World War II (WW2) fascinates me. It always has, since the first time I learned about the Holocaust or saw Schindler’s List – I simply couldn’t believe that human beings had not only lived through such an insane, devastating time in history, but I also couldn’t believe human beings had created such a wretched experience. War is hell: it truly is. Reading these WW2 historical fiction books taught me that, though I’d heard the phrase before and never doubted it. The treachery of WW2 cannot be understated. When my beloved dog Moose died, I was overcome with depression and grief. Reading books set during WW2 helped me put things in my own life into perspective.
Some of these books revolve around the Nazi death camps, and the struggle to survive their abhorrent conditions. Some of them revolve around the German occupation of France, of the ruthless conditions the occupation created. Some revolve around unlikely spies for the resistance, fighting underground for the liberty of the country they loved. But all of these WW2 historical fiction books have one thing in common: they all moved me in some way, to the point that I had to make this list, so I might share them with the rest of the world.
This is my list of the Best WW2 Historical Fiction books:
All The Light We Cannot See
by Anthony Doerr
A vibrant, imaginative story of two characters, a blind French girl named Marie-Laurie and a German orphan boy named Werner. The two eventually come together in an amazing way that will stay with you long after you finish the book. The way Doerr writes this fabulous story is electric, awe-inducing. I couldn’t put this book down. A story about love, war, struggle, inventiveness, imagination, a captivating diamond, a dash of science, survival against the odds.
“Open your eyes and see what you can with them before they close forever.”
“We rise again in the grass. In the flowers. In songs.”
by Kristin Hannah
This epic drama set during World War 2 focuses on a somewhat seldom told topic: what the women experienced during the war. The story revolves around two sisters, both very different in personality and living very different lives, but nonetheless tied together. The story spans many years, and we see how the war changes and transforms the sisters’ lives. The Nightingale is a hopelessly beautiful novel, poignant and moving. I would read it all over again in a heartbeat.
“If I have learned anything in this long life of mine, it is this: in love we find out who we want to be; in war we find out who we are.”
“Men tell stories. Women get on with it. For us it was a shadow war. There were no parades for us when it was over, no medals or mentions in history books. We did what we had to during the war, and when it was over, we picked up the pieces and started our lives over.”
The Tattooist of Auschwitz
by Heather Morris
This book, as the title makes evident, is set in Auschwitz. That said, the novel isn’t for the faint of heart: the protagonist of the story endures and experiences things that most of us can’t imagine; some truly barbaric atrocities. But the novel itself is so ultimately so inspiring, I would recommend it to anyone wanting to read a book about what the horrors of living in a concentration camp might have been like. The Tattooist of Auschwitz is a harrowing novel that will stick with you long after you finish its story.
“How can someone do this to another human being? He wonders if for the rest of his life, be it short or long, he will be defined by this moment, this irregular number: 32407.”
“To save one is to save the world.”
by Martha Hall Kelly
The seemingly lighthearted title of this novel surprised me with its brutal and raw story. The story follows two women, one of them being Kasia, a Polish girl working with the underground resistance movement. Kasia, ultimately sent to the all-female concentration camp, Ravensbrück, learns the price of resistance: imprisonment. The treachery she faces there cannot be measured. I learned so much from this book and was shocked to read of the torture the women who were imprisoned at Ravensbrück experienced. Ultimately, it’s a story about fighting for justice in the face of brutality.
“It only hurts you to hold on to the hate.”
“You have a choice. To wallow in the unfairness of it all or rise above it. Fix it. Let other people in.”
Code Name Hélène
by Ariel Lawhon
Based on the life of a true WW2 heroine, Code Name Helene follows the story of Nancy Wake through the various code names she used while working as a resistance fighter during WW2. The story itself is moving and thrilling. She smuggles documents and people across the border, earning her the nickname ‘The White Mouse’ by the Gestapo. I enjoyed this book very much and was glad to have heard of Nancy Wake, whose contributions to the resistance were so varied and so brave that it was hard to believe it’s based on true life.
“I am the same but different, and I greet this new reflection with a nod of acceptance. There is metal in my spine and there are fractures in my soul. I resemble Garrow now. I have been changed by war.”
