Good books on post-WW1 / pre-WW2 era?
September 14, 2006 9:54 AM   Subscribe

Recommendations for good books about the aftermath of WW1, the between-wars period, and the buildup to WW2? I'm looking for a good follow-up to Barbara Tuchman's The Guns of August.

The Guns of August was awesome - it got me interested in reading history, if possible in similar style: well-weaved, thrilling coverage of events, strategies, personalities, anecdotes.

Tuchman's book ends after the first month of WW1. I'm thinking of skipping the details of the next four years of war and picking up at the end of WW1. I'd like to read books that cover all or specific part of this era, from the end of WW1 to the beginning of WW2, with the Versailles Treaty and the rise of Nazism in between. This way I hope to get a good basis for continued future reading into the WW2 period. (At that point I can look at the answers to this AskMeFi question about good overviews of WW2.)

posted by shortfuse to Media & Arts (22 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Oh, snap! This is the book you need, "Paris, 1919". Read it awhile ago and to me it is the definitive work. Goes country by country to explain how the aftermath of WW1 led to ther role in WW2
posted by vito90 at 9:58 AM on September 14, 2006

Orwell's Homage to Catalonia aside from being a great read about his experiences during the Spanish Civil War, has some interesting commentary on the international political climate in the '30s, particularly as it relates to the Left.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 10:15 AM on September 14, 2006

If you are at all interested in looking the "other way" Tuchman also wrote an excellent book called The Proud Tower which is about the end of the 19th century in Europe.
posted by Riemann at 10:23 AM on September 14, 2006

Tuchman's Stillwell and the American Experience in China covers 1911-1945 and is one of the most fascinating books I have ever read. Because Stillwell is an American General, it covers the intersection of politics in the States, Europe, the Soviet Union and Russia during that period.
posted by jeanmari at 10:35 AM on September 14, 2006

Best answer: I highly recommend Richard M. Watt's book The Kings Depart. Magnificent. And, like Tuchman, he's an amateur historian. The opening describes how the Treat of Versailles was made, given the surprising fact that none of the signatories liked it.
posted by LeisureGuy at 10:53 AM on September 14, 2006

Boy, you're covering a lot of ground there. MacMillan's Paris 1919 is a good read, not the best on Versailles but it is an easy read. I note the Amazon link highlights A Peace to End All Peace, which is good in the same vein, covering the making of the modern Middle East. For the rise of the Nazis, Shirer is awesome. Oh, damn... what's that book on Japan's path to WW2?

I'd recommend a good Versailles primer, something on Nazis and/or fascism, something on the Soviets, and something on the Orient. Oh, and the depression... kinda important as well. AJP Taylor's The Origins of the Second World War covers a lot of ground for you.

But I think you're doing a real disservice to yourself in skipping over the war itself. That's my absolute favourite subject, and an understanding of its events is crucial for understanding why later events proceeded as they did. Plus there's so much interesting stuff there... early airplanes, submarines and tanks, Mata Hari, Red Baron, Lawrence of Arabia, the deaths of multiple empires... and an incredible surge of modern literature as well.
posted by GhostintheMachine at 10:55 AM on September 14, 2006

Paul Fussell's The Great War and Modern Memory.
posted by scratch at 10:57 AM on September 14, 2006

Oops. In my post that should be the Treaty of Versailles. The Treat of Versailles was an almond tart.
posted by LeisureGuy at 11:02 AM on September 14, 2006

Best answer: The Coming of the Third Reich is a pretty good book about how the Nazis took control in Germany.
posted by caddis at 11:21 AM on September 14, 2006

Winston Churchill wrote a six-book series about WWII. The first book, "The Gathering Storm", covers roughly 1930-1939, and it's excellent. It talks about the conditions in both Germany and Britain (military, social, economic, diplomatic) during the lead-up to the war, told from the view of someone who obviously had amazing inside information and first-hand experience with the key players. You get to realy know what the people were like, the whole social millieu, and how that played into the desire for appeasement and isolationism. But he also throws in many hard stats, facts, and figures, doubtless culled from all the official reports he had available to him, to back up his points. He was a very good writer, and it's a really great book.
posted by Asparagirl at 1:58 PM on September 14, 2006

