If 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 about the years leading up to and during the war. Here I’m listing two dozen 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. The 5 top books and the many runners-up 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 within each of the three lists below (the top 5, books about women in espionage, and other books about World War II). Each is linked to my review.
This post was updated on September 30, 2020.
5 top nonfiction books about 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.
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 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).
Agents of Influence: A British Campaign, a Canadian Spy, and the Secret Plot to Bring America into World War II by Henry Hemming
In The Splendid and the Vile, a moving and revealing account of Winston Churchill’s leadership during the Blitz, Erik Larson makes much of the Prime Minister’s dogged campaign to persuade Franklin Roosevelt to drag the United States into the defense of Britain. Historians concur that Churchill’s influence on the President played a major role in bringing about American intervention in the European war. But few observers and analysts remark about another factor that may well have been more decisive: British interference in American politics in 1940 and 41 that helped shift public opinion from isolationism to engagement. Because FDR had perfected to a fine art the practice of “leading from behind.” And that’s central to the story so ably told by Henry Hemming in Agents of Influence.
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: General Motors CEO William Knudsen and shipbuilder Henry J. Kaiser.
The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz by Erik Larson
At the age of sixty-five, Winston Churchill achieved his lifelong dream, becoming Prime Minister of the United Kingdom on May 10, 1940. Less than a year into World War II, Britain was on the brink of defeat. Yet somehow the aging Prime Minister—an alcoholic with a reputation for questionable judgment—mobilized the British people despite what so many were convinced was a hopeless fight against the Nazi juggernaut. Both King George VI and some of Churchill’s colleagues in the Cabinet were skeptical that he was up to the job. Regardless, through sheer force of will and an unparalleled gift for stirring rhetoric, Churchill led his nation virtually alone in the world for eighteen months before the United States finally entered the war. That’s the story Erik Larson tells, and tells so well, in The Splendid and the Vile.
Top nonfiction books about World War II: women in espionage
The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America’s Enemies by Jason Fagone (The woman codebreaker who caught gangsters and Nazi spies)
Working with recently declassified files from the World War II era as well as long-ignored archival records and contemporary press reports and interviews, journalist Jason Fagone has brought to light at last the astonishing story of Elizebeth Smith Friedman and her husband, William Friedman. The Friedmans may well have been the most important 20th-century American codebreakers, and quite possibly the best and most successful in the world.
Nancy Wake: The gripping true story of the woman who became the Gestapo’s most wanted spy by Peter FitzSimmons (A female WWII spy led thousands against the Nazis)
Recent years have seen a flood of new books belatedly highlighting the role of women in espionage in World War II. Despite rampant sexism and misogyny, women did indeed fill vital roles as spies and analysts in intelligence-gathering as well as partisan activities behind enemy lines. And few women played as prominent a part as a phenomenal Australian woman named Nancy Wake (1912-2011). Her exploits in France during the war have been the subject of at least five books as well as a feature film and a TV series. The best of the books, I’ve found, is Peter FitzSimmons‘ Nancy Wake, which appeared in 2011, the year of her death at the age of 98.
Code Name: Lise: The True Story of the Woman Who Became World War II’s Most Highly Decorated Spy, by Larry Loftis (A woman was World War II’s most highly decorated spy)
She was the most decorated spy in World War II of either gender. Her name was Odette Sansom (later Odette Hallowes). From 1942 to 1945, she served as an officer of Britain’s Special Operations Executive. From November 1942 to April 1943, she worked in southern France as a courier for an SOE network that delivered arms, money, and supplies to the French Resistance. Betrayed by the witless leader of a French network operating in the same area, she was arrested along with her leader and lover, Captain Peter Churchill. She spent the rest of the war in prison, first in France and later at the notorious Ravensbrück concentration camp for women. And when it was all over, she emerged as the war’s most highly decorated spy. Yet these bare-bones facts convey not a hint of the woman’s almost superhuman courage, the subject of Larry Loftis‘s excellent portrait, Code Name: Lise.
Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II by Liza Mundy (The amazing story of the American “Code Girls” who helped win World War II)
During World War II more than 10,000 women worked on cryptography for the US Army and Navy in Washington, DC. They were sworn to secrecy about their work, and to this day some of those who survive, now in their 90s, are still reluctant to talk about it. As Mundy reveals in Code Girls, there were in fact not two (the German Enigma and the Japanese Purple) but three breakthroughs in untangling Axis codes that were decisive, and most of those who worked on all three were women.
Madame Fourcade’s Secret War: The Daring Young Woman Who Led France’s Largest Spy Network Against Hitler by Lynne Olson (The truth about the French Resistance, dug out of old records)
She led the largest French Resistance network against the Nazis for nearly five years. Three thousand agents answered to her, and they delivered intelligence to the British that helped the Allies win the war. Yet she has been virtually forgotten for decades, her courage and resourcefulness ignored by Charles De Gaulle and the French Communist Party, the dominant political forces in France for decades. Because she wasn’t politically allied with either. And because she was a woman. Now a new biography belatedly restores her to the spotlight. It reads like a thriller. And it reveals the long-hidden truth about the French Resistance.
A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II by Sonia Purnell (The WWII American woman spy who kept the French Resistance alive)
Popular fiction abounds with superheroes. But it’s not often at all that you’ll come across a true-to-life story of a person who comes even close to the sort of over-the-top heroism that so many popular writers favor. However, the story of WWII American woman spy Virginia Hall (1906-82) fits that bill. In A Woman of No Importance, Sonia Purnell relates the woman’s experience in World War II in compelling and often jaw-dropping detail. It’s the best study I’ve ever read about the British Special Operations Executive (SOE), the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS), and the French Resistance. I found it nearly impossible to put the book down.
D-Day Girls: The Spies Who Armed the Resistance, Sabotaged the Nazis, and Helped Win World War II by Sarah Rose (The women who parachuted behind German lines and helped secure the Normandy landing)
D-Day Girls spotlights the British Special Operations Executive (SOE), the world’s first large fighting force trained and organized to operate behind enemy lines. Author Sarah Rose pays special attention in D-Day Girls to a handful of women in the French Section (F Section) of the SOE. But throughout she puts their experiences in the larger context. “Women made up some two thousand of the approximately thirteen thousand employees of the Special Operations Executive . . . They were translators, radio operators, secretaries, drivers, and honeypots. Only eight were deployed as special agents in Autumn 1942, when SOE’s first class of female trainees was seconded to France.”
Other top nonfiction books about World War II
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 posting reviews here. 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.
Historian Omer Bartov demonstrates how very complicated the Holocaust was. By tracing the history of antisemitism in a single Polish-Ukrainian town from the sixteenth century to the present, and detailing day by day how the Holocaust unfolded there, he brings to light the many nuances lost in historical portraits painted with a broader brush. The book is a masterful effort that should stand for decades if not centuries as one of the most insightful accounts of that shameful episode in what is so casually called civilization.
Most histories of World War II give the impression that the conflict was a straightforward affair. Whether recounting the story of battles (Stalingrad, Normandy, Midway) or the tales of spies and saboteurs (Britain’s SOE, America’s OSS, Germany’s Abwehr), they tend to draw straight lines from one event to the next. Of course, human affairs are never so simple. History doesn’t travel in straight lines. But only in recent years, as classified or hidden files have opened up, have we gained a clearer picture of just how complex and confusing the war was. Hitler’s Spy Chief, Richard Bassett’s biography of Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, director of the Abwehr, makes that abundantly clear. This book reveals that, even today, there is a secret history of World War II that remains to be told.
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.
Tuxedo Park: A Wall Street Tycoon and the Secret Palace of Science that Changed the Course of World War II by Jennet Conant
He was a privileged young man, a product of Andover, Yale, and Harvard Law and a first cousin and protegé of Henry L. Stimson (who was variously Secretary of State and War under Presidents Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt). He made an immense fortune on Wall Street in the 1920s. But his first love was science. Even while helping structure the nation’s electric power industry, he established a lavish private laboratory that attracted leading scientists from all over the world. And when World War II approached, he played a leading role in assembling the men and resources that produced radar and the atomic bomb in record time.
