Best World War II books?
June 9, 2009 6:59 PM   Subscribe

What are the best books on World War II?

I know this is a pretty broad subject, but I suppose I'd like a broad education. I am not only interested in books that have a wide focus, though. Histories, biographies, memoirs, etc., are all good. Fiction as well.

Thanks in advance!
posted by lullaby to Education (40 answers total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
The book Band of Brothers is excellent, though very limited in scope.
posted by doh ray mii at 7:02 PM on June 9, 2009

The Holocaust by Martin Gilbert.
posted by fire&wings at 7:03 PM on June 9, 2009

"The Good War: An Oral History of World War II" by Studs Terkel.
posted by cgomez at 7:04 PM on June 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

At Dawn We Slept by Gordon W. Prangue.

The Invasion of Japan by Lee Ray Skates

Lost Victories by Erich von Manstein.

Eisenhower's Lieutenants by Russell F. Weigley

Amongst many others.
posted by Ironmouth at 7:19 PM on June 9, 2009

"No Simple Victory" by Norman Davies.
posted by Mr Mister at 7:32 PM on June 9, 2009

Winston Churchill. There is no better account of the whole damn thing from post WWI up to the end.
posted by spicynuts at 7:45 PM on June 9, 2009

Shattered Sword on the Battle of Midway.
posted by exogenous at 7:53 PM on June 9, 2009

Look for anything from the authors Rick Atkinson and John Lukacs. The biographies of Hirohito and Rommel are great as well.

Don't forget Catch-22 also. :)
posted by vito90 at 7:54 PM on June 9, 2009

Rise And Fall Of The Third Reich by William L. Shirer
posted by Heminator at 8:03 PM on June 9, 2009

World War 2 was far too huge an atrocity for any handful of books to do it justice. As my dad served in it and saw pretty intense action, it's always been a topic of interest - ever since I could read. So I'm sure the number of WW2 related books I've now read is well into the hundreds, maybe the thousands ... and none immediately come to mind as singularly essential.

That said, I will recommend anything about the Battle of Stalingrad, starting here.

As well, there's William Shirer's Rise and Fall of the Third Reich which I haven't even read ... but a reliable source keeps telling me it will forever change my concept of how the world really works.
posted by philip-random at 8:04 PM on June 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

... and Catch-22, of course. And man, I even previewed before I posted RISE AND FALL ...
posted by philip-random at 8:05 PM on June 9, 2009

Nth-ing Catch-22. Seconding Band of Brothers and adding D-Day by the same author (Ambrose).
posted by educatedslacker at 8:07 PM on June 9, 2009

The War: An Intimate History 1941-1945 by Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns. I used it as a textbook for my home-schooled son and he loved it. It's full of in-depth information, maps and photographs, presented through personal vignettes.
posted by amyms at 8:09 PM on June 9, 2009

I recommend this book so much that people will start to think I'm Marge Piercy's publicist, but Gone to Soldiers is the best historical fiction novel I've ever read. Follows 10 characters through experiences as diverse as working for the OSS (CIA precursor) in London, fighting with the French Resistance, working in munitions factories, etc etc. Great read, too.
posted by lunasol at 8:11 PM on June 9, 2009

Laurence Rees's Auschwitz, despite having an ostensibly limited scope, ended up shedding light on a broader range of topics than I expected. He interviewed former Nazis after their postwar careers were over, meaning that they no longer risked consequences in their professional lives by speaking openly. It's a jarring but fascinating book.
posted by Meg_Murry at 8:14 PM on June 9, 2009

I really enjoyed A Rumor of War, which is comprised of letters from soldiers during WWII as well as other wars. Extremely interesting read from a different point of view.
posted by Chuck Cheeze at 8:38 PM on June 9, 2009

As far as fiction goes, I recommend:

Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels (a favorite)
The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje (also a favorite)
Number the Stars by Lois Lowry (YA, but v. good)
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak (YA but lengthy and quite enjoyable for adult readers)
Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut

Night by Elie Wiesel

Also, Paul Celan's poetry is quite powerful.

