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.

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The books I picked & why

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

C.F. Yetmen Why did I love 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.

By Robert M. Edsel,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Rescuing Da Vinci as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From the #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Monuments Men, which is now a major motion picture directed by and starring George Clooney, Rescuing Da Vinci uses 460 photographs to tell the story of the Monuments Men.   

The Monuments Men were a group of 345 or so men and women from thirteen nations who comprised the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives section during World War II. Many were museum directors, curators, art historians and educators. Together they worked to protect monuments and other cultural treasures from the destruction of World War II. In the last year of the…


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

C.F. Yetmen Why did I love 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).

By Antony Penrose (editor),

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Lee Miller's War as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Lee Miller's work for Vogue from 1941-1945 sets her apart as a photographer and writer of extraordinary ability. The quality of her photography from the period has long been recognized as outstanding, and its full range is shown here, accompanied by her brilliant despatches. Starting with her first report from a field hospital soon after D-Day, the despatches and nearly 160 photographs show war-ravaged cities, buildings and landscapes, but above all they portray the war-resilient people - soldiers, leaders, medics, evacuees, prisoners of war, the wounded, the villains and the heroes. There is the raw edge of combat portrayed at…


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

C.F. Yetmen Why did I love 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.

By Dan Jones, Marina Amaral,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The World Aflame as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'The events of the first and second world wars are brought to vivid, startling life thanks to Amaral's skill at colourising contemporary images' Observer

The epic, harrowing and world-changing story - in words and colourized images - of global conflict from the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand to the obliteration of Hiroshima by the dropping of the first atom bomb. The World Aflame embraces not only the total conflagrations of 1914-18 and 1939-45 and the international tensions, conflicting ideologies and malign economic forces that set them in train, but also the civil wars of the interwar period in Ireland…


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

C.F. Yetmen Why did I love 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.

By Rene Kok, Erik Somers,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Persecution of the Jews in Photographs as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Persecution of the Jews in Photographs, the Netherlands 1940-1945 is the first book of its kind on the subject. Both the professional photographers commissioned by the occupying forces and amateurs took moving photographs.

On 10 May 1940, the day of the German invasion, there were 140,000 Jewish inhabitants living in the Netherlands. The full extent of their terrible fate only became known after the war: at least 102,000 were murdered, died of mistreatment or were worked to death in the Nazi camps. This tragedy has had a profound effect on Dutch society.

Photographic archives and private collections were consulted…


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

C.F. Yetmen Why did I love 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.

By Cynthia Young,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Born Dawid Szymin in Warsaw, Chim began his career in the early 1930s photographing for leftist magazines in Paris. In 1936, one of these magazines, Regards, sent him to the frontlines of the civil war in Spain, along with comrades Robert Capa and Gerda Taro. Although war formed the backdrop of much of his reportage, Chim was an astute observer of twentieth-century European politics, social life, and culture, from the beginnings of the antifascist struggle to the rebuilding of countries ravaged by World War II. Like millions of other Europeans, Chim had suffered the pain of dislocation and the loss…


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Book cover of A Long Way from Iowa: From the Heartland to the Heart of France

Janet Hulstrand Author Of A Long Way from Iowa: From the Heartland to the Heart of France

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Who am I?

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What is this book about?

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