We’ve recently celebrated Remembrance Day in the UK and Veterans Day in the USA, marking 75 years since the end of the Second World War. Since then, a metric tonne of books have been published about WWII. Many of them (rightly) celebrate and memorialize the men and women who gave their lives serving in the military. It can be easy to forget, though, that “military” doesn’t necessarily mean combat personnel. In Europe and the USA, we tend to forget about the “World” part of WWII. It’s also important to tell the stories of the war’s many civilian heroes and victims. In this list, you’ll find 20 books that touch on an array of perspectives on both sides of the conflict, from all over the world and in a range of genres.
1. The Diary of a Young Girl, by Anne Frank
Right before going into hiding, Anne Frank was given a notebook. She filled it with diary entries over the two years she and her family spent living in hiding before their discovery and arrest. The Holocaust deserves a list of its own, but you can’t discuss WWII literature without mentioning The Diary of a Young Girl, which Anne’s father published after her death at Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Her writing offers a unique perspective on both the Holocaust and the German occupation of the Netherlands. As a young Jewish girl, she is also in the minority, in terms of the kinds of voices we tend to hear talking about the war. Knowing how Anne’s story ends adds pathos to her writing, but her diary is fascinating in its own right. As the chronicle of a family trapped in close confines, it’s well-observed, and Anne’s thoughts are often funny, insightful, moving, and highly relatable. Perhaps that’s why her diary has become such a powerful symbol of the immeasurable evil and loss of the Holocaust.
2. Catch-22, by Joseph Heller
Joseph Heller’s satirical WWII novel often makes it onto “best books” lists and it’s easy to see why. Catch-22 highlights the absurdities and petty evils of the military industrial complex compellingly and entertainingly. For Yossarian, a pilot and the book’s protagonist, the real enemy is his Commanding Officer, who constantly and retroactively increases his service requirements, preventing him from going home. Besides Yossarian, we’re treated to a host of bizarre characters, like Major Major Major Major, living through the war in a fictional US air force base. Heller’s writing is a masterclass in non-linear storytelling, each chapter flowing into the next through free association. It’s also very funny, peppered with excellent one-liners, bon mots and shrewd observations. That said, the last section is much more serious as the violence of war is finally depicted, inspired by Heller’s own military service. Yet, despite its reputation as an antiwar book, Catch-22 is more anti-capitalist than anything else, thanks to its pointed commentary on greed and war profiteering.
3. Europa, Europa, by Solomon Perel
This is one of those extraordinary true stories that sounds like fiction. Europa Europa (originally titled: I Was Hitler Youth Salomon) is the autobiography of Solomon Perel, a German-Jewish Holocaust survivor. After fleeing Nazi Germany with his family, 14-year-old Solomon is eventually separated from them in Poland and picked up by a troop of German soldiers. He manages to hide his Jewish identity and win their trust and is ultimately sent to a Hitler Youth boarding school, of all places. His struggle to maintain his “Aryan” cover is laced with dark irony and black comedy. Yet Solomon also has to deal with puberty and the unique challenges and pressures of his situation, particularly the agonizing moral dilemma of “joining” the enemy to survive. His search for his family and guilt over his unconventional survival strategy adds a heartbreaking edge to the dramatic story. The German-language film adaptation is also excellent.
4. The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak
The Book Thief is a startlingly original novel, not least because it is narrated by Death, who observes the life and coming-of-age of Liesel, the book thief of the title. Liesel is a vivid protagonist who is rehomed with a kindly older couple after she loses the rest of her family. She must grapple with the repercussions of the war for German civilians, particularly when her adoptive parents decide to hide Max, a young Jewish man. This is a book that is sympathetic to the many civilian victims of the war in Germany, while also questioning the “innocence” of citizens who enabled the atrocities of the Nazi regime. The Book Thief forces its readers to grapple with complex moral issues, while also presenting us with an intensely relatable, almost dreamlike snapshot of childhood and growing up. Maybe that’s why it’s sometimes categorized as a YA novel, but, honestly, it’s a book any reader of any age should savor.
5. Das Boot: The Boat, by Lothar-Günther Buchheim
You may recognize the German title, Das Boot, if you’re a film buff. If so, you’ll know that it refers to a German U-boat (submarine) on patrol during the Battle of the Atlantic, a prolonged campaign (on both sides) to blockade enemy shipping and supply routes. The Boat is Buchheim’s fictionalized account of an actual patrol he accompanied as a war correspondent, with all its “frigging around” and intense drama. German submarine crews had very poor life expectancy (only a quarter survived the war). This knowledge underpins Buchheim’s warts-and-all account of a few very tense weeks attacking and being attacked by the British Royal Navy, weathering storms and deep dives and generally surviving. Thanks to Buchheim’s first hand experience, The Boat is imbued with a palpable sense of claustrophobia bordering on panic that is gripping, but may put you off submarine travel for life. If you have issues with confined spaces, this might not be the book for you, but for everyone else it’s a thrilling read.
