The Best of WWII Lit
June 14, 2009 9:56 AM   Subscribe

I've always been fascinated by war, and recently I've been on one of those kicks that seems ephemeral at first but just won't go away. I am particularly fascinated by WWII. I want reading suggestions.

This thread is quite helpful, but it seems mostly limited to broad histories of the war. That's certainly something I'm interested, but you only need to read so many of them if you choose good ones. (I just ordered Keegan's.)

What I'd like are more topical books. Once I've read a few books on the war as a whole I'd like to branch out into narrower aspects. Specific battles or campaigns, particularly good biographies/autobiographies, and narratives about particular countries (I'm imagining a book like "Japan in the Second World War" or something) are especially welcome.

I'd like to stick with non-fiction, though if there are any film gems off the beaten path I'd be interested in hearing about them. I'm reasonably well read on the Holocaust, though if there's anything especially good that's welcome as well.

I'm not intimidated by length, so don't let that be a factor.
posted by Autarky to Education (39 answers total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Stalingrad.
posted by philip-random at 10:02 AM on June 14, 2009

Best answer: it's been a few years since i've read it, but i seem to recall "d-day" by stephen ambrose being quite good.
posted by austere at 10:05 AM on June 14, 2009

Best answer: "Treblinka" is probably the most effecting book I've read on the holocaust, because it is concerned most with understanding the systems in place, but it is also very personal.

I've read a bit about domestic issues during WWII as well, for me that's actually more interesting because there was so much lasting social change/upheval. On a fiction tip, I just finished The Plot Against America which you might enjoy.
posted by serazin at 10:08 AM on June 14, 2009

Best answer: I got really interested in women in WWII a few years ago. The Women Who Wrote the War, about female war correspondents started me off. It's really fascinating. I also liked If I Perish, about combat nurses. It focuses a lot on the fronts in Italy and north Africa, which I liked because it seems like most other popular accounts of the war focus on Europe. We Band of Angels, about the nurses trapped on Bataan was fascinating too, and led me to read Ghost Soldiers, which is also about Bataan.
posted by apricot at 10:11 AM on June 14, 2009 [4 favorites]

Best answer: "Fire in the Sky" is a truly amazing book. It's a history of the air war during the Solomons campaign. But rather than taking a "On this day, this happened" approach, for most of its length it's kind of a horizontal slice. One large chapter talks about conditions, heat, disease, and what it was like living there. Another long chapter talks about the aircraft used. There's a long chapter about air combat tactics.

Extremely well written, and utterly fascinating.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 10:14 AM on June 14, 2009

Best answer: Rick Atkinson's non-fiction WWII books are considered to be very good. They're histories of specific campaigns/inflection points in the war. I read the first and enjoyed it a lot. They're a trilogy, with the third book still coming.

An Army At Dawn--the U.S. campaign in North Africa, 1942-43

The Day of Battle--the U.S. campaign in Sicily and Italy, 1943-33
posted by fatbird at 10:34 AM on June 14, 2009

Best answer: Forgotten Soldier, by Guy Sajer: quasi-autobiographical account of a conscripted Alsatian in the German army on the Eastern Front.

Japan At War: An Oral History - probably one of the most important and remarkable English-language books about the Pacific War from the point of view of the Japanese. Lots of interviews of civilians. It makes a sobering companion to any book or movie that focuses on the heroic exploits of soldiers during war.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:36 AM on June 14, 2009

Best answer: Utmost Savagery: The Three Days of Tarawa by Joseph H. Alexander.

Booklist quote:
It may be impossible to write a really dull book about the 1943 battle of Tarawa. In the assault on the island, the Second Marine Division lost a thousand dead, the Japanese garrison was annihilated, and the marines learned valuable lessons about amphibious weaponry and tactics that aided them in future campaigns. Wukovits avoids a straight narrative in favor of seeing the development of the battle through the eyes of selected survivors, whom he has interviewed intelligently and thoroughly. They were impressed, as readers may be, by the strength of the Japanese fortifications and the tenacity of their garrisons, who kept the whole island under fire for two of the battle's three days. Wukovits adds emotional punch with accounts of marines who did not survive but whose memories families have kept alive for 60 years. A worthwhile battle monograph for any Pacific theater or marine collection. Roland Green
posted by JayRwv at 10:56 AM on June 14, 2009

Best answer: One of my favourite books is Popski's Private Army. It is the autobiography of a middle-aged Belgian (I think?), who founded his own version of the SAS before David Stirling did, leading raids deep behind German lines in Egypt to cause havoc. Its also engagingly written. It isn't a big history - only the tale of one man and the unit he created - but it is fascinating.
posted by prentiz at 10:57 AM on June 14, 2009

