The best books about atrocities

Many authors have picked their favorite books about atrocities and why they recommend each book.

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Bloodlands

By Timothy Snyder,

Book cover of Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin

A profoundly humane and different kind of history, setting the most exceptional and bloody period in all of human history in the context of two opposing, mass murderous regimes. It sets a new standard for how history should be written, not as cold operations divorced from cause but as causes and issues that are at stake in war driving decisions about operations and genocides. It is also notable for writing the history of the eastern front as a single, unified tale of the clash of ideas and power, and not just disjointed stories that only meet where the armed forces touched. 


Who am I?

I'm an award-winning teacher and writer who introduces students and readers to war in a profession that today is at best indifferent to military history, and more often hostile. That gives me a wry sense of irony, as colleagues would rather teach about fashion than fascism and truffles over tragedy. Having written a multiple award-winning book that covered 2,000 years of war, frankly I was sickened by how the same mistakes were made over and again. It has made me devoted to exploring possibilities for humane behavior within the most inhumane and degraded moral environment humanity creates; where individuality is subsumed in collective violence and humanity is obscured as a faceless, merciless enemy.


I wrote...

Mercy: Humanity in War

By Cathal J. Nolan,

Book cover of Mercy: Humanity in War

What is my book about?

War presents the most degraded moral environment humanity creates. It is an arena where individuality is subsumed in collective violence, and humanity is obscured as a faceless, merciless enemy pitted against its reflection in an elemental struggle for survival.

A barbaric logic has guided the conduct of war throughout history. Yet as Cathal Nolan reveals in this gripping, poignant, and powerful book, even as war can obliterate hope and decency at the grand level, it simultaneously produces conditions that permit astonishing exceptions of mercy and shared dignity. Pulling the trigger is usually both the expedient thing and required by war's grim and remorseless calculus. Yet somehow, the trigger is not always pulled. A different choice is made. Restraint triumphs. Humanity is rediscovered and honored in a flash of recognition.

The Stone Fields

By Courtney Angela Brkic,

Book cover of The Stone Fields: Love and Death in the Balkans

In the summer of 1996, Ms. Brkic joined a Physicians for Human Rights forensic team in Eastern Bosnia to excavate the mass graves of the Srebrenica massacre. Ms. Brkic, who grew up in Northern Virginia, had family connections in the Balkans. Her grandmother, Andelka, was from Herzegovina, in a small village among limestone hills. The family survived the Second World War and the Communist takeover of their country. Her father escaped from Yugoslavia in 1959 and settled in America. 

Stone Fields juxtaposes the family story with the story of the summer Ms. Brkic spent on the forensic team in Tuzla and with her friends and relatives in Zagreb. The author portrays the many ways that people can lose their homes—through war, genocide, political oppression, emigration, family discord—with heartbreaking clarity, always aware of the dignity, as well as the tragedy, of the survivors’ lives.


Who am I?

Although two of my nonfiction books—The Dream of Water and Polite Lies—are about traveling from the American Midwest to my native country of Japan, I'm not a traveler by temperament. I long to stay put in one place. Chimney swifts cover the distance between North America and the Amazon basin every fall and spring. I love to stand in the driveway of my brownstone to watch them. That was the last thing Katherine Russell Rich and I did together in what turned out to be the last autumn of her life before the cancer she’d been fighting came back. Her book, Dreaming in Hindi, along with the four other books I’m recommending, expresses an indomitable spirit of adventure. 


I wrote...

The Dream of Water: A Memoir

By Kyoko Mori,

Book cover of The Dream of Water: A Memoir

What is my book about?

In 1990, at the age of 33, I traveled to Japan to revisit the landscape of my childhood. I had fled the country at 20 to attend an American college and never went back. My hometown of Kobe hadn’t felt like home after my mother’s suicide and my father’s remarriage. I had no intention of living there again. But when I received a travel grant from the small college in Wisconsin where I was a tenured professor, I decided to spend the summer in Japan to work on my second novel.

I wanted to reconnect and hear the family stories I hadn’t fully understood. The Dream of Water is the book I wrote instead after uncovering a handful of secrets from my own lifetime.