In March 1945, Allied commanders were shocked to discover that a small group of American soldiers had defied orders and engineered a strategic breakthrough that would shorten World War II. This remarkable little book is their story.
Three-quarters of a century after the end of World War II, FDR’s policy to demand unconditional surrender from Germany and Japan may seem simply logical. After all, in an era of total war, the only guarantee that either nation wouldn’t sufficiently recover to attack again was total Allied control over their system of government following the end of hostilities. That seemed assured in the case of Germany, which ended the war in rubble and ashes and divided between East and West. But unconditional surrender was a far more complex question with respect to Imperial Japan. For US President Harry Truman to pursue the policy to the end in 1945 involved a complex calculus weighing a host of mutually contradictory military, political, diplomatic, and economic factors. Villanova University historian Marc Gallicchio adroitly untangles them in Unconditional: The Japanese Surrender in World War II.
Early in 1945, as the Nazi regime began to crumble and American soldiers, marines, and sailors relentlessly pushed ever closer toward the Japanese home islands, two thousand civilian prisoners of war, mostly Americans, suffered indescribable deprivation at the hands of a sadistic prison camp commander, deep in a Philippine jungle. Their story—and that of their liberators—is brilliantly told in Bruce Henderson‘s Rescue at Los Baños. It’s a tale of courage and resourcefulness that illuminates one of the most revealing chapters in the history of World War II.
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. Surely, when millions of men and women served in the Allies’ armed services, the efforts of a handful of individuals can’t possibly be viewed as carrying the brunt of the load.
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.
Churchill’s Shadow Raiders: The Race to Develop Radar, WWII’s Invisible Secret Weapon by Damien Lewis
Military historians tend to agree that radar played a singularly important role in the Allied victory in World War II, arguably greater than the decoding of the German Enigma codes (and certainly greater than the atomic bomb, which only ended the war). But British and American sources tend to disagree on where the critical advances in the technology took place. Unsurprisingly, the British highlight the role of British scientists, the Americans that of Americans. However, in fact, it was Nazi scientists whose contributions may have been the most significant. That’s the little-known fact that comes to light in author and filmmaker Damien Lewis‘s fascinating book about the theft of German radar technology, Churchill’s Shadow Raiders.
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.
Richard Sorge was an active Communist who began spying for the Comintern immediately after World War I and, later, for Soviet military intelligence (today the GRU). Nonetheless, he managed to join the Nazi Party and eventually become a close personal friend and part-time employee of the German ambassador to Tokyo. Through his access to top-secret Nazi communications, he was able to advise his handlers in Moscow of Germany’s intention to invade the Soviet Union. Meanwhile, he was also running agents who were embedded at the very top of the Japanese government and was equally able to monitor Japan’s on-and-off-again plans to invade Siberia.
Read just about any popular history of World War II, and you’ll find any number of references to the Allies as the Big Three of Britain, the US, and the Soviet Union. What’s missing is recognition that China bore nearly as high a price as the USSR, with an estimated fourteen to twenty million dead compared to fewer than half a million for the UK and the US. (The Soviet Union lost as many as twenty-four million dead.) On that basis alone, Oxford University historian Rana Mitter is justified in titling his revisionist history of China in World War II Forgotten Ally. But, as he explains at length, recognition of China’s contribution to the war effort is overdue on a far broader basis than that.
A Game of Birds and Wolves: The Ingenious Young Women Whose Board Game Helped Win World War II by Simon Parkin
Parkin tells the tale of a top-secret unit established deep underground in Liverpool. There, a small staff developed wargames to help develop new antisubmarine tactics, eventually training thousands of British naval officers who commanded escort vessels protecting the convoys of merchant ships who traversed the Atlantic throughout the war. A retired officer turned game designer named Gilbert Roberts masterminded the effort, working with a staff composed largely of young Wrens, some of them barely out of secondary school. The Western Approaches Tactical Unit (WATU), as it was called, arose out of desperation. Winston Churchill personally set WATU in motion, ordering Roberts to “‘Find out what is happening and sink the U-boats.”
