The best books on World War II

G E N E R A L

#1 A World at Arms: A Global History of World War II by Weinberg, Gerhard L. ( 1994)

This look at the Second World War is the counter balance to John Keegan’s the Second World War. Weinberg looks at the war from a very political and economic standpoint. Living up to the title, Weinberg spends a considerable amount of time looking at various theaters and not just the European and Pacific theaters. The book is heavily footnoted, and well researched. The writing can be a little dry and hard to follow as Weinberg tends to jump from topic to topic. But if you can overcome that it was one of the best histories of the Second World War from a global perspective.

#2 Inferno: The World at War, 1939-1945 by Hastings, Max ( 2011)

Max Hastings was a disciple of John Keegan and it shows. Hasting’s book is the traditional, military focused narrative of World War Two. Hasting’s book is worth a read if you are a casual historian, but if you are already familiar with the Second World War, you can skip this one. Its a great well written book, but being that it is a general history, it can only go so indepth.[1]

#3 The Second World Wars : How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won by Victor Davis Hanson (2017)

A definitive account of World War II by America’s preeminent military historianWorld War II was the most lethal conflict in human history. Never before had a war been fought on so many diverse landscapes and in so many different ways, from rocket attacks in London to jungle fighting in Burma to armor strikes in Libya.The Second World Wars examines how combat unfolded in the air, at sea, and on land to show how distinct conflicts among disparate combatants coalesced into one interconnected global war.

#4 The Economics of World War II : Six Great Powers in International Comparisonby Mark Harrison (first published 1998)

This book, the result of an international collaborative project, provides a new quantative view of the wartime economic experiences of six great powers: the UK, the USA, Germany, Italy, Japan and the USSR. A chapter is devoted to each country, while the introductory chapter present s a comporative overview. It aims to provide a text of statistical reference for those interested in international and comparative economic history, the history of World War II, the history of economic policy, and comparative economic systems.

#5 The Second World War by Antony Beevor (first published 2012)

In this searing narrative that takes us from Hitler’s invasion of Poland on September 1st, 1939 to V-J day on August 14th, 1945 and the war’s aftermath, Beevor describes the conflict and its global reach–one that included every major power.

#6 The Second World War: A Complete History by Martin Gilbert

In one brilliant volume, eminent historian Martin Gilbert offers the complete history of the Second World War. With unparalleled scholarship and breadth of vision, Gilbert, the official biographer of Winston Churchill as well as one of the leading experts on the Holocaust, weaves together political, military, diplomatic, and civilian elements to provide a global perspective on the war, in a work that is both a treasure trove of information and a gripping, dramatic narrative.

#7 The Second World War by Keegan, John ( 1990)

It is an extremely readable work and is probably the best look at the war from a military perspective. In depth analysis of battles, tactics, and strategic planning. However, those looking for an in depth discussion of politics or economics look elsewhere as Keegan focuses most of his energy on military matters.

T E X T B O O K S

#1 A War to be Won : Fighting the Second World War Murray & Millett (first published 1990)

Williamson Murray and Allan R. Millett analyze the operations and tactics that defined the conduct of the war in both the European and Pacific Theaters. Moving between the war room and the battlefield, we see how strategies were crafted and revised, and how the multitudes of combat troops struggled to discharge their orders. The authors present incisive portraits of the military leaders, on both sides of the struggle, demonstrating the ambiguities they faced, the opportunities they took, and those they missed. Throughout, we see the relationship between the actual operations of the war and their political and moral implications.

#2 No Simple Victory : World War II in Europe, 1939-1945 by Norman Davies

One of the world’s leading historians re- examines World War II and its outcome A clear-eyed reappraisal of World War II that offers new insight by reevaluating well-established facts and pointing out lesser-known ones, No Simple Victory asks readers to reconsider what they know about the war, and how that knowledge might be biased or incorrect. Norman Davies poses simple questions that have unexpected answers: Can you name the five biggest battles of the war? What were the main political ideologies that were contending for supremacy? The answers to these questions will surprise even those who feel that they are experts on the subject. Davies has established himself as a preeminent scholar of World War II . No Simple Victory is an invaluable contribution to twentieth-century history and an illuminating portrait of a conflict that continues to provoke debate.