Best answer: I can't agree with most of the answers here. Paris 1919 is specifically about the Treaty of Versailles; that's an important subject, but ridiculously limited in terms of the question. Fussell is also very specialized; Orwell ditto (though well worth reading); Churchill is too much, too out of date, and too self-important: save it for when you're really into WWII and have read other stuff. I agree with GhostintheMachine; you shouldn't skip the war itself, without which the peace is incomprehensible. I highly recommend Hew Strachan's The First World War; it's short (340 pages), has lots of great photos, including a section in color (it was written to accompany a TV series), it's by the WWI historian of our day (so you can trust the scholarship), and it focuses on the countries making war as well as the war itself (if you want detailed descriptions of the battles, try B.H. Liddell Hart), and it puts the "world" in World War, describing events in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East as well as Europe. For a riveting fictional account of the last years of the war in Britain, Pat Barker's trilogy of novels (Regeneration, The Eye in the Door, The Ghost Road) is unbeatable.

For the transition from war to peace, Gregor Dallas's 1918: War and Peace has gotten great reviews (I haven't read it yet). And for the period between the wars, read Piers Brendon's The Dark Valley: A Panorama of the 1930s; it has a superb mix of detail, overview, and good writing.

For the rise of Nazism, nothing gives you that chilling "you are there" feeling like I Will Bear Witness, the diaries of Victor Klemperer (Volume 1, Volume 2). If I think of more, I'll post 'em.
posted by languagehat at 2:46 PM on September 14, 2006 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks everyone. Keep them coming if you think of any others.

Re: choosing to skip WW1, ok I'm reconsidering it. I had wanted to jump ahead to end of WW1 because (1) my impression of WW1 from Tuchman and general knowledge is that it was a fairly static if brutal war in trenches wrt Europe, and I wasn't so interested in reading about 4 years of battles without progress; (2) I was more interested in WW2 than WW1, so I was eager to get to WW2 relatively sooner, although I am very happy I read the Tuchman; and (3) I figured any post-WW1 book will give me some bg info on the war itself, just as Tuchman had done with references to 1870, Sedan, etc.

But the idea of needing to read about the war to better make sense of the postwar period is true enough. I guess it's too late to ask another question about WW1 books, but please feel free to post those recommendation too, as languagehat has.
posted by shortfuse at 3:02 PM on September 14, 2006

For novels set in Europe between the wars, or in the early days of WWII, try Alan Furst. I never understood the Spanish Civil War until I read his Night Soldiers. And then there's Wouk's Winds of War.
posted by Rash at 3:43 PM on September 14, 2006

I second the Hew Strachan book. A great brief overview, with good coverage of the not-so famous fronts like Balkans, Austria-Italy and Africa.

Also recommend the Alan Furst books. I found his latest, the Foreign Correspondent a bit weak though. Deals with the spying and machinations in the small countries leading up to WW2

I remember reading a book in the late 80's that discussed the various ways the Germany worked around the Treaty of Versaille restrictions, like joint maneuvers with USSR or glider training instead of flight schools, but for the life of me cannot remember the name.

Ghostinthemachine: did you mean Toland's Rising Sun?
posted by Razzle Bathbone at 4:18 PM on September 14, 2006

Thanks LH, there are some good recommendations there. Still, I think when it comes to the rise of Nazism, an examination of how is more interesting than how awful, but perhaps I am just squeamish.
posted by caddis at 6:09 PM on September 14, 2006

Leonard Moseley's "On Borrowed Time," while it has some errors, is an excellent background on the build-up to WWII. And 2nd Tuchman's Stillwell book, & Churcheill's series.
posted by Pressed Rat at 7:26 PM on September 14, 2006

shortfuse: Yeah, everyone thinks of the trenches as the sum of the war, but there's far more to it than that. Both the early and late periods were very fluid, and the secondary theatres were in constant motion. I can't imagine anyone reading about the war in East Africa and not being totally captivated (the bees! the bees!).

