The Second World War is still etched into the memories of older generations, but it has become such a fundamental part of our collective memory that it still echoes as a generational trauma with wounds that remain unhealed.
This global event that started in 1938 and lasted for six years until 1945 caused the deaths of up to 75 million people and caused major societal changes in many countries. The Second World War changed the course of history and impacted every nation on the earth irrevocably.
A wise man once said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
And what better way than to delve into quality literature about the period? Here’s a look at 20 fundamental pieces of literature about the Second World War and why they should be on top of your reading list.
Stalingrad by Antony Beevor
Antony Beevor tackles a truly horrific battle that was fought between German soldiers and the Soviet army. Beaver addresses all the dark shades of the battle of Stalingrad where around 1,000,000 souls were lost in a battle that was a four-month bloodbath.
In Stalingrad, Beevor truly captures the savagery and inhumanity of war as he details the events of the battle that took place from August 1942 to February 1943. He goes on to elucidate all the details that document the human misery and awfulness of the Stalingrad battlefields that caused some of humanity’s most vivid stabs at life and human dignity.
The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William L. Shirer
The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich is a National Book Award winner and one of the most exhaustive accounts of what happened in Nazi Germany. This book is not only a literary work, but also one of the most important historical accounts of what led to the war and how it unraveled during the six horrific years of its course.
Shirer expertly assembles a plethora of archival documentation and sources, meticulously gathered for years, and paired with his experience of living in Germany as an international correspondent during the war. Shirer’s writing talent gave birth to a true treasure that accounts for the most important moments and events of the Second World War.
Besides tackling these primary sources, Shirer packs them in engaging language and storytelling unmatched by many other authors that attempted to do the same in the last couple of decades.
Whether you are a history fanatic or you would just like to familiarize yourself with what happened, this book is perhaps one of the most authoritative pieces on the Second World War.
The Gathering Storm by Winston S. Churchill
The Gathering Storm is a truly monumental piece about the Second World War. What makes it so important is that it’s written by the former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, one of the main characters of these dramatic events.
This book is just one out of six that Churchill wrote about the Second World War and the events that unfolded. It is truly a colossal feat of literature.
Churchill went to great lengths to document the events that unfolded, almost day by day, in such detail and with such intensity, that you can almost feel his anxiety and fear about the future of his country and the world.
Churchill used a rich base of primary sources, documents, letters, orders from the government, and his own thoughts to carefully give his own accounts of the war. This book and the entire series are a must for history lovers.
The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
One of the most emotionally devastating accounts of the Second World War is told from the pen of a young girl called Anne Frank. Anne and her Jewish family hid for two years in a secret part of a building after she and her family fled Nazi-occupied Amsterdam in 1942.
Anne’s diary documents the everyday lives of a family dealing with boredom, hunger, and a constant stream of news about the cruelties that were happening to millions of Jews all over Europe.
The Diary of a Young Girl is perhaps one of the greatest reports of what children went through during the Second World War. The creeping isolation oozes from every page as you follow the everyday story of a girl eager to leave the confines of her hiding.
Hitler by Joachim Fest
There have been hundreds, if not thousands, of books written about the youth and the adult life of Adolf Hitler, a man who became the chancellor of Germany and triggered the tragic events of the Second World War.
Perhaps the best account of his life is given by Joachim Fest, who interprets and pieces together countless accounts about Hitler’s life and everything that lead him to become a terrible tyrant. The book talks about the terrifying rise of Adolf Hitler and everything he stood for.
Fest does not only cover the life of Hitler, but he also carefully parallels it to the rise of the German nation from national impotence into an absolute world power that threatened to shake the very foundations of humanity.
If you are curious to find out how one man single-handedly penetrated the minds of millions of Germans, hypnotizing them with his words, and how he drove the gears of history, look no further.
Normandy ’44: D-Day and the Epic 77-Day Battle for France by James Holland
James Holland’s powerful book about the invasion of Normandy gives a new look at one of the greatest and most important battles of the Second World War. As a skillful historian, Holland uses every tool at his disposal.
Holland goes to great lengths to translate and explain the rich archival material and first-hand accounts to illuminate the drama and terror that marked one of the most important days and hours of the Second World War without which the victory of the allied forces would probably not be possible.
The Good War by Studs Terkel
Studs Terkel gives an important account of the personal tragedies and experiences of soldiers and civilians that witnessed the Second World War. This book is a compilation of interpretations gathered from numerous interviews that tell the story without any filters or censorship.