#3 The Origins of the Second World War in Europe by P. M. H. Bell

PMH Bell’s famous book is a comprehensive study of the period and debates surrounding the European origins of the Second World War. He approaches the subject from three different angles: describing the various explanations that have been offered for the war and the historiographical debates that have arisen from them, analysing the ideological, economic and strategic forces at work in Europe during the 1930s, and tracing the course of events from peace in 1932, via the initial outbreak of hostilities in 1939, through to the climactic German attack on the Soviet Union in 1941 which marked the descent into general conflict. Written in a lucid, accessible style, this is an indispensable guide to the complex origins of the Second World War.

F R A N C E

#1 To Lose a Battle: France 1940 by Alistair Horne (1969)

#2 When Paris Went Dark: The City of Light Under German Occupation, 1940-1944by Ronald C. Rosbottom (2014)

W E S T E R N F R O N T.

An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-1943 (World War II Liberation Trilogy, #1) by Rick Atkinson (2002)

Band of Brothers: E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne from Normandy to Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest by Stephen E. Ambrose (1992)

The Guns at Last Light: The War in Western Europe, 1944-1945 by Rick Atkinson (2013)

D D A Y

#1 D-Day, June 6, 1944: The Battle for the Normandy Beaches by Stephen E. Ambrose (1994)

#2 D-Day: The Battle for Normandy by Antony Beevor (2009)

S T A L I N G R A D

#1 Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege, 1942–1943 by Antony Beevor (first published 1998)

A good reading account of the Battle of Stalingrad during WW2. Beevor does a great job describing in detail the way Stalingrad was won by the Red Army, and what they had to go through to achieve that victory.

#2 Enemy at the Gates: The Battle for Stalingrad by William Craig (first published 1973)

This volume was first published in the 1970s and offers a good and accessible introductory account of the Battle for Stalingrad.[2]

#3 The Road to Stalingrad: Stalin`s War with Germany by John Erickson (1983)

In this first volume of John Erickson’s monumental history of the grueling Soviet-German war of 1941–1945, the author takes us from the pre-invasion Soviet Union, with its inept command structures and strategic delusions, to the humiliating retreats of Soviet armies before the Barbarossa onslaught, to the climactic, grinding battle for Stalingrad that left the Red Army poised for its majestic counteroffensive.

#4 Survivors of Stalingrad: Eyewitness Accounts from the 6th Army, 1942-1943 by Reinhold Busch (2014)

This important work reconstructs the grim fate of the 6th Army in full for the first time by examining the little-known story of the field hospitals and central dressing stations. The author has trawled through hundreds of previously unpublished reports, interviews, diaries and newspaper accounts to reveal the experiences of soldiers of all ranks, from simple soldiers to generals.

#5 Stalingrad: How the Red Army Survived the German Onslaught by Michael K. Jones (2007)

Jones attempts to analyze the motivation behind the Red Army and what was responsible for keeping up their morale throughout the siege of the Stalingrad. He corrects quite a few of Anthony Beevor’s mistakes and offers an engaging narrative of the battle, including eye-witness accounts from surviving veterans. [3]

L E N I N G R A D

#1 Leningrad : State of Siege by Michael Jones (first published 2008)

Similar to his book on Stalingrad, Jones once more takes a look at what motivated Leningraders and the Red Army defenders of Leningrad to continue to struggle against the Wehrmacht when surrounded and facing famine conditions on a daily basis for months at a time.[4]

#2 Leningrad: The Epic Siege of World War II, 1941-1944 by Anna Reid (first published 2011)

When Hitler attacked the Soviet Union in June 1941, he intended to capture Leningrad before turning on Moscow. Soviet resistance forced him to change tactics: with his forward troops only thirty kilometres from the city’s historic centre, he decided instead to starve it out. Using newly available diaries and government records, Anna Reid describes a city’s descent into hell – the breakdown of electricity and water supply; subzero temperatures; the consumption of pets, joiner’s glue and face cream; the dead left unburied where they fell – but also the extraordinary endurance, bravery and self-sacrifice, despite the cruelty and indifference of the Kremlin.

