The best books about the Holocaust and how humanity failed

Why am I passionate about this?

I’m a German History professor who focuses on the Holocaust, but I’ve been educating myself on the topic since 5th grade, when a friend suggested some children’s literature on the Holocaust. So, I guess this is a topic that has interested me for some thirty years now. I can’t stop asking why, I can’t stop reading, and I can’t stop educating, especially as Holocaust denial and antisemitism are on the rise. History, in general, can teach us so much about who we are and who we have the potential to become. The Holocaust is a prime example of what happens when humanity fails to achieve its potential.  


I wrote...

Submerged on the Surface: The Not-So-Hidden Jews of Nazi Berlin, 1941–1945

By Richard N. Lutjens Jr.,

Book cover of Submerged on the Surface: The Not-So-Hidden Jews of Nazi Berlin, 1941–1945

What is my book about?

Between 1941 and 1945, thousands of German Jews, in fear for their lives, made the choice to flee their impending deportations and live submerged in the shadows of the Nazi capital. Drawing on a wealth of archival evidence and interviews with survivors, this book reconstructs the daily lives of Jews who stayed in Berlin during the war years. Contrary to the received wisdom that “hidden” Jews stayed in attics and cellars and had minimal contact with the outside world, the author reveals a cohort of remarkable individuals who were constantly on the move and actively fought to ensure their own survival.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Why? Explaining the Holocaust

Richard N. Lutjens Jr. Why did I love this book?

Even after years of studying the Holocaust, I remain overwhelmed by the enormity of the horrors, and there are still times when I find my faith in humanity wavering and all I can think to ask in anger and confusion is “Why?” I know I’m not alone. Peter Hayes’s masterful book is the result of an entire career centered on asking that very question.  The outcome is an incredibly readable, insightful, and thought-provoking account of the Holocaust that doesn’t shy away from answering the big questions. After reading it, one might still ask “why,” but it won’t be out of frustration, anger, and confusion, but rather out of a desire to keep learning more about one of the greatest catastrophes in the history of humanity.

By Peter Hayes,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Why? Explaining the Holocaust as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Peter Hayes has been teaching Holocaust studies for decades and Why? grows out of the questions he's encountered from his students. Despite the outpouring of books, films, memorials, museums and courses devoted to the subject, a coherent explanation of why such carnage erupted still eludes people. Numerous myths have sprouted, many to console us that things could have gone differently if only some person or entity had acted more bravely or wisely; others cast new blame on favourite or surprising villains or even on historians.

Why? dispels many legends and debunks the most prevalent ones, including the claim that the…


Book cover of The Nazi Conscience

Richard N. Lutjens Jr. Why did I love this book?

One of the most difficult facets of Nazism for my college students to grasp is that the Nazis had a sense of ethics and morals. It’s easy to look at the horrors of Nazism, rightfully condemn the Nazis as monstrous, and congratulate ourselves on having the moral and ethical fiber that would never allow us to engage in such atrocities. The thing is, though, that so much of the evil committed in this world is committed by people who think they are doing what’s right. Koonz’s examination of Nazi morals is an uncomfortable read but a necessary one. It forced me and it forces my students to confront the unpleasant truth that evil also has a sense of “moral” and “immoral.”

By Claudia Koonz,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Nazi Conscience as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Nazi conscience is not an oxymoron. In fact, the perpetrators of genocide had a powerful sense of right and wrong, based on civic values that exalted the moral righteousness of the ethnic community and denounced outsiders.

Claudia Koonz's latest work reveals how racial popularizers developed the infrastructure and rationale for genocide during the so-called normal years before World War II. Her careful reading of the voluminous Nazi writings on race traces the transformation of longtime Nazis' vulgar anti-Semitism into a racial ideology that seemed credible to the vast majority of ordinary Germans who never joined the Nazi Party. Challenging…


Book cover of The Years of Extermination

Richard N. Lutjens Jr. Why did I love this book?

With a narrative of just over 650 pages, this is the book for the reader out there who wants it all: the names, the dates, the facts, the figures, the individual experience, and the analysis, all wrapped up in an engrossing, readable narrative. Friedländer’s impeccable scholarship speaks to the historian in me, but, more importantly, it speaks to the humanity in me.  When I sat down to read this second volume, I wasn’t struck by how thick it was. I was struck by the magnitude of tragedy that the book represented. For the reader who has read widely on the Holocaust, in particular, this book will answer many of your questions. What appeals to me most, though, is the historical data never obscures the victims or their experiences.      

By Saul Friedländer,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

A magisterial history of the Jews in Nazi Germany and the regime's policies towards them in the years prior to World War II and the Holocaust. Written by arguably the world's leading scholar on the subject.

Himself a survivor, Friedlander has been a leading figure in Holocaust studies for decades and this book represents a definitive summing up of his research and that of hundreds of other historians.