Best answer: I really recommend Alexander Werth's Russia at War, 1941-1945. It's very much biased towards Russia (as opposed to the other Allied countries), but keep in mind that most Western accounts exaggerate America's contribution to the war and rely on the millennia-old stereotype of Russian soldiers as untrained, unskilled Asiatic cannon fodder.
posted by nasreddin at 10:58 AM on June 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: If you read one book connected to the camps, read this one please:

This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen.
posted by Meatbomb at 11:01 AM on June 14, 2009

Best answer: Try (in no particular order) German Boy , With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa , And No Birds Sang , Das Boot , Thunder Below .
posted by gudrun at 11:16 AM on June 14, 2009

Best answer: Downfall is a great book about why the A-bomb was dropped without the usual flapdoodle about how it was all because of racism. It examines the tactical and strategic situation in detail and how that led to Truman choosing to drop the bomb.

Escape from Colditz is a genuinely inspiring account of British prisoners of war and their attempts to escape from the Germans.
posted by Confess, Fletch at 11:17 AM on June 14, 2009

Best answer: Where the Hell Are the Guns?: A Soldier's View of the Anxious Years, 1939-44 is part of an excellent trilogy that combines historical fiction with detailed research and extensive references (which you can use or ignore freely as they interest you, or not).

This book focuses on the Canadian and British experience in the war, as that simply where the author was at the time. However it's not "one man's" story of the war, it's a well researched epic that covers the entire experience of Canada's 4th Field Regiment from the moment recruiting started in Canada to D-Day and beyond.
posted by tiamat at 11:23 AM on June 14, 2009

Best answer: I really enjoyed reading Winston Churchill's six volume history of WWII. It's of course dated and biased, and for instance makes no mention of the Enigma decrypts because they were still classified, but it's an interesting read because of its personal slant, and it includes a tremendous amount of detail.

Leo Marks' "Between Silk and Cyanide" is an interesting book about the opposite side of the intelligence war - the British effort to get spies into occupied Europe.
posted by pombe at 11:57 AM on June 14, 2009

Best answer: I recently read and really enjoyed Now The Hell Will Start. It's about the "biggest manhunt in WWII" for a solider who goes native in Burma. I found it fascinating as I knew very little about the Burma campaigns during WWII and it was a hell of a compelling story.
posted by Asbestos McPinto at 12:08 PM on June 14, 2009

Best answer: I really enjoy Emily Hahn's autobiographical essays -- China to Me spans from the 1930's through 1943, and includes being in Hong Kong under Japanese occupation during the war. England to Me has 1943 through I'm not sure when exactly. And there are some more bits (like coming back to the U.S. after China, that are in Times & Places -- also published as No Hurry to Get Home.)

Rereading China to Me set me off on a WWII kick too, I've liked A Dawn Like Thunder: The True Story of Torpedo Squadron Eight, Between Silk and Cyanide, and Agent Zigzag: A True Story of Nazi Espionage, Love, and Betrayal.
I have just started With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa and Going Solo (Roald Dahl's autobiographical account, though he is known for exaggeration).
posted by Margalo Epps at 12:24 PM on June 14, 2009

Best answer: Goodbye, Darkness, a memoir by the wonderful historian, William Manchester, of his time as a Marine in the Pacific.

For interesting, "in the moment" readings, I strongly suggest Ernie Pyle's collected pieces from his time in Africa, Europe, and lastly, the Pacific.
posted by Atreides at 1:54 PM on June 14, 2009

Best answer: I took a class on Japanese history WWII and post-war. Here are some of the books we read that I liked:
Embracing Defeat
The Pacific War 1931-1945
2nding Japan at War: An Oral History
posted by ishotjr at 2:41 PM on June 14, 2009

Best answer: Adding another book - on the war in Crete - Ill Met By Moonlight.

Also, I see you mention movies as well. The movie version of "Ill Met By Moonlight" (also sometimes called "Night Ambush") is a bit dated but still kind of fun. The movie version of "Das Boot" is a classic (and thus you have probably seen it but I will mention it anyway), and the movie "Downfall" ("Der Untergang") is also recommended.
posted by gudrun at 3:13 PM on June 14, 2009

Best answer: Eugenio Corti's novel The Red Horse. For those of you who did not realize there were Italians on the Russian front.

Waugh's semi autographical novel
Sword of Honour
, though funnier is his Put Out More Flags.

