World War III is a 1998 German alternative history television pseudo-film/documentary, directed by Robert Stone and distributed by ZDF. it is also known as Der 3. Weltkrieg, Der Dritte Weltkrieg, and WW III: World War III.
An English version, in collaboration with TLC, was made as well and aired in May 1999.
It depicts what might have transpired if, following the overthrow of Mikhail Gorbachev, Soviet troops, under orders from a new hard-line regime, had opened fire on demonstrators in Berlin in the fall of 1989 and precipitated World War III.
The film mixes real footage of world leaders and archive footage of (for example) combat exercises and news events, with newly shot footage of citizens, soldiers and political staff.
The movie opens with clips of the US military scrambling to respond to a Soviet nuclear attack. Daniel Schorr, reporting in front of the White House, is vaporised when a nuclear weapon detonates.
In the summer of 1989, East Germany is in turmoil. Many citizens are dissatisfied with their nation’s Communist leadership and seek reunification with West Germany. On October 7, Mikhail Gorbachev, a supporter of those reforms, visits East Berlin. During his return flight, the hard-line Communist leadership stages a coup that deposes Gorbachev and installs (fictional) General Vladimir Soshkin as the new Soviet leader. The Soviet government announces that Gorbachev resigned for “reasons of ill health,” but Gorbachev is never heard from again, his true fate “lost in the darkness of history.”
Soshkin and the hard-liners fiercely resist the rise of glasnost and perestroika. They are determined to end the uprisings in East Germany and the rest of the Eastern Bloc with a swift Chinese-style military crackdown in late October. (In East Germany at least, the crackdown is not limited to demonstrators; numerous moderate Communists such as Egon Krenz and Günter Schabowski are “disappeared”, never to be heard from again.) The crackdown inflames popular opposition to communism. In late November, a demonstration in Leipzig is brutally repressed by the East German Army at great loss of life. Two days later, a demonstration at the Brandenburg Gate ends with East German soldiers killing many East Berlin residents trying to scale the Berlin Wall and a West German cameraman filming the events. Those soldiers also fire shots over the wall into West Berlin. Soon after, the East German government responds to the international condemnation of their conduct by ordering all foreign journalists out of the country.
In mid-December, NATO airlifts military reinforcements to West Berlin. Soon after, Secretary of State James Baker arrives in West Berlin to secretly meet with General Dmitry Leonov, the Soviet commander in East Germany, who strongly opposes Soshkin’s crackdown. However, on the way to the meeting, Leonov is killed by a car bomb, for which a West German neo-Nazi group claims responsibility. After an interview with West German TV in which Soshkin implicitly threatens West Berlin, an American colonel orders that tactical nuclear weapons in West Germany be placed on high alert Soshkin responds with new threats, a massive deployment of the Soviet submarine fleet, and incursions of Soviet Bear bombers into Alaskan airspace.
On 25 January 1990, several East German and Soviet tank divisions are mobilised to cut off transportation and supply links between West Germany and West Berlin, and the Soviet Air Force moves to close off East Germany’s airspace. Soshkin hopes the plan will prevent the West from encroaching into the Soviet sphere of influence and isolate Berlin from the West. NATO responds by deploying thousands of additional troops into West Germany to strengthen their existing garrisons there.
As the United States prepares their first military convoy across the North Atlantic, the Soviets announce their intention to blockade the US Navy transports. Soshkin desires to cut off Western Europe and weaken the NATO buildup. The US and Britain condemn the blockade and last-minute attempts at a compromise fall through. When the convoy crosses into the designated exclusion zone, Soviet forces are ordered to attack. Nearly a quarter of the convoy is sunk in the ensuing battle before the NATO fleet clears the air and sea lanes to Europe. Shortly afterwards, the United Nations Security Council holds an emergency session in New York City in the hopes of diffusing the hostilities between the superpowers, but proves fruitless when neither side refuses to back down until other does so. World War III has effectively begun.
The world panics after the failed session and the United States dispatches (fictional) National Security Advisor Martin Jacobs to the Soviet Union for last ditch effort talks with Soshkin. Figuring that Soshkin knows that the Soviets are losing power in Eastern Europe, Jacobs offers Soshkin an extended timetable for the Soviet withdrawal from Eastern Europe in exchange for a de-escalation of the military buildup. Soshkin refuses him utterly with one word: “Nyet” (no).