NAZI GERMANY AND THE JEWS: THE YEARS OF PERSECUTION is perhaps the richest examination of the subject yet written, and, crucially, one that never loses sight of the experiences of individuals in…


Book cover of Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland

Richard N. Lutjens Jr. Why did I love this book?

Reading about the Holocaust in high school and college, it was easy for me to see WWII Europe in a binary of “Nazis vs. Everybody Else.” This book utterly destroyed that illusion, and it remains today one of the most disturbing books I have ever read about the Holocaust. In the summer of 1941, without any prompting from the Nazis, the gentile half of the Polish town of Jedwabne slaughtered the Jewish half of the town in a single day. This truly horrifying story, hidden for over half a century, is a reminder that the evils unleashed by the Nazis did not remain confined to the Germans. The Holocaust occurred on many fronts: the town of Jedwabne was one of them.   

By Jan T. Gross,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

A landmark book that changed the story of Poland's role in the Holocaust

On July 10, 1941, in Nazi-occupied Poland, half of the town of Jedwabne brutally murdered the other half: 1,600 men, women, and children-all but seven of the town's Jews. In this shocking and compelling classic of Holocaust history, Jan Gross reveals how Jedwabne's Jews were murdered not by faceless Nazis but by people who knew them well-their non-Jewish Polish neighbors. A previously untold story of the complicity of non-Germans in the extermination of the Jews, Neighbors shows how people victimized by the Nazis could at the same…


Book cover of Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland

Richard N. Lutjens Jr. Why did I love this book?

This book is a staple of the course I teach on the Holocaust. It is also the book most likely to provoke intense debate among my students. The book isn’t concerned with why Nazis so willingly participated in the Holocaust. It’s concerned with why Germans who weren’t Nazis and never really showed any affinity for Nazism also actively participated in the Holocaust. The answers Browning provides are disturbing, thought-provoking, compelling, and on more than one occasion have kept me awake at night. Browning’s book is a must-read in the field of Holocaust Studies and has been for thirty years. For the person who has ever asked themselves how they might respond in such a situation, Browning’s study of the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101 offers a chilling explanation.   

By Christopher R. Browning,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Christopher R. Browning's shocking account of how a unit of average middle-aged Germans became the cold-blooded murderers of tens of thousands of Jews-now with a new afterword and additional photographs. Ordinary Men is the true story of Reserve Police Battalion 101 of the German Order Police, which was responsible for mass shootings as well as round-ups of Jewish people for deportation to Nazi death camps in Poland in 1942. Browning argues that most of the men of RPB 101 were not fanatical Nazis but, rather, ordinary middle-aged, working-class men who committed these atrocities out of a mixture of motives, including…


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Grand Old Unraveling: The Republican Party, Donald Trump, and the Rise of Authoritarianism

By John Kenneth White,

Book cover of Grand Old Unraveling: The Republican Party, Donald Trump, and the Rise of Authoritarianism

John Kenneth White Author Of Grand Old Unraveling: The Republican Party, Donald Trump, and the Rise of Authoritarianism

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Reading was a childhood passion of mine. My mother was a librarian and got me interested in reading early in life. When John F. Kennedy was running for president and after his assassination, I became intensely interested in politics. In addition to reading history and political biographies, I consumed newspapers and television news. It is this background that I have drawn upon over the decades that has added value to my research.

John's book list on who we are, how we’ve changed, and what gives us hope

What is my book about?

It didn’t begin with Donald Trump. When the Republican Party lost five straight presidential elections during the 1930s and 1940s, three things happened: (1) Republicans came to believe that presidential elections are rigged; (2) Conspiracy theories arose and were believed; and (3) The presidency was elevated to cult-like status.

Long before Trump, each of these phenomena grew in importance. The John Birch Society and McCarthyism became powerful forces; Dwight D. Eisenhower was the first “personal president” to rise above the party; and the development of what Harry Truman called “the big lie,” where outrageous falsehoods came to be believed. Trump follows a pattern that was long established within the Republican Party. This is an untold story that resonates powerfully in the present.

Grand Old Unraveling: The Republican Party, Donald Trump, and the Rise of Authoritarianism

By John Kenneth White,

What is this book about?

It didn't begin with Donald Trump. The unraveling of the Grand Old Party has been decades in the making. Since the time of FDR, the Republican Party has been home to conspiracy thinking, including a belief that lost elections were rigged. And when Republicans later won the White House, the party elevated their presidents to heroic status-a predisposition that eventually posed a threat to democracy. Building on his esteemed 2016 book, What Happened to the Republican Party?, John Kenneth White proposes to explain why this happened-not just the election of Trump but the authoritarian shift in the party as a…


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Interested in Germany, the Holocaust, and Nazism?

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