You might also consult the Holocaust Memorial Museum's recommended reading by topic.
posted by questionsandanchors at 8:49 PM on June 9, 2009

War and Remembrance (the sequel to Winds of War) by Herman Wouk gives a great overview of most of the Pacific naval battles, especially the Battle of Midway. The author steps out of the story from time to time and uses a fictional character, a German General, to explain the battles. He also does a great job on the siege of Leningrad and the Soviet tank battles. And the story itself...epic, moving, and a great read.
posted by txvtchick at 9:15 PM on June 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

nthing "Rise and Fall of the Third Reich" — once you read it, you can then go and study other more specific topics in depth, but it focuses on the very core of the war. Definitely required reading.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:29 PM on June 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

Oh man. This is totally my chance to
(Some have not been read to completion yet...)

In random order:

"The Mortal Storm" Phyllis Bottome - Fiction - This one is extremely interesting because it was written in 1938, and made into a movie starring James Stewart in 1940 - before much of the inner plans of Nazi Germany was known.

"Neighbors" Jan T. Gross - Non-Fiction - Story of the Polish town of Jedwabne and the murder of it's Jewish population by it's non-Jewish half. Read this as recommended during a topics course.

"Hitler's Prisoners" Erich Friedrich - Non-Fiction - The story of seven non-Jewish Germans who were held in near isolation for a variety of so-called crimes against Nazi-Germany. (I believe the author is one of the seven, but since I've loaned out the book to a friend, I can't check to be sure.)

"The Hiding Place" Corrie Ten Boom - Non-Fiction - Story of a Holland family who hid Jews from the Nazis and ended up being taken to a concentration camp. Written by one of the daughters.

"The Diary of a Young Girl" Anne Frank - Non-Fiction - You've probably read this, but - The diary of Anne Frank, a Jewish girl, as she lived in hiding from the Nazis.

"Night" Elie Wiesel - Non-Fiction - Again, you've probably read this. Everyone has since Oprah slapped her "Opproval" on it, but - The author's memoirs of his survival of the concentration camps.

Ordinary Men Christopher R. Browning - Non-Fiction - Accounts of a Police Battalion - i.e. non-party members - who were put on task in the liquidation on the Jewish population in Poland. Required reading for aforementioned topics course.

"Five Days in August" Micheal D. Gordin - Non-Fiction - Details behind the development and decision to use nuclear bombs in WWII against Japan. A sometimes technical, but still interesting book. Used for paper in topics course.

"The War" Geoffrey C. Ward - Non-Fiction - The companion book to Ken Burns' documentary of the same title. Stories from four American cities and the effects of WWII on their lives.

"Dachau Liberated" Michael W. Perry - Non-Fiction - The book printing of the official report of the U.S. Seventh Army on what they saw when they liberated the concentration camp at Dachau.

"Descent into Darkness" Edward C. Raymer - Non-Fiction - The story of the U.S. Navy salvage divers as they were shipped to Pearl Harbor in efforts to rescue trapped men and raise the warships that had been sunk in the Japanese attacks. (I bought this in hopes of its mentioning my grandfather who was a salvage diver who became trapped in one of the ships for 11 hours while trying to rescue others. - So far it hasn't.)

"Hitler's Willing Exectuioners" Daniel Jonah Goldhagen - Non-Fiction - Tells of "ordinary" Germans and their part in liquidating Jews. Some opposing ideas to that of the Christopher Browning book.

"If you Survive" George Wilson - Non-Fiction - Memoirs of a U.S. soldier and his battles from Normandy through the end of the war in Europe.

"Hitler's World View" Eberhard Jackel - Non-Fiction - Discussion on Hitler's motives and reasoning behind his actions. Required reading for topics course.

"Survival in Auschwitz" Primo Levi - Non-Fiction - Account of the author's deportation to and survival in Auschwitz.

"The Second World War" R. A. C. Parker - Non-Fiction - Sort of an all-around account of WWII. Good for knowing the major events, locations and players of the war. Required reading for topics course.

"A Writer at War" Vasily Grossman - Non-Fiction - Accounts of the war on the Eastern Front from a Russian reporter who was on the front lines.

"The Castle in the Forest" Norman Mailer - Fiction - Novel about Hitler's childhood and family-life through adult-hood. (Haven't read yet. Heard mixed reviews.)

"Battle of Wits" Stephen Budiansky - Non-Fiction - Description of the work of U.S. code-breakers during WWII. Including attempts and success at breaking German, Russian, and Japanese codes.

"The World Within War" Gerald F. Linderman - A view into how U.S. soldiers handled the war and how it affected them. Insight through their own letters and memoirs.

"My Father's Keeper" Stephan Lebert - Non-Fiction - Discussion on interviews with the children of high-ranking Nazis both right after WWII and forty years later.

