Needed: suggestions for reading on World War II

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Needed: suggestions for reading on World War II

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nov 6, 2006, 9:48 am

Can anyone suggest a relatively simple book for an adult who wishes to learn the basics about World War II? This is someone who was bored by history in school, and so is lacking a knowledge even of such fundamentals as when the U.S. entered the war.

Redigeret: nov 6, 2006, 2:16 pm

One possibility would be Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Extremes: a history of the world 1914-1991. It's not just about the war, but would give the lead up to and fallout from the war as well, and it looks at it from a global perspective (for example, US focused histories will be less concerned with the war's impact on colonialism and the breakdown of the English and other European empires). The downside is that even though Hobsbawm is an excellent and clear writer, and the book is almost chatty in places, it is still a somewhat academic book. So if he was bored by history in school, he may still be bored.

A more literary approach might be some of Thomas Mann's writings during the war, like The coming victory of democracy. He wrote (or spoke, as some of these writings are actually speeches) for a general American audience, and won't give as many facts about the war, but will give more of the flavor of what was going on and why.

Some of Winston Churchill's writings can give a flavor of both - he is an excellent writer, clearly wanted to reach a general audience, and throws in personal knowledge and insight that is engaging in itself. Churchill's writing reaches just about everyone.

nov 6, 2006, 11:07 am

Denne meddelelse er blevet slettet af dens forfatter.

nov 6, 2006, 2:09 pm

I'm not quite sure what you mean by simple, but all of the following are general historical works, not academic monographs. The big book synthesis for WWII is Gerhard L. Weinberg's A World at Arms. Eric Hobsbawm in the work cited above recommends Total War by Peter Calvocoressi. For the US in WWII you might check out A Democracy at War or The Best War Ever. Also notable is Studs Terkel's oral history The Good War.

nov 6, 2006, 2:13 pm

Eromsted has some great suggestions in there - Total War is a great book, and Studs Terkel's The Good War might well appeal to someone who isn't as fond of traditional histories (and it's a great book).

One question that might help with recommendations: what kind of books do they like?

nov 6, 2006, 2:34 pm

I'm not quite sure what you mean by simple

Let me put it this way. The person was surprised to learn that Hitler and Pearl Harbor were both World War II. She is basically clueless about the sort of thing you would think anyone would have picked up along the way to reaching their mid-'30s, even if they did go to a lousy school (and I'm not sure she did, just that she didn't pay much attention).

I'm looking for the sort of book that would give the kind of basic information that would taught in, say, a 9th- or 10th grade class.

She wants to remedy this deficiency, and I'm trying to find something that will help her.

nov 6, 2006, 7:32 pm

Ahhh (getting the idea)...

If she really wants to remedy a poor experience in high school history, perhaps the best bet would be a full US history survey. I frequently turn to my copy of Eric Foner's survey text Give Me Liberty!. Then there is the ever-popular A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn.

By the way, the European war against Hitler's Germany and the Pacific War against Japan were quite separate. The imperial ambitions of Germany and Japan were distinct and only the US really fought in both campaigns. So failing to connect Hitler and Pearl Harbor is perhaps not the sign of ignorance that it might first seem.

nov 7, 2006, 9:22 am

This isn't a book, but I just read in the NY Times that Ken Burns is coming out with a PBS series on WWII next year. It will presumably have an accompanying book.

eromsted, your point is well taken, and I don't know if the person in question lives/was educated in the US, but if she was, I do find it quite surprising that she didn't associate Hitler and Pearl Harbor with WWII. In fact, I would think these are the two topics people in the US are MOST likely to connect with WWII (without necessarily knowing much about them beyond the names), and I would be less surprised if she didn't know any details about them, or about other topics, such as imperial ambitions, etc.

nov 10, 2006, 6:47 pm

For a U.S. history during World War II try Freedom from Fear from the Oxford History series on the United States.

dec 20, 2006, 1:09 am

Catherine Merridale,

jan 31, 2007, 11:55 pm

Martin Gilbert and John Keegan each wrote one-volume overviews oif the war. Keegan concentrates more on the military aspects, but he's also a better writer. The Hobsbawm suggestion surpised me. I found his Age of Extremes to be impenetrable - maybe I shouyd try it again.

Redigeret: feb 1, 2007, 10:09 am

Hobsbawm's The age of extremes drove me nuts. Although of course it was for a class a professor a Marxist loved him. Five minutes with a search engine amused me to know end. Seems to be a problem with the link but you can search for a phrase if you want to check. From The Times Literary Supplement on Oct. 28, 1994. He was being interviewed by Michael Ingatieff.

"IGNATIEFF: In 1934, millions of people are dying in the Soviet experiment. If you had known that, would it have made a difference to you at that time? To your commitment? To being a Communist?

HOBSBAWM: This is the sort of academic question to which an answer is simply not possible...I don't actually know that it has any bearing on the history that I have written. If I were to give you a retrospective answer which is not the answer of a historian, I would have said, 'Probably not.'


HOBSBAWM: Because in a period in which, as you might imagine, mass murder and mass suffering are absolutely universal, the chance of a new world being born in great suffering would still have been worth backing. Now the point is, looking back as an historian, I would say that the sacrifices made by the Russian people were probably only marginally worthwhile. The sacrifices were enormous; they were excessive by almost any standard and excessively great. But I'm looking back at it now and I'm saying that because it turns out that the Soviet Union was not the beginning of the world revolution. Had it been, I'm not sure.

IGNATIEFF: What that comes down to is saying that had the radiant tomorrow actually been created, the loss of fifteen, twenty million people might have been justified?


Umm wow...

mar 11, 2007, 6:07 pm

Ahem. Re #7 - "By the way, the European war against Hitler's Germany and the Pacific War against Japan were quite separate. The imperial ambitions of Germany and Japan were distinct and only the US really fought in both campaigns."

Really? That might come as a surprise to the Burma Star Association.

mar 12, 2007, 12:43 am

13:The Australians might also have something to say about that.

apr 7, 2008, 1:25 pm

No End Save Victory: New Second World War Writing edited by Robert Cowley is what you are looking for. this is a collection of 45 essays by the best military historians first published in series by the MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History. it is a comprehensive narrative, but makes very manageable reading as each chapter is stand-alone and devoted to a specific event in the war. the book, published in 2002, also includes new details about the war that only have surfaced or were found in the archives recently, and so are being published for the first time. i found this book very interesting --- couldn't put it down, and managed to finish the almost 700 pages in just a few sittings (though i promised myself to read only 1 chapter a day to stretch out the pleasure of reading the stories individually, it just was not possible).