There’s no easy way to tell the story of World War 2. Whether you read about soldier’s tale from the perspective of bombs and guns or you read about the citizens of Leningrad who starved in a wholly different kind of warfare, there’s no doubt it’s tough to stomach.
Plus, with such a global scope, every country tells the story of World War 2 differently. So, for those interested in how atrocities so inconceivable could have taken place in the 20th century, you may be interested in the finer details that you didn’t learn in school.
That’s where books come into play. Whether you’re reading a biography, someone’s diary, or a historical novel that’s incredibly well-researched, these books may allow you to understand World War 2 in a way you never have before.
Here, we’re talking about some of the absolute best World War 2 books ever written.
Best Books About World War 2
First of all, there are thousands of books out there on the subject of World War 2 and they’re not all created equal. Depending on where the author is from, they could write about the war in a totally different way to someone from the other side of the world. Remember, every corner of the Earth was involved and with so much at stake, emotions ran high.
So, if you’re truly interested in a well-rounded approach to understanding World War 2 through books, you’ll have to read various genres by authors from various perspectives.
We’ve separated our list of the best World War 2 books into three categories: history books, nonfiction, and fiction. Let’s begin.
Best World War 2 History Books
History books are notoriously skewed, especially when it comes to the kind of history books we study in school. That’s why the history books on this list are more detailed histories that dive deep into specific battles and eras.
Focusing on specific parts of World War 2 in these history books paradoxically helps us to understand the war as a whole. Written by some of the best historians of the 20th century, primary sources, countless interviews, and years of research have gone into the formation of these World War 2 history books.
#3 Normandy ‘44: D-Day and the Epic 77-Day Battle for France by James Holland
James Holland is a Royal Historical Society fellow and in his study of the battle at Normandy, one of World War 2’s defining battles, he draws on first-hand accounts and archived details of what really happened.
In this book, Holland goes beyond the stories that have already been told about D-Day and explores the planning efforts and human drama involved in Operation Overlord. Experts say it’s a must-read.
#2 Auschwitz and the Allies by Martin Gilbert
Author Martin Gilbert is an esteemed British historian who notably wrote the official biography on Winston Churchill. Additionally, he has written countless histories on the 20th century and the Holocaust which has earned him a deep understanding of World War 2.
This devastating book explores the actions (and inaction) of the Allied Forces during Hitler’s systemized murder regime at Auschwitz and the other concentration camps.
#1 An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-1943 by Rick Atkinson
While many of us are probably familiar with the most commonly portrayed aspects of the war such as the German extermination of Europe’s Jewish population and the struggle between Americans and the Japanese, little is said about the conflict that ensued in Africa during World War 2.
Drawing upon personal letters and diaries, this book tells the tales of the invasion of Morocco and Algeria, a story that has been commonly written out of World War 2 history.
Best World War 2 Books: Nonfiction
While some of these nonfiction World War 2 books could also be considered history books, they include slightly more nuanced subjects than what you might find in a book about a wider battle or era of the war.
Instead, this list features a biography, retrospective, and a diary of someone who lived through the turmoil.
#4 Hitler by Ian Kershaw
Ian Kershaw’s biography of Hitler comes in this two-volume book. Heavily based on primary sources, Kershaw was able to find the smaller details within the story of Hitler. Much of what can be learned about the interesting figure is told in broad strokes. This biography does the opposite.
According to fellow historian Anthony Beever, Hitler is as definitive as biographies can get. As much as nothing you read should be taken as absolute truth, he believes Kershaw’s work is as close as you can get to the bottom of the story of Hitler’s life.
#3 The Good War by Studs Terkel
This retrospective was written 40 years after the end of the war and is a Pulitzer Prize-winning book. It relives personal experiences of World War 2 featuring unfiltered interviews with soldiers, sailors, and civilians.
#2 A Woman in Berlin: Eight Weeks in the Conquered City by Anonymous
Considered one of the greatest diaries to come out of the war, A Woman in Berlin had an anonymous author at the time but now we know that woman was Marta Hillers. She kept a daily record of the eight weeks she lived in Berlin as it fell to the Russians.
You’ll read of the complex relationships between the civilians and the occupying army along with the shameful abuse women suffered during the struggle. It’s certainly a gruesome read but one anyone with an interest in World War 2 can appreciate.
#1 Hiroshima by John Hershey
Originally published in The New Yorker on August 31, 1946, just after the culmination of the war, this piece was the first and only time an entire issue of the magazine consisted of a single article.
Repurposed as a book, Hiroshima was the first time Americans were given a glimpse into the realities of nuclear war as it portrayed six survivors of the attack on Hiroshima. In it, Hershey describes Japanese stones that were forever etched with the silhouettes of vaporized people and the eyes of soldiers that were melted from the atomic flash.
Best World War 2 Books: Fiction
You won’t often find many works of fiction about World War 2 since the true details are often more dramatic and captivating than anything one could fabricate. However, there are a few fictional books that are backed by some historical facts to help give readers an understanding of what it must have been like to live through the era.
Some of these World War 2 fiction books are novels while others are historical narratives meaning that they tell stories about real people with fictional components interspersed throughout to help move the story along.
Like the semi-fictional TV shows that help us understand the characters of real events and to connect with these real people, fiction is a fantastic genre in that regard.
#2 Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman
As one of the few, if not the only great novel about World War 2, Life and Fate was so controversial at the time of its release, it was banned in Russia. The manuscript was confiscated by the KGB in 1960 and its contents were deemed dangerous.
Grossman was the first to make the connection between Nazism and Stalinism which was obviously threatening to the Russian government and this novel clearly presents the ways in which Stalin’s regime was responsible for much of the atrocities that occurred in the early parts of World War 2.
#1 Maus by Art Spiegelman
To round out the list, we have the Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel, Maus. It depicts the Nazis as cats, Jews as mice, and Poles as pigs. It first appeared as a series in the comics magazine Raw and since then has elevated the graphic novel genre exponentially.
Featuring multiple timelines and some dense storytelling, it was heralded by the Wall Street Journal as “the most affecting and successful narrative ever done about the Holocaust.”
Best Books on World War 2
As you can see, there are many different ways to learn about World War 2 through books. Whether you prefer hefty biographies or innovative graphic novels, there’s something out there for every taste.
If you’re interested in the history of World War 2, push yourself to learn about the stories that might be different from what you learned in school. The disparities might surprise you.