The best photo books that tell stories of World War II

Who am I?

In my “day job” I write about architecture, which means I often write about things I see in photos. When I began writing fiction, I continued using photos as inspiration and research. My novels are inspired by my family’s circumstances at the end of World War II and my fascination with the work of the Monuments Men. Photos show me details like a little girl playing with her doll under a sign that declares her building to be at risk of collapse, or a woman using the ruins of a building to hang out the wash. I love finding ways to use these elements in my writing.

I wrote...

The Roses Underneath

By C.F. Yetmen,

Book cover of The Roses Underneath

What is my book about?

It is August 1945 in Wiesbaden, Germany. With the country in ruins, Anna Klein, displaced and separated from her beloved husband, struggles to support herself and her six-year-old daughter. As a typist at the Collecting Point for the US Army’s Monuments Men she barely has her head above water. When the easy-going American Captain Henry Cooper recruits her as his translator, they stumble on a mysterious stash of art, and Anna finds she has a bigger gift for sleuthing than for typing. And Cooper’s penchant for breaking the rules provides an enticing taste of a newfound freedom that might change the future she thought she had planned.

The books I picked & why

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Rescuing Da Vinci: Hitler and the Nazis Stole Europe's Great Art - America and Her Allies Recovered It

By Robert M. Edsel,

Book cover of Rescuing Da Vinci: Hitler and the Nazis Stole Europe's Great Art - America and Her Allies Recovered It

Why this book?

I chose photo books for my list because I often use photos to help me as I write—either to construct a scene or to provide detail. Because my books are set against the backdrop of the Monuments Men’s work, this book was really the starting point for my writing the trilogy.  

Edsel presents a methodical overview of the vast scope of Nazi art theft in Europe, the destruction wrought on its monuments, and the enormous task of restitution and rebuilding. Seeing the sheer quantity of looted art stacked ceiling-high in endless rows and the faces of the men and women charged with making it right helped me put their work into my fictional work.

Lee Miller's War: Beyond D-Day

By Antony Penrose (editor),

Book cover of Lee Miller's War: Beyond D-Day

Why this book?

In an alternate universe, I am a fearless combat photographer like Margaret Bourke-White, Dickey Chapelle, or Lee Miller. This book of Miller’s work in particular I find so interesting because it covers so many aspects of life during wartime and its immediate aftermath—ordinary civilians, soldiers on the front lines, prisoners of war, and, most powerfully, victims of concentration camps. Before the war, Miller was a model and apprentice of Man Ray and shot for Vogue magazine. Her photos convey a strong artistic eye even in their vivid realness. Miller herself was of course always pushing boundaries. She was living in Hitler’s Munich apartment when Germany surrendered and was famously photographed in his bathtub (those pics are not in this book).

The World Aflame: The Long War, 1914-1945

By Dan Jones, Marina Amaral,

Book cover of The World Aflame: The Long War, 1914-1945

Why this book?

Colorized images are often controversial, and I never much liked them, but Marina Amaral’s amazing work changed my mind.  She is a master at thoughtful and surprisingly natural-looking colorizing and it’s amazing to me how our brains are so used to processing historical photos in black and white, as if the world really was colorless. The photos in this book, accompanied by the text by Dan Jones allow you to pick it up open to a random page, look and read and put it back down having learned something and viewed a scene you thought you know in a new light. Amaral is also one of my favorite follows on Twitter (@marinamaral2). That’s how I discovered her work.

The Persecution of the Jews in Photographs: The Netherlands 1940-1945

By Rene Kok, Erik Somers,

Book cover of The Persecution of the Jews in Photographs: The Netherlands 1940-1945

Why this book?

This book is the catalog of a 2019 exhibition of the same name. It’s a collection of 440 images that cover all facets of Jewish life in the Netherlands during the German occupation. What’s most interesting and compelling are the rare, so-called bystander photos that show what life under Nazi rule looked like for ordinary people going about their lives, both those who were persecuted and those who committed genocide, as well as those who witnessed it. While we can look into the faces of people knowing the horrors that were to come, seeing these images—weddings, dinners, strolls in the parkas a preface to the more familiar images of round-ups, transports, and concentration camps provides deeper insight into history. I revisit the photos in this book often.

We Went Back: Photographs from Europe 1933-1956 by Chim

By Cynthia Young,

Book cover of We Went Back: Photographs from Europe 1933-1956 by Chim

Why this book?

Technically about World War II, this work covers Chim’s work depicting culture, politics, and life before and after the war, so the circumstances leading to conflict and its aftermath. Chim was the co-founder of Magnum Photos, so his contribution to photojournalism is immense, and his photos are beautifully lit and composed even as they capture fleeting moments: Polish school children waiting for a bus in the rain, a baby reaching for bread at a displaced person’s camp or a boy playing in the ruins of a bombed building. The book also includes later photos of celebrities and movie stars, which, when seen alongside his earlier work creates an interesting narrative of a world putting itself back together and once again seeking out joy and beauty.

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in World War 2, art theft, and war?

5,809 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about World War 2, art theft, and war.

World War 2 Explore 971 books about World War 2
Art Theft Explore 18 books about art theft
War Explore 204 books about war

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

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