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’.

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The books I picked & why

Death of a Hero

By Richard Aldington,

Book cover of Death of a Hero

Why did I love 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.

By Richard Aldington,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Death of a Hero as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

One of the great World War I antiwar novels - honest, chilling, and brilliantly satirical

Based on the author's experiences on the Western Front, Richard Aldington's first novel, Death of a Hero, finally joins the ranks of Penguin Classics. Our hero is George Winterbourne, who enlists in the British Expeditionary Army during the Great War and gets sent to France. After a rash of casualties leads to his promotion through the ranks, he grows increasingly cynical about the war and disillusioned by the hypocrisies of British society. Aldington's writing about Britain's ignorance of the tribulations of its soldiers is among…

Hitler (Harvest Book)

By Joachim C. Fest,

Book cover of Hitler (Harvest Book)

Why did I love 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.

By Joachim C. Fest,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Hitler (Harvest Book) as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A bestseller in its original German edition and subsequently translated into more than a dozen languages, Joachim Fest's Hitler as become a classic portrait of a man, a nation, and an era. Fest tells and interprets the extraordinary story of a man's and a nation's rise from impotence to absolute power, as Germany and Hitler, from shared premises, entered into their covenant. He shows Hitler exploiting the resentments of the shaken, post-World War I social order and seeing through all that was hollow behind the appearance of power, at home and abroad. Fest reveals the singularly penetrating politician, hypnotizing Germans…

Book cover of Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege

Why did I love 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 Antony Beevor,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

This authoritative and well written book recreates the battle for Stalingrad that became the focus of Hitler and Stalin's determination to win the gruesome and vicious war for the Eastern front. A detailed examination of the most pitiless, and perhaps the most important battle in WW2 history. Focusing on the experiences of soldiers on both sides, driven beyond the limits of physical and mental endurance this work stands as a testament to human endeavour and to the vital role of the Soviet wareffort. This will be the classic book on the subject,


By Michael Herr,

Book cover of Dispatches

Why did I love 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.

By Michael Herr,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

With an introduction by Kevin Powers.

A groundbreaking piece of journalism which inspired Stanley Kubrick's classic Vietnam War film Full Metal Jacket.

We took space back quickly, expensively, with total panic and close to maximum brutality. Our machine was devastating. And versatile. It could do everything but stop.

Michael Herr went to Vietnam as a war correspondent for Esquire. He returned to tell the real story in all its hallucinatory madness and brutality, cutting to the quick of the conflict and its seductive, devastating impact on a generation of young men. His unflinching account is haunting in its violence, but…

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

Why did I love 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.

By Bảo Ninh,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked The Sorrow of War as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This is the semi-autobiographical account of a soldier's experiences. The hero of the story, Kien, is a captain. After 10 years of war and months as a MIA body-collector, Kien suffers a nervous breakdown in Hanoi as he tries to re-establish a relationship with his former sweetheart.

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