But even the trench warfare is vital to understand the inter-war period and the opening of WW2. You can damn Chamberlain for avoiding war at all cost, but when you read of Verdun and the Somme you really start to comprehend what was behind the thinking of the day. How could the French put their all into the Maginot Line, and fall so quickly? Regardless, a good historian will make those battles very interesting for you. The front line might not have moved much, but you'd be amazed how interesting a good historian can make that. You're talking about the biggest industrial powers in the world throwing their all against each other in a colossal struggle to the death, with both sides employing all their skill, ingenuity, trickery, diplomacy, and strength, in a flurry of innovation and ignorance.

I'll have to go back to my bookshelf and see if there's anything I'd recommend on the war itself. It's been so long since I read a general history of it that I feel inadequate in suggesting anything.

Razzle: I think that's the one, thanks. Different cover, but the description fits. Good read.
posted by GhostintheMachine at 6:23 AM on September 15, 2006

I strongly recommend Jason Lutes graphic novel series Berlin. Preview. It's well-researched and drawn in a handsome, meticulous style. It covers German life between the two world wars. The rich tapestry of characters really breathe life into the tumultuous events of the Weimar Republic. I believe it to be one of the finest examples of the historical graphic novel.
posted by JDC8 at 11:42 AM on September 16, 2006

Hey, that looks great, JDC8—thanks for the tip.

Still, I think when it comes to the rise of Nazism, an examination of how is more interesting than how awful, but perhaps I am just squeamish.

That's why the Klemperer is so useful—he doesn't describe death camps or anything, just daily life in Dresden, but you can see the rising tide of popular acceptance of the Nazi regime and his growing awareness that it's going to make his life there impossible. At first he's worried about his book, then his job, then his house, finally his life.
posted by languagehat at 12:40 PM on September 16, 2006

OK, I may need to check that out then. Thanks again LH.
posted by caddis at 7:21 PM on September 16, 2006

Response by poster: I finished reading The Kings Depart by Richard M. Watt. A good read. I was surprised that he seemed to go through the Versailles Treaty quite fast (first four breathless chapters plus numerous later references), but later I realized it was because his real interest was what was happening in Germany between the end of fighting and the signing of the treaty. If my focus was just the Treaty, then I might have chosen another book, but this one gave me a good idea of German events + POV during that time period. Thanks, LeisureGuy!

Before I had started The Kings Depart, I tried reading The First World War by Hew Strachan so that I could get some knowledge about the war itself. I found it quite dry, with a lot of detail and not as much narrative touch as I was looking for. Probably because it is meant as a relatively short but informative overview? I think I might check out the TV show it is tied to.

Not sure which book I'll pick up next. I'm going to hit the bookstores and check out Gregor Dallas's 1918: War and Peace, Piers Brendon's The Dark Valley: A Panorama of the 1930s, and AJP Taylor's The Origins of the Second World War. I'll continue coming back here and leaving my impressions as I keep reading on. (Yes I should perhaps just get my own freakin' blog, but I figure it might help others...)

I would still like to read about WW1 itself, so if anyone is still here, I welcome ideas on that front.

Thanks again for all the suggestions.
posted by shortfuse at 9:29 AM on October 3, 2006

Response by poster: Another update: I finished Richard Evans's The Coming of the Third Reich and Piers Brendon's The Dark Valley: A Panorama of the 1930s.

I had started with the Evans and AJP Taylor's The Origins of the Second World War, but the Taylor one was difficult to understand without generally knowing how the nations marched onto WW2 (it is more of a re-examination than an examination), so I put that aside.

Both the Evans and the Brendon books were terrific. The Evans book is quite detailed but doesn't get bogged down as it tells of the rise of the Nazis. The Brendon book seemed to be many books in one, since it deals with several nations and so many storylines, but overall I thought it juggled them into a good, smooth read.

Now I'm gonna go back to the Taylor book. Also going to look into a good WW2 book at this point. Beyond that, Tony Judt's newly published Postwar looks good. And I want to read more Tuchman.
posted by shortfuse at 10:01 PM on December 19, 2006

« Older Useful University moving in tips?   |   Restocking fee assessed dishonestly? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.