“I can see that he wants to laugh but the expression on my face stops him. “We have no women drivers.” “You do now.” Honestly, I’m so tired of this bullshit. I can’t have a byline because I’m a woman. I can’t apply for a marriage license on my own because I’m a woman. I can’t drive an ambulance because I’m a woman.”
The Book of Lost Names
by Kristin Harmel
A remarkable story about a young woman with a talent for forgery, which ultimately sets her on the path of helping Jews escape the Nazis during WW2. After fleeing Nazi-occupied France, the protagonist ends up in a small town where she begins forging identity documents. I loved this book so much that I could barely put it down.
“But we aren’t defined by the names we carry or the religion we practice, or the nation whose flag flies over our heads. I know that now. We’re defined by who we are in our hearts, who we choose to be on this earth.”
“You can’t judge a person by their language or their place of origin—though it seems that each new generation insists upon learning that lesson for itself.”
The Librarian of Auschwitz
by Antonio Iturbe
This is another story based on real life; the story of Dita Kraus, a fourteen year old girl imprisoned by the Nazis at Auschwitz. An amazing story of hope and courage, this book weaves Dita’s story into a beautiful tapestry of bravery in the face of evil at an unbelievable time in history.
“Life, any life, is very short. But if you’ve managed to be happy for at least an instant, it will have been worth living.”
“In a place like Auschwitz, where everything is designed to make you cry, a smile is an act of defiance.”
The Orphan’s Tale
by Pam Jenoff
An unwanted pregnancy, the father a Nazi, leads to the teenage protagonist living in a train station. Eventually she finds her way to joining a traveling circus. There, she learns the flying trapeze, and though at first rivals, she eventually befriends her trainer. Both are hiding secrets however, which will ultimately change both their lives in the end.
“We cannot change who we are. Sooner or later we will all have to face ourselves.”
“Why are we so hard on one another? I wonder. Hadn’t the world already given us challenges enough?” – Pam Jenoff, The Orphan’s Tale
In Another Time
by Jillian Cantor
A sweeping love story that spans countries and time, the story revolves around two young people who meet and fall in love. But as their love grows, Hitler comes into power and their life is turned upside down. But the man has a secret way of protecting her that she could never have guessed. Told in alternating viewpoints, this is a beautiful novel about the power of love against all odds.
“My violin connects my present and my past, my dreams and my reality. My fingers move nimbly over the strings, my mind forgetting all I’ve lost or forgotten. There is only the music that is my constant companion. Nothing but the music. Not Stuart. Not Max. Not now. Not the past, either.”
“It was remarkable how the sun rose each morning, set each evening, the earth still spinning on its axis, as it always had. How everything could change and nothing could change.”
The Things We Cannot Say
by Kelly Rimmer
Ultimately this is a story about love and loss, told from the vantage point of present day as well as Nazi-occupied 1940s Poland. This story gives a voice to those hardships so many Polish faced. A family secret is ultimately uncovered, and the truth that has been long forgotten finally comes to light.
“Life has a way of shattering our expectations, of leaving our hopes in pieces without explanation. But when there’s love in a family, the fragments left behind from our shattered dreams can always be pulled together again, even if the end result is a mosaic.”
“War breaks us down to nothing more than our most selfish will to survive—but when we rise above that instinct, miracles can still happen.”
The Book Thief
by Markus Zusak
This wasn’t my favorite book on the list, but I enjoyed it nonetheless. The story focuses on a German girl who falls in love with reading, and thus begins stealing books as many are banned in 1939 Nazi Germany. When her foster family takes a Jewish man into hiding, things become trying. The narrator of the story itself is Death, which adds an interesting spin to the story.
“I am haunted by humans.”
“I wanted to tell the book thief many things, about beauty and brutality. But what could I tell her about those things that she didn’t already know? I wanted to explain that I am constantly overestimating and underestimating the human race-that rarely do I ever simply estimate it. I wanted to ask her how the same thing could be so ugly and so glorious, and its words and stories so damning and brilliant.”
What World War 2 fiction books aren’t on the list?
Leave me a comment below to let me know what books you’d add to this list. I’m always interested in finding new books to sink my teeth into.