6. The Bridge Over the River Kwai, by Pierre Boulle
This fictionalized account of the construction of the Burma Railway was partly based on Pierre Boulle’s own experiences as a prisoner of war. Despite this, The Bridge Over the River Kwai has attracted criticism for downplaying the suffering of prisoners forced to build the “Death Railway” by the Japanese Imperial Army. Instead, Boulle’s novel focuses on a plucky regiment of captured British troops and the battle of wills between their leader, Ltd. Colonel Nicholson, and Colonel Saito, the Japanese commander of the POW camp. Colonel Nicholson also faces a personal dilemma as he must choose between his pride in his work and the imperative to sabotage the bridge, since it contributes to the enemy’s war effort. This choice seems rather petty in light of the suffering of the real prisoners of war (Nicholson’s character has also drawn fire), but Boulle has said he was inspired by the collaboration he witnessed between French officers and the Japanese army. In any event, it’s certainly interesting as a study on the psychological pressures facing prisoners of war.
7. Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth Wein
Much of WWII fiction tends to focus on men. Elizabeth Wein does her bit to buck this trend with her historical novels. Code Name Verity is an exciting YA thriller about a spy and a pilot who crashland in Nazi-occupied France. As the novel opens, “Verity” has been captured by the Gestapo and, under torture, agrees to write her novelized “confession”. But how much of it is true? Wein keeps us guessing as we learn about “Verity’s” time with the Gestapo, her career as a spy, and her friendship with Maddie, her pilot and best friend. The bond between the two women is an answer to all the epic wartime bromances with which we’re so familiar (step aside, Nelson and Hardy). Their story also highlights the significant contributions women made to the British war effort, particularly in the air force. Wein herself is a pilot and it shows. And it’s surprisingly funny; Julie (code name: Verity) has a penchant for gallows humor. Full of shock twists, literary sleight of hand, and clever foreshadowing, Code Name Verity is satisfying, heartbreaking, and deeply suspenseful.
8. Caging Skies, by Christine Leunens
Caging Skies tackles an underexamined tactic of Nazism: the indoctrination of children. We meet Johannes, an Austrian boy who, to his parents’ dismay, is a fanatical member of German-occupied Vienna’s Hitler Youth. His Nazism-infused worldview goes unchallenged until he meets Elsa, a Jewish girl his parents are hiding in their house. But their budding friendship takes a more disturbing turn when Johannes’ parents disappear. The radicalization of children is an unsettling subject and one Leunens sinks her teeth into with relish. Caging Skies inspired Jojo Rabbit, Taika Waititi’s satirical 2019 film. But be warned: despite its black comedy, the tone of Caging Skies is generally more serious, though both raise great points about Nazism and white supremacy. As much as it has to say about Nazism, Caging Skies also has plenty of messages about unhealthy relationships and obsession, making it an excellent, thought-provoking read for both adults and teenagers.
9. When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, by Judith Kerr
Judith Kerr may be best known for her picture books like The Tiger Who Came To Tea, but her semi-autobiographical WWII novels are also well loved. When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit is the first book in the trilogy and offers a child’s perspective on Hitler’s rise to power. As her father is an outspoken Jewish critic of the Nazi party, 9-year-old Anna’s family is forced to leave their home (and pink rabbit) in Berlin when Hitler is elected. They flee to Switzerland, then Paris, then England, having “adventures” along the way. There’s something both charming and chilling about Anna’s innocent interpretations of the terrible events unfolding around her. The subject matter, child-appropriate action, and reading level make it perfect for children eight and over. It’s also a great conversation starter if you want to get kids thinking compassionately about the experiences of refugees.
10. Suite Française, by Irène Némirovsky
Irène Némirovsky’s portrait of French civilians both fleeing and living under German occupation has become a bestseller since the manuscript was discovered and published in 2004. Suite Française actually combines the first two books in what would have been a quintet, never completed due to Némirovsky’s murder at Auschwitz. It is fascinating, both as a literary work and historical document. Completed in 1942, just before her arrest, it was written in tiny handwriting in a single notebook and rediscovered by the author’s daughter 60 years later. As such, it offers an intriguing insight into the mindset and lives of French civilians in that period. Suite Française features a large cast, though the second half focuses more on a French woman’s forbidden romance with the German officer commandeering her house. Resistance and collaboration are discussed, though some readers may be disturbed by its hints of internalized antisemitism (Némirovsky herself was Jewish).
