The best books on World War II according to my students

Harold J. Goldberg Author Of D-Day in the Pacific: The Battle of Saipan
By Harold J. Goldberg

Who am I?

In 1974 I started my full-time teaching career at a small liberal arts college and realized how much I love teaching and discussing historical events with students. With Russian and Soviet history as my areas of specialization, expanding my course offerings to include World War II was a natural addition. My World War II class became extremely popular and led to demands that I take students to Europe to visit many of the places we discussed in class. Every summer for about ten years I led study-abroad trips to England, France, and Germany. Watching student reactions to Omaha Beach and the American Cemetery made every trip worthwhile.

I wrote...

D-Day in the Pacific: The Battle of Saipan

By Harold J. Goldberg,

Book cover of D-Day in the Pacific: The Battle of Saipan

What is my book about?

When I started teaching about World War II, I discovered a gap in the literature related to the Battle of Saipan. Sandwiched between the landing in France in 1944 and the bloody battle of Iwo Jima in 1945, Saipan did not receive the attention it deserved. While many texts mentioned the Mariana Islands, they skipped details about the battle and the larger significance of Saipan and Tinian. I hoped to fill in the missing story, and discovered that the 2nd and 4th Marine Divisions, as well as the 27th Army Division, the three major American divisions involved in combat on Saipan, all held annual reunions. I was welcomed at those reunions where I interviewed several hundred veterans of the battle. Their personal stories made all the difference.

The books I picked & why

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Ivan's War: Life and Death in the Red Army, 1939-1945

By Catherine Merridale,

Book cover of Ivan's War: Life and Death in the Red Army, 1939-1945

Why this book?

Merridale uses archival material and interviews with Soviet war veterans to personalize the war on the Eastern Front. This work moves beyond the number of combatants and tanks to focus on real life at the frontlines. She talks about issues that help the reader “feel” the war: what did soldiers eat given the well-known shortages and privations throughout the USSR; how did soldiers get warm clothes and boots; how did they obtain ammunition and artillery shells and new guns despite the long supply lines; was stealing accepted in the army; what behaviors were tolerated and which ones were punished; how did hierarchy allow officers to get first choice of captured enemy equipment. She reveals how officers might not report all the dead in their unit so they would not lose the lost soldier’s food ration. While Alexander Werth’s Russia at War provides a sweeping view of Soviet organization, suffering, and battles, Merridale provides a texture rarely found in books on war. 

The Complete Maus: A Survivor's Tale

By Art Spiegelman,

Book cover of The Complete Maus: A Survivor's Tale

Why this book?

Year after year, students declared Maus their favorite book in my course. Spiegelman’s brilliance is his ability to personalize the story of the Holocaust. It is impossible to identify with a number such as six million, but Maus relates the experiences of one family trapped by Nazi racism and the ensuing horror. The use of cats and mice, as well as other allegorical portrayals, effectively establishes predators and victims immediately. Spiegelman explores the difficult relationship between himself and his father with honesty, making his family history more compelling than an idealized or sanitized version would have allowed. For students, the Holocaust becomes personal, individual, and real.

With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa

By E.B. Sledge,

Book cover of With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa

Why this book?

This unvarnished look at battle allows the reader to identify with one person and see the war through an individualized lens. Slowly throughout the battle, the reader experiences the war with Sledge as he comprehends the futility and brutality of war. The invasion of Peleliu has always been controversial, and the slow realization by historians that it was not necessary matches Sledge’s own growing antipathy to the slaughter on both sides. The carnage at Peleliu was surpassed by the battle for Okinawa, although the military necessity for the latter battle is rarely questioned. Nevertheless, the body counts were horrific in both encounters.

Band of Brothers: E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne from Normandy to Hitler's Eagle's Nest

By Stephen E. Ambrose,

Book cover of Band of Brothers: E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne from Normandy to Hitler's Eagle's Nest

Why this book?

My students always identify with the story of E Company and its march across northern France and into Germany. As part of the 101st Airborne Division, the members of E Company parachuted into France as part of the D-Day invasion and then participated in a failed attempt to cross quickly into Germany in Operation Market Garden. At the end of 1944, Germany attempted to break through allied lines in the Battle of the Bulge, with E Company engaged in the crucial battle for Bastogne. Finally, inside Germany, E Company helped in the assault on Hitler’s alpine retreat called Eagle’s Nest. Throughout these battle stories, Ambrose focuses on one character in each chapter, allowing students to identify with individual struggles that create an emotional attachment between the reader and members of E Company.

War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War

By John W. Dower,

Book cover of War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War

Why this book?

Dower’s landmark book exposes propaganda as a weapon of war. He describes American and Japanese propaganda, demonstrating how both countries used pre-existing stereotypes to demonize the other. For the Japanese, Americans were giant brutes like gorillas or monsters. Americans used the stereotype of insects such as ants blindly following the leader in a never-ending swarm of invasion. The portrayal of a Japanese soldier with glasses and buck teeth clenching a blond woman in his grasp was intended to frighten and motivate Americans to fight to the end. While everyone knows and expects propaganda to be part of a war, Dower exposed a racist component to the Pacific War that was not as vicious in terms of Germany and the European war.

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