War Diaries of Marie Vassiltchikoff by a Russian refugee from the revolution who wound up working in the German Foreign Ministry, which was a hot bed for the members of the Canaris conspiracy. Fascinating. (Her sister Tatiana von Metternich was married to Paul von Metternich and wrote a bunch of works, some available in English.)

See also Christabel Bielenberg's When I Was a German

And for the record, seconding Goodbye Darkness, With The Old Breed, Ill Met By Moonlight.

Winston Churchill's six volume history of WWII. He was able to claim his war papers as personal and so had a leg up on the competition. Not that he had any biases or anything....
posted by IndigoJones at 4:44 PM on June 14, 2009

Best answer: Seconding "Forgotten Soldier" by Guy Sager. What a book! All of our hollywood movies about our fights on the western front look like boy scout picnics compared to what happened across Poland and into Russia and then back, both sides at total war, the absolute insanity of war, mechanized lunacy. Written from a German soldiers perspective, joined the army at sixteen but barely sixteen if I recall correctly, he got to the Eastern front just in time to march backwards as the Russians finally got their war going.
posted by dancestoblue at 5:12 PM on June 14, 2009

Best answer: Johannes Steinhoff wrote two memoirs of his time as a pilot. I've only read one, but it was fascinating. (My links are not working, but google the name and you'll find a good interview published several years ago.)

Sager's book is enough to start barroom brawls, and the controversy is as weirdly interesting in small doses as the book is in its entirety. Almost worth a post in its own right. Do a little searching before reading it - but do read it.
posted by IndigoJones at 5:26 PM on June 14, 2009

Best answer: The Good War - not focussed on any specific campaign or aspect of the war, but a collection of excellent, affecting, first-person accounts from virtually every corner of WW2. Compiled and edited by the legendary Studs Terkel.
posted by BigLankyBastard at 6:58 PM on June 14, 2009

Best answer: Enigma: The Battle for the Code
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 7:08 PM on June 14, 2009

Best answer: I can't believe noone has mentioned Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William L. Shirer yet. It's considered one of the most thoroughly researched books on Germany's politics from 1918 to 1945, and the progress of the war.

It was written in the early 1960s with direct access to confiscated Nazi government archives and person to person interviews with many persons involved.
posted by thewalrus at 11:12 PM on June 14, 2009

Best answer: I can't believe no one has mentioned Flyboys - the story of US air-power in the Pacific theater and how it was systematically used to decimate Japan's defenses (and will to fight), and the men who flew those planes.
posted by allkindsoftime at 1:32 AM on June 15, 2009

Best answer: Quartered Safe Out Here by George MacDonald Fraser, he of the Flashman books.

He takes a swipe at Paul Fussell for some of the cynical things PF has written in his essays on the war, and those essays and books should be read as well. (Fussell can get a little tiresome in his schtick after a while, which is what GMF was reacting to, but the prose is first rate.) See Doing Battle, Wartime, and The Boys' Crusade in no particular order. There's a certain amount of overlap in the material. Good stuff also in The Boy Scouts' Handbook
posted by IndigoJones at 6:43 AM on June 15, 2009

Best answer: Coinsicnedantly and just today I have had Charles Glass' Americans In Paris recommended to me. UK only for the moment, but it seems to have gotten good reviews.

And now I shall shut up.
posted by IndigoJones at 2:41 PM on June 15, 2009

Best answer: Naples '44: A World War II Diary of Occupied Italy by Norman Lewis. A stunning book.
posted by littlecatfeet at 3:52 PM on June 15, 2009

Response by poster: these all look great, thnx
posted by Autarky at 11:52 PM on June 15, 2009

Before you go out and buy the books that canoehead recommends, you might want to take a gander at these complementary (not complimentary) reviews of Human Smoke and The Unnecessary War by Adam Kirsch in the New York Sun (just ignore the paper they're published in - if the New York Times book review had a pair they'd publish reviews like these occasionally).
posted by Dasein at 11:18 PM on June 16, 2009

All the more reason to read them!
posted by canoehead at 3:00 PM on June 17, 2009

I didn't want to say anything, but yeah, what Dasein said.
posted by Atreides at 8:38 PM on June 18, 2009

Not intending to hijack the thread but most of criticism of "smoke" & "uneccessary war" I've seen seem to be aimed at the credentials, reputation & motivation of the writers rather than the substance of the works. Read & make up your own mind.
posted by canoehead at 12:40 PM on June 19, 2009

City of Thieves
The Book Thief
Not really WW2 but if you're lookingor relatedh istorical fiction, The Plot Against America is a kickass book by Philip Roth
posted by alon at 9:03 AM on June 27, 2009

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