The 10 best novels about World War II

THE 10 BEST NOVELS ABOUT WORLD WAR II

ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE BY ANTHONY DOERR (2014) 545 PAGES ★★★★★ — THIS SUPERB PULITZER PRIZE-WINNER DESERVES THE AWARD IT WON

Literary awards can be a poor guide to enjoyable reading. Britain’s Man Booker Award-winners, for example, strike me as a mixed bag at best. Generally, though, a book that wins a Pulitzer and is a finalist for a National Book Award deserves more than a casual look. That’s certainly the case with All the Light We Cannot See, an historical novel long at or near the top of the national best-seller lists, winner of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

THE EYE OF THE NEEDLE BY KEN FOLLETT (1978) 364 PAGES ★★★★★ — THE 40TH ANNIVERSARY EDITION OF KEN FOLLETT’S CLASSIC WWII SPY NOVEL

British author Ken Follett is best known to a wide public these days for the Kingsbridge Trilogy, his mammoth multi-generational account of an English cathedral town. Together, the three books run to nearly 3,000 pages (and a fourth, a more recent prequel, takes the total to nearly 4,000). They’ve reportedly sold more than 80 million copies around the world. But that’s only half of the 160 million books Follett has sold since the publication of his first novel in 1974. And he has been topping the bestseller lists ever since the publication of his classic WWII spy novel, The Eye of the Needle, in 1978. The book sold 10 million copies, and it frequently appears on lists of the all-time best spy novels. So it’s no surprise that Penguin has brought out a 40th-anniversary edition of the novel. It fully deserves all the attention it gets.

SPIES OF THE BALKANS (NIGHT SOLDIERS #11) BY ALAN FURST (2010) 288 PAGES ★★★★★ — ALAN FURST’S SUPERB NOVEL, “SPIES OF THE BALKANS”

In the long, tense years of the Cold War, spy stories and films grounded in the rivalry between East and West appeared in such profusion that the genre degenerated into self-parody, eventually giving birth to bawdy satires. The public, it appeared, had long since ceased taking spy novels seriously.

THE BEST OF OUR SPIES (SPIES #1) BY ALEX GERLIS (2012) 620 PAGES ★★★★★ — AN EXTRAORDINARY WORLD WAR II SPY STORY GROUNDED IN HISTORICAL FACT

A number of excellent nonfiction books have been written about the exploits of British Intelligence in World War II, some of them by the practitioners themselves. Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies by Ben McIntyre stands out among recent examples. The title refers to what was variously called the XX Committee, the Twenty Committee, or the Double Cross Committee, a high-level body in British government charged with mounting a number of secret operations to deceive the Germans about the location of the Normandy Invasion. Their work, code-named Operation Fortitude and kept secret for decades, was spectacularly successful. It may have made the difference between the success or failure of the all-important invasion.

FATHERLAND BY ROBERT HARRIS — A GRIPPING ALTERNATE HISTORY NOVEL ABOUT THE WORLD AFTER A NAZI VICTORY

April 1964. Adolf Hitler’s 75th birthday is a week off, and Germans everywhere in the Fatherland are preparing for the massive celebration. To cap the joy of the adoring masses, US President Joseph Kennedy will be arriving to negotiate detente with the Third Reich. Nazi officials hope that will take pressure off the Eastern Front, where German troops are still engaged in a desperate battle with Soviet partisans funded and equipped by the USA.

THE EAGLE HAS LANDED BY JACK HIGGINS (1975) 372 PAGES ★★★★★ — A CLASSIC ESPIONAGE THRILLER THAT’S WELL WORTH REREADING

Any list of the best espionage novels of all times must include Jack Higgins’ World War II caper story, The Eagle Has Landed. Published in 1975, this classic of the genre has sold more than 50 million copies. The novel introduces Liam Devlin, a fast-talking agent for the Irish Republican Army, who is featured in three of Higgins’ subsequent thrillers. Though nominally about espionage, as the story revolves around an imaginary plot by the Nazi military intelligence agency, the Abwehr, in 1943, the novel is more properly a thriller, action-filled virtually from the beginning to the end.