11. They Called Us Enemy, by George Takei, Justin Eisinger, Steven Scott, and Harmony Becker
George Takei’s graphic novel memoir recounts his childhood years in an internment camp. Takei is famous for playing Lieutenant Sulu in Star Trek and has long been an outspoken critic of racism. They Called Us Enemy depicts the anti-Japanese sentiment that gripped America after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, culminating in the imprisonment of thousands of Japanese-American citizens in mass camps. Told mostly from the point of view of a young child, it sheds lights on a dark episode in American history for a new generation of readers. It’s suitable for children over 12, though it’s an insightful and satisfying read for adults, too. Harmony Becker’s artwork is beautiful and sensitive, at times even incongruously cute given the serious subject matter. Released in 2019, the questions this story raises about American identity and citizenship are as urgent as ever.
12. Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut
A war novel with a sci-fi twist, Kurt Vonnegut’s seminal work is one of the most popular and influential antiwar novels of all time. Slaughterhouse-Five follows the aptly named Billy Pilgrim as he becomes “unstuck” in time and relives his experiences as a prisoner of war during WWII. These famously climax in the German city of Dresden, where Billy survives the allied bombing that annihilated the city. Vonnegut masterfully combines dark humor with biting anger, a testament to his own traumatic experiences as a soldier; Vonnegut himself survived the firebombing in the real “Slaughterhouse-Five”. Yet there are also aliens from the planet Tralfamadore, wormholes through space and time, and the ongoing mystery of how real or not Billy’s time travel and alien encounters actually are (I’d say not, but your mileage may vary). Its representation of women (all five of them) tends to be sexist, but Slaughterhouse-Five’s non-linear storytelling, incisive wit, and blistering satire still make it a great read.
13. The Silver Sword, by Ian Seraillier
Ruth, Edek, and Bronia Balicki are Polish refugees, homeless and alone after their house is destroyed and their parents are arrested by Nazis. Fortunately, they have a good luck charm, a letter opener in the shape of a silver sword that “helps” them escape the ruins of Warsaw and begin a perilous journey to their mother’s relatives in Switzerland. But will they be able to make it on their own when they lose the sword? The Silver Sword (or Escape from Warsaw in the US) has become a classic of children’s literature since its publication in 1956. It vividly depicts the suffering and courage of ordinary civilians in the devastated landscape of war torn Europe, as well as the evils of Nazism. There’s plenty of peril and adventure, though The Silver Sword’s frank discussions of death and disease (tuberculosis was a major killer during the war years) may make it unsuitable for children under 12 years old.
14. Goodnight Mister Tom, by Michelle Magorian
Michelle Magorian’s now classic tale of a wartime evacuee finding a loving home with a grumpy widower is a perfect introduction to WWII literature for children. Goodnight Mister Tom’s vision of English country life is cozy and idealized, a perfect tonic to the realities of the Second World War and the tragic backstory of its protagonist, William Beech. The Blitz and devastation of air raids (and their aftermaths) are also depicted, as well as rationing, blackouts, and other subtle details about wartime Britain. Period typical biases are also explored in the characters of Zach, Will’s arty, nonconforming (Jewish) friend, and especially in Tom Oakley (Mister Tom), whose suitability as a guardian for Will is repeatedly questioned due to his gender. Magorian skillfully blends all this historical content with a heartwarming and heart-wrenching story about finding family. For a different kind of evacuee story, you could also try Back Home, Magorian’s novel about Rusty, an English girl struggling to readapt to postwar Britain after spending the war as an evacuee in America.
15. Ill Met By Moonlight, by W. Stanley Moss
This partly-autobiographical wartime adventure recounts Moss’ involvement in the Cretan Resistance, specifically a mission to capture Heinrich Kreipe, a German general. Based on Moss’ diaries, Ill Met By Moonlight is a rollicking read that’s all the more entertaining since it’s a true story. Patrick Leigh Fermor, the adventurer and travel writer, also appears in dashing form, though his afterward notes that it was less of a “jape” than Moss’s lighthearted tone sometimes suggests. Despite mishaps, including thwarted attempts to parachute into Crete, the mission unfolds entertainingly, largely thanks to Moss and Fermor’s charisma and Pluck. The mission itself is pleasingly daring, especially as the team (and their prisoner) have to evade German patrols and checkpoints for weeks as they travel to their extraction point. The focus is mostly on the British leads, though Cretans resisting German occupation also get their time to shine. Less than 200 pages long, Ill Met By Moonlight is perfect if you fancy a quick read.
