The best books about cities at war

Why am I passionate about this?

I am a historian, curator, and writer born and raised in New York City, a place whose history intrigued me from an early age. With a mother who moved from small-town New Jersey to Greenwich Village in the 1950s, and a father who had childhood memories of World War I in the Bronx, I think my interest was sort of preordained. I remain fascinated by cities as engines of change, as flashpoints for conflict, and as places that are simultaneously powerful and vulnerable. 


I wrote...

New York at War: Four Centuries of Combat, Fear, and Intrigue in Gotham

By Steven H. Jaffe,

Book cover of New York at War: Four Centuries of Combat, Fear, and Intrigue in Gotham

What is my book about?

New York City’s history has been entangled in wars from the moment Lenape warriors confronted explorer Henry Hudson in 1609. Yet much of the city’s military history has been forgotten. I wrote New York at War to fill this gap. The narrative stretches from the wars waged by Dutch and English colonists on through the American Revolution, the War of 1812, the Civil War and World Wars, all the way to Cold War nuclear brinkmanship and “the War on Terror.” Throughout, I tell the stories of New Yorkers coping with life in our most consequential city, a place repeatedly defined as an arsenal, a target, and even as a threat to national security.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Hiroshima

Steven H. Jaffe Why did I love this book?

You can argue that our modern era began at 8:15 a.m. on August 6, 1945, when an American bomber appeared over Hiroshima, Japan. Nine months later, John Hersey arrived to document the obliteration of the city and 100,000 of its people. His riveting account of the tribulations of six surviving men and women—an office clerk, two clergymen, two doctors, and a tailor—filled an entire issue of the New Yorker magazine in 1946. Hersey makes the atomic bombing intelligible through the confused sensations and actions of these individuals. The 1985 edition includes Hersey’s forty-year postscript on the later lives of the six, who survived not as heroes or martyrs, but as complicated human beings scarred by one of history’s great tragedies.

By John Hersey,

Why should I read it?

8 authors picked Hiroshima as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

“One of the great classics of the war" (The New Republic) that tells what happened in Hiroshima through the memories of survivors—from a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. 

On August 6, 1945, Hiroshima was destroyed by the first atom bomb ever dropped on a city. This book, John Hersey's journalistic masterpiece, tells what happened on that day. Told through the memories of survivors, this timeless, powerful and compassionate document has become a classic "that stirs the conscience of humanity" (The New York Times).

Almost four decades after the original publication of this celebrated book, John Hersey went back to Hiroshima in search…


Book cover of Reveille in Washington: 1860-1865

Steven H. Jaffe Why did I love this book?

“A city of Southern efficiency and Northern charm” is how John F. Kennedy described Washington. Margaret Leech’s classic describes how the Civil War transformed a sleepy Southern town into the capital of a muscle-flexing nation-state, as well as a target for Confederate attacks. Along the way we meet characters as varied as spy Rose O’Neal Greenow, poet Walt Whitman, nurse Clara Barton, the egotistical General George McClellan, and an unstable actor named John Wilkes Booth. Lincoln is present, but one of Leech’s achievements is to treat Abe as a member of a larger human constellation, not as the automatic center of the universe, and that’s refreshing.

By Margaret Leech,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Reveille in Washington as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Overview
1860: The American capital is sprawling, fractured, squalid, colored by patriotism and treason, and deeply divided along the political lines that will soon embroil the nation in bloody conflict. Chaotic and corrupt, the young city is populated by bellicose congressmen, Confederate conspirators, and enterprising prostitutes. Soldiers of a volunteer army swing from the dome of the Capitol, assassins stalk the avenues, and Abraham Lincoln struggles to justify his presidency as the Union heads to war.
Reveille in Washington focuses on the everyday politics and preoccupations of Washington during the Civil War. From the stench of corpse-littered streets to the…


Book cover of The 900 Days: The Siege of Leningrad

Steven H. Jaffe Why did I love this book?

Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) endured one of history’s great sieges when Hitler’s armies surrounded it in 1941. By the time the Red Army liberated it in 1944, the city’s thriving population of 2.5 million had been reduced by evacuations, bloodshed, and starvation. Salisbury brings to life the harrowing experiences of ordinary men and women who managed to survive with their dignity and devotion to civilization intact. The book casts an ironic shadow forward to the ordeal of Ukraine’s city dwellers today. And if you want to understand Vladimir Putinwhose childhood was shaped by family traumas in wartime Leningradthis is a good place to start.

By Harrison Salisbury,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The 900 Days as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Nazi siege of Leningrad from 1941 to 1944 was one of the most gruesome episodes of World War II. Nearly three million people endured it just under half of them died. For twenty-five years the distinguished journalist and historian Harrison Salisbury pieced together this remarkable narrative of villainy and survival, in which the city had much to fear-from both Hitler and Stalin.


Book cover of The Blood of Free Men: The Liberation of Paris, 1944

Steven H. Jaffe Why did I love this book?

Written with crystal clarity and a flair for the telling anecdote, this book unfolds the multi-dimensional chess game that culminated in the liberation of Paris after four long years of Nazi occupation. Neiberg shows how diverse actorsleftist resistance fighters bent on liberating the city from within, Allied officials fearing just such a “red” takeover, a willful Charles de Gaulle determined to dominate the victory, anxious collaborationists, and German officersfueled a volatile crisis that changed from moment to moment in the city’s streets.

By Michael Neiberg,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Blood of Free Men as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

As the Allies struggled inland from Normandy in August of 1944, the fate of Paris hung in the balance. Other jewels of Europe,sites like Warsaw, Antwerp, and Monte Cassino,were, or would soon be, reduced to rubble during attempts to liberate them. But Paris endured, thanks to a fractious cast of characters, from Resistance cells to Free French operatives to an unlikely assortment of diplomats, Allied generals, and governmental officials. Their efforts, and those of the German forces fighting to maintain control of the city, would shape the course of the battle for Europe and colour popular memory of the conflict…


Book cover of The Unruly City: Paris, London and New York in the Age of Revolution

Steven H. Jaffe Why did I love this book?

In urban warfare, boulevards, parks, palaces, and prisons take on crucial meanings. This is the launch point for Rapport’s narrative of how the spatial layout of three citiescolonial New York, revolutionary Paris, and imperial Londoninspired and channeled violent uprisings and reprisals. Rapport ranges from New York’s Commons, a park contested by patriots and redcoats in 1770, to Paris’s Faubourg Saint-Antoine neighborhood, whose artisans stormed the Bastille in 1789, and on to the network of taverns created by London radicals as clandestine hubs of revolutionary activism during the 1790s. A treat for anyone interested in how eighteenth-century cities became battlegrounds for the era’s insurgent movements for freedom and equality.

By Mike Rapport,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Unruly City as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A lauded expert on European history paints a vivid picture of Paris, London, and New York during the Age of Revolutions, exploring how each city fostered or suppressed political uprisings within its boundaries

In The Unruly City, historian Mike Rapport offers a vivid history of three intertwined cities toward the end of the eighteenth century-Paris, London, and New York-all in the midst of political chaos and revolution. From the British occupation of New York during the Revolutionary War, to agitation for democracy in London and popular uprisings, and ultimately regicide in Paris, Rapport explores the relationship between city and revolution,…


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By Victoria Golden, William Walters,

Book cover of A Last Survivor of the Orphan Trains: A Memoir

Victoria Golden Author Of A Last Survivor of the Orphan Trains: A Memoir

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Why am I passionate about this?

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What is my book about?

Four years old and homeless, William Walters boarded one of the last American Orphan Trains in 1930 and embarked on an astonishing quest through nine decades of U.S. and world history.

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From 1854 to the early 1930s, the American Orphan Trains transported 250,000 children from the streets and orphanages of the East Coast into homes in the emerging West. Unfortunately, families waiting for the trains weren’t always dreams come true—many times they were nightmares.

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