A MAN WITHOUT BREATH (BERNIE GUNTHER #9) BY PHILIP KERR (2013) 477 PAGES ★★★★★ — MASS MURDER IN THE KATYN FOREST

In the spring of 1940, Josef Stalin’s secret police, the NKVD, systematically murdered some 22,000 Poles. Among the victims were half the members of the Polish officer corps, police officers, government representatives, royalty, and leading members of Poland’s civilian population. More than 4,000 of them were buried in the Katyn Forest, a wooded area near the city of Smolensk, located near the Belarus border west of Moscow. Philip Kerr’s illuminating novel is based on the international investigation first carried out there in 1943.

MIRACLE AT ST. ANNA BY JAMES MCBRIDE (2001) 324 PAGES ★★★★★ — BLACK SOLDIERS ON THE FRONT LINE IN TUSCANY IN WORLD WAR II

“This book is a work of fiction inspired by real events and real people.” So writes James McBride in an author’s note that precedes the text. He continues: “It draws upon the individual and collective experiences of black soldiers who served in the Serchio Valley and Apuane Alps of Italy during World War II.” They were among the storied “Buffalo Soldiers” of the US Army’s segregated 92nd Infantry Division. The division garnered thousands of honors, including two Medals of Honor, 208 Silver Stars, and 1,166 Bronze Stars, yet many of the white officers who commanded the unit circulated false reports of the troops’ poor performance. In Miracle at St. Anna, an engrossing account of the division in action in Italy late in 1944, James McBride brings that reality to light.

THE BOOK OF ARON BY JIM SHEPHARD (2015) 274 PAGES ★★★★★ — A BRILLIANT NOVEL OF THE WARSAW GHETTO

The annihilation of the Warsaw Ghetto was one of the signature events of the Second World War. Its story has been told innumerable times, in print, on film, and in oral histories. But, since I don’t go out of my way to seek out books about the Holocaust, I hadn’t yet come across a book that tells the tale from the perspective of a child. The Book of Aron, a novel by Jim Shepard, does that job brilliantly. It is a superb contribution to the extensive literature about World War II.

THE WINDS OF WAR (WORLD WAR II #1 OF 2) BY HERMAN WOUK (1971) 898 PAGES ★★★★★ — IS THIS CLASSIC WORLD WAR II NOVEL THE BEST EVER?

Imagine trying to tell the story of World War II through the lives of a single family. After all, the war engaged more than 100 million people from 30 countries in a conflict that raged for years on three continents. Yet half a century ago a remarkable author named Herman Wouk set out to do exactly that for American readers. In two volumes totaling 2,300 pages, Wouk follows US Navy Captain Victor Henry, his wife, his two sons, the women they marry, his young daughter, and a handful of other characters as they are tossed about by “the winds of war.” The 900-page story by that name encompasses the years 1939 through 1941. And it’s followed by another 1,400 pages in a companion volume spanning the remaining years of the war. These classic World War II novels remain a compelling read fifty years after their publication. Read the review.

ALL FIVE DOZEN BEST NOVELS ABOUT WORLD WAR II

SPY STORIES

The Traitor by V. S. Alexander — Dramatizing anti-Nazi resistance in Germany during World War II

ALAN FURST’S NIGHT SOLDIERS SERIES

ALEX GERLIS’S TALES OF SPIES IN EUROPE

THE WAR AT HOME

Everyone Brave Is Forgiven by Chris Cleave — The human cost of World War II

THE HOLOCAUST

The German Girl by Armando Lucas Correa — A deeply affecting novel of the Holocaust

MYSTERY AND SUSPENSE

The Berlin Project by Gregory Benford — An alternate history of the Manhattan Project

THE BERNIE GUNTHER SERIES BY PHILIP KERR

IN A CLASS BY ITSELF

Miracle at St. Anna by James McBride — Black soldiers on the front line in Tuscany in World War II

FOR MORE READING

I’ve written a long article, “7 common misconceptions about World War II.” I’ve posted it on this site along with other articles about the war.

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