16. Empire of the Sun, by J. G. Ballard
Empire of the Sun is Ballard’s fictionalized account of his own childhood experiences in Japanese-run Lunghua internment camp in Shanghai. Our hero is Jamie (Jim) Graham, a British boy living in Shanghai who, unlike the author, is separated from his parents in the chaos following the Japanese invasion. After struggling to survive on his own, Jim decides to surrender himself to an internment camp, where he spends the rest of the war. His idolization of the dapper Japanese pilots and their cool planes adds an interesting Stockholm Syndrome-like spin on the prisoner of war narrative, especially as Jim is treated relatively well at first. Of course, that changes as conditions in the camp deteriorate and resources dwindle. A survival story told through the eyes of a child, Empire of the Sun stands out as both a first rate war novel and coming-of-age story.
17. Every Man Dies Alone, by Hans Fallada
Published in 1947, Every Man Dies Alone (otherwise known as Alone in Berlin) is historically significant as it is one of the first anti-Nazi novels to be published in Germany after the war. Based on a true story, it follows the Quangels, an unassuming couple who singlehandedly write and distribute hundreds of anti-Nazi postcards across Berlin, a capital crime. Their tale of resistance blends interestingly with a dash of detective fiction as we also follow Kommissar Escherich, the Gestapo inspector hunting them down. Despite some fictionalization, Every Man Dies Alone is strongly rooted in the Gestapo’s files on the real-life couple, Otto and Elise Hampel; the English edition even includes reproductions of their mugshots and some of their postcards. Having lived through the Nazi regime himself, Fallada chillingly captures the injustice, mistrust, and terror of life under an authoritarian regime. At the same time, the bravery of the Hampels/Quangels and their low-key operation is an inspiring reminder that anyone can make a difference in the world, however “ordinary” they may seem.
18. The Unwomanly Face of War, by Svetlana Alexievich
Svetlana Alexievich grew up on stories about WWII, often told by women. However, in the Soviet Union, like everywhere else, male voices dominated official narratives about the war. The contributions of women were (and still are) often downplayed. In this fascinating book, Alexievich records the stories of hundreds of women who served their country as snipers, spies, machine gunners, infantry women, tank drivers, and pilots, as well as in more “traditional” support roles. The Unwomanly Face of War shines a light on the war stories of women from all walks of life doing all kinds of jobs. It’s an oral history told with passion in Alexievich’s elegant prose, translated into English by the equally talented Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. It also asks important questions about the “place” of women in warfare, why women have been sidelined and what we lose when women’s voices and experiences are excluded from conversations about war.
19. We Die Alone, by David Howarth
David Howarth, a military historian and WWII veteran, was also a founding member of the “Shetland Bus”, a secret operation that ferried Norwegian resistance fighters between Scotland and Nazi-occupied Norway during the war. In We Die Alone, Howarth tells the story of one of their heroes, Jan Baalstrud, the only survivor of a deadly, failed mission to sabotage a German base and foster resistance in northern Norway. Howarth wastes no time in setting the scene in the arctic north and introducing our doomed heroes before getting right to the action. He breathlessly describes Baalstrud’s escape from a Nazi ambush and epic journey across one of the most inhospitable environments in the world, injured and dogged by the enemy the whole way. It’s an incredible but true story, as Howarth repeatedly reminds us. We Die Alone is non-fiction, but it’s fast-paced and gripping, reading like a survival novel right up to its thrilling conclusion.
20. Barefoot Gen, by Keiji Nakazawa
This groundbreaking and hugely influential manga (comic book) is loosely based on Nakazawa’s actual experiences as a survivor of the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima. Barefoot Gen is graphic and often upsetting, accurately depicting the devastation of the city, the injuries of victims and radiation sickness. We follow 6-year-old Gen and his mother as they struggle to survive on the streets after losing their home and the rest of their family in the initial blast. Unsurprisingly, it makes for grim reading and it’s not for kids, though uplifting moments of human kindness and cooperation are laced through the suffering. Nakazawa’s anger is palpable, directed at both the allied forces and his own government. For obvious reasons, there’s a strong antiwar message, though power and loyalty to family and country are also important themes. First appearing in 1973, Barefoot Gen ran until the late 80s and has inspired novels, TV series, and films. Its art style is typical of the period, ironically owing a lot to American cartoons that flooded the Japanese market during the US occupation.