The best books on World War II in Europe

Who am I?

The books I’ve recommended here range from scholarship, young adult historical fiction, literary fiction, and a good spy mystery—all set in World War II. I’ve read widely in the field since I’ve written several nonfiction books for young readers and teens about World War II. Along with We Must Not Forget, these include Courage & Defiance, about the Danish resistance, Dive!, about the submarine war in the Pacific, D-Day: The World War II Invasion that Changed History, and We Had to Be Brave: Escaping the Nazis on the Kindertransport. I’m currently working on a book about a 1945 POW rescue in the Philippines.

I wrote...

We Must Not Forget: Holocaust Stories of Survival and Resistance

By Deborah Hopkinson,

Book cover of We Must Not Forget: Holocaust Stories of Survival and Resistance

What is my book about?

We Must Not Forget has received starred reviews from Booklist and Kirkus Reviews, which noted, “The stories of Jewish children and teens who survived against all odds are told in ways that readers will never forget.” A companion to my book, We Had to Be Brave, explores the true stories of those who did not escape the Nazis. The book is arranged by geography, with key dates and historical context to introduce each section, and links so readers can listen to some of the oral histories of survivors.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps

Why did I love this book?

To ensure we’ll never repeat the Holocaust, we must understand it. One of the most difficult books you may ever read, KL is a comprehensive and impressive history of the Nazis’ camp system. The New York Times called this nearly 900-page work by Nikolaus Wachsmann, a history professor at London University, a work of “prodigious scholarship.”

Time and again, when researching my own book for young readers, I turned to Wachsmann for nuanced detail, impeccable research, and a better understanding of some of the “choiceless choices” faced by Jewish men, women, and children. Not for the faint of heart, but a fitting tribute to those who lost their lives.

By Nikolaus Wachsmann,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Winner of the Jewish Quarterly Wingate Literary Prize and the Wolfson History Prize

In March of 1933, a disused factory surrounded by barbed wire held 223 prisoners in the town of Dachau. By the end of 1945, the SS concentration camp system had become an overwhelming landscape of terror. Twenty-two large camps and over one thousand satellite camps throughout Germany and Europe were at the heart of the Nazi campaign of repression and intimidation. The importance of the camps in terms of Nazi history and our modern world cannot be questioned.

Dr Nikolaus Wachsmann is the first historian to write…

Book cover of Ashes in the Wind: The Destruction of Dutch Jewry

Why did I love this book?

The late Jacob Presser (1899-1970) was a historian, scholar, and a Holocaust survivor himself. His wife was deported and died, and he survived by going into hiding He spent fifteen years researching the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands and the plight of the Dutch Jews.

He speaks movingly of finding small scraps of paper, messages thrown from trains leaving Westerbork (an internment camp and later a transit camp in the Netherlands), noting that “Before me, hardly anyone has read them and, after me, they are locked into the archives and it’s possible nobody else will see them.” They awoke in him, he said, an awareness that one of the tasks of the historian is to “give the dead a voice.”

By Jacob Presser,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Ashes in the Wind as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Beginning in 1940, 110,000 Jews were deported from the Netherlands to concentration camps. Of those, fewer than 6,000 returned.

Ashes in the Wind is a story of murder on a scale never known before. It is a monumental history of the Jewish victims of the Holocaust, and a detailed and moving description of how the Nazi party first discriminated against Jews, before segregating them and finally deporting them to the gas chambers (a process fully outlined in the mass of administrative documents discovered by Dr Presser).

At a time when there are increasingly few survivors of the Holocaust, the eye-witness…

Book cover of Everyone Brave Is Forgiven

Why did I love this book?

Chris Cleave’s fourth novel was inspired by memories of his grandparents and their letters during the war. The novel follows the lives and relationships of four young people in Britain during the early years of World War II. It also follows action on the island of Malta, a part of World War II history not as well known. It’s also a story of love, friendship, and surprising choices. A warning: Do not read ahead. The novel has an incredible last scene and you don’t want to ruin it!

By Chris Cleave,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Everyone Brave Is Forgiven as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'Ian McEwan did this with Atonement, Sarah Waters did it with The Night Watch, and Chris Cleave does it too with Everyone Brave is Forgiven... A compelling and finely crafted novel.' FT

'An addictive, propulsive read' The Sunday Times

Summer Reading pick - Paula Hawkins, author of The Girl on the Train
Top Ten hottest summer reads - Sunday Telegraph
Instant New York Times Bestseller
Evening Standard bestseller
'A cracker' Stylist, 10 Exciting Books in 2016
'His best book to date' Esquire, 10 best novels of 2016
Guardian Literary Highlight of 2016
Independent Best Book to read in 2016

Code Name Verity

By Elizabeth Wein,

Book cover of Code Name Verity

Why did I love this book?

Elizabeth Wein is a pilot herself, as well as the author of award-winning books for young adults. Her knowledge of flying lends an extra sense of authenticity to this historical fiction novel set in 1943 Nazi-occupied France, when a British Lysander spy plane crashes. Onboard are two friends, a female pilot, and a spy. The book is thoroughly researched with a riveting plot; it’s an emotional roller coaster of a read.

I always encourage adults to read thematically with the young people in their lives. If you know a teen who likes to read WWII, read this with them. You won’t be disappointed.

By Elizabeth Wein,

Why should I read it?

8 authors picked Code Name Verity as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'I have two weeks. You'll shoot me at the end no matter what I do.'

Shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal, Code Name Verity is a bestselling tale of friendship and courage set against the backdrop of World War Two.

Only in wartime could a stalwart lass from Manchester rub shoulders with a Scottish aristocrat, one a pilot, the other a special operations executive. When a vital mission goes wrong, and one of the friends has to bail out of a faulty plane over France, she is captured by the Gestapo and becomes a prisoner of war. The story begins in…

The World at Night

By Alan Furst,

Book cover of The World at Night

Why did I love this book?

What would World War II book recommendations be without a good spy novel? Alan Furst has written a dozen of them as part of his Night Soldiers series. The series can sometimes be formulaic (especially the love stories), but all do an excellent job of exploring little-known facets of history and the complex choices and risks individuals face in times of uncertainty. (Another title, The Spies of Warsaw, has been dramatized.)

The World of Night follows a film producer in Paris, whose world is upended by the Nazis. Another strength of the series is its depiction of the early war in Europe, something Americans don’t always read much about.

By Alan Furst,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Paris 1940. The civilised, upper-class life of film producer Jean Casson ends with the German occupation of the city. Out of money and almost out of luck, Casson attempts to work with a German film company but finds himself drawn into the dark world of espionage and double agents. More used to evading jealous husbands than the secret police, Casson becomes a reluctant spy, torn between honour, patriotism, love and survival.

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in World War 2, the Holocaust, and love triangle?

9,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about World War 2, the Holocaust, and love triangle.

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