The Elimination

By Rithy Panh, Christophe Bataille, John Cullen (translator)

Book cover of The Elimination: A Survivor of the Khmer Rouge Confronts His Past and the Commandant of the Killing Fields

Filmmaker Rithy Panh does not like the word trauma. He prefers to describe the after-effects of what happened to his Cambodian family as “an unending desolation.” Ever since the Khmer Rouge were driven from power in 1979 and he survived as a teenager, he has not stopped thinking about his family and trying to understand Comrade Duch, a man Rithy regards as “The Commandant of the Killing Fields." Mao and Stalin, Nazism and the Nurenberg Trials, and The Hague all hover at the edges of Rithy’s consciousness. He describes dispossession; dehumanization beginning with the annulment of names; demonization of education and traditional notions of culture; deportation;  slow starvation; corruption; terror; torture and language itself. Rithy Panh is a documentary filmmaker and reading The Elimination is an act of witness by both writer and reader. 


Who am I?

I am a longtime American journalist and former New York University Professor of Journalism who has written 10 books of non-fiction, several addressing issues of trauma. I was born in Prague, Czechoslovakia to two survivors of the Holocaust and was a baby immigrant to the U.S. after the Communist take-over of 1948. Although I have written a lot about the arts (music, books, and theater), I have also had a long-term interest in the psychological effects of psychic trauma in survivors of racism, antisemitism, sexism, genocide, war, illness, and natural disaster. My upcoming book is The Year of Getting Through It about being diagnosed with and undergoing treatment for endometrial cancer during COVID.


I wrote...

The Long Half-Lives of Love and Trauma

By Helen Epstein,

Book cover of The Long Half-Lives of Love and Trauma

What is my book about?

As a journalist and the daughter of two sole survivors of the Holocaust, I wrote a trilogy of books about the transmission of trauma between generations. The first was Children of the Holocaust, which was followed by Art Spiegelman’s Maus, Eva Hoffman’s Lost in Translation, and many other “second generation” books. The last is The Long Half-Lives of Love and Trauma, which looks at how the sexual and intimate ramifications of trauma played out in my family.

Holocaust literature does not generally delve into issues of love and sex, though these aspects of life did not disappear either during the Holocaust or afterward. I write about what happened in my survivor family of Czech Jews and the long psychotherapy that helped to unravel its mysteries.

Ordinary Men

By Christopher R. Browning,

Book cover of Ordinary Men

Browning writes about how ordinary middle and working-class people were turned into killers by the Nazis in their war against the Jews. In particular, he raises the question of why the Jews were considered outside their circle of human obligation by those who ordered them to murder men, women, and children. The reader might question who, besides their family and close friends, if ordered to do so, they would feel it necessary to protect in situations like those described in Ordinary Men.


Who am I?

Having lost relatives in the Holocaust, and also a scholar of twentieth-century history, I have a special interest in attempting to understand how Germany turned from one of the most literate and advanced countries into the barbarism we call Nazi Germany. In the course of teaching and writing for the past  50 years, I have written/edited some nine books on modern Jewish history-including four on the Holocaust and hundreds of articles and reviews in such publications as Virginia Quarterly, Tablet, Holocaust and Genocide Studies, The Forward, Midstream, Commonweal, Congress Monthly, Choice, among many other publications.


I wrote...

Historical Dictionary of the Holocaust

By Jack R. Fischel,

Book cover of Historical Dictionary of the Holocaust

What is my book about?

 My book details a useful compilation of the name of perpetrators, countries, terminology, victims, and bystanders who were involved in making the Holocaust possible It also includes a glossary and extensive bibliography.

Justice in the Balkans

By John Hagan,

Book cover of Justice in the Balkans: Prosecuting War Crimes in the Hague Tribunal

An easily accessible overview of development and internal workings of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) up to the first stages of the Milosevic trial. Hagan satisfied my interest in what happens behind the scenes: the struggles, losses, and triumphs of creating the first international war crimes court since Nuremberg and Tokyo. I found particularly illuminating his discussion of how an ICTY prosecution team developed the legal theory, supported by substantial evidence, of rape as an intentional strategy to further the goal of ethnic cleansing, for the first time making it a war crime in its own right. His explication of the tension between diplomacy (which often utilizes amnesty in seeking an end to conflict) and accountability (which seeks justice for victims and humanity) was thought-provoking.


