World War II: reading guide

World War II: reading guide's reading guide about the Second World War, Nazism, resistance movements and class struggle during the war.

Key texts

Battle of France

Germany's war

  • Nazism, Fascism and the Working Class - Tim Mason - Collection of essays showing how German imperialism and plunder was motivated by the need to contain the threat from the German working class.
  • Social Policy in the Third Reich: The Working Class and the 'National Community', 1918-1939 - Tim Mason - Book analyising the attitudes and policies of the Nazi leadership towards the German working class, arguing that the regime did not securely integrate workers and this, coupled with the return industrial conflict in the 1930s may well have influenced Hitler's foreign policy in 1938-39.
  • Hitler: A Biography - Ian Kershaw - Following Hitler's life from failed artist to dictator, Kershaw is more of a social historian than other biographers of Hitler, also addressing the unique nature of Nazi radicalism, the Holocaust, and the poisoned European world that allowed him to operate so effectively.
  • Nazi Empire: German Colonialism and Imperialism from Bismarck to Hitler - Shelley Baranovski -Baranovski shows the extent to which the Nazi policies were a continuation of the barbarism of all European imperialism.
  • The Taste of War: World War II and the Battle for Food - Lizzie Collingham - Collingham shows how food policy was a motivation, and a weapon, for all sides in the war, leading to starvation across Europe and Asia.
  • From Imperialism to Fascism; Why Hitler’s "India" was to be Russia - Emanuel Sarkisyanz -Sarkisyanz can be rather one-sided but he shows the surprising extent to which the Nazis were trying to emulate the British Empire.
  • Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy - Adam Tooze - Book arguing that social/economic approaches can explain Nazi social policy during the war.

Nazi Extermination programmes

  • Architects of annihilation: Auschwitz and the logic of destruction - Gotz Aly1 - Examination of the frightening role of young educated careerists in building the Holocaust's ideological and material infrastructure.
  • Final Solution: Nazi Population Policy and the Murder of the European Jews - Gotz Aly - Using Russian, German and Polish archives, Aly produces a detailed examination of the Nazis' 'final solution', finding explanations both in the ideological aspect of National Socialism as well as its practical application by Nazi bureaucracy.
  • Anti-semitism and National Socialism - Moishe Postone. Text arguing that 'functional' explanations of the Holocaust are insufficient, and that the Holocaust was a deranged attempt to eradicate the ‘bad’ parts of capitalism, such as financial speculation, in order to preserve the ‘good’ parts such as ‘honest ’ wage labour.
  • Hitler and the Jews: the Genesis of the Holocaust - Philippe Burrin - Book arguing that the genocide of Jewish people was down to a mixture of ideology and the 'practicalities' of Nazi social policy during WW2.
  • Nazi Anti-Semitism: From Prejudice to the Holocaust - Philippe Burrin - Book discussing how, rather than being due to inherent anti-semitism in the German population, Nazi policy evolved gradually, pointing out the extent to which the Holocaust was a deranged attempt to avenge and prevent a repeat of the German defeat and revolution of 1918.
  • National Socialist Extermination Policies: Contemporary German Perspectives and Controversies Ulrich Herbert - Book containing articles emphasising the sometimes ‘functional’ nature of the Holocaust for the German war effort.

