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Remembrance of Things Past: 12 Moving Novels of the Second World War

Caitlin Kleinschmidt is an Associate Marketing Manager at Viking and Riverhead. She has previously held positions at Simon & Schuster, Oxford University Press and Macmillan. A Navy brat, she lived on both coasts and credits the Dear America series for her lifelong love of history. She has a special place in her heart for narrative nonfiction, as well as books about Eastern Europe and ballet.

Seventy years after its end, the Second World War has never ceased to be fertile ground for fiction. These stories are so enduring that many have been made into beloved feature films. From authors who lived and died in its carnage, to contemporary writers wrestling with its legacy, here are some of our favorite books set during the war that defined the twentieth century.

Life After Life
by Kate Atkinson

During a snowstorm in 1910, a baby is born. She dies before she can draw her first breath. During a snowstorm in 1910, the same baby is born and lives. What if there were an infinite number of chances to live your life? Would you be able to save the world from its own destiny? What power can one woman exert over the fate of civilization as she lives through the turbulent events of the twentieth century again and again?

Suite Française
by Irène Némirovsky
Irène Némirovsky was a successful French writer when she began working on this literary masterpiece. But she was also Jewish, and in 1942 she was deported to Auschwitz: a month later, she was dead at the age of thirty-nine. A piercing evocation of life and death in occupied France, this luminous novel portrays the human drama in which she herself would become a victim.

The Tin Drum
by Günther Grass
We were saddened to hear of the recent passing of the visionary, Nobel Prize winning novelist Günther Grass. One of the great novels of the twentieth century, it is the most complex and deeply disturbing embodiment of the themes that Grass explored throughout his literary career: the German nation's and his own complicity in the Nazi regime. More than fifty years after its original publication, it is only gaining in power and relevance.

All the Light We Cannot See
by Anthony Doerr
A stunningly ambitious and beautiful novel about a blind French girl and a German boy whose paths collide in occupied France as they both try to survive the devastation of World War II. A finalist for the National Book Award and now the winner of the Pulitzer Prize, this novel is already beloved for how it illuminates the ways, against all odds, that human beings try to be good to one another.

by Ian McEwan
Beginning in 1935 at an English manor home, a child’s imagination and precocious literary gifts bring about a crime that will change the lives of everyone at the estate. Following the repercussions of that crime through the chaos and carnage of World War II and into the close of the twentieth century, it is a symphonic novel of love and war, childhood and class, guilt and forgiveness.

by W. G. Sebald

This celebrated masterpiece confronts the void at the heart of the twentieth century. Jacques Austerlitz came to England in 1939 on a Kindertransport and was told nothing of his background by the Welsh family who raise him. As a much older man, fleeting memories return to him, and obeying an instinct he only dimly understands, Austerlitz struggles to rescue his heritage from oblivion.

by Laurent Binet

HHhH: “Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich,” or “Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich.” The most lethal man in Hitler’s cabinet, Reinhard Heydrich seemed indestructible—until two exiled operatives killed him and changed the course of history. This mesmerizing debut novel is at once thrilling and intellectually engrossing—a fast-paced novel of the Second World War that is also a profound meditation on the nature of writing and the debt we owe to history.

Every Man Dies Alone
by Hans Fallada

A sweeping saga of one working-class Berlin couple who launch a simple resistance campaign against the awesome power of the Reich. Written by a best-selling German novelist who saw his life crumble when he refused to join the Nazi Party—and published a mere two years after the war’s end—it became a surprise bestseller in 2009 when it appeared in English for the first time.

The Book Thief
by Markus Zusak
This unforgettable story of Liesel, a nine-year-old girl living with a foster family in Nazi Germany who steals books, is about the ability of books to feed the soul. As the Second World War rages across Europe, death will visit the book thief three times. In superbly crafted writing that burns with intensity, this novel is one of the most enduring stories of our time.

by Joseph Heller
A satirical indictment of military madness and the brutal insanity of war, this is the story of the incomparable malingering bombardier, John Yossarian. His real problem is not the enemy, but his own army and the hilariously sinister military bureaucracy. Explosive and subversive, this classic remains a cornerstone of American literature and one of the funniest books of all time.

Sarah’s Key
by Tatiana de Rosnay

Sarah and her family were brutally arrested by the French police in the 1942 Vel’ d’Hiv roundup, but not before she locks her younger brother in a cupboard in the family’s apartment. As the sixtieth anniversary approaches, a journalist finds herself compelled to retrace Sarah’s ordeal, from the terrible days in the Vel’ d’Hiv to the camps and beyond, and stumbles upon a trail of long-hidden family secrets that connect her to Sarah.

The English Patient
by Michael Ondaatje
With unsettling beauty and intelligence, this Man Booker Prize–winning novel traces the intersection of four damaged lives in an abandoned Italian villa during the closing days of World War II. At the center of the narrative lies the English patient, nameless and hideously burned, a man who is both a riddle and a provocation to his companions, and whose memories of suffering, rescue, and betrayal illuminate this book like flashes of lightning