The best history books on the memory of the war dead

Shannon Bontrager Author Of Death at the Edges of Empire: Fallen Soldiers, Cultural Memory, and the Making of an American Nation, 1863-1921
By Shannon Bontrager

Who am I?

I am a professor who holds a Ph.D. in American history. I researched several archives in the United States and Paris, France to write this book and I am very proud of it. I was inspired to write this story mainly from listening to the friends of my parents, when I was younger, who went to war in Vietnam and came back broken yet committed to making the world a better place. The kindness they showed me belied the stories they shared of their harrowing experiences and I wanted to understand how this divergence happened in men that rarely spoke of their past.      


I wrote...

Death at the Edges of Empire: Fallen Soldiers, Cultural Memory, and the Making of an American Nation, 1863-1921

By Shannon Bontrager,

Book cover of Death at the Edges of Empire: Fallen Soldiers, Cultural Memory, and the Making of an American Nation, 1863-1921

What is my book about?

In his Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln promised fallen soldiers that the living would remember their sacrifice. He obligated Americans, and the nation, to remember the war dead who sacrificed their lives for the noble cause of freedom. But wars against indigenous peoples and wars in places that laid beyond the boundaries of the nation, in Cuba, the Philippines, and in France, tested Americans’ resolve to fulfill Lincoln’s promise. Could a soldier who died for the American empire in the Philippines or in French trenches be remembered the same way as a soldier who died for the emancipation of slaves? This is a story of how the American promise to remember fallen soldiers changed over time and how that promise defines the very nature of our democracy. 

The books I picked & why

Shepherd is reader supported. We may earn an affiliate commission when you buy through links on our website. This is how we fund this project for readers and authors (learn more).

War Beyond Words: Languages of Remembrance from the Great War to the Present

By Jay Winter,

Book cover of War Beyond Words: Languages of Remembrance from the Great War to the Present

Why this book?

Some may disagree with me, but I think this is Winter’s masterpiece. It is a book that charts the ways our remembrance of the war dead changed from the violence of the First World War to the Holocaust to the present. He looks at film, photographs, literature, and war memorials to show how our memories have become less vertical and more horizontal over time and how we have focused less and less on the faces of the dead and more and more on the names of the masses, such as one finds on Maya Lin’s Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C. While all of Winter’s works are fantastic, this is his best.


This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War

By Drew Gilpin Faust,

Book cover of This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War

Why this book?

This Republic of Suffering came out just as I was beginning my own writing process and, to be honest, I panicked about it. As I read Faust’s book, I found that she had used some of the same sources I planned to use. But when I finished this book, I came to understand just how powerful the study of the war dead could be. Faust used the war dead evocatively as a canvas to paint the remaking of a nation and she did so by placing the dead in the foreground of the story. Her highly readable account brought the dead back to life, so to speak, for just a moment, so that we could understand their sacrifice and sympathize with them.   


The Political Lives of Dead Bodies: Reburial and Postsocialist Change

By Katherine Verdery,

Book cover of The Political Lives of Dead Bodies: Reburial and Postsocialist Change

Why this book?

This was one of the first books I read about the politics of the dead and it reshaped the way I thought about dead bodies. It is readable, provocative, and challenged Mark Twain’s idea that “none but the dead have free speech.” Even after dying, the dead can be used for political purposes and Verdery lifts the veil on the postsocialist world to discuss how the reburial of bodies, be it Lenin or war graves, exposes the politics of society. She originally delivered this as a series of lectures at Columbia University and although its findings may seem a bit dated now, almost every writer who covers the war dead lists this book in their bibliography. 


Multidirectional Memory: Remembering the Holocaust in the Age of Decolonization

By Michael Rothberg,

Book cover of Multidirectional Memory: Remembering the Holocaust in the Age of Decolonization

Why this book?

Rothberg is not a historian but I love what he accomplished with this scholarly book. He examines film, literature, and paintings to suggest that our memories are multidirectional: meaning they often move in different directions at the same time. This allows him to place the holocaust side-by-side the colonial/decolonial project and produce a devastating story of how each fed upon the other. For example, he looks at moments in 1960s Paris that places Jewish survivors of Auschwitz in conversation with Algerian survivors of French concentration camps during the Algerian war to suggest their memories could work together to produce an honest remembrance of the past. I try to do something similar in my own book by illustrating how the war dead could link domestic and foreign places together in building an American Empire.   


Fallen Soldiers: Reshaping the Memory of the World Wars

By George L. Mosse,

Book cover of Fallen Soldiers: Reshaping the Memory of the World Wars

Why this book?

This may be the book that started it all. Mosse has many books that try to explain the rise of the Nazis in Germany who Mosse and his parents fled in the 1930s. Here Mosse describes how Nazis used the war dead from the First World War in an explicit attempt to harness the nationalism of Germans to support Nazi politics. Winter disagrees with Mosse and developed arguments that are probably more accepted by historians today but, for me, that doesn’t take away from the power of Mosse’s argument. Even though I don’t always agree with Mosse’s analysis, I can’t help but be engrossed by his writing, his passion, and his ability to describe how the war dead could be used as political weapons. 


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in World War 1, Russia, and war?

5,887 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about World War 1, Russia, and war.

World War 1 Explore 499 books about World War 1
Russia Explore 236 books about Russia
War Explore 203 books about war

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Battle Cry of Freedom, The Devil in the White City, and A Prayer for the Dying if you like this list.