In a beautifully written memoir, longtime former Berkeley City Auditor Anna Rabkin tells the tale of her flight as a child when the Nazis invaded Poland. After hiding with a Christian family, she eventually moved to England and then to the United States, learning new languages and acclimating herself to the strange new customs of her adopted homelands. This is the odyssey of a Holocaust survivor whose experience parallels in some ways what so many refugees today are facing.
Rajchman was twenty-eight years old when he and his nineteen-year-old sister were captured in October 1942 and shipped to Treblinka. She was murdered almost instantaneously upon arriving there. But he was pressed into service as a “barber,” employed to cut off the hair of women and girls before they were herded into the gas chambers. Later, as a “dentist” — removing teeth to extract the gold and platinum — and as a laborer in the Sonderkommando, he survived because he was strong and useful to the Nazis. And then, in the course of a camp-wide revolt, he was one of about one hundred Jews who escaped.
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.
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.
Survivor Café: The Legacy of Trauma and the Labyrinth of Memory, by Elizabeth Rosner
Survivor Café is a memoir, but it is far more than that. Rosner set out to understand the impact of her parents’ experiences in the war on her own life. She read deeply in the literature about the Holocaust and about the phenomenon of epigenetics, “the study of environmentally induced changes passed down from one generation to the next.” This emerging field is controversial and its research easily overdramatized. However, interpreting the findings narrowly, Rosner found in it an explanation for her own deep feelings about the Holocaust—and those in other second- and third-generation offspring of survivors.
Wild Bill Donovan: The Spymaster Who Created the OSS and Modern American Espionage, by Douglas Waller
Under Donovan’s forceful leadership, the upstart American agency homed itself in on the storied operations of MI6, the British Secret Service, and forced one Allied commanding general after another to shelter his agents in their armies. Against the prevailing wisdom in military circles, and often the determined opposition of his superiors, he mounted extensive operations to organize partisans in North Africa, in France, in the Balkans and Central Europe, and ultimately in Germany itself. In short, William J. Donovan, raised hell in World War II.
Historian Jay Winik asserts that “the State Department was now using the machinery of government to prevent, rather than facilitate, the rescue of the Jews. The fear seemed to be, not that the Jews would be marched to their deaths, but that they would be sent to the Allied nations.” It’s unavoidably clear now that the Department has the blood of more than a million people staining its already sad record of amorality: yes, in the absence of the obfuscation, foot-dragging, and bureaucratic nonsense from key members of the Department, more than a million lives could have been saved.
Gaining perspective on World War II
For the United States, World War II lasted less than four years (December 1941 to September 1945). But for much of the rest of the world the war was a much more protracted affair. In Europe, its formal beginning was September 1, 1939, when Hitler’s forces invaded Poland, although on both sides preparations for the conflict had been underway for several years previously. Meanwhile, in China, the war officially began July 17, 1937, but it makes more sense to date the beginning to the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931. And the numbers of war dead in countries such as the USSR (more than 20 million), China (15 to 20 million), Poland (6 million), and Germany (7 million) represented a far greater proportion of their population than American, British, and French fatalities, none of which exceeded half a million. Yet we Americans continue to think of that war in terms of its impact on France, England, and the US. Despite this contrast, nearly all the books listed above focus squarely on the role of French, British, and Americans in the war. For those of us who are French, British, or American, it’s understandable. But we would do well to recognize that World War II was truly a global affair.
For further reading
Check out The 10 most consequential events of World War II. You might also be interested in 20 top nonfiction books about history plus 80 other good books, and in 15 good books about the Holocaust, including both fiction and nonfiction. And you can always find all the latest books I’ve read and reviewed, as well as my most popular posts, on the Home Page.