"The Hidden Life of Otto Frank" Carol Ann Lee - Non-Fiction - A biography of sorts of Otto Frank, Anne Frank's father. It also discusses the probable identity of the Frank family. (Not yet read.)

"Holocaust: A History" Deborah Dwork - Non-Fiction - A history of the building tensions surrounding Jewish peoples in history, leading to WWII. Very interesting, but not a light read. Required reading for topics course. (Also always makes me think, "Hogwarts: A History." That makes me a bad person, right?)

"The Dentist of Auschwitz" Benjamin Jacobs - Non-Fiction - Memoirs of a Jewish dental student sent to the concentration camps and later forced to serve as part-time dentist for the prisoners as well as officers. (Not yet read)

"The Survivor" Terrence Des Pres - Non-Fiction - A breakdown of events and life in the concentration camps. (Not yet read.)

"One Bullet for Me" Magdalene Kruger Klinksiek - Non-Fiction - I can't remember what this one is about other than a woman's struggle to survive the war. I read half of it during high school and got distracted by school work and other things, and never got back to it. It was well-written - I just tried to read it at a bad time.

That's all for me - for tonight at least. I think it's enough. Hope it's some of what you were looking for!
posted by Kimothy at 10:49 PM on June 9, 2009 [6 favorites]

I just finished The Kindly ones, which was interesting despite its flaws.
posted by betweenthebars at 10:51 PM on June 9, 2009

For nonfiction, the Liberation Trilogy books by Rick Atkinson(An Army At Dawn & The Day of Battle) are both extremely good. Army at Dawn won the Pulitzer Prize for History -- the third book, which tells the story from the Normandy Invasion to the end of the war in Europe is supposed to be forthcoming.

For fiction, The Thin Red Line by James Jones is really incredible. It's a fictionalized account of the Battle for Guadalcanal.
posted by dseaton at 11:15 PM on June 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

Wow Kimothy...thanks for the list!
posted by 8-bit floozy at 11:37 PM on June 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

WWII Day by Day is a great incident-by-incident replay of the war. The information isn't deep, but it does a good job of expanding the compressed view we have of history, this far on.
posted by klanawa at 11:49 PM on June 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

I read An Army at Dawn and it totally blew me away. Some of the best non-fiction I've ever read. The Day of Battle was also good, but not quite as engaging.
posted by xz at 1:28 AM on June 10, 2009

What are the best books on World War II?

This totally depends on which position you want to read about. There are clear cultural differences in the way countries remember that war, let alone the writers in it.

The American point of view on this -- victorious, despite some struggle -- is totally different, and often a lot more superficial, than say, the French -- France was defeated, and half of the country was occupied by the Germans, while the other half was so called 'free', yet ruled by the same puppet government -- let alone the Russian, or the German outlook.
posted by ijsbrand at 1:39 AM on June 10, 2009

Maybe slightly off-topic, but you did say you wanted a broad education: I'm currently reading Austerity Britain 1945-1951, which deals with the after-effects of the war (rationing, etc) in Britain, and the response of the people and the state (setting up the NHS, the welfare state, etc). It's excellent.
posted by primer_dimer at 1:39 AM on June 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

Antonty Beevor's Stalingrad and Berlin. He's just published a new one on D-Day (well in the UK, it's not out in the US yet)
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 1:43 AM on June 10, 2009

Came in to say what fearfulsymmetry just has, and would add his Crete: The Battle and the Resistance.
posted by Abiezer at 2:30 AM on June 10, 2009

Max Hastings has two good books:

Armageddon: The Battle for Germany, 1944-1945 and Retribution: The Battle for Japan, 1944-45 cover the waning years of WWII on the European and Pacific fronts.
posted by elder18 at 7:44 AM on June 10, 2009

One thing to keep in mind about early vs middle vs late WWII scholarship. Early WWII books (ie. Churchill, Shirer's Rise and Fall) had the advantage of being written or having access to primary actors and thus have a nice sense of immediacy, but at the arguable cost of objectivity.

Accounts written in the 70s and 80s try to add in perspective synthesizing all of the first hand testimony, and interviewing any current survivors ... if you're up for multimedia, the World At War BBC series is a good example of this. Also, I would to the list of excellent recommendations -- John Keegan's Second World War, which is a great one-volume history of the entire conflict from the Sino-Japanese phases to Potsdam.

