The best books about key events in World War II and the soldiers who fought in them

Richard Overy Author Of Blood and Ruins: The Great Imperial War 1931-1945
By Richard Overy

Who am I?

I am a professional historian who has been writing books for more than forty years. Most of the books have been about war and dictatorship in the first half of the twentieth century. My last book, The Bombing War: Europe 1939-1945, developed my long interest in air war history, which goes back to my first major book written in 1980 on air warfare in World War II.

I wrote...

Blood and Ruins: The Great Imperial War 1931-1945

By Richard Overy,

Book cover of Blood and Ruins: The Great Imperial War 1931-1945

What is my book about?

Instead of focusing on the war as a result of the failures of Versailles and the great power contest with Hitler’s Germany, the book argues that the crises of the 1930s and the war were a consequence of the spread of European empire in the last part of the nineteeth century. Japan, beginning in 1931 in Manchuria, Italy in 1935 with Ethiopia and Germany in 1938-9 with Czechoslovakia and Poland, were all trying to build up territorial empires based on race that imitated the empire-building of Britain, France and the other imperial powers. The search for territory to rule imperially sparked the broader crisis that led to war, while the war itself was about bringing Axis imperialism to an end.

After 1945 the other territorial empires rapidly collapsed, bringing to an end 500 years of European expansion and creating a new world of nation states. This is a global story about a war that created our current global order.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of China’s War with Japan 1937-1945: The Struggle for Survival

Why did I love this book?

For years the major war waged in China by the Japanese armed forces was ignored or played down in standard histories of World War II. Rana Mitter’s book is the first to explore the war in full and to put it back into the context of the wider world war. This was the Japanese army’s largest conflict and it created the conditions for the emergence of modern Communist China. The use of Chinese archives long neglected or previously closed makes this an original and convincing history, essential reading for anyone who wants to know what happened in Asia during the war.

By Rana Mitter,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked China’s War with Japan 1937-1945 as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Winner of the Duke of Westminster Medal for Military Literature

Different countries give different opening dates for the period of the Second World War, but perhaps the most compelling is 1937, when the 'Marco Polo Bridge Incident' plunged China and Japan into a conflict of extraordinary duration and ferocity - a war which would result in many millions of deaths and completely reshape East Asia in ways which we continue to confront today.

With great vividness and narrative drive Rana Mitter's book draws on a huge range of new sources to recreate this terrible conflict. He writes both about the…

Book cover of Ostkrieg: Hitler's War of Extermination in the East

Why did I love this book?

There are a great many books written on the Soviet-German conflict. In this volume, Fritz makes the most of all the recent research and his familiarity with Hitler’s military career, to create a vibrant narrative of the largest conflict in World War II. What makes this account different is Fritz’s ability to weave together the story of the campaigns and the murderous, genocidal strategies pursued by the German invader. Hitler waged two wars, against the Red Army and against the Jews. Fritz charts their twin course, making greater sense of the nature of a savage and merciless war.

By Stephen G. Fritz,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

On June 22, 1941, Germany launched the greatest land assault in history on the Soviet Union, an attack that Adolf Hitler deemed crucial to ensure German economic and political survival. As the key theater of the war for the Germans, the eastern front consumed enormous levels of resources and accounted for 75 percent of all German casualties. Despite the significance of this campaign to Germany and to the war as a whole, few English-language publications of the last thirty-five years have addressed these pivotal events. In Ostkrieg: Hitler's War of Extermination in the East, Stephen G. Fritz bridges the gap…

Implacable Foes: War in the Pacific, 1944-1945

By Marc Gallicchio, Waldo Heinrichs,

Book cover of Implacable Foes: War in the Pacific, 1944-1945

Why did I love this book?

This is simply one of the finest books to be written on the final critical two years of the Pacific War, with extensive detail on the Japanese side of the conflict and plenty of new insights into the better-known American story. It is a big book, but this was a large conflict both in terms of space, time, and the resources deployed. It was also chiefly a story of amphibious naval warfare, an original and significant development in modern warfare that too often gets understated. By the end of the conflict, the American armed forces had created the shape that they were to employ for the next half-century in projecting power overseas.

By Marc Gallicchio, Waldo Heinrichs,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Implacable Foes as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

May 8, 1945, Victory in Europe Day-shortened to "V.E. Day"-brought with it the demise of Nazi Germany. But for the Allies, the war was only half-won. Exhausted but exuberant American soldiers, ready to return home, were sent to join the fighting in the Pacific, which by the spring and summer of 1945 had turned into a grueling campaign of bloody attrition against an enemy determined to fight to the last man. Germany had surrendered unconditionally. The Japanese
would clearly make the conditions of victory extraordinarily high.

Following V-E Day, American citizens understandably clamored for their young men to be shipped…

Book cover of The Deadly Brotherhood: The American Combat Soldier in World War II

Why did I love this book?

The big question for World War II is what kept men fighting in appalling conditions, with high losses against an implacable enemy. McManus focuses on the American army to answer this question, but his answers could apply to many of the fighting men in other armies as well. The book explores the nature of combat and the psychological mechanisms used to cope with the conditions of modern war. This is a dimension of the history that too often gets overlooked as divisions and units are moved around on the historians’ map of the war, yet it is a central issue to understand what motivates soldiers and keeps them fighting effectively. Sadly, a great many did, indeed, end up as psychological casualties.

By John C. McManus,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

In his book Men Against Fire, [historian S. L. A.] Marshall asserted that only 15 to 25 percent of American soldiers ever fired their weapons in combat in World War II. . . .
Shooting at the enemy made a man part of the “team,” or “brotherhood.” There were, of course, many times when soldiers did not want to shoot, such
as at night when they did not want to give away a position or on reconnaissance patrols. But, in the main, no combat soldier in his right mind would have deliberately sought to go through the entire ear without…

Book cover of Hitler, the Allies, and the Jews

Why did I love this book?

There is a common assumption among a younger generation brought up on the horrors of the Holocaust or Shoah that the Allies waged war to save the Jews. As Aronson shows in this candid and carefully researched volume, nothing could be further from the truth. The war waged by Hitler against the Jews was well-known, but the Allies did very little to try to end or modify the outcome. For anyone interested in the war, understanding the fate of the Jews in both German and Allied terms is bound up with wider issues of strategy and politics. Aronson tells a slice of the wartime narrative that many might want to forget. It is also a reminder that the war and the Holocaust were bound together, not separate histories. This perspective has not won general acceptance, but it should. 

By Shlomo Aronson,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Hitler, the Allies, and the Jews as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This book offers an analysis of the Holocaust as a multiple trap, its origins, and its final stages, in which rescue seemed to be possible. With the Holocaust developing like a sort of a doomsday machine set in motion from all sides, the Jews found themselves between the hammer and various anvils, each of which worked according to the logic created by the Nazis that dictated the behavior of other parties and the relations between them before and during the Holocaust. The interplay between the various parties contributed to the victims' doom first by preventing help and later preventing rescue.…

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