning with the abdication of Edward VIII, this docuseries explores the history of the Windsor family. Neatly following much of the narrative of the Netflix drama, this series will fill in the gaps—and tell you what’s real and what’s less than accurate.
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.
South American History Documentaries
This enchanting docuseries takes viewers on a journey through the Andes. From Argentina to Colombia, learn about the rich culture and unique ways of life of various people living in the vast South American mountain range.
Multi-talented author Paco Ignacio Taibo II brings his beloved book series to life in this Mexican retrospective. Focusing on a period in the mid-19th century, Taibo explores the War of Reform, the reign of Benito Juárez and how the two shaped modern Mexico. With Mexican history so often neglected in American schools and culture, this documentary is sure to spark new insights.
In 2015, prosecutor Alberto Nisman was found dead on his bathroom floor. To this day, questions surround his death, from who did it to why two Argentinian presidents have publicly commented on the circumstances. This documentary seamlessly blends true crime and political intrigue.
In Her Hands
This documentary chronicles the experiences of Zarifa Ghafari, one of Afghanistan’s first female mayors and the youngest woman to ever hold the position, in the two years leading up to the Taliban’s return to power. She’s faced with difficult decisions and a harrowing reality as US troops withdraw and an oppressive regime takes over once more.
Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am
American author Toni Morrison died in 2019. A recipient of the Pulitzer Prize and the Nobel Prize in Literature, her novels illuminated the harsh effects of racism and the experiences of Black Americans. Filmed before her death, this documentary follows Morrison as she examines her life, work, and the impact she’s made.
Never Stop Dreaming: The Life and Legacy of Shimon Peres
Shimon Peres was the ninth president of Israel. At the time of his 2014 retirement, he was the world's oldest head of state. He was also considered the last link to Israel's founding generation. Peres won the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize for his peace talks with Palestinian leadership. This documentary traces his remarkable life and leadership.
Running With the Devil: The Wild World of John McAfee
Streaming August 24
John McAfee founded the first anti-virus software company, kickstarting a multi-billion dollar industry. But that’s not the only interesting facet of his life. After relocating to Belize, he fled the country when he was wanted for questioning in connection to his neighbor’s murder. This chaotic and fascinating documentary chronicles his years on the run.
“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”
The mere mention of Mr. Rogers invokes positive childhood memories for millions of Americans. This documentary about the soft-spoken television host reflects on his legacy, featuring archival footage and interviews with his loved ones.
The Mystery of Marilyn Monroe: The Unheard Tapes
60 years after her passing, the circumstances around the death of Hollywood star Marilyn Monroe continue to baffle and intrigue. This new documentary is based on the research Anthony Summers did for his book Goddess. It taps into previously unheard interviews with Monroe’s inner circle in an attempt to get to the bottom of her mysterious death.
Jimmy Savile: A British Horror Story
Jimmy Savile was a beloved British entertainer who hosted radio programs and BBC shows. After his death in 2011, hundreds of people came forward to accuse him of sexual abuse. A lengthy police investigation concluded that he was one of Britain’s most prolific predators. This sobering documentary delves into Savile’s life and the evidence against him and dissects how his crimes remained buried for so long.
The Andy Warhol Diaries
After famed pop artist Andy Warhol was shot in 1968, he began documenting his life in a series of diary entries and conversations with longtime friend Pat Hackett. Based on those recollections, this documentary chronicles Warhol’s life and personal feelings. Interestingly, it uses AI tech to recreate Warhol’s voice so that the artist himself appears to narrate the Ryan Murphy-produced limited series.
Related: 10 Illuminating Andy Warhol Books
Reach dizzying new heights with this documentary about Marc-André Leclerc, a prodigious mountaineer who scaled some of the world’s most terrifying peaks. The filmmakers, who explore both the physical and psychological aspects of rock climbing, reveal the perspective of Leclerc, who one reviewer notes is “paradoxically...at his most grounded mid-ascent”.
Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal, and Greed
We know Bob Ross as a mild-mannered artist who graced American television screens in the 80s and 90s, and has seen a resurgence in pop culture relevance after his 1995 death. But what few know is that Ross was engaged in a fierce battle over his business empire. This documentary reveals a facet of Ross’s life and career that has remained shrouded in mystery, until now.
Actress Audrey Hepburn is remembered today for her beauty and sense of fashion, but—as this documentary reveals—there's so much more to the silver screen icon than first meets the eye. From her childhood in the Nazi-occupied Netherlands to her work as a UNICEF ambassador and humanitarian, Audrey explores the entertainer’s fascinating life through interviews with her family and those who knew her best.
