World War II: Cultural and Social Histories

A friend of mine recently got me thinking about great non-fiction books about World War II. I find the interwar and WWII era fascinating. My taste in history tends towards cultural and social histories but I have a fondness for espionage history as well. So here are six books that I recommend for someone who wants a different look at World War II.

  1. Surrender on Demand by Varian Fry

Simply put, Varian Fry is the bad ass you’ve never heard of. He was sent by the Emergency Rescue Committee to go to Vichy France and run a rescue network to assist refugees. Through his efforts, he helped Jewish and political refugees leave France to prevent their capture by Vichy government and/or the Nazis. Through his work, he helped 4,000 refugees. He is responsible for helping Marc Chagall, Hannah Arendt, Andre Breton, and many other esteemed writers, thinkers, and artists in mid-20th century Europe. This book is a memoir of his work.

  1. Wine and War by Donald Kladstrup and Petie Kladstrup

This fascinating book looks at the wine industry and culture in France during the war. It tracks the range of collaborationist activities from complete and total collaboration to outright resistance, and all the activities in between. It has fabulous stories of French restaurants hiding their best wines behind fake walls, using dust from carpet cleaners to age the wall, and hand placing spiders so they would build spider webs over walls to keep the wine from the Germans. And then some of these restaurants would take old fancy bottles of wine and fill them with crap wine, and then sell it exorbitant prices. There is also a chapter dedicated to the wine party at a POW camp.

  1. “The Good War” by Studs Terkel

This book is a series of oral histories of people involved around World War II. This was the book that made me fall in love with Studs. He talked to a range of people. Some are in favor of the war, like former nurses and soldiers, and he talks to conscientious objectors and pacifists. It’s a window into what people felt and thought about the war.

  1. And the Show Went On by Alan Riding

This book looks at art and entertainment in Paris and the rest of France during German occupation. It looks at various fields of art from writing, ballet, opera, art education, and more. It tries to get a handle on what constituted true collaboration and the responsibility of artists during wartime. It’s a troubling, important book.

  1. Agent ZigZag by Ben Macintyre

This biography looks at double agent Eddie Chapman who was critical to British espionage during the war. Eddie Chapman was an unlikely patriot; initially, he was a convict who offered his services to the Nazi but he eventually turned himself over to the British secret services to aid their war efforts. It’s an interesting tale of a crooked man trying to go straight. You also get a picture of Nazi occupied Norway. 

  1. Monument Men by Robert Edsel

Yes, the movie recently came out but the book is better. This book goes into detail about the courageous efforts of the men and women who tried to save the art and other treasures of Europe from the Nazis. Many of things that happened in the movie are even more impressive in the book. For instance, you realize that Rose Valland, who is bizarrely renamed Clare Simone and played by Cate Blanchett, in the movie, is a bad ass. For instance, in the movie, she watches helplessly as the Germans leave on a train full of artwork and things. In the book, she actually gives intelligence that helps delay those trains from leaving and saves the day. So much better than the movie. So read the book.

That’s all for now! 

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