#3 The 900 Days: The Siege of Leningrad by Salisbury, Harrison E. ( 1969)

Salisbury was a journalist and offers a very moving introductory account to the siege of Leningrad. This is one of the first and more famous narratives on the siege of Leningrad and in many respects holds up to this day in terms of portraying a suffering the city of Leningrad and its population had to endure during the close to 900 days the Germans had them surrounded.[5]

H O L O C A U S T / G E N O C I D E

#1 Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland by Browning, Christopher R. ( 1993)

This focused case study investigates the nature of German killers in the Holocaust, and concludes that the majority, at least in the unit surveyed, were “ordinary” guys without any particular ideological commitment to Nazism or antisemitism. To be compared to “Hitler’s Willing Executioners” by Daniel Goldhagen, as the two use the same data for different conclusions.

#2 The Rape of Nanking by Iris Chang (first published 1997; 360 pages)

In December 1937, the Japanese army invaded the ancient city of Nanking, systematically raping, torturing, and murdering more than 300,000 Chinese civilians.

This book tells the story from three perspectives: of the Japanese soldiers who performed it, of the Chinese civilians who endured it, and of a group of Europeans and Americans who refused to abandon the city and were able to create a safety zone that saved many.

#3 Auschwitz by Laurence Rees (first published 2005; 400 pages)

In this compelling book, highly acclaimed author and broadcaster Laurence Rees tells the definitive history of the most notorious Nazi institution of them all. We discover how Auschwitz evolved from a concentration camp for Polish political prisoners into the site of the largest mass murder in history – part death camp, part concentration camp, where around a million Jews were killed.

Auschwitz examines the mentality and motivations of the key Nazi decision makers, and perpetrators of appalling crimes speak here for the first time about their actions. Fascinating and disturbing facts have been uncovered – from the operation of a brothel to the corruption that was rife throughout the camp. The book draws on intriguing new documentary material from recently opened Russian archives, which will challenge many previously accepted arguments.

#4 Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust by Goldhagen, Daniel Jonah ( 1997)

Part of the debate with “Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland” by Christopher R. Browning, as both use the same data for different conclusions, but has generated a ton of controversy in the field. In that respect it’s an interesting read, and pretty much every historian in the field has read it, but its actual historical validity is hotly debated.[6]

#5 The Holocaust: The Jewish Tragedy by Gilbert, Martin ( 1989)

A very accessible general history by one of the most prominent English language historians. Features a depth of first-hand accounts, presented in an approachable fashion. It’s extremely comprehensive and well sourced.

#6 The Destruction of the European Jews by Hilberg, Raul ( 1961)

Basically the original work on the Holocaust by the father of Holocaust studies. Originally published in 1961, and revised in 1985, it is available in both an abridged version and as three volumes. Hilberg was a stellar scholar, and while some of it is naturally out of date, it still holds up well today.

#7 War and Genocide: A Concise History of the Holocaust by Bergen, Doris L. ( 2002)

A brief, yet comprehensive, and accessible overview of the Holocaust, tracing from the prewar Nazi ascent to power through the end of World War II. Written by one of the best academics currently working on the subject. Includes a good amount of analysis of postwar Holocaust scholarship, too.

R U S S I A

#1 Absolute War: Soviet Russia in the Second World War by Christopher Bellamy (2007)

#2 Russia’s War: A History of the Soviet War Effort, 1941-1945 by Richard Overy (first published July 1997)

“A penetrating and compassionate book on the most gigantic military struggle in world history.”–The New York Times Book Review

“An extraordinary tale… Overy’s engrossing book provides extensive details of teh slaughter, brutality, bitterness and destruction on the massive front from the White Sea to the flank of Asia.”–Chicago Tribune

#3 Ivan’s War: Life and Death in the Red Army, 1939-1945 by Catherine Merridale (first published 2005)

A powerful, groundbreaking narrative of the ordinary Russian soldier’s experience of the worst war in history, based on newly revealed sources

G E R M A N Y

#1 The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William L Shirer (first published 1960; 1249 pages)

Hitler boasted that The Third Reich would last a thousand years. It lasted only 12. But those 12 years contained some of the most catastrophic events Western civilization has ever known.