Who Killed Malcolm X?
If you think the title of this documentary is a question easily answered, think again. This six-part docuseries explores activist Abdur-Rahman Muhammad's quest to uncover exactly what happened to Malcolm X—and why two innocent men took the fall for his assassination.
Jackie: A Tale of Two Sisters
Although this documentary is a bit too short to fully satisfy a history buff, it gives a great overview of the lives of Jackie Kennedy Onassis and her sister, Lee Radziwill. If you find yourself thirsty for more, we recommend .
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.
Trust No One: The Hunt For The Crypto King
Gerry Cotten was the founder of Quadriga Fintech Solutions, the largest cryptocurrency exchange in Canada. When he died in 2018, he took his passwords to the grave, freezing access to $250 million in cryptocurrency owed to customers. This documentary investigates the mysterious circumstances of Cotten’s death and the questionable business practices of Quadriga.
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.
Social & Cultural Documentaries
Trainwreck: Woodstock ’99
Woodstock ‘99 was held at the original location to emulate the famous 1969 event, but the resulting music festival couldn’t be further from its predecessor. Numerous safety issues plagued the festival due to high heat and inadequate water, and there were also frightening outbreaks of violence, including sexual assault and riots. This documentary takes a closer look at the disastrous event.
Downfall: The Case Against Boeing
The Boeing 737 MAX passenger airliner was grounded worldwide after two crashes just months apart, in October 2018 and March 2019, killed 346 people. This documentary asks how and why these tragedies occurred, drawing some unsettling conclusions about the company’s culture and its incentives to cut corners in order to maximize profits.
Heavenly Bites: Mexico
This docuseries traverses Mexico to discover the best cuisine the country has to offer. With a special emphasis on innovative dishes and outrageous new twists on classic flavors, you’ll also get to know the people behind the Instagram-worthy food, their stories, and what inspired them.
Midnight Asia: Eat. Dance. Dream.
Midnight Asia is a dazzling docuseries that takes viewers into the heart of six Asian cities. When the sun goes down, each metropolis has a vibrant, bustling nightlife, as well as its own take on cuisine, music, art, and clubs. If you love traveling or learning about different cultures, you’ll enjoy this deep dive into destinations most tourists never see.
Three Songs for Benazir
This short, moving documentary follows two Afghan teenagers who find themselves at a displacement camp. Over the course of four years, they eventually fall in love and get married, while navigating the challenges that come with being a refugee. It’s a touching look at how life goes on and hope for a better future persists amid political instability.
David Fincher serves as executive producer for this ode to film. Told in six parts, a series of visual essays explore and analyze some of the most iconic moments seen on the big screen.
Director Sanjay Rawal follows four different Native American tribes as they attempt to combat food insecurity and reclaim sovereignty over their ancestral food systems. It’s an eye-opening look at how trauma resulting from the genocide of Native Americans has reverberated throughout their communities for years, impacting the indigenous way of life to this day.
We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks
WikiLeaks changed the public discourse around freedom of information. Here, Julian Assange and the furtive organization that exposes classified media and reports is unveiled like you’ve never seen it before. Alex Gibney received his fifth nomination for Best Documentary Screenplay from the Writers Guild of America Awards for this compelling two-hour documentary.
The Movies That Made Us
As its name implies, this docuseries explores films of all genres that had an outsize impact on pop culture or encapsulated the zeitgeist at the time they were released. Ahead of the third season's October premiere date, you can binge the first two seasons, also available on Netflix.
In this searing documentary, survivors and ex-leaders of “conversion therapy”—a controversial method that attempts to change the sexuality of LGBTQ youth—speak out about their experiences. Above all, they denounce conversion therapy and the psychological harm that it caused them, as well as the continued dangers that it poses to the LGBTQ community.
This is Pop
This is Pop is a deep dive into the music genre as well as the ins and outs of the industry itself. It explores such different avenues as the rise of country-pop, the use of auto-tune, and festival culture, and studies the careers of artists like Shania Twain, Boyz II Men, and T-Pain. This is Pop also reveals the untold stories behind some of pop music’s biggest moments, as well as the dark side of the industry. Featuring eight episodes, this new docuseries just might be the most comprehensive analysis of pop music currently available on streaming platforms.
High on the Hog
Stephen Satterfield, food writer and founder of Whetstone Magazine, will take viewers on a journey through African American cooking. Exploring the history, culture, and activism that has gone hand-in-hand with cooking through the centuries, this douseries promises eye-opening experiences and hunger-inducing views.
