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 I
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 I

By James A. W. Heffernan,

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

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. 

The books I picked & why

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

By Donald Cameron Watt,

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

Why 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. 


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

By Michael Jabara Carley,

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

Why 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.”


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

By Klemens von Klemperer,

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

Why 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!”


Witness to History, 1929-1969

By Charles E Bohlen,

Book cover of Witness to History, 1929-1969

Why 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.


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

By Halik Kochanski,

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

Why 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.”


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