It’s Week 3 of Nonfiction November, and so far it’s been so much fun to see everyone’s themed posts. My love of nonfiction is being reconfirmed by all the time I’m spending reading about it, thinking about it and reviewing it this month!
For Week 3, the topic was Be The Expert/Ask The Expert/Become The Expert and was hosted by Sophisticated Dorkiness. I’d been reading towards a World War II nonfiction book list for a while, so I thought this was the perfect opportunity to be the expert and post it!
World War II is definitely one of the most popular historical time periods for both fiction and nonfiction. There are so many different aspects of the war that can be explored in either genre, and I tried to focus on nonfiction titles that spanned a range of topics, countries and historical figures. Hope you find plenty of inspiration for your TBR lists below!
The Rise And Fall Of The Third Reich
Publication Date: 1960
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Length In Hardcover: 1245 pages
The famed foreign correspondent and historian William L. Shirer, who had watched and reported on the Nazis since 1925, spent five and a half years sifting through this massive documentation. The result is a monumental study that has been widely acclaimed as the definitive record of one of the most frightening chapters in the history of mankind.
This worldwide bestseller has been acclaimed as the definitive book on Nazi Germany; it is a classic work. The accounts of how the United States got involved and how Hitler used Mussolini and Japan are astonishing, and the coverage of the war-from Germany’s early successes to her eventual defeat-is must reading
I have a special connection to this book because reading it was what made me realize I loved nonfiction. I picked it up years ago (I think it was during a summer break in college) and the way in which Shirer took me through the history of the Third Reich just mesmerized me. For such a complex and difficult topic, Shirer is able to effortlessly condense historical events to their essence and focus on the most important parts, while following a logical chronological timeline and include eye-opening analysis. It’s everything I look for in a nonfiction book – a hugely interesting topic, concise writing, an organized structure, and transporting writing. It’s long and I was so surprised to learn it was written back in the 60s, but it’s unmissable for a nonfiction buff.
Publication Date: November 16th 2010
Publisher: Random House
Length In Hardcover: 473 pages
On a May afternoon in 1943, an Army Air Forces bomber crashed into the Pacific Ocean and disappeared, leaving only a spray of debris and a slick of oil, gasoline, and blood. Then, on the ocean surface, a face appeared. It was that of a young lieutenant, the plane’s bombardier, who was struggling to a life raft and pulling himself aboard. So began one of the most extraordinary odysseys of the Second World War.
The lieutenant’s name was Louis Zamperini. Ahead of Zamperini lay thousands of miles of open ocean, leaping sharks, a foundering raft, thirst and starvation, enemy aircraft, and, beyond, a trial even greater.
I listened to Unbroken in audiobook on my commute to and from work, and I was hanging off the edge of my seat the entire time. It almost may be too dramatic of a book for a safe driving experience. The movie was released in 2014 – I’ve never seen it but I’m planning to now. Louis Zamperini’s story starts mundanely enough, with a slightly troubled childhood and an unexpected talent for running, followed by the start of the war and enrollment in the Air Force. What follows is nothing short of an epic saga of the proportions of the Odyssey, but taking place in real life. This book would make a great bridge into nonfiction for someone who hasn’t tried the genre before or has been put off by it in the past.
The Hiding Place
(with Elizabeth & John Sherrill)
Publication Date: 1971
Original Publisher: World Wide Books
Length In Hardcover: 269 pages
At one time Corrie ten Boom would have laughed at the idea that there would ever be a story to tell. For the first fifty years of her life nothing at all out of the ordinary had ever happened to her. She was an old-maid watchmaker living contentedly with her spinster sister and their elderly father in the tiny Dutch house over their shop. However, with the Nazi invasion and occupation of Holland, a story did ensue.
Corrie ten Boom and her family became leaders in the Dutch Underground, hiding Jewish people in their home in a specially built room and aiding their escape from the Nazis. For their help, all but Corrie found death in a concentration camp. The Hiding Place is their story.
Corrie Ten Boom’s memoir is a great way to get a window into the experience of people living in the Netherlands during World War II. There are plenty of memoirs out there set in Germany, France or Poland, so getting a glimpse into a different part of Europe during that time was really interesting. Clearly also of interest are the ten Boom family’s unbelievable exploits within the Dutch Underground, led by author Corrie’s own selfless quest to save as many people as possible from the clutches of the Nazis. This is one of those stories of self-sacrifice and altruism that may move you to tears but also restore hope in your heart about the nature of the human spirit. I listened to this one in audiobook as well (excellent narration) and it definitely left an impression.
The Last Jews In Berlin
Publication Date: 1982
Original Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Length In Hardcover: 349 pages
In February 1943, four thousand Jews went underground in Berlin. By the end of the war, all but a few hundred of them had died in bombing raids or, more commonly, in death camps. This is the real-life story of some of the few of them – a young mother, a scholar and his countess lover, a black-market jeweler, a fashion designer, a Zionist, an opera-loving merchant, a teen-age orphan – who resourcefully, boldly, defiantly, luckily survived.