This is a Robbery: The World’s Biggest Art Heist
In the early morning hours of March 18, 1990, two men disguised as police officers made off with 13 works of art from Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Worth an estimated total of $500 million, it was the most expensive art theft in U.S. history. The new docuseries This is a Robbery: The World’s Biggest Art Heist examines the notorious crime, which remains unsolved to this day.
Related: 10 Intriguing Art History Books
Myths & Monsters
Mythology reveals much to the keen-eyed observer. Studying mythology allows us to discover the preoccupations of a culture, from natural phenomena to the fears that keep people awake at night. This docuseries explores the myths of Europe and how they shaped the continent and its cultures.
The History of Swear Words
Want to watch Nicolas Cage curse wildly? We’ve got the documentary for you. This new docuseries features six episodes exploring some of the words that may make you clap your hands over your ears. But this isn’t just an excuse to swear—each episode explores the origin and etymology of its given blasphemy thoroughly. With comedians, historians, linguists, and authors contributing, this series is sure to be a hoot of a good time.
Science & Nature Documentaries
The Volcano: Rescue from Whakaari
New Zealand’s Whakaari / White Island, an active volcanic island, erupted in 2019. 22 people died and additional survivors faced intense injuries. This documentary captures minute-by-minute footage of the eruption and crucial testimony from survivors and rescuers that creates a detailed picture of that tragic day.
The Elephant Whisperers
This heartwarming documentary follows a couple in southern India who have devoted their lives to caring for elephants, specifically orphaned babies. If you’re scouring Netflix for some idyllic escapism, look no further.
The ancient world saw some truly amazing cities constructed from the ground up. But why did some civilizations collapse, while others thrived? This short docuseries takes a magnifying glass to six societies that disappeared over the millennia and the various scientific theories for their decline.
A Trip to Infinity
The concept of infinity and what that looks like is a difficult one to wrap our brains around. A team of scientists and mathematicians embark on an awe-inspiring journey to discover the meaning of infinity and its effects on the universe.
History 101: Season 2
This series presents concise historical lessons with each episode. After premiering in 2020, the show returns for a second season this August with information on everything from psychedelic drugs to weaponized lasers to bottled water.
Our Great National Parks
Narrated by Barack Obama, this five-part nature documentary takes a look at the most breathtaking national parks spanning five continents. The amazing sights our planet has to offer will have you glued to the screen (and emotionally invested in some baby sea turtles, if the reviews are anything to go by).
Surviving Paradise: A Family Tale
How will we survive climate change? This documentary suggests we look to the animals in the Kalahari Desert for answers. Bridgerton’s Regé-Jean Page explains how animals are already adapting to the prolonged famine and drought in their rapidly changing environment in this often overlooked region.
Puff: Wonders of the Reef
Australian actress Rose Byrne narrates this vibrant documentary about a baby pufferfish, following its journey around the Great Barrier Reef and its interactions with other tiny sea creatures.
Secrets of the Saqqara Tomb
You may think of the early 20th century as the peak of Egyptian tomb discovery—and you’d be right. But even to this day, new tombs are being found and explored by archeologists. In this fascinating documentary, a team of Egyptologists takes viewers along as they explore a 25th-century BCE tomb for the very first time.
Black Holes: The Edge of All We Know
Black holes seem like the stuff of science fiction. Forming where stars collapse in on themselves, they defy the laws of physics as we know them. They’re also invisible, since they don’t reflect or emit light. How, then, can we conceptualize that which is unseen and about which so little is actually known? Black Holes: The Edge of All We Know explores these enigmas in space, which test the limits of science and even philosophy. Featuring the late Stephen Hawking, this documentary also gives us a glimpse at what collaboration between great minds looks like.
You’re likely already aware of the privacy risks associated with facial recognition technology, but there’s another insidious cause for concern: the rampant bias present in these apps, which often have difficulty detecting and analyzing the faces of women and people of color. M.I.T. Media Lab computer scientist Joy Buolamwini consults data analysts and watchdog groups in an effort to understand why this bias exists, its potential repercussions, and possible solutions.
Life in Color with David Attenborough
BBC broadcaster, natural historian, and British national treasure David Attenborough hosts this refreshing nature docuseries. Using UV and polarised light to reveal sights that are invisible to the naked human eye, Attenborough explores the many ways in which animals use color to guide their behaviors and survive in the wild.
This even-handed documentary of the pandemic shaking our world at this very moment is 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.