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. 

Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy books, we may earn an affiliate commission.

The books I picked & why

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

Why did I love 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.

By Jay Winter,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

What we know of war is always mediated knowledge and feeling. We need lenses to filter out some of its blinding, terrifying light. These lenses are not fixed; they change over time, and Jay Winter's panoramic history of war and memory offers an unprecedented study of transformations in our imaginings of war, from 1914 to the present. He reveals the ways in which different creative arts have framed our meditations on war, from painting and sculpture to photography, film and poetry, and ultimately to silence, as a language of memory in its own right. He shows how these highly mediated…

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

Why did I love 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.   

By Drew Gilpin Faust,

Why should I read it?

7 authors picked This Republic of Suffering as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

NATIONAL BESTSELLER • NATIONAL BOOK AWARD FINALIST • An "extraordinary ... profoundly moving" history (The New York Times Book Review) of the American Civil War that reveals the ways that death on such a scale changed not only individual lives but the life of the nation.

More than 600,000 soldiers lost their lives in the American Civil War. An equivalent proportion of today's population would be six million. In This Republic of Suffering, Drew Gilpin Faust describes how the survivors managed on a practical level and how a deeply religious culture struggled to reconcile the unprecedented carnage with its belief…

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

Why did I love 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. 

By Katherine Verdery,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Political Lives of Dead Bodies as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Since 1989, scores of bodies across Eastern Europe have been exhumed and brought to rest in new gravesites. Katherine Verdery investigates why certain corpses-the bodies of revolutionary leaders, heroes, artists, and other luminaries, as well as more humble folk-have taken on a political life in the turbulent times following the end of Communist Party rule, and what roles they play in revising the past and reorienting the present. Enlivening and invigorating the dialogue on postsocialist politics, this imaginative study helps us understand the dynamic and deeply symbolic nature of politics-and how it can breathe new life into old bones.

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

Why did I love 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.   

By Michael Rothberg,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Multidirectional Memory brings together Holocaust studies and postcolonial studies for the first time. Employing a comparative and interdisciplinary approach, the book makes a twofold argument about Holocaust memory in a global age by situating it in the unexpected context of decolonization. On the one hand, it demonstrates how the Holocaust has enabled the articulation of other histories of victimization at the same time that it has been declared "unique" among human-perpetrated horrors. On the other, it uncovers the more surprising and seldom acknowledged fact that public memory of the Holocaust emerged in part thanks to postwar events that seem at…

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

Why did I love 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. 

By George L. Mosse,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Millions were killed and maimed in the senseless brutality of the First World War, but once the armistice was signed the realities were cleansed of their horror by the nature of the burial and commemoration of the dead. In the interwar period, war monuments and cemeteries provided the public with places of worship and martyrs for the civic religion of nationalism. The cult of the fallen soldier blossomed in Germany and other European countries, and people seemed to
build war into their lives as a necessary and glorious event - a proof of manhood and loyalty to the flag. Ultimately…

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in World War 1, Russia, and war?

9,000+ 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 827 books about World War 1
Russia Explore 323 books about Russia
War Explore 1,746 books about war