In hiding or in masquerade, by their wits and sometimes with the aid of conscience-stricken German gentiles, they survived. They survived to tell this tale, which reads like a thriller and triumphs like a miracle.
Before reading this book, I hadn’t thought about the experiences of Jews left in Germany during the war, who had to find a way to hide in plain sight of the Nazis. The Last Jews In Berlin was such an illuminating read on a little known topic. The people whose attempts to evade the Nazis are immortalized in the book became like friends I was rooting for through each hiding place they found and had to abandon. It was heartbreaking to experience their physical insecurity and fear vicariously, but the book also felt like such an important account of the ingenuity and perseverance of the Jewish individuals who looked for any means to survive during this horrific time. There were also elements of hope through the many non-Jewish people who risked their lives to help them hide and escape.
The Boys In The Boat
Publication Date: June 1st 2013
Original Publisher: MacMillan
Length In Hardcover: 416 pages
Daniel James Brown’s robust book tells the story of the University of Washington’s 1936 eight-oar crew and their epic quest for an Olympic gold medal, a team that transformed the sport and grabbed the attention of millions of Americans. The emotional heart of the story lies with one rower, Joe Rantz, a teenager without family or prospects, who rows not for glory, but to regain his shattered self-regard and to find a place he can call home.
The Boys in the Boat is the improbable, intimate story of nine working-class boys from the American west who, in the depths of the Great Depression, showed the world what true grit really meant.
With a completely different setting and focus than other books on this list, The Boys In The Boat is one of those titles that allowed me to get an entirely new glimpse into World War II. Aside from the story about Joe Rantz’ attempt to build a life for himself coming from an unstable home following the depression, I was actually most interested in the peek we get at Nazi Germany through the eyes of Joy and his teammates when they travel to Berlin for the Olympics. The parts of the book focused on the art of rowing and the team’s practices and races are also beautifully written and captivating, but as the historical buff I am, I wanted to see the pomp and circumstance of Nazi Germany through the eyes of these 20 year old American men, and I wasn’t disappointed.
In The Garden Of Beasts
by Erik Larson
Publication Date: May 10th 2011
Original Publisher: Crown
Length In Hardcover: 448 pages
The time is 1933, the place, Berlin, when William E. Dodd becomes America’s first ambassador to Hitler’s Germany in a year that proved to be a turning point in history. A mild-mannered professor from Chicago, Dodd brings along his wife, son, and flamboyant daughter, Martha. Dodd watches with alarm as Jews are attacked, the press is censored, and drafts of frightening new laws begin to circulate.
As that first year unfolds and the shadows deepen, the Dodds experience days full of excitement, intrigue, romance and ultimately, horror, when a climactic spasm of violence and murder reveals Hitler’s true character and ruthless ambition.
In The Garden Of Beasts introduced me to another element of World War II I hadn’t learned about yet – the experience of the U.S. ambassador to Germany leading up to the war. Dodd was a fascinating character from the start and different from what you might expect of a career diplomat, since his background was in academia. It was an added bonus to learn more about his daughter and her exploits in Nazi Germany as well, though some of the parts in which she was featured seemed more like scandal rag fodder than serious nonfiction. Entertaining but questionable in their accuracy. The book shifts tone and gains in urgency as the narrative gets closer to the war and Dodd struggles more and more to get the U.S. State Department to share in his concerns about mounting unrest and Jewish persecution in Germany.
Hitler’s Last Secretary
by Traudl Junge
Publication Date: April 20th 2011
Original Publisher: Arcade Publishing
Length In Hardcover: 261 pages
At the age of twenty-two, Traudl Junge became private secretary to Adolf Hitler and served him for two and a half years, right up to the very end. Junge observed the intimate workings of Hitler’s administration: She typed his correspondence and speeches—including Hitler’s public and private last will and testament—and ate her meals and spent evenings with him.
A firsthand account of Adolf Hitler from the woman who worked at his side, stayed with him in the bunker, and was featured in the film Downfall. In this intimate, detailed, and chilling memoir, Junge explains what it was like to spend everyday life with a human monster.
This memoir was both highly controversial and fascinating. I’ve struggled to find much creditable nonfiction on the war from the German (and even Nazi) perspective (if you know of any titles please let me know). Though Traudl Junge was not an active participant in the Nazi party and the beginning of her story reads like a young naive woman’s diary, the opportunity for an insider look into Hitler’s lives and habits that the later part of her memoir affords is simply irreplaceable. Junge clearly suffers from a strong sense of guilt for having even inadvertently participated in the mass murder in which she claims she didn’t realize the Nazi’s were engaged. Regardless, she was there when Hitler dictated his speeches, when he lived his daily life in the last few years of the war, and most notably when he committed suicide. It’s a short read but really unique.
