The best books on the origin of World War II

James A. W. Heffernan Author Of Politics and Literature at the Dawn of World War II
By James A. W. Heffernan

Who am I?

I was born on April 22, 1939, just over four months before the start of World War II, and the very first words I can remember reading were a big black headline in August 1945: The War is Over. Ever since, I’ve been fascinated with that war, and about 75 years after it ended, I felt moved to write a book about how it began. Since I hold a PhD in English from Princeton, taught English at Dartmouth for nearly forty years, and I’ve been studying, teaching, and writing about literature for sixty years, I decided to make it a book about literature: the fiction, poetry, and drama inspired by World War II.

I wrote...

Politics and Literature at the Dawn of World War II

By James A. W. Heffernan,

Book cover of Politics and Literature at the Dawn of World War II

What is my book about?

Since Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has brazenly re-enacted what Adolph Hitler did to Czechoslovakia and Poland in “the long 1939,” this book could hardly be more timely. Mining the borderlands where history meets literature, it shows how the imminence and outbreak of World War II inspired writers ranging from Ernest Hemingway to Henry Green, whose novel Caught re-creates his experience as an auxiliary fireman in the London Blitz.

Graham Greene once called Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls “more truthful than history.” By steadily comparing historical accounts of World War II with re-creations of its major events written well before anyone knew how the war would end, this book aims to show just how much the truths of literature can rival those of history. 

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of How War Came, The Immediate Origins of the Second World War 1938-1939

Why did I love this book?

First recommended to me by a renowned authority on European history, this big book is far and away the most comprehensive study of the origins of World War II that I read while preparing to write my own book. Watt not only traces the rise of Hitler and the absolutely ruthless steps he took to make himself master of Germany throughout the 1930s; Watt also shows exactly how Roosevelt maneuvered his way around American isolationists who were dead set against any American involvement in the new war. On top of that, Watt shows how Britain and every other European country outside Germany were responding to the prospect that within twenty years of a war that had taken 20 million lives and wounded 21 million more, Europe was facing the unthinkable: a second World War. 

By Donald Cameron Watt,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked How War Came, The Immediate Origins of the Second World War 1938-1939 as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Depicts the people and events that led to World War II and explains the political situation of that period

Book cover of 1939: The Alliance That Never Was and the Coming of World War II

Why did I love this book?

Irresistibly clear and readable, this book explains the biggest mistake that France and Britain made before war broke out. Gripped by “ideological anti-Communism,” they simply could not bring themselves to forge an alliance with the Soviet Union against Hitler’s Germany. As a result, Hitler beat them to the punch. After he struck his own deal with Stalin and thus neutralized any Soviet threat to his belligerence, Germany and the Soviets carved up Poland between them. And even though Britain and France had pledged to defend Poland, the only thing they did for that poor, brave nation after Hitler invaded it was to declare war on Germany—and then do nothing for the next seven months of what came to be known as the “joke war.”

By Michael Jabara Carley,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked 1939 as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

At a crucial point in the twentieth century, as Nazi Germany prepared for war, negotiations between Britain, France, and the Soviet Union became the last chance to halt Hitler's aggression. Incredibly, the French and British governments dallied, talks failed, and in August 1939 the Soviet Union signed a nonaggression pact with Germany. Michael Carley's gripping account of these negotiations is not a pretty story. It is about the failures of appeasement and collective security in Europe. It is about moral depravity and blindness, about villains and cowards, and about heroes who stood against the intellectual and popular tides of their…

Book cover of German Resistance Against Hitler: The Search for Allies Abroad, 1938-1945

Why did I love this book?

Absolutely gripping and sometimes heartbreaking account of the Widerstand—the German Resistance to Hitler, Before reading this book I never knew that just before the fateful signing of the Munich Agreement on October 30, 1938, fifty anti-Nazi commandoes led by Captain Freidrich Heinz were all set to take Hitler out before he ordered the invasion of Czechoslovakia. But once the agreement was signed, the coup was off, and General Franz Halder—the operational leader of the coup—was utterly demoralized. When he learned what Chamberlain and French prime minister Édouard Daladier had done at Munich, he reportedly “collapsed over his desk.” With Hitler now politically invincible, the resistance lost heart, and the assault squad was dispersed. “What are we supposed to do now?” Halder asked. “Hitler succeeds in everything!”

By Klemens von Klemperer,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked German Resistance Against Hitler as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Klemens von Klemperer's scholarly and detailed study uncovers the beliefs and activities of numerous individuals who fought against Nazism within Germany, and traces their many efforts to forge alliances with Hitler's opponents outside the Third Reich. Measured by conventional standards of diplomacy, the foreign ventures of the German Resistance ended in failure. The Allied agencies, notably the British Foreign Office and the US State Department, were ill prepared to deal with the unorthodox approaches of the Widerstand. Ultimately, the Allies' policy of 'absolute silence', the Grand Alliance with the Soviet Union, and the demand for 'unconditional surrender' pushed the war…

Witness to History, 1929-1969

By Charles E Bohlen,

Book cover of Witness to History, 1929-1969

Why did I love this book?

Here is the ultimate insider’s story of what led up to the deal that Hitler made with Stalin in late August of 1939. At 34, a dashing Harvard graduate named Charles “Chip” Bohlen had just become the senior Russian-language officer in charge of political reporting at the American Embassy. Though his chief job was to find out if the Soviets were making a deal with Hitler, Bohlen couldn’t get a word out of the Russians. So he turned to a young German diplomat named “Johnny” Herwarth who was secretly in touch with the German resistance. This book is the fascinating story of their covert communications on the eve of the “Non-Aggression Agreement” between Hitler and Stalin—the deal that led directly to their joint invasion of Poland in September.

By Charles E Bohlen,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Witness to History, 1929-1969 as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

“At the end of the 1920’s the Foreign Service of the United States... introduced a program of regional specialization. It was a fortunate innovation, for... it provided the Service with a group of well‐trained Russian‐language specialists just... when the United States was beginning its new and troubled association with the Soviet Union.

One of the first of these was Charles E. Bohlen, and for the next 40 years he was to be involved in every major development in Soviet American relations, serving under William C. Bullitt in the Moscow embassy in 1934, acting as interpreter and adviser at the wartime…

Book cover of The Eagle Unbowed: Poland and the Poles in the Second World War

Why did I love this book?

This is surely the best book ever written—or will probably ever be written—on the magnificent bravery of Polish troops facing the overwhelming might of the German army and especially of its bombers. Starting at dawn on September 1, 1939, and uncannily anticipating what Vladimir Putin is now doing to Ukraine, Hitler’s forces indiscriminately bombed every target they could find with no mercy for civilians, including of course women and children. Unlike Volodomir Zelensky, who now embodies the heroic resistance of Ukraine, the leaders of Poland fled soon after it was attacked. But Kochanski explains how many of its soldiers fought on—as defenders of “the eagle unbowed.”

By Halik Kochanski,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

The Second World War gripped Poland as it did no other country in Europe. Invaded by both Germany and the Soviet Union, it remained under occupation by foreign armies from the first day of the war to the last. The conflict was brutal, as Polish armies battled the enemy on four different fronts. It was on Polish soil that the architects of the Final Solution assembled their most elaborate network of extermination camps, culminating in the deliberate destruction of millions of lives, including three million Polish Jews. In The Eagle Unbowed, Halik Kochanski tells, for the first time, the story…

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