The Battle for Germany
On 12 March, Soshkin orders a massive amphibious landing near Kiel on the Baltic coast, carried out by the Volksmarine and the Soviet Navy’s Baltic Fleet. The landings catch NATO off-guard, and they scramble forces northward to push back the beachhead. The next day, Warsaw Pact ground forces drive through the Fulda Gap, with orders to push to the Rhine to divide the stretched out NATO armies. To support the assault, the Soviet Air Force bombards targets immediately on the Baltic coast and NATO bases further inland, such as Ramstein Air Base. The overall plan is to cripple the NATO buildup with a swift strike and then press for a new round of diplomatic bargaining from a stronger strategic position. NATO forces, surprised by an enemy that far outnumbers them, are pushed back, though they are able to inflict significant losses on the Warsaw Pact forces. By 17 March, the Warsaw Pact forces have advanced 50 miles into West Germany. Entire towns are destroyed in the fighting as increasingly desperate NATO commanders try to stall the Warsaw Pact’s advance, and civilian and military casualties are heavy, overwhelming NATO medical personnel. Public order collapses amid mass panic, and 20 million automobiles jam the roads as West German civilians try to flee.
While preparing to launch a tactical nuclear counter-assault, NATO carries out a last-ditch conventional air campaign – code-named Operation Bloody Nose – launched 24 hours before the nuclear strikes were to begin. The already-overworked NATO aviators are given just one day to turn the tide of an entire war. Thanks in part to a daring raid on the Soviet Army’s forward headquarters in Poland and the use of American stealth aircraft, Bloody Nose is an overwhelming success: the initial strikes cripple Warsaw Pact command and control posts, throwing their armies in the field into chaos. In the ensuing air battle, NATO also inflicts devastating losses on the Soviet Air Force (which had already lost 20% of the aircraft supporting the initial offensives), thereby gaining air supremacy over Eastern European airspace. Combined with assistance from the Polish underground that cuts off Soviet supply lines, the tide of the war turns. With their numerical superiority negated by Western technological superiority, the East German and Soviet armies melt under NATO air strikes, and counterattacking NATO forces cross into East Germany on 23 March.
Global Thermonuclear War
NATO forces reach and liberate West Berlin on 27 March. Now in full retreat, the Soviet Army withdraws to Poland, abandoning the East Germans to fend for themselves. With the East German Army beaten, its central government falling apart, and foreign armies rapidly advancing into the country, East Germany essentially collapses, leaving many Germans on both sides of the Iron Curtain to hope that reunification is at hand. With victory at hand, the American leadership tries to reassure Soshkin that NATO has no intention of pressing their advance beyond East Germany. Open revolt erupts across the Eastern Bloc as citizens of the communist nations, as well ethnic minorities within the Soviet Union, press for the overthrow of their own leaders, emboldened by the collapse of East Germany and the fact that the Soviets are obviously losing the war. Soshkin’s paranoia and desperation rises swiftly as the entire Eastern Bloc falls apart around him, and while NATO has no intention of actually doing so, Soshkin quickly becomes convinced that they will try to exploit the situation and fight all the way to Moscow.
As a show of force, on 31 March Soshkin orders a symbolic nuclear strike above the North Sea. The United States responds by going to full nuclear alert and preparing to execute the Single Integrated Operational Plan. On 01 April (ironically April Fools Day), a Soviet radar post suffers an equipment malfunction. Falsely believing that the USSR is under nuclear attack, Soshkin orders an all-out retaliatory nuclear strike against the West. The nuclear powers of NATO have no choice but to respond in kind, and thousands of nuclear devices are launched across the Northern Hemisphere. The narrator intones, “There is no further historical record of what happens next,” suggesting that civilisation was either wiped out or destroyed to a great extent.
The movie then rewinds to Gorbachev’s visit to East Germany. Archival footage is shown of the celebrations of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the peaceful reunification of Germany: “History…took a different course.”.
Production & Filming Details
- Narrator(s): Matthias Fuchs (ZDF) and David McCallum (TLC).
- Director(s): Robert Stone.
- Producer(s): Ulrich Lenze, Martha Conboy, and Guido Knopp.
- Writer(s): Ingo Helm and Robert Stone.
- Music: John Kusiak and Caleb Sampson.
- Cinematography: Matthias Haedecke.
- Editor(s): Robert Stone.
- Production: CineCentrum Deutsche Gesellschaft für Film- und Fernsehproduktion mbH, Discovery Channel (in collaboration with), Rai 3 (in collaboration with), and Zweites Deutsches Fernsehen (ZDF).
- Distributor(s): ZDF and TLC.
- Release Date: 01 December 1998.
- Running time: 94 minutes.
- Country: Germany.
- Language: English, German, Russian, and French.