The Nazi Officer’s Wife
(with Susan Dworkin)
Publication Date: 1999
Original Publisher: William Morrow
Length In Hardcover: 320 pages
Edith Hahn was an outspoken young woman studying law in Vienna when the Gestapo forced Edith and her mother into a ghetto, issuing them papers branded with a “J.” Soon, Edith was taken away to a labor camp, and though she convinced Nazi officials to spare her mother, when she returned home, her mother had been deported.
Knowing she would become a hunted woman, Edith tore the yellow star from her clothing and went underground. Her boyfriend, Pepi, proved too terrified to help her, but a Christian friend was not: With the woman’s identity papers in hand, Edith fled to Munich. There she met Werner Vetter, a Nazi party member who fell in love with her. And despite her protests and even her eventual confession that she was Jewish, he married her and kept her identity secret.
Another memoir that provides insight into a very unique experience of the war. I wonder how many Jewish women ended up in similar circumstances to those of Edith Hahn. Like others, she was forced to forge a fake identity and try to hide in plain sight of the Nazi’s in Munich. Her story takes a very unexpected turn from there, however, as she ends up married to a Nazi party member, of all people. Seeing Edith’s relationship with her husband Werner Vetter unfold was both disturbing and riveting – she never felt like an equal partner in their marriage and ultimately never fully trusted Werner, as is only too understandable. Weirdly, I actually felt most engaged at the beginning of the memoir, before Edith married Werner and as she was working in a forced labor farm in Austria, and then at the end of the memoir, in which Edith and Werner’s marriage is changed by the end of the war.
The Girls Of Atomic City
Publication Date: March 5th 2013
Original Publisher: Touchstone/Simon & Schuster
Length In Hardcover: 373 pages
At the height of World War II, the Tennessee town of Oak Ridge was using more electricity than New York City and was home to more than 75,000 people, many of them young women recruited from small towns across the South. They all knew something big was happening there, but few could piece together the true nature of their work until the bomb “Little Boy” was dropped over Hiroshima, Japan, and the secret was out. The shocking revelation: the residents of Oak Ridge were enriching uranium for the atomic bomb.
In The Girls of Atomic City, Denise Kiernan traces the astonishing story of these unsung WWII workers through interviews with dozens of surviving women and other Oak Ridge residents.
This title deals with the U.S. homefront of the war and with the quest to produce a viable atomic bomb – the success of which caused the (tragic) end of the war. I am also searching for creditable titles on the effects of the nuclear bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki and read The Last Train From Hiroshima on the topic, only to find out parts of the book have been seriously questioned for their veracity. Send any suggestions my way. To be honest, I found the science and history of the town of Oak Ridge most interesting in The Girls Of Atomic City, and the personal stories of the women highlighted in the book less so. That’s probably the scientific nonfiction lover in me. I may pick up another book on the Manhattan Project that’s even more science focused like the one listed in Additional Reading below. Having said that, The Girls Of Atomic City is still a unique window into the experience of some of the women involved in the war effort in the U.S.
The Zookeeper’s Wife
Publication Date: September 17th 2007
Original Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
Length In Hardcover: 368 pages
When Germany invaded Poland, Stuka bombers devastated Warsaw—and the city’s zoo along with it. With most of their animals dead, zookeepers Jan and Antonina Zabinski began smuggling Jews into empty cages. Another dozen “guests” hid inside the Zabinskis’ villa, emerging after dark for dinner and socializing.
With her exuberant prose and exquisite sensitivity to the natural world, Diane Ackerman engages us viscerally in the lives of the zoo animals, their keepers, and their hidden visitors. She shows us how Antonina refused to give in to the penetrating fear of discovery, keeping alive an atmosphere of play and innocence even as Europe crumbled around her.
As you can see this is the only 3 star pick on this list. There were really compelling parts of the book – the fact that it’s set in Warsaw, the fact that it involves a zoo and that you see the effect of the war on the zoo’s animals, the fact that Jan and Antonina become smugglers of Jewish individuals and saved their lives. However, there were also less successful parts of the book. The pace was often meandering and unfocused, with significant tangents on topics that were only slightly related to Jan and Antonina’s story. The writing felt overdone as well – too flowery for the topic at hand and sometimes almost trying to bridge through into poetry. I felt the author was attempting to water down a dearth of facts and anecdotes with a flurry of additional words. I listened to the audiobook and the narrator’s affected Polish accent may have also worsened my experience a bit. I’m curious to watch the movie and see if it’s any better.
Have you read any of these World War II Nonfiction titles? What did you think? Are you adding any others to your TBR? Let me know in the comments!
For more TBR options, check out my other book lists on Novels And Nonfiction on Scientology, True Crime, North Korea, Scientific Nonfiction, Fateful Voyages, Noble Women Through History, Memoirs Of Escape And Redemption and Medical Memoirs.
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