Note on photos: where possible I have photographed my own books. I own the others mentioned in this post but don’t have the books with me, so have used photos from GoodReads.
It would be impossible to narrow down the absolute best books about the Second World War, not least because there are scores I haven’t read. So, I’m going to detail the best of what I personally have read, subjective though that may be.
So why books about the Second World War? I’m currently reading The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell, and it got me thinking about the different types of books I have read about this earth-shattering period in our history. The Kindly Ones is a fictional autobiography of Max Aue, a successful businessman who was a Nazi officer in a former life. He tells his story to ‘set the record straight’ and does not spare his reader from gruesome or disturbing details. Littell spent five years researching the book, and its detail is both astounding and endlessly fascinating (however unpleasant it might sometimes be). Really it’s quite an odd sort of book, and quite unlike most of what I have read about the war. When I finish it I will tackle writing about it properly!
The other books that have stayed with me the most are listed below.
If This Is A Man by Primo Levi – I think this is essential reading for anyone who wants to know more about what it was like to live in (and survive) a Nazi concentration camp. I read this as part of a course of Literatures of Genocide at university and it remains, to me, the pinnacle of survivor testimony from this period (whether or not that’s actually the case).
Ordinary Men by Christopher Browning – this was read for the same course and really opened my eyes. It is the story of a Polish police battalion, made up of civilians, who became part of an Einsatzgruppe. It’s a similar principal to the Stanford prison experiment, except this is real life and it is both harrowing and entirely believable.
Eichmann in Jerusalem by Hannah Arendt – the subtitle of this book is The Banality of Evil, and that just says it all. Eichmann was essentially a pencil pusher who wanted to further his own career, and in doing so helped put The Final Solution in motion. This is a hard-going read at times, as you’d expect, but it is most definitely worth it.
Magda by Meike Zeirvogel – this is a fictional account of the life and psyche of Magda Goebbels, and is one of the most elegant and disturbing books I have read. While not sympathetic to Magda Geobbels, this novel does try to understand her and why she became the woman she was. The beautiful writing certainly helps deal with the tragedy, and the fact that the author is German adds another layer of interest.
Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada – I just had to include this. I read it when it was reissed by Penguin a few years ago, and it just blew me away. Though fictional it is based on a true story, and exposes some of the horror of living through the war as a German civilian who did not support the Nazis. The vivid and yet subtle writing is unbeatable.
Chasing the King of Hearts by Hanna Krall – this is also about the struggle to survive as a German civilian, and is told almost like one long bad dream. It is lyrical and strange at times, but this does not reduce the emotional depth of the sparse writing. I just read this and would recommend it anyone looking for a literary and less stark depiction of life during the war.
Monsieur Le Commandant by Romain Slocombe – this just blew me away. It is framed as a letter from a French citizen to the Nazi Commandant in his hometown in Occupied France. He tells his life story and explores his views about France’s relationship with Germany, as well as his own personal struggles. It is a fascinating and terrifying book that I highly recommend. My review is here.
There are an awful lot more books on the War that I would like to read, some of which I already own, and some which I don’t. It is a rather long list so I’m not going to include it here, but might save it for a future post. I’m sure some of the books on the list will be reviewed/written about at some point soon! Here are the books I currently own that are next on the reading list:
I’d love to hear some more recommendations for literature of this period – what would you suggest?
7 thoughts on “The Second World War: Selected Reading”
I just read Marceline Loridan-Ivens’ memoir, “But You Did Not Come Back”, of her time in the death camps and how it impacted the rest of her life. Very good!
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I’ve heard very good things about that and plan to get a copy when it’s in paperback – althought it seems really heartbreaking! Was it worth it?
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Yes, worth it!
Alone in Berlin is wonderful – I was blown away by it too. Little Man, What Now? is quite different and was actually published before the war, in 1932, but it’s a great book as well. 🙂
You are of course correct, silly me. But still, I think it fits in well. I’m desperate to read more Fallada.
I thought Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life and A God in Ruins were both excellent. And then there’s Night, of course. Nina’s Journey is a good memoir of the period from a Russian point of view.
I’ve read Night and thought it was beautiful. I will look up Nina’s Journey, as I don’t know too much about the Russian side. There are multiple sides to this story!
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