The best books on 20th century conflict

Paul Ham Author Of Hiroshima Nagasaki: The Real Story of the Atomic Bombings and Their Aftermath
By Paul Ham

Who am I?

I’ve devoted most of my life as a writer, historian, and teacher to understanding and connecting the events of the 20th century and their origins in the deep past. I believe World War I stands as one of the greatest human tragedies because the bloodiest events of the past century were directly caused by it. The tyrants Hitler and Stalin who thrived on mayhem and parasitized their societies were simply inconceivable without the destruction wrought by the Great War. I’m sometimes asked how I get up in the morning. I reply, ‘writing 20th-century history is a dirty job but some of us have gotta do it.’

I wrote...

Hiroshima Nagasaki: The Real Story of the Atomic Bombings and Their Aftermath

By Paul Ham,

Book cover of Hiroshima Nagasaki: The Real Story of the Atomic Bombings and Their Aftermath

What is my book about?

Paul Ham’s Hiroshima Nagasaki will infuriate anyone who still believes the atomic bombs avoided a land invasion of Japan, ‘shocked’ Japan into unconditional surrender, and ‘saved up to a million American servicemen’. These post-war fabrications were part of an ex post facto narrative concocted by politicians to justify a war crime, as Ham’s exhaustive research demonstrates.

Hiroshima Nagasaki is being made into a 6-part television series by an Anglo-Australian production company. No American studio would touch it because, as one studio head remarked, ‘It’s not the story we were taught in school’.

The books I picked & why

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Death of a Hero

By Richard Aldington,

Book cover of Death of a Hero

Why this book?

This semi-autobiographical novel is the most emotionally accurate story of the irruption of the First World War on the mind of a young Englishman that I’ve read.

Aldington sets his pen to exposing the ‘Old Lie’ that it was ‘sweet and right to die for your country’ – a lie indulged in most ostentatiously by the very politicians and press barons who were responsible for sending Aldington and millions of young men like him to face needless death in an unjust war.

Hitler (Harvest Book)

By Joachim C. Fest,

Book cover of Hitler (Harvest Book)

Why this book?

This remains the outstanding full-length biography of Hitler, not least because it is brilliantly written; it is also extraordinarily prescient.

Fest’s portrayal of the Nazi leader, the first to be written by a German, shows how any human society, no matter how cultured or educated, if far enough degraded and humiliated will be willing to listen to a banal, humourless bully whose singular obsessions were to pick at Germany’s war wounds and delegate the slaughter of the blameless minority he deemed responsible.

In Fest’s hands, Hitler emerges as no freak of nature with god-like powers, no monster beyond our comprehension…but shockingly human, the living fulfillment of the racist fantasies of the ordinary, pot-bellied fascists who brought him to power.

Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege

By Antony Beevor,

Book cover of Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege

Why this book?

A definitive history of the most lethal battle of WW2, told with exceptional clarity, academic rigor, and narrative flair, benefiting from access for the first time for a Western historian to the Soviet archives on a battle that would prove the nemesis of Nazi Germany.

With Stalingrad, Beevor broke the mold of traditional military history, reaching a wide readership who found themselves in possession of something more than an absorbing account of a decisive battle. Stalingrad reflects the human condition in extremis.


By Michael Herr,

Book cover of Dispatches

Why this book?

Dispatches is the psychological descent of a mind into the lunacy of the Vietnam War, a genuine Apocalypse Now, as told by a correspondent whose literary achievement is to distill the ‘voice’ of Vietnam to the mortified reader.

It matters little that the key characters are inventions: they serve as avatars for Vietnam’s malignant futility.

Reading Dispatches you’re in the grip of a book that won’t let you go until you understand the emotional truth about this napalmed, noxious episode in history, played out in the twisted imaginations of politicians functioning light years away from the bloody tableau of their creation.

The Sorrow of War: A Novel of North Vietnam

By Bảo Ninh,

Book cover of The Sorrow of War: A Novel of North Vietnam

Why this book?

A North Vietnamese soldier remembers the disasters of war as he returns to collect the bones of his fallen comrades.

Written as a stream of consciousness that leaps between time and place, The Sorrow of War is a multi-dimensional portrait of personal loss.

Bảo Ninh’s account of the ‘screaming souls jungle’ tells you all you need to know about the pity of war, the pity war distilled.

The Sorrow of War will stand for all time as one of the quieter, so all the more telling, indictments of inhumanity.

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