The best personal books about German complicity and resistance in WW2

Who am I?

I was born in Germany and came to the US as a small child. My parents spoke only German at home but rarely talked with me about their years in Germany. Years after my father had died, I came across a photograph of him wearing a Hitler Youth uniform. What I learned about his childhood and his family inspired much of my novel The Vanishing Sky. Though my novel is finished, I continue to read about the German experience of WW2 because it resonates for me personally and because the lessons it teaches us are still relevant today.

I wrote...

The Vanishing Sky

By L. Annette Binder,

Book cover of The Vanishing Sky

What is my book about?

In 1945, as the war in Germany nears its violent end, the Huber family is not yet free of its dangers or its insidious demands. Etta, a mother from a small, rural town, struggles to protect her son Max, who has returned from the Eastern front suffering from a mental breakdown. Meanwhile, miles away, her younger son Georg has taken his fate into his own hands, deserting his young class of battle-bound soldiers to set off on a long and perilous journey home.

The Vanishing Sky is a World War II novel as seen through a German lens, a story of the irreparable damage of war on the home front, and one family's participation-involuntary, unseen, or direct-in a dangerous regime.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Collected Stories of Heinrich Boll

L. Annette Binder Why did I love this book?

In this devastating collection, Böll explores the emotional aftershocks of war. German soldiers grapple with the desire to flee, to understand what they’ve lost in the fighting, and to make even fleeting connections with each other and the civilians they meet in the bombed out cities and towns. In “Stranger, Bear Word to the Spartans We…” a wounded soldier only gradually comes to realize the extent of his injuries. The weight of the war works its way through all the stories in one way or another, even when the narrators don’t expressly refer to combat or the regime.

By Heinrich Boll, Leila Vennewitz (translator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Collected Stories of Heinrich Boll as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The definitive short story collection by the Nobel Laureate and master of the form

These diverse, psychologically rich, and morally profound stories explore the consequences of war on individuals and on an entire culture. The Collected Stories of Heinrich Böll provides readers with the only comprehensive collection by this master of the short-story form.

Includes all the stories from Böll’s The Mad Dog, Eighteen Short Stories, The Casualty, and The Stories of Heinrich Böll. A Nobel Laureate, Böll was considered a master 20th century literature, and The Collected Stories of Heinrich Böll contains some of his finest work.

Book cover of Every Man Dies Alone

L. Annette Binder Why did I love this book?

Based on a true story, this novel focuses on Anna and Otto Quangel, a working-class married couple who begin to resist the Nazis after losing their only son in the fighting. The novel is dense, immersive, and rich with characters, ranging from rabid Nazi members to those opposing the murderous goals of the party and those in the middle trying to survive the regime. “Most people today are afraid, basically everyone, because they’re all up to something forbidden, one way or another, and are worried someone will get wind of it,” Quangel thinks to himself. Fallada wrote the novel in just twenty-four days while in a mental institution, and he died before it was published. A compelling read with characters that linger in the imagination.

By Hans Fallada, Michael Hofmann (translator),

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Every Man Dies Alone as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This never-before-translated masterpiece—by a heroic best-selling writer who saw his life crumble when he wouldn’t join the Nazi Party—is based on a true story.

It presents a richly detailed portrait of life in Berlin under the Nazis and tells the sweeping saga of one working-class couple who decides to take a stand when their only son is killed at the front. With nothing but their grief and each other against the awesome power of the Reich, they launch a simple, clandestine resistance campaign that soon has an enraged Gestapo on their trail, and a world of terrified neighbors and cynical…

Book cover of We Germans

L. Annette Binder Why did I love this book?

An epistolary novel written as a letter from an elderly German man explaining his time as a soldier on the Eastern Front to his grandson. The novel has both the immediacy of a wartime narrative and the introspection of a memoir. “Eat now, sleep now, march now, follow your leader — that’s what they’d demanded of us; we’d followed, and they’d led us into disaster,” the narrator says as he describes his own predicament, but it serves to explain the horrors of the regime as a whole. It resonated for me personally, highlighting the silence and shame that surrounds the experiences of so many Germans who were young adults during WW2. Starritt is half-Scottish and half-German, and We Germans was inspired in part by his grandfather’s time on the Eastern Front. The novel was the recipient of the Dayton Peace Prize.

By Alexander Starritt,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked We Germans as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Winner of the Dayton Literary Peace Prize

Shortlisted for the Prix Femina 2022

Shortlisted for the Prix Medicis 2022

'An impressively realistic novel of German soldiers on the Eastern Front' Antony Beevor

'Starritt's daring work challenges us to lay bare our histories, to seek answers from the past, and to be open to perspectives starkly different from our own' New York Times

When a young British man asks his German grandfather what it was like to fight on the wrong side of the war, the question is initially met with irritation and silence. But after the old man's death, a…

Book cover of To Zenzi

L. Annette Binder Why did I love this book?

Another epistolary novel, this time about a Hitler Youth boy who finds himself working as Hitler’s personal artist. Through a strange series of events, young Tobias Koertig must prowl the streets of Berlin, draw pictures of the devastation from the Allied air raids and bring the drawings back to Hitler as he cowers in his bunker. Tobias is desperately in love with Zenzi, a young Jewish girl he’s known since his childhood. Part love story, part war story, the novel is dark, strange, and often funny, affirming the beauty and unpredictability of life under even the most terrible circumstances. I had a hard time putting this book down.

By Robert L. Shuster,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked To Zenzi as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

To Zenzi is the extraordinary story of Tobias Koertig's odyssey through the apocalypse of Berlin in 1945. An orphaned thirteen-year-old who loves to draw, Tobias is coerced into joining the German youth army in the last desperate weeks of the war. Mistaken for a hero on the Eastern Front, he receives an Iron Cross from Hitler himself, who discovers the boy's cartoons and appoints Tobias to sketch pictures of the ruined city.

Shuttling between the insanity of the Fuhrer's bunker and the chaotic streets, Tobias must contend with a scheming Martin Bormann, a deceitful deserter, the Russian onslaught, and his…

Book cover of A Child of Hitler: Germany in the Days When God Wore a Swastika

L. Annette Binder Why did I love this book?

Heck’s plain-spoken memoir of his indoctrination into Nazism as a young boy and his time in the Hitler Youth and the German military is powerful and honest. Long after he’d left Germany as an adult, Heck continued to grapple with his own complicity in the regime and his fervent beliefs in its goals. The Hitler Youth was particularly adept at tapping into young boys’ yearning to be heroes. Heck explains the lingering effects of his indoctrination, noting that, “Despite our monstrous sacrifice and the appalling misuse of our idealism, there will always be the memory of unsurpassed power, the intoxication of fanfares and flags proclaiming our new age.” This was a fascinating read for me personally, given the similarities between Heck’s experiences and those of my father, and it was an invaluable resource as I wrote my own novel. 

By Alfons Heck,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked A Child of Hitler as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In this starkly candid account of one boy's indoctrination into the Hitler Youth, we see a side of Nazism that has been little recorded. This autobiographical account is a rare glimpse at World War II from a German boy's viewpoint.

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Book cover of The Edge of Too Late

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