Who am I?

I am a tired activist and recovering attorney. My professional focus on violence and humanity’s response to it began when, as a seven-year-old, the nuns at my Catholic school showed us newsreels of the liberation of Nazi concentration camps. This led me to adopt as my life’s guiding principle Julian Beck’s admonition “to redeem our share of the universal cruelty.” After 20 years in the U.S. Violence Against Women Movement, I absconded to the former Yugoslavia and found myself in the middle of a war during which I ran a war crimes documentation project (memoir in progress). I later reported on the international war crimes trial of Slobodan Milosevic.


I wrote...

Twilight of Impunity: The War Crimes Trial of Slobodan Milosevic

By Judith Armatta,

Book cover of Twilight of Impunity: The War Crimes Trial of Slobodan Milosevic

What is my book about?

Twilight of Impunity is based on the 300-plus dispatches I wrote while monitoring the war crimes trial of Slobodan Milosevic, the first such trial since Nazis faced justice at Nuremberg. The book brings to life the stories of survivors, makes complex legal theories understandable, and argues that the trial created a framework for other international war crimes trials and the permanent International Criminal Court. I show how Milosevic attempted to highjack the trial and use it as a vehicle for his propaganda about the Balkan wars and his role in them. For all its flaws, the trial provided a step forward in the quest for international justice as a replacement for impunity and the eternal cycle of hatred and violence. 

Haunted by Atrocity

By Benjamin G. Cloyd,

Book cover of Haunted by Atrocity: Civil War Prisons in American Memory

One of the hottest fields of scholarship in the last generation is memory and how it shapes historiography. Cloyd’s contribution to the field is the first to focus exclusively on Civil War prisons. This thought-provoking book demonstrates how the passions of the post-war fight over treatment of prisoners have complicated the process of reconciliation. In the present, as the Lost Cause mythology has stubbornly held on, how we want to remember the war extends to the need for both side to cast blame on the other when it comes to prisoners of war.


Who am I?

The Civil War has been a passion of mine since I was seven years old. This was inflamed by a professor I met at SUNY Cortland—Ellis Johnson, who first told me of the POW camp at Elmira, New York. Even though I grew up just thirty miles from Elmira I was astounded at this revelation. Later I learned that I had a third great-grandfather—William B. Reese—who served in the Veterans Reserve Corps after being wounded at the Battle of Gettysburg and was assigned to the garrison in Elmira, where he may have stood guard over the very prison his great grandson would write about.


I wrote...

Hellmira: The Union’s Most Infamous Civil War Prison Camp - Elmira, NY

By Derek D. Maxfield,

Book cover of Hellmira: The Union’s Most Infamous Civil War Prison Camp - Elmira, NY

What is my book about?

Long called the “Andersonville of the North,” the prisoner of war camp in Elmira, New York, is remembered as the most notorious of all Union-run POW camps. It existed for only a year—from the summer of 1864 to July 1865—but in that time it became darkly emblematic of man’s inhumanity to man. 

In Hellmira: The Union’s Most Infamous POW Camp of the Civil War, Derek Maxfield contextualizes the rise of prison camps during the Civil War, explores the failed exchange of prisoners, and tells the tale of the creation and evolution of the prison camp in Elmira. In the end, Maxfield suggests that it is time to move on from the blame game and see prisoner of war camps—North and South—as a great humanitarian failure.

War of Annihilation

By Geoffrey P. Megargee,

Book cover of War of Annihilation: Combat and Genocide on the Eastern Front, 1941

If my first two listings are somewhat inaccessible to the average reader, fear not, Megargee’s concise study of Operation Barbarossa is a masterful summary of the campaign as well as the parallel German war of annihilation in the East. Richly illustrated with maps and photos, Megargee transforms a huge and complex war into a short (150 page), straightforward read. There is also a helpful bibliographic essay at the end and numerous sub-headings to guide the reading. It is the perfect introduction to the German invasion of the Soviet Union.