Current scholarship on WWII is largely helped by the fall of the Iron Curtain and access to archives in China and the former Soviet Union, which provides a perspective that is given horribly scant treatment in all of the early histories. Antony Beevor's work is probably the best example of this, as is the Vassily Grossman translation that he edited, which Kimothy recommended. I thoroughly enjoyed Stalingrad and the Battle of Berlin, and look forward to his D-Day book.
posted by bl1nk at 7:45 AM on June 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

There are a lot of really good suggestions above, but I do have one qualm about a book on Kimothy's list: The Castle in the Forest was one of the worst pieces of shit I've ever subjected myself to, and should be avoided at all costs. The only reason not to avoid it would be to pick it up with very long tongs and toss it into a hot fire. It purports to give psychological insight into what made Hitler tick, but goes off the rails quite badly.

(on the other hand, Mailer's The Naked and the Dead is a decent fictional/autobiographical account of a campaign in the Pacific).
posted by COBRA! at 7:50 AM on June 10, 2009

A World at Arms: A Global History of World War II does a good job of covering the big stuff, but also lesser-known theaters like the China-Burma-India theater.

Also, a nice short read for some background is The Battle for History: Re-fighting World War II by John Keegan. He surveys the historiography of the war in a very accessible style.
posted by marxchivist at 8:27 AM on June 10, 2009

Seconding Shirer, with the warning that he has an irritating need to point whenever a Nazi was a "pervert", i.e., gay. OMG!

The most haunting fiction I've read on WWII was W.G. Sebald, Austerlitz, and Rachel Seiffert, The Dark Room.
posted by Beardman at 9:57 AM on June 10, 2009

I have a soft spot for books written during the conflict. They have the disadvantage of not being able to tell the whole story for both security and propaganda reasons, but they have an immediacy and a lack of the filtering through later experience that memoirs written later suffer from.

Two examples that spring to mind are Fighter Pilot by Paul Richey (1941) and Enemy Coast Ahead by Guy Gibson (1944), both still in print. Both these books are by british pilots because that's what I was interested in when I was a kid, but I'm sure there are others to suit other tastes.
posted by Quinbus Flestrin at 10:15 AM on June 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

In addition to The Thin Red Line, mentioned above, From Here to Eternity and Whistle complete Jones' trilogy on WWII.

His wartime experiences inspired some of his most famous works. He witnessed the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, which led to his first published novel, From Here to Eternity. The Thin Red Line reflected his combat experiences on Guadalcanal. His last novel, Whistle, was based on his hospital stay in Memphis, Tennessee, recovering from his wounds.

[But I'm a little embarassed to admit I haven't read any of his WWII books. But I did read Some Came Running and thought it was very good.)
posted by Bron at 11:29 AM on June 10, 2009

Singapore Burning documents, from many sources on both sides, the, often desperate, British retreat down the Malay peninsula.
posted by IanMorr at 2:00 PM on June 10, 2009

Something else slightly off the beaten track came to mind, in this case a book about the planning and preparation for what would happen after the Germans invaded Britain: The Last Ditch: Britain's Resistance Plans Against the Nazis by David Lampe.
posted by Quinbus Flestrin at 2:42 PM on June 10, 2009

Seconding "At Dawn We Slept." But you should also read "Miracle At Midway" for a look at what was probably the turning point of the Pacific war.

In addition, the first chapter of David Kahn's "The Codebreakers" (find it at the library) is an excellent account of the 24 hours before the Pearl Harbor attack, told against the backdrop of the U.S.'s cryptography apparatus. It answers the question once and for all why, if the U.S. knew the war with Japan was starting, why wasn't the attack on Pearl prevented. (I've never been able to make it through the whole book, but that chapter is great.)_
posted by lhauser at 2:43 PM on June 10, 2009

Like Quinbus Flestrin's suggestion, here is an engrossing read off the beaten track: Brian Garfield's The Thousand-Mile War, about the Japanese invasion of Alaska and the subsequent Aleutian Campaign.

Also, let me recommend a movie: Leni Reifenstahl's Triumph of the Will, a documentary about the 1934 Nazi Congress in Nuremburg. It's widely considered perhaps the greatest single piece of propaganda of all time. After watching it, you will understand a lot better the appeal of Nazism to the German people of the time.

- AJ
posted by Alaska Jack at 11:55 PM on June 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

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