17 nonfiction books that illuminate the World War II era

world war ii - The Secret War - Max HastingsIf you’ve been reading my reviews for very long, you’re aware that the World War II era holds special fascination for me. This might have something to do with the fact that I was born then — in fact, about six months before the USA entered the war. Or maybe it’s just because it all preceded the disillusionment that set in once the war had ended, when the boundaries between good and evil no longer seemed so clear.

In addition to the many World War II novels I’ve read and reviewed here, both mysteries and trade fiction, I’ve read a great many nonfiction books on the years leading up to and during the war. Here I’m listing 17 of the best I’ve come across in recent years. They cover everything from economic policy in the Depression and the rise of Nazi Germany to the role of business and the conduct of the war itself. All together, they provide a significant dose of insight about what later historians might well conclude was the most significant period in the history of the world.

As is blindingly obvious, this is by no means a comprehensive bibliography. No doubt hundreds of thousands of books have been written about the World War II era. These 19 nonfiction books simply represent where my taste and my instincts have taken me in recent years. I’ve arranged these books in alphabetical order by the authors’ last names. Each is linked to my review.

The two most memorable books of this lot, from my obviously biased perspective, are Max Hastings’ The Secret War and Freedom’s Forge by Arthur Herman. But all of those listed here are well worth reading.

The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-44, by Rick Atkinson

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

The Pulitzer Prize-winning military historian Rick Atkinson’s trilogy about the Allied conduct of World War II is sometimes referred to as the best reasonably brief historical treatment of the subject. I read the first of the three books, An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-43, before 2010, when I began writing reviews. I remember it with admiration. All three books are accessible and written with a fine appreciation for the contributions not just of the generals and admirals who led the war effort but of the enlisted men who carried out their orders and bore the brunt of the conflict.

Year Zero: A History of 1945, by Ian Buruma

Bard College professor Ian Buruma brings into high relief the seminal events of 1945, including the surrender of Germany and Japan, the opening of Germany’s concentration camps, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the founding of the United Nations, and the Yalta Conference that laid the foundations for the Cold War. Much of Buruma’s book is social history, with extensive coverage of such topics as “fraternization” between occupation troops and local women, the conditions faced by millions of survivors trapped (sometimes for years) in “displaced person” camps, the bitter and often violent struggles between the partisans who had waged guerrilla war against Germany and the conservatives who had often collaborated with the enemy, and the hunger that swept through the nations hardest hit in the war, especially Japan and Germany.

The Summit: Bretton Woods, 1944: J. M. Keynes and the Reshaping of the Global Economy, by Ed Conway

The course of globalization as we know it today was set in motion at the Bretton Woods Conference in 1944. There, John Maynard Keynes and Harry Dexter White led their respective delegations, British and American, in designing the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Ed Conway’s story of the conference is replete with drama and intrigue.

The Secret War: Spies, Ciphers, and Guerrillas, 1939-1945, by Max Hastings

The eminent British historian Max Hastings undercuts the many popular treatments of espionage during World War II with a sober revisionist survey. In his well-informed view, practically nothing that either side did in the realm of intelligence had any meaningful impact on the war. The only exceptions, in his view, were the successful efforts by all the major combatants to crack their enemies’ secret codes. Unlike most of other books about the subject, Hastings examines not just the British and American intelligence efforts but those of Russia, Germany, and Japan as well. This is must reading for anyone who wants to understand how espionage really works (or, more often, doesn’t).

Freedom’s Forge: How American Business Produced Victory in World War II, by Arthur Herman

The US became known as the “arsenal of democracy” because the American business community mobilized on a hitherto unattainable scale to produce hundreds of thousands of airplanes, ships, tanks, trucks, and other war materiel. Arthur Herman’s study of the topic focuses on the efforts of two remarkable industrialists who were among the most prominent figures in the effort: GM CEO William Knudsen and shipbuilder Henry J. Kaiser.

Spain in Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939, by Adam Hochschild

Historians recognize that the Spanish Civil War served as a rehearsal for the German and Italian armed forces, both of which weighed in on the side of the fascist uprising led by General Francisco Franco. The bestselling popular historian Adam Hochschild tells the story of the war through the eyes of its American (and, in some cases, British) participants. He dwells not just on the war’s most famous Western figures, Ernest Hemingway and George Orwell, but on some of the many unsung men and women who volunteered, and often lost their lives, to support the Republican cause.