UK and US strategies and atrocities

  • Armageddon: The Reality Behind the Distortions, Myths, Lies, and Illusions of World War II - Clive Ponting - Examination of World War II debunks many of the convenient myths that have grown up about the conflict, using irrefutable statistics and facts garnered from a wide variety of sources.
  • Churchill - Clive Ponting - Book challenging the Churchill myth, declaring that much of the accepted interpretation of Churchill's life stems from his own writings about himself, and, using more recent source material, questions his competence as a war leader and his true level of popularity.
  • The People as Enemy: The Leaders' Hidden Agenda in WWII - John Spritzler - Spritzler shows that Allied war aims were not democracy and self-determination, but were, as wars generally are, opportunities to suppress class rebellion.
  • In Our Time: The Chamberlain-Hitler Collusion - Clement Leibovitz and Alvin Finkel - On the cynical collaboration between the UK government and the Nazis in the 1930s.
  • A Higher Form Of Killing: The Secret History of Chemical and Biological Warfare - Robert Harris and Jeremy Paxman - Harris and Paxman's (yes, that Paxman!) classic account of how the US and the British planned to use poison gas and anthrax to exterminate vast numbers of German civilians.
  • Winston Churchill and the "Second Front": A Reappraisal - Tuvia Ben-Moshe - This article shows how Churchill's war strategy was determined by British soldiers' reluctance to fight another bloody world war.
  • Brute Force: Allied Strategy and Tactics in the Second World War - John Ellis - Ellis shows how the Allies won the war, not because of democratic principles or clever strategies, but simply because they could inflict more destruction on their enemies than their enemies could on them.
  • Churchills's Secret War: The British Empire and the Ravaging of India During World War II - Madhusree Mukerjee - Mukerjee shows how Churchill was quite as indifferent to mass death in his Empire as Hitler and Stalin were in theirs.
  • War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War - John Dower - Dower writes of the atrocities committed by both sides in the Pacific War.
  • The Meaning of the Second World War - Ernest Mandel - Classic Trotskyist account of the war.
  • Crimes and Mercies: The Fate of German Civilians Under Allied Occupation 1944-1950 - James Bacque - Bacque’s estimates of the numbers of Germans that died due to Allied post-war policies are exaggerations. But the quotes and other facts he comes up with are very shocking.

Resistance movements and groups

Workers' struggles during and immediately after the war

Other media

  • Catch 22 - Joseph Heller - Novel by former World War II bomber Joseph Heller, a savage indictment of military madness and stupidity, and the desire of the ordinary man to survive it. It is a tale of the dangerously sane Captain Yossarian, who spends his time in Italy plotting to survive. Contains casual sexism throughout.
  • Slaughterhouse-Five - Kurt Vonnegut - Darkly humorous novel recounting the story of an ill-prepared soldier and the grim reality of the Second World War.
  • The Path to the Spiders' Nests - Italo Calvino - The story of a cobbler's apprentice in a town on the Ligurian coast, who steals a pistol from a Nazi sailor, and becomes involved in the Italian Resistance.
  • Men and not men - Elio Vittorini - Story set in Milan in 1944 during the Italian Resistance, it tells the story of a partisan code-named "En 2" who organises an ambush against the fascists.
  • Rome, Open City - Classic film about a working class Italian partisan, fighting fascism during the last days of the Nazi's occupation of Rome.
  • Johnny the Partisan - Film about an English literature student who escapes into the mountains to join the Italian resistance to fascism.
  • 1. Though his work on the Holocaust in invaluable in showing how it was functional for German capitalism, Aly's wider politics are quite problematic in that his tendency towards an 'anti-Deutsche'-influenced anti-nazism has, in recent years, caused him to support neo-liberal policies as anti-fascist acts.


May 3 2013 13:11

It makes me a bit uneasy that the first book in this list is written by Götz Aly. I think there should at least be a disclaimer about him. The book itself may be good, there was a book with a similar name which he wrote with Susanne Heim. That one was ok, if I'm not mistaken. (Vordenker der Vernichtung. Auschwitz und die deutschen Pläne für eine neue europäische Ordnung.)

But he also is some kind of renegade and revisionist. He was part of the 68 student movement (SDS, Rote Hilfe, ...). But in the last decade or so he began to use his expertise on the Third Reich to push revisionist thoughts. For him the Third Reich was a "Gefälligkeitsdiktatur" (literally: accommodating dictatorship), in which the state was forced to start massive predatory wars and in the end also mass exterminations, in order to uphold the living conditions of the working class. He used this thesis to intervene in the German debate about austerity and the creation of a low wages sector in the early 2000s ("Agenda 2010" and so on...). In this debate he justified the neoliberal politics as some kind of anti-fascist act: "The goverment Schröder/Fischer faces the historic task of the long farewell from the people's community (Volksgemeinschaft)" ("Die Regierung Schröder/Fischer steht vor der historischen Aufgabe des langen Abschieds von der Volksgemeinschaft.")