Who am I?

When I was a young man reading my first books about the Second World War I was struck by the dimensions of Germany’s war in the East. Battles at El Alamein, Monte Cassino, and Normandy were familiar to me, but suddenly there emerged dozens of new battlefields in the East, most dwarfing the Anglo-American experience of the war, which I’d never heard of. My curiosity drove my reading and, as the saying goes, the more I knew, the more questions I had. Thirty years on, and ten books under my belt, has not yet satisfied that curiosity, but at least, thanks to Shepherd, I can share some of it.


I wrote...

Operation Barbarossa and Germany's Defeat in the East

By David Stahel,

Book cover of Operation Barbarossa and Germany's Defeat in the East

What is my book about?

Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of the Soviet Union, began the largest and most costly campaign in military history. Its failure was a key turning point of the Second World War. The operation was planned as a Blitzkrieg to win Germany its Lebensraum in the east, and the summer of 1941 is well-known for the German army's unprecedented victories and advances. David Stahel presents a new history of Germany's summer campaign from the perspective of the two largest and most powerful Panzer groups on the Eastern front. Stahel's research provides a fundamental reassessment of Germany's war against the Soviet Union, highlighting the prodigious internal problems of the vital Panzer forces and revealing that their demise in the earliest phase of the war undermined the whole German invasion.

Greenmantle

By John Buchan,

Book cover of Greenmantle

John Buchan served in the War Propaganda Bureau during WWI, crafting press releases that sought to preserve public morale against the terrible losses on the Western Front. Already a successful novelist, he created a new character named Richard Hannay who starred in his 1915 adventure thriller The Thirty Nine Steps. Hannay was so popular that Buchan revived him for a 1916 sequel set in the Ottoman Empire that proved an enduring classic: Greenmantle. Through his work in intelligence and propaganda, Buchan was aware of British war planners’ concerns that the Ottoman call for jihad that followed their declaration of war might provoke colonial Muslims to rise against the Entente Powers in India, Egypt, North Africa, and the Caucasus. He captured British fears of an Ottoman-inspired jihad inflaming Indian Muslims with the memorably Orientalist line: “There is a dry wind blowing through the East, and the parched grasses wait the spar.…


Who am I?

As a professional historian of the Middle East, I’ve long recognized WWI as a vital turning point in the region’s history, when the ancient Ottoman Empire fell and the modern states of the Middle East took its place. Based in Oxford, I am particularly aware of this university’s role in shaping so many of those whose book captured the British experience of the Ottoman Front. But there’s also an element of family history behind my fascination, as in following the story of my great-uncle’s death in Gallipoli in 1915, I came to appreciate the magnitude of sacrifice suffered by all sides in the Great War in the Middle East.


I wrote...

The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East

By Eugene Rogan,

Book cover of The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East

What is my book about?

By 1914 the powers of Europe were sliding inexorably toward war, and they pulled the Middle East along with them into one of the most destructive conflicts in human history. In The Fall of the Ottomans, award-winning historian Eugene Rogan brings the First World War and its immediate aftermath in the Middle East to vivid life, uncovering the often ignored story of the region's crucial role in the conflict. Unlike the static killing fields of the Western Front, the war in the Middle East was fast-moving and unpredictable, with the Turks inflicting decisive defeats on the Entente in Gallipoli, Mesopotamia, and Gaza before the tide of battle turned in the Allies' favor. The postwar settlement led to the partition of Ottoman lands, laying the groundwork for the ongoing conflicts that continue to plague the modern Arab world. A sweeping narrative of battles and political intrigue from Gallipoli to Arabia, The Fall of the Ottomans is essential reading for anyone seeking to understand the Great War and the making of the modern Middle East.