Hell’s Cartel: IG Farben and the Making of Hitler’s War Machine, by Diarmuid Jeffreys

It’s well known that Hitler and his cronies were by no means wholly responsible for the rise of Nazi Gemany. IG Farben and other leading Germany industrial concerns have long been identified as having played key roles in bringing Hitler to power and in rearming the country. In Hell’s Cartel, British journalist Diarmuid Jeffreys drills down more deeply than other English-language writers have tended to do and uncovered the largely hidden crimes of Germany’s leading industrialists before and during World War II. These crimes went far beyond IG Farben’s production of the lethal gas used to exterminate millions of Jews.

Engineers of Victory: The Problem-Solvers Who Turned the Tide in the Second World War, by Paul Kennedy

The noted historian Paul Kennedy brings to light the often-ignored contributions of the scientists and enlisted soldiers who helped turn the tide in the Allies’ favor in World War II. Their inventions and innovations in the conduct of war may have played as large a role in the ultimate victory as those of the generals and admirals whose names are most closely associated with the war effort.

Avenue of Spies: A True Story of Terror, Espionage, and One American Family’s Heroic Resistance in Nazi-Occupied Europe, by Alex Kershaw

Alex Kershaw’s account of one extraordinary American family’s experience in occupied Europe during the war is at least as revealing as the best political or military histories. An American surgeon, his Swiss wife, and their adolescent son lived in Paris on Avenue Foch, within yards of the headquarters of the Gestapo. Yet their home served as the Paris hub of one of France’s principal Resistance networks. It’s a fascinating tale.

In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin, by Erik Larson

Erik Larson, one of America’s premier nonfiction writers, has produced a stirring tale about a courageous American diplomat who spoke out loudly against the growing Nazi terror while posted as US Ambassador in Hitler’s Berlin. He and his family ran afoul not just of the German government but of the US State Department as well. The Department, under Secretary of State Cordell Hull, was notoriously anti-Semitic and resisted all efforts to take action against the Nazis until the advent of war forced them to relent.

Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies, by Ben MacIntyre

Operation Mincemeat: How a Dead Man and a Bizarre Plan Fooled the Nazis and Assured Allied Victory, by Ben MacIntyre

Rogue Heroes: The History of the SAS, Britain’s Secret Special Forces Unit that Sabotaged the Nazis and Changed the Nature of War, by Ben MacIntyre

Ben MacIntyre is one of the most prolific and popular of the many historians who have specialized in World War II. Double Cross tells the often astonishing tale of the wildly unconventional people who acted as spies for the Allies and helped mislead the Germans about the location of the Normandy invasion. Operation Mincemeat is the equally improbable story of the deception scheme that misled the Nazis about the Allied invasion of Sicily, directing their attention instead to southern France. British intelligence accomplished this by planting misinformation on the dead body of a supposed “courier” who washed up on the coast of Spain. In Rogue Heroes, MacIntyre’s authorized history of the Special Air Service, we learn the amazing story of the British unit that established the pattern for Special Forces in armies around the world. All three books bring history to life with intimate and telling detail.

Right Out of California: The 1930s and the Big Business Roots of Modern Conservatism, by Kathryn S. Olmsted

California historian Kathryn Olmsted argues that today’s ascendant Right-Wing movement in America is rooted in the cotton and fruit fields of the state’s Central and Imperial Valleys in the 1930s. There, labor organizers, some of them Communists, were experiencing growing success in organizing the migrant workers who had flooded in from the dusty Midwest and Mexico. (As a sidelight, the author emphasizes that John Steinbeck ignored the majority Mexican laborers and focused instead on the so-called Okies in his classic novel, The Grapes of Wrath.) Olmsted asserts that the growers constituted the heart of the so-called conservative activists of the 1950s and 1960s who built the John Birch Society and the later campaigns for Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan.

The Money Makers: How Roosevelt and Keynes Ended the Depression, Defeated Fascism, and Secured a Prosperous Peace, by Eric Rauchway

University of California, Davis, history professor Eric Rauchway argues persuasively that none of FDR’s New Deal policies to stimulate the American economy played as significant a role in ending the Depression as the President’s decision to take the United States off the gold standard. Delinking the dollar from gold permitted prices to rise domestically—and world trade to increase as Roosevelt and British economist John Maynard Keynes maneuvered major European countries into parallel policies. This, Rauchway argues, is how capitalism was saved. The fiscal stimulus of the New Deal was far too modest to make much of a difference.

Infamy: The Shocking Story of the Japanese-American Internment in World War II, by Richard Reeves

No one who lives in California today and has made even the most cursory effort to understand the state’s history can be unaware that the US government under Franklin Roosevelt herded Japanese-Americans into concentration camps during most of World War II. Included were not just recent immigrants but families whose roots lay two generations in the past. What is less well known about this shameful episode in our country’s history are the roles played by such revered figures as future US Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren and leading members of Roosevelt’s Administration.


Mal Warwick