The best World War 2 novels with a touch of philosophy

Alexandra Popoff Author Of Vasily Grossman and the Soviet Century
By Alexandra Popoff

Who am I?

I'm the author of four literary biographies and of one in progress. My current project is a concise interpretive biography of Ayn Rand, commissioned by Yale University Press, Jewish Lives. Among the best known and most divisive twentieth-century writers, the author of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged remains the subject of fascination. I began my career as a journalist in Moscow. Before turning to literary biography I lectured in Russian literature and history in Canada. My essays and reviews have appeared in The Wall Street JournalHuffington PostLiterary HubTablet MagazineNational Post, and other newspapers and outlets.

I wrote...

Vasily Grossman and the Soviet Century

By Alexandra Popoff,

Book cover of Vasily Grossman and the Soviet Century

What is my book about?

To use James Atlas’ words about Edmund Wilson, Vasily Grossman “offered a large canvas on which you could draw a map of the twentieth century.” A prominent Soviet writer and war correspondent, Grossman was among the first to capture his century along with its calamities brought about by the Nazi and Stalinist regimes––World War II, the Holocaust, Ukraine’s famine, and the Gulag. His major novel Life and Fate was drafted when Stalin was still alive and had been long denied publication. This work and the novel Everything Flows provide unique insights into state nationalism, and the rise of totalitarianism and antisemitism––topics that today remain among the most discussed. I had a sense of personal connection to Grossman’s themes: my birth family of Russian Jewry had suffered under Stalin and Hitler. World War II is also not a remote event for my generation: my father had fought on the Eastern front.

The books I picked & why

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Life and Fate

By Vasily Grossman,

Book cover of Life and Fate

Why this book?

A philosophical novel, Life and Fate tells about the generation in Europe, which had experienced twin dictatorships and World War II. If timely published, it would have appeared simultaneously with Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago and before Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag. But in 1961 Grossman’s masterpiece was seized by the KGB. Smuggled to the West in microfilm, the novel appeared in English in 1985 and was hailed as the twentieth century’s War and Peace. Structured to resemble Tolstoy’s novel about the 1812 invasion of Russia by Napoleon, Life and Fate shows a strikingly different world. Grossman’s characters fight in Stalingrad, are marched to Treblinka’s gas chamber, and work on a Soviet nuclear project. Life and Fate exposes the similarities between the Nazi and Soviet totalitarian systems. Under Hitler and Stalin people are divided into categories—to be kept or to be destroyed. Yet totalitarian violence proves powerless to suppress the kernel of humanity in one’s heart. 


By Elie Wiesel, Marion Wiesel (translator),

Book cover of Night

Why this book?

This short novel of tremendous power is worth volumes. Night opens with the story of a Jewish survivor of a mass execution by the Nazis. Moishe the Beadle returns to his native town to warn his community of what lies ahead if they don’t flee. There are no listeners to his agonizing tale: nobody believes him, and he is declared mad. 

This factual story became a metaphor for Wiesel’s own role as a witness. Night was rejected by fifteen publishers. When it appeared in 1958, the world was still unprepared to hear the evidence from Auschwitz and Buchenwald. Only in the 1990s did the novel find mass readership. Wiesel had said that if he were to write a single book, it would be Night. It allowed him to break through the silence and find words to an experience that was beyond words. 

Forever Nineteen

By Grigory Baklanov, Antonina W. Bouis (translator),

Book cover of Forever Nineteen

Why this book?

Grigory Baklanov (born Grigory Friedman) belonged to the generation of soldiers that faced the full brunt of the German attack on the Soviet Union and of whom only 3% survived. Forever Nineteen (trans. Antonina Bouis) is a tribute to the men who remained forever young; as the author elucidates in the introduction to the novel’s American edition, “I wanted them to come alive when I wrote this book, I wanted people living now to care about them as friends, as family, as brothers.” Baklanov had attained international renown with his 1959 novel The Foothold [An Inch of Land], which appeared in 36 countries. His portrayal of the war is more personal than Grossman’s and has a different angle: rather than depicting famous battles, he is concerned with ordinary soldiers’ lives, which can be cut short at any moment. (Disclosure: Grigory Baklanov is my father.)

Every Man Dies Alone

By Hans Fallada, Michael Hofmann (translator),

Book cover of Every Man Dies Alone

Why this book?

Written in 1947 Every Man Dies Alone was discovered by the English-speaking world half a century later. I read it in 2009 and was taken by its suspense and authenticity. The novel is based on the story of Otto and Elise Hampel, a working-class couple who had conducted a postcard campaign against Hitler. For two years the Gestapo was unable to detect them. Captured in October 1942, they were sentenced to death. After the war, Hans Fallada (real name Rudolf Ditzen) read the Hampels’ Gestapo files and produced this novel in 24 days. Having spent the war in Berlin, he recreated the period with a grasp and detail that seem unmatchable. Fallada maintains narrative tension throughout while depicting the realities of life under the Nazis, pressure to conform, and universal fear of being denounced. Against this backdrop there is the courage of the couple who choose a dangerous life of resistance so as not to become like the Nazis. 


By Joseph Heller,

Book cover of Catch-22

Why this book?

Catch-22 is a brilliant descendant of the 1923 Czech seminal novel The Good Soldier Schweik by Jaroslav Hašek. Heller was influenced by Hašek’s satirical denunciation of war and of military bureaucracy. While Soldier Schweik yielded a new genre and a splendid, good-humored character, Catch-22 is best remembered for a new paradoxical term. 

Heller’s anti-hero, Captain Yossarian, is an American bombardier stationed on an island in the Mediterranean. He has to fly an increasing number of missions, while his personal mission is to stay alive. To be grounded, he needs to be certified insane. But there is a catch, a bureaucratic rule “Catch-22.” If a pilot is crazy, he can be relieved of duty. All he needs is to ask, but as soon as he does, his concern for personal safety suggests a rational mind. Filled with absurd situations and comic dialogues, Heller’s novel remains an enjoyable read.

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