The best books on World War II in Europe

The Books I Picked & Why

KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps

By Nikolaus Wachsmann

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

Why 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.

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Ashes in the Wind: The Destruction of Dutch Jewry

By Jacob Presser

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

Why 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.”

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Everyone Brave Is Forgiven

By Chris Cleave

Book cover of Everyone Brave Is Forgiven

Why 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!

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Code Name Verity

By Elizabeth Wein

Book cover of Code Name Verity

Why 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.

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The World at Night

By Alan Furst

Book cover of The World at Night

Why 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.

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