#2 Hitler by Ian Kershaw (first published 1991; 1072 pages)

From Hitler’s origins as a failed artist in fin-de-siecle Vienna to the terrifying last days in his Berlin bunker, Kershaw’s richly illustrated biography is a mesmerizing portrait of how Hitler attained, exercised, and retained power. Drawing on previously untapped sources, such as Goebbels’s diaries, Kershaw addresses crucial questions about the unique nature of Nazi radicalism, about the Holocaust, and about the poisoned European world that allowed Hitler to operate so effectively.

#3 Inside The Third Reich by Albert Speer (first published 1969; 832 pages)

Written by Hitler’s Minister of Armaments and War Production, the man who kept Germany armed and the war machine running even after Hitler’s mystique had faded, this memoir gives us as complete a view as we will ever get of the inside of the Nazi state.

#4 The Last Days of Hitler by Hugh Trevor-Roper (first published 1947; 288 pages)

In September 1945, the fate of Hitler was a complete mystery. He had simply disappeared, missing for four months. The author, a British counter-intelligence officer, was given the task of solving this mystery. His brilliant piece of detective work not only proved that Hitler had killed himself in Berlin, but also produced one of the most fascinating history books ever written. His book tells the extraordinary story of those last days in the Berlin Bunker.

#5 The Fall of Berlin 1945 by Antony Beevor

The Red Army had much to avenge when it finally reached the frontiers of the Third Reich in January 1945. Frenzied by their terrible experiences with Wehrmacht and SS brutality, they wreaked havoc–tanks crushing refugee columns, mass rape, pillage, and unimaginable destruction. Hundreds of thousands of women are children froze to death or were massacred; more than seven million fled westward from the fury of the Red Army. It was the most terrifying example of fire and sword ever known. Antony Beevor, renowned author of D-Day and The Battle of Arnhem, has reconstructed the experiences of those millions caught up in the nightmare of the Third Reich’s final collapse. The Fall of Berlin is a terrible story of pride, stupidity, fanaticism, revenge, and savagery, yet it is also one of astonishing endurance, self-sacrifice, and survival against all odds.

#6 Ostkrieg: Hitler’s War of Extermination in the East by Stephen G. Fritz (2011)

#7 A Woman in Berlin: Eight Weeks in the Conquered City: A Diary by Anonymous (first published 1953; 261 pages)

For eight weeks in 1945, as Berlin fell to the Russian army, a young woman kept a daily record of life in her apartment building and among its residents. “With bald honesty and brutal lyricism” (Elle), the anonymous author depicts her fellow Berliners in all their humanity, as well as their cravenness, corrupted first by hunger and then by the Russians. “Spare and unpredictable, minutely observed and utterly free of self-pity” (The Plain Dealer, Cleveland), A Woman in Berlin tells of the complex relationship between civilians and an occupying army and the shameful indignities to which women in a conquered city are always subject–the mass rape suffered by all, regardless of age or infirmity.

J A P A N

#1 The Rising Sun: The Decline & Fall of the Japanese Empire, 1936-45 by John Toland (first published 1970)

This Pulitzer Prize-winning history of World War II chronicles the dramatic rise and fall of the Japanese empire, from the invasion of Manchuria and China to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Told from the Japanese perspective, The Rising Sun is, in the author’s words, “a factual saga of people caught up in the flood of the most overwhelming war of mankind, told as it happened–muddled, ennobling, disgraceful, frustrating, full of paradox.” In weaving together the historical facts and human drama leading up to and culminating in the war in the Pacific, Toland crafts a riveting and unbiased narrative history. In his Foreword, Toland says that if we are to draw any conclusion from The Rising Sun, it is “that there are no simple lessons in history, that it is human nature that repeats itself, not history.”