On the Front Line

By Marie Colvin,

Book cover of On the Front Line: The Collected Journalism of Marie Colvin

On the Front Line is an award-winning collection of stories by veteran war correspondent Marie Colvin. Prior to being targeted for assassination by the Syrian government in February 2012 while she covered the civil war there, Colvin's career and writing showed peerless courage in the pursuit of stories that revealed the inhumanities of war and civil strife. The book contains insightful accounts of interviews of Arafat and Gadaffi as well as her intimate reporting of fighting in Kosovo, Chechnya, East Timor, Afghanistan, Iraq, and the chaos of the Arab Spring uprisings. Blinded in one eye shrapnel while reporting on the Sri Lankan Tamil Tigers, Colvin's style and legendary courage live on in this select collection of her work.


Who am I?

K. Lee Lerner is an author, editor, and producer of science and factual media, including four editions of the Gale Encyclopedia of Science and the Encyclopedia of Espionage, Intelligence, and Security. His expansive writing on science, climate change, disasters, disease, and global issues has earned multiple book and media awards, including books named Outstanding Academic Titles. An aviator, sailor, and member of the National Press Club in Washington, his two global circumnavigations and portfolio of work in challenging and dangerous environments reveal a visceral drive to explore and investigate. With a public intellectual's broad palate and a scientist's regard for evidence-based analysis, Lerner dissects and accessibly explains complex issues. 

I wrote...

Government, Politics, and Protest: Essential Primary Sources

By K. Lee Lerner, Brenda Wilmoth Lerner, Adrienne Wilmoth Lerner

Book cover of Government, Politics, and Protest: Essential Primary Sources

What is my book about?

Part of the Essential Primary Source series by K. Lee Lerner, Brenda Wilmoth Lerner, et al., that critics described as well-written, thoughtful and cogent. Individual volumes topically related to issues provide historical context and insights into people, places, and issues still dominating news headlines as well as the scholars, journalists and other experts who document history in the making. The series covers Terrorism; Medicine, Health, and Bioethics; Environmental Issues; Crime and Punishment;  Government, Politics, and Protest; Gender Issues and Sexuality; Human and Civil Rights; Immigration and Multiculturalism; Social Policy, and more.

God Sleeps in Rwanda

By Joseph Sebarenzi, Laura Mullane,

Book cover of God Sleeps in Rwanda: A Journey of Transformation

The author, a Tutsi genocide survivor, was once a young Rwandan politician who deeply admired Paul Kagame and seemed destined for prominent public office. Instead, from his position as parliamentary speaker, he watched as his hero steadily emasculated the judiciary, undermined the country’s Hutu president – a symbol of ethnic reconciliation - and sabotaged parliamentary democracy itself,  eventually fleeing the country when his own life was threatened. His book not only offers great insights into the workings of village life in a tiny African country traumatized by its violent past, it’s a step-by-step analysis of how a dictatorship takes cynical, relentless hold.


Who am I?

After working as a foreign correspondent in Italy and France I was sent by Reuters news agency to Cote d’Ivoire and what was then Zaire, the latter posting coinciding with the shocking start of the genocide in neighboring Rwanda. It was the kind of assignment you don’t forget, and when I moved to the Financial Times I continued following the larger-than-life dramas unfolding in Africa’s Great Lakes region. I’ve now written five books, the first – In the Footsteps of Mr Kurtz - about Mobutu Sese Seko's imprint on the Democratic Republic of Congo and the latest – Do Not Disturb - looking at personalities and events I first started writing about a quarter of a century ago. You keep going back.


I wrote...

Do Not Disturb: The Story of a Political Murder and an African Regime Gone Bad

By Michela Wrong,

Book cover of Do Not Disturb: The Story of a Political Murder and an African Regime Gone Bad

What is my book about?

A real-life murder and spy thriller set in central Africa. Do Not Disturb uses the lurid assassination of Patrick Karegeya, Rwanda’s exiled former spy chief, to unpick the story of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), the movement that went from united guerrilla group to unhappy post-genocide government, with one man – Paul Kagame – emerging as a ruthless despot, ready to eliminate all those who stand in his way. Kagame's victims include his old friend Karegeya, strangled in the Michelangelo Hotel in Johannesburg on his orders. This is a story about an African revolution gone bad, but it’s also a tale of treachery amongst friends, for the founders of the RPF attended school together, learned how to fight at one anothers’ sides, and made speeches at each others’ weddings. The personal IS the political in this slow-motion African tragedy.

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