What's a book that gives a good overview of WWII?
June 14, 2006 7:27 AM   Subscribe

What's a good book (or more) for a general historical overview of World War II?

Currently, I've just about finished with Studs Terkel's The Good War (a great book, by the way) and reading it has made me realize how poor my history is in terms of World War II.

I realize that there have been thousands upon thousands of books written about everything from the big events to the minutiae of World War II, but I want to read some sort of book that lays out at least a vast majority of the events in some sort of timeline and gives a good bit of information on each. I'm not particularly looking for a "readers condensed" version of the war, as I don't mind reading a massive book or two if need be, but I am looking for something that gives me a better overall history of WWII itself, so that I'll not only gain a better historical sense of the events, but undoubtedly find different events and subjects within WWII that I want to read about more in depth.
posted by almostcool to Education (19 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I strongly recommend the two-volume set Reporting World War II, published by the Library of America. It's a history of the American presence in the war that's told entirely through mostly contemporary reportage that's been arranged to relate a sustained narrative. One of the nice things about the set, apart from the great writing, is that since the articles are written without the benefit of hindsight, there's a sense of suspense--you get the idea, for example, that Americans didn't quite initially know how bad a person Hitler actually was.
posted by Prospero at 7:33 AM on June 14, 2006

Robert Leckie's Delivered from Evil is a decent one-(big) volume history of the war. Definitely not perfect, but it's readable and covers all the bases.

If you really want to trade readability for rigor, you could try Wouk's two big World War II historical novels (Winds of War and War and Remembrance)-- they're fiction, but they do a pretty good job of laying out the broad strokes of what went on.
posted by COBRA! at 7:42 AM on June 14, 2006

John Keegan's Second World War is a pretty concise overview of the entire conflict that's both concise and erudite, without the sentimentality that tends to color a lot of American works, particularly Stephen Ambrose's.

Also, a fantastic companion, if you're willing to go multimedia, is the BBC's World at War boxed set. Great narration by Laurence Olivier and features a buttload of interviews with officers and politicians of the time. Only set where, say, you'd get to listen to Adolf Galland (the most decorated ace of the Luftwaffe) comment on the Battle of Britain.
posted by bl1nk at 7:45 AM on June 14, 2006

Stephen Ambrose's books although somewhat specific have always been excellent. I would probably start with his "Citizen Soldiers" which covers from DDay to VE Day
posted by Gungho at 8:07 AM on June 14, 2006

I'd second John Keegan, he's always a pleasure to read.

There's a massive one volume treatment of the war, and the name escapes me. I'll tune back in later when I uncover the title. A professor at my alma mater used it in his World War Two class.
posted by Atreides at 8:15 AM on June 14, 2006

I'll Nth Keegan, altho I submit Liddell Hart's one volume history is more interesting. I'm not cetain it's in print, tho. Keegan also published a bibliography of WWII history which is quite good.

My recollection of the main narrative of the Herman Wouk two-volume novel referenced above is that the story and writing were just Godawfully bad, and I'm no literary snob.

HOWEVER, interspersed within the novel are these 'excerpts' from a history supposed written by a (fictional) German general in his cell after being convicted for war crimes at Nuremberg. Those are actually very excellent, but you need some background on the subject to appreciate them.
posted by mojohand at 8:29 AM on June 14, 2006

Not sure if novels meet your criteria, but Herman Wouk's Winds of War plus War and Remembrance give readers a sense of the big picture.
posted by Rash at 8:42 AM on June 14, 2006

I second Robert Leckie's Delivered from Evil. Non-fiction. Reads like a novel.
posted by grumblebee at 8:43 AM on June 14, 2006 [1 favorite]

Since COBRA! beat me to the Wouk, another pointer. A much shorter read but very good is Lee Sandlin's "Losing the War" available at his site.
posted by Rash at 8:50 AM on June 14, 2006

I advise that you break up your reading. First, avoid anything by Liddel-Hart--he got taken in by a bunch of German generals seeking to blame every failure on Hitler. They fawned over a book he wrote in the interwar years which made a few good predictions. Plus, like almost every British writer, he tends to get hooked into the Rommel cult. The British played him up during the war to explain away their continual defeats in North Africa.

So, for the Pacific theater, I recommend The Pacific War by John Costello. For the European theater I recommend Eisenhower's Lieutenants by Russel F. Weigly. For the East, Barbarossa, by Alan Clark.

If you want to read a real general's memoir, Lost Victories by Field Marshal Eric von Manstein is the way to go. As a operational commander, he was the best.

I must disagree on novels. Do not read them, they are usually pretty untrustworthy.
posted by Ironmouth at 8:54 AM on June 14, 2006

Also, every American should be required to read At Dawn We Slept by Gordon Prange.
posted by Ironmouth at 8:56 AM on June 14, 2006

Thanks for the suggestions so far, the Leckie and Keegan look like the closest to what I'm interested in reading. I should have specified that I'm really only looking for non-fiction titles. I have nothing against fiction, but I'm looking to facts and figures as well as historical information, and I don't want to have to sort through what's real and fiction in the book I'm reading.
posted by almostcool at 9:27 AM on June 14, 2006

A history teach friend of mine heartily recommends Keegan and she says she refers back to her copy all the time.
posted by mmascolino at 9:55 AM on June 14, 2006

Gerhard Weinberg's A World at Arms: A Global History of World War II is a massive (1,208 pages; the notes are longer than many books), one-volume history. I just finished reading it. It's extremely comprehensive and covers the entire war around the world instead of just the usual big picture European and Pacific stuff. (For example, Ethiopia was the first Axis-occupied country to the liberated by the Allies.)
posted by kirkaracha at 11:00 AM on June 14, 2006

Perhaps it hasn't been mentioned because it's not specific to just WWII (and I guess it's kind of long, but just think of it as a few books)) but Shirer's classic Rise & Fall of the 3rd Reich is a great read and really gives you a good sense of the issues and personalities that caused the war. The bulk of the book is focused around the build-up, though. But really, that's what you need to know about to understand history.
posted by mdn at 11:05 AM on June 14, 2006

I second the Rise and Fall of the 3rd Reich. Very well written. Historical interpretation may have moved on, but it lays out the events leading up to 1939, and those on to 1945, very well. All Europe, of course. I picked up a hard cover for 50 cents in a garage sale a couple of weeks ago and was quite chuffed about that.

Reading the events in say, Time magazine from the 1940s, is also a salutory lesson in how biased the press was and continues to be when reporting war.
posted by Rumple at 12:08 PM on June 14, 2006

I recommend Tony Judt's Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945.
posted by vkxmai at 12:34 PM on June 14, 2006

Kirkaracha, thanks, thats the book I was hurting my brain over on its title. Now I can sleep at peace this night, yay!
posted by Atreides at 12:48 PM on June 14, 2006

SInce massive books aren't off-putting, try Winston Churchill's "The Second World War" (in six volumes).
posted by Rash at 2:15 PM on June 14, 2006

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