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The best short history of World War II

American Heritage History of World War II is a short history of World War II.

Thousands of books have been written about World War II—”history’s greatest catastrophe.” Amazon shows more than 70,000 titles. Among them are general histories from the likes of the Smithsonian Institution, the New York Times, and unnumbered others. Although I can’t claim to have read them all, or even more than a handful, the very best short history of World War II that I’ve come across is the product of three eminent authors writing for the American Heritage magazine: Stephen E. Ambrose, C. L. Sulzberger, and David McCullough. You’re unlikely to find a better introduction to the grand sweep, the intensity, and the human reality of the Second World War.


American Heritage History of World War II by Steven E. Ambrose and C. L. Sulzberger (1966, 1997) 640 pages @@@@@ (5 out of 5)


You might expect an overview of the most complex event in the history of humankind to read like a textbook, forcing the meat-and-potatoes details that bring a story to life into the background in favor of a dry recitation of facts. But that’s not so in this masterfully readable treatment of the war. There is, of course, plenty of connecting tissue to stitch the tale together. But Sulzberger, Ambrose, and McCullough have brought their stellar storytelling chops to this project.

History comes alive in this book when one or another of the authors gets down to cases. For example, they write, “In the summer of 1945, General Dwight D. Eisenhower flew from Berlin to Moscow at 800 feet on a clear day. He could not see a single building still standing.” Later, they report the words of a “doughboy” on viewing the Colosseum: “‘Gee, I didn’t know our bombers had done that much damage in Rome.'”

A short history of World War II that illuminates rather than overwhelm with facts

But the book’s greatest attraction is the authors’ willingness to render judgment that sweeps away the details and brings their vast collective knowledge to bear:

  • “One of the great myths of the war is that England slept while Hitler rearmed. In fact, the British and French spent as much as the Germans on rearmament. It was just that they bought the wrong weapons and had inferior doctrines for employing them.”
  • “Hitler’s misjudgments concerning Britain were profound. He didn’t think they would fight in 1939, he didn’t think they would persevere in 1940, and until late 1942, it never occurred to him that they British might actually win.”
  • The authors argue that Mussolini’s ill-considered invasion of Albania and Libya forced the Nazis to divert troops from the buildup for Operation Barbarossa to rescue the Italians in the Balkans and North Africa, thus delaying the invasion of the Soviet Union by many crucial weeks. “Had Hitler not run up a swastika on the Acropolis, he might have succeeded in draping it upon the Kremlin.”

American Heritage History of World War II is full of revealing observations like these. It’s refreshing to read history that truly leads to understanding rather than overwhelming the reader with inconsequential facts.

About the authors

The first edition of this book appeared in 1966. Its author was New York Times foreign correspondent and columnist C. L. Sulzberger (1912-93), but the prizewinning historian David McCullough (1933-) “was the creator and editor of the first edition of the book.” Historian Stephen E. Ambrose (1936-2002), best known to the public for the book and HBO series The Band of Brothers, updated the volume for publication in 1997. McCullough and Ambrose together published dozens of books on American history. McCullough’s won special praise, winning him two Pulitzer Prizes and two National Book Awards as well as a host of other honors.

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