There are few events in the history of mankind that can claim to weigh more on the international consciousness than the Second World War.
In 2004, the United Nations General Assembly declared 8-9 May as a time of remembrance and reconciliation for those who lost their lives during the Second World War. To celebrate the day, Oxford graduate Andrew Dickinson writes for the IPF on the top seven books that he thinks young people should read if they want to learn more about World War II.
There are few events in the history of mankind that can claim to weigh more on the international consciousness than the Second World War. The memorials to the fallen stretch across the globe, the dead (both named and unnamed) numbering between 50 and 80 million souls.
To put those numbers into context if you wiped out the entire populations of Shanghai, London, and New York, that would be equivalent to the least catastrophic outcome of the war. Throwing Australia into the mix would make up the difference for those who hold to the higher estimate.
Trying to condense a conflict of this magnitude into just a few books will always leave much to be desired. This is not exactly surprising given the number of nations involved – each side has their own unique perspective fuelled by the passion of innumerable broken families.
This list cannot hope to be comprehensive, but I hope it suggests a few ideas to any young person interested in learning more about this defining and fascinating period in the history of the world.
The Triumph of the Dark: European International History 1933-39
By Zara Steiner, 2011
This second volume of a two-part series is, for me, the best and most comprehensive book on the political origins of WWII. At times, Steiner is lacking in terms of the “stories”, which – in my opinion – always make history books more fun to read. However, she writes so fluidly that this is easily forgiven.
Thankfully,Steiner also dedicates whole chapters to international events outside Europe. Her chapter, Thunder, from the East was an absolutely fascinating read as someone for whom the Sino-Japanese aspect of the road to war had always been a footnote in a very Western-centric history curriculum.
If I am allowed to cheat a bit on this list, I would also thoroughly recommend Steiner’s first volume, The Lights that Failed, which is another excellent read that provides an interesting narrative of the years immediately following the end of WWI.
The War Lords
By A. J. P. Taylor, 1979
Taylor is a somewhat controversial figure in the landscape of scholarship on WWII. His portrait of Hitler as a short-sighted opportunist, who effectively stumbled into global conflict, provoked heated debate among academics.
However, this tiny book (only 192 pages in length) profiles the leaders of each of the great powers and is very readable, providing plenty of interesting anecdotes that one can bring up at parties (because who doesn’t want to know an interesting fact about Benito Mussolini over their Vodka and Coke).
Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege, 1942-1943
By Antony Beevor, 1999
For a snapshot of the nature of conflict on the Eastern Front during WWII, it is hard to do better than Beevor’s analysis of the Battle of Stalingrad. The author’s style makes his work not only fascinating in terms of content, but also a thoroughly enjoyable reading experience.
Interviews with survivors of the battle affectively convey the inhuman conditions that both sides lived in, sometimes so graphically that this tale of human suffering becomes highly emotional (as indeed it should).
The Reluctant Belligerent: American Entry into World War Two
By Robert Divine, 1979
This is the most controversial work I have recommended so far, but is still a highly entertaining read for anyone interested in the American path to war. Divine’s occasionally scathing assessment of American foreign policy as the war approached is potentially coloured by the twenty-twenty vision of hindsight, but gives a good overview of key events coupled with excellent prose.
It also, crucially, doesn’t apply a top-down approach to America’s foreign policy decisions, but also looks at the influence of popular opinion on policymakers.
With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa
By E. B. Sledge, 1981
Eugene Sledge’s personal account of his experiences as an American soldier serving in the Japanese campaign is an indispensable read for anyone wishing to gain an insight into the first-hand experience of this conflict.
The pages are as harrowing as one would expect, with Sledge making no secret of the war’s effect on him and his comrades, speaking of the fight to maintain humanity in the face of horror as his comrades idly skip pebbles into the empty skull of a Japanese machine gunner. As John Keegan rightly said, With the Old Breed is “one of the most arresting documents in war literature”.
Britain in the Second World War: A Social History
By Harold L. Smith, 1996
The realm of social history is one I am less familiar with and is an area where I would always welcome recommendations. However, this analysis of the impact of World War Two on the structure of British society is a useful introduction to the topic.
The Holocaust: The Jewish Tragedy
By Martin Gilbert, 1989
It would be inappropriate to provide a list of books covering the Second World War without mentioning an account of the Holocaust. The amount of scholarship about this catastrophic event in humanity’s history is monumental, but Gilbert’s work is as good a starting point as any.
With a careful and detailed description of the events, Gilbert is able to put the cold figure of 6 million dead into its heart-wrenching daily reality.
NB: The IPF’s opinion articles are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily endorsed by the IPF.