Terkel presents the raw and pulsating guts and blood of the Second World War like never documented before and offers a glimpse into the minds of the people that were on the front lines.
This book gives the readers a rare insight into what it meant to witness the Second World War and what it meant to live through some of the most traumatic experiences in the history of humanity.
Auschwitz and the Allies: A Devastating Account of How the Allies Responded to the News of Hitler’s Mass Murder by Martin Gilbert
The mass extermination that happened in Auschwitz is told through the lens of Martin Gilbert, one of the official biographers of Winston Churchill and a renowned British historian.
Auschwitz and the Allies is an essential piece of literature that explains what really went on behind the gates of the camp and how the Allies reacted to the news of what was happening.
Gilbert asks a plethora of questions, many of which are rhetorical. But one fundamental question stands out in this book:
Why did it take so long for the Allies to respond to the news of the mass atrocities at the Nazi concentration camps?
The Holocaust: The Human Tragedy by Martin Gilbert
The Holocaust: The Human Tragedy is an account of what happened behind the gates of one of the most terrifying concentration camps in history. The book is full of eyewitness accounts, detailed interviews, and source material from the Nuremberg war crime trials.
Many previously unknown details are revealed about the brutal wave of anti-Semitism. The Holocaust does not shy away from presenting the most terrifying examples of systemic massacres and brutality.
This book is not easy reading material, but it is perhaps one of the most important insights into the machinations and the organization of the famous concentration camps and the activities of Nazi leaders before exercising the Final Solution.
It is hard to find many examples that tell the story of Auschwitz in such a masterful way, providing one of the most valuable accounts of the suffering and terror that happened behind those gates.
Hiroshima by John Hersey
Published in 1946 by The New Yorker, Hiroshima is an account of what happened in the Japanese town told by survivors of the atomic bombing. This is the first and the only time that The New Yorker decided to dedicate an entire issue to one single article.
It comes as no surprise why this issue sold out within a matter of hours as it tells a detailed eyewitness report of life in Hiroshima a year after it was destroyed.
The text is rich and full of accounts of the horrors of nuclear warfare and detailed description of the atomic flash at the moments it happened and followed up with the days that ensued.
The release of Hiroshima impacted the way that we understand nuclear warfare and played a fundamental part in the development of relations between the United States and Japan.
Shanghai 1937 by Peter Harmsen
Shanghai 1937 details the brutal confrontation between imperial expansionist Japan and China at the battle of Shanghai.
Although not very known outside of history circles, the battle of Shanghai was often described as the Stalingrad of the Yangtze River.
This bestseller outlines the three months of brutal urban warfare on the streets of Shanghai and one of the bloodiest battles of the Sino-Japanese war.
We suggest this book as an introduction and a good starting point into understanding the events that happened in Asia and eventually set the stage for the Second World War.
The Splendid and Vile by Erik Larson
The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson is a recent telling and interpretation of the events concerning the Second World War, following the experiences of Winston Churchill from the very first day of his tenure as the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.
Larson tackles the invasion of Holland and Belgium, the events in Poland and Czechoslovakia, and showcases the 12 months during which Churchill was faced with the task to hold the entire country together and unify it in an alliance against Nazi Germany.
Larson’s book is often described as an almost cinematic literary portrayal of the events of the Second World War. The splendid and the vile is an intimate portrayal of a domestic political drama in the United Kingdom, mostly switching between Churchill’s prime ministerial country home and 10 Downing St in London.
The book is packed with a rich source of archival material that Larson weaves in and interprets so skillfully, managing to expertly present some of the most dramatic months and days in the history of Europe.
Bloodlands Europe: Between Hitler and Stalin by Timothy Snyder
Bloodlands Europe: Between Hitler and Stalin is a dissection of the tyranny that swept most of Europe. Snyder tackles the heavy topics of personal traumas and tragedies.
Before the deaths of millions of Jews all over Europe by the hands of Hitler and his Nazi machinery, the deaths of millions of Soviet citizens were caused by Joseph Stalin.
Bloodlands tells the story of German and Soviet killing sites and gives an outline of some of the worst mass murders committed by the Nazi and the Stalinist regimes, portraying two sides of the same murderous intention.
The book asks many humble questions, most of them revolving around trying to understand the driving wheels between the devastation and loss of human lives that ended up becoming the core of the great European historical tragedy.
Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil by Hannah Arendt
In Eichmann in Jerusalem, by Hannah Arendt, a reader is faced with controversial analysis and a deep dive into the mind of Adolf Eichmann, one of the German Nazi leaders. This is a deep dive into a consciousness that engineered the Holocaust.