A good article in German on his revisionist tendencies is for example this one from Wildcat (Germany):

May 4 2013 18:09

Thanks for the warning about Gotz Aly. But he does provide interesting evidence that Nazi's plundered Europe to contain the German working class - an argument that could also be used to argue for an 'autonomist Marxist' account of the war.

World War Two history is, of course, a minefield and few, if any, WW2 historians are against capitalist wars in the way many libcomers are. Indeed I suspect all the above authors would have supported the Allied war effort - hardly a libertarian communist approach!

Moreover, any criticisms of Allied atrocities (e.g. Bacque, Lindquist, Harris, Mukerjee) are, of course, used by neo-Nazis to excuse Nazi atrocities. But that doesn't mean we should not use their historical research. But again thanks for the warning!

May 8 2013 14:43

- Christopher Browning: Ordinary Men. Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland

- Raul Hilberg: The Destruction of the European Jews

- Reuben Ainsztein: Jewish resistance in Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe

the book Vordenker der Vernichtung by Aly/Heim is still popular in the operaist scene in Germany, it is in a way part of the debate "functionalism/structuralism vs intentionalism" among especially German historians

May 22 2013 11:18

Gotz Aly's approach is well summarised here:
(This shocking article shows the extent to which university-based academics laid the ground for the Holocaust. It is a 'must-read' for anyone involved with academia.)

Gotz Aly, 'The Planning Intelligentsia and the “Final Solution”',
Omer Bartov, The Holocaust Origins, Implementation, Aftermath, p92.

May 22 2013 12:33

On Twitter we got recommended this book: A People's history of the Second World War:

has anyone read it? Should we put it in recommended reading? My concern would be it possibly being written from a left nationalist point of view, and say being uncritical of things like the Stalinist repression in the Greek resistance etc

May 22 2013 13:32
Steven. wrote:
On Twitter we got recommended this book: A People's history of the Second World War:

has anyone read it? Should we put it in recommended reading? My concern would be it possibly being written from a left nationalist point of view, and say being uncritical of things like the Stalinist repression in the Greek resistance etc

the author is the son of Tony Cliff ... two reviews: &

May 22 2013 13:42

I haven't read Donny Gluckstein's book, but he's a prominent SWP member (Cliff's son actually) and as such would presumably not be "uncritical of things like the Stalinist repression in the Greek resistance".

As far as I know, the book argues that the second world was can be understood as a peoples war for democracy against fascism, as against the war between peoples. Obviously this has loads of problems but it might be worth including in a reading guide.

Jan 30 2015 19:34

You, You & You! The People out of Step with World War II - Pete Grafton - An oral history of the war, includes material from interviews with conscientious objectors and anarchist war resisters.

Oct 1 2016 08:23

Ian Kershaw's The End: Germany 1944-45 is a very thorough
history of what happened in Germany from the summer of 1944
through to the surrender. It doesn't touch on battles or military
strategy, but focuses on what happened to the German
people and the shocking savagery of the nazis. Truly harrowing.

Studs Terkel's The Good War: An Oral History of World War Two.
American people, soldiers and civilians, tell their story.

Angus Calder's The People's War: Britain 1939 -1945. The classic
bottom up account of the war.

Paul Fussell's Wartime: Understanding and Behaviour in the Second
World War. Fascinating study of how people thought and acted. The
book is divided into subject chapters, I found the one on 'Swearing'
really interesting. Fussell was a combat soldier in WW2.

Charles Glass Deserter: A Hidden History of the Second World War.

Oct 1 2016 08:54

To give a Polish perspective under ‘Other Media’, I’d suggest Andrzej Wajda’s war trilogy:

A Generation (1955); Canal (1957); Ashes & Diamonds (1958). Each film deals with a short time sequence: the early underground resistance; remnants of the Home Army trying to escape through the Warsaw sewers; the war’s immediate tragic aftermath.