#2 Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan by Herbert P. Bix (first published 2000)

Winner of the Pulitzer PrizeIn this groundbreaking biography of the Japanese emperor Hirohito, Herbert P. Bix offers the first complete, unvarnished look at the enigmatic leader whose sixty-three-year reign ushered Japan into the modern world. Never before has the full life of this controversial figure been revealed with such clarity and vividness. Bix shows what it was like to be trained from birth for a lone position at the apex of the nation’s political hierarchy and as a revered symbol of divine status. Influenced by an unusual combination of the Japanese imperial tradition and a modern scientific worldview, the young emperor gradually evolves into his preeminent role, aligning himself with the growing ultranationalist movement, perpetuating a cult of religious emperor worship, resisting attempts to curb his power, and all the while burnishing his image as a reluctant, passive monarch. Here we see Hirohito as he truly was: a man of strong will and real authority.

#3 Japan Prepares for Total War : The Search for Economic Security, 1919-1941 by Michael Barnhart

The roots of Japan’s aggressive, expansionist foreign policy have often been traced to its concern over acute economic vulnerability. Michael A. Barnhart tests this assumption by examining the events leading up to World War II in the context of Japan’s quest for economic security, drawing on a wide array of Japanese and American sources.

#4 Retribution: The Battle for Japan, 1944-45 by Max Hastings

By the summer of 1944 it was clear that Japan’s defeat was inevitable, but how the drive to victory would be achieved remained unclear. The ensuing drama–that ended in Japan’s utter devastation–was acted out across the vast theater of Asia in massive clashes between army, air, and naval forces. In recounting these extraordinary events, Max Hastings draws incisive portraits of MacArthur, Mao, Roosevelt, Churchill, Stalin, and other key figures of the war in the East. But he is equally adept in his portrayals of the ordinary soldiers and sailors caught in the bloodiest of campaigns. With its piercing and convincing analysis, Retribution is a brilliant telling of an epic conflict from a master military historian at the height of his powers.

A T O M I C  B O M B

The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes

Twenty-five years after its initial publication, The Making of the Atomic Bomb remains the definitive history of nuclear weapons and the Manhattan Project. From the turn-of-the-century discovery of nuclear energy to the dropping of the first bombs on Japan, Richard Rhodes’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book details the science, the people, and the socio-political realities that led to the development of the atomic bomb.

Hiroshima by John Hersey

On August 6, 1945, Hiroshima was destroyed by the first atomic bomb ever dropped on a city. This book tells what happened on that day, told through the memoirs of survivors.

Hiroshima Diary by Michihiko Hachiya

The late Dr. Michihiko Hachiya was director of the Hiroshima Communications Hospital when the world’s first atomic bomb was dropped on the city. Though his responsibilities in the chaos of a devastated city were awesome, he found time to record his story daily. His diary was originally published by the UNC Press in 1955 with the help of Dr. Warner Wells of the University of North Carolina, who was surgical consultant to the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission and became a friend of Dr. Hachiya. In the foreward, John Dower reflects on the enduring importance of the diary 50 years after the bombing.

Hiroshima Nagasaki by Paul Ham

Japan 1945. In one of the defining moments of the twentieth century, more than 100,000 people were killed instantly by two atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki by US Air Force B29s. Hundreds of thousands more succumbed to their horrific injuries, or slowly perished of radiation-related sickness.

Hiroshima Nagasaki tells the story of the tragedy through the eyes of the survivors, from the twelve-year-olds forced to work in war factories to the wives and children who faced it alone. Through their harrowing personal testimonies, we are reminded that these were ordinary people, given no warning and no chance to escape the horror.

O T H E R

Memoirs of the Second World War by Winston Churchill

World War II: Behind Closed Doors; Stalin, the Nazis, and the West by Laurence Rees

If the end of the war was supposed to have brought ‘freedom’ to countries that suffered under Nazi occupation, then for millions it did not really end until the fall of Communism. In the summer of 1945 many of the countries in Eastern Europe simply swapped the rule of one tyrant, Adolf Hitler, for that of another: Joseph Stalin. Why this happened has remained one of the most troubling questions of the entire conflict, and is at the heart of Laurence Rees’ dramatic book.

Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl (1946)


SOURCE

images: Chief Photographer’s Mate (CPHoM) Robert F. Sargent

 

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