In this journalistic analysis, the famous author of the Origins of Totalitarianism offers a detailed collection of a series of articles she wrote in The New Yorker in 1963 including her own thoughts, and her reactions to the backlash she faced after the release of the articles.
Eichmann in Jerusalem is a fundamental piece that offers a glimpse into the banality of evil that ushered into the greatest massacre of our time.
Hitler’s Last Secretary: A First-Hand Account of Life with Hitler by Traudl Junge
Hitler’s Last Secretary is a rare glimpse into the everyday office life in the Nazi stronghold in Berlin told by none other than Traudl Junge, a woman that served as his secretary for two years.
Junge talks about how she started writing Hitler’s correspondence and participated in the machinations of the Hitler administration.
It is virtually impossible to find a closer account of living in the very center of the black void that consumed millions of lives all over the world. Junge invites the readers to follow her down the corridors and the smoky offices of 40s Berlin and spend the evenings with her as she writes down the speeches, contracts, and decisions for Hitler that will make a mark on the history of the world forever.
I was Hitler’s Chauffeur: The Memoir of Erich Kempka
In his memoir, Kempka offers an insider view of the closest circle around Hitler giving another rare glimpse into the final months of the Second World War. Kempka served as Hitler’s personal driver from 1934 until Hitler’s suicide in 1945.
Kempka is one of the rare people that had the chance to tell a detailed eyewitness account of everything that led up to the war and during the war, even during the final days of the Third Reich.
The book is filled with Kempka’s ruminations on his everyday duties as a member of Hitler’s personal staff, accompanying Hitler to travels, the life in the Berlin bunker, Hitler’s marriage to Eva Braun, and his ultimate suicide.
The book also talks about Kempka’s escape from the Berlin bunker and his eventual arrest and interrogation before being sent to Nuremberg.
Human Smoke by Nicholson Baker
The Human Smoke by Nicholson Baker is an intimate portrayal of the Second World War told in a series of vignettes and short pieces. Baker uses diaries, government transcripts, radio speeches, and broadcasts to tell his story.
This is a collection of important stories about the Second World War that offers different viewpoints and understanding of World War, painting world leaders differently than what history remembered them to be.
The book was highly controversial, and Baker received a lot of criticism for it. The Human Smoke still stands on a pedestal of stories that highlight the importance of pacifism.
Dresden: The Fire and the Darkness by Sinclair McKay
Dresden: The Fire and the Darkness talks about the bombing of Dresden on February 13th, 1945, and the deaths of more than 25,000 people that were either burned or crushed by falling buildings.
Dresden: The Fire and the Darkness is a retelling of one of the most brutal events during the Second World War, elucidating the insufferable cruelty and savagery of war. The author asks a question: Was bombing Dresden an actual legitimate decision or was it a punishing act by the Allies that knew that the war was won?
This is the most comprehensive account of what happened that day. McKay gives incredible details about the stories of the survivors and the moral dilemmas experienced by British and American bombers from the sky.
Twilight of the Gods: War in the Western Pacific, 1944-1945 (Pacific War Trilogy, 3) by Ian W. Toll
The Twilight of the Gods by Ian W. Toll is a gripping interpretation of the story of the Second World War in the Pacific until its very final day.
This book is a final volume that concludes an astonishing trilogy and details the final phase of the campaign against Japan following the Honolulu Conference.
Toll has immense talent when it comes to bringing to life the dramatic and terrifying last year of the Second World War as it unfolded in the Pacific, and the final clash against Japan culminating in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Toll shifts the point of view from the sea to air, and land and succeeds in presenting the struggle for the Pacific in all its brutality and suffering.
The Secret War: Spies, Ciphers, And Guerrillas, 1939 to 1945 by Max Hastings
Max Hastings, one of the most important British historians offers a glimpse into the secretive world of espionage during the Second World War in an informative piece that lifts the curtains behind many spying operations and day-by-day efforts to crack the enemy code.
Hastings gives the most expansive overview of the intelligence of the major players in the war including the Soviet Union, Germany, Japan, the United States, and the United Kingdom.
The Secret War is truly a fundamental peace for everyone who cares to understand the role that espionage played and the Second World War.
The Second World War was among the most traumatic moments in world history and given its complexity and millions of different viewpoints, it is truly hard to capture the essence of the tragedies and traumas that occurred during these six fateful years.
We hope that you find our carefully selected list of books useful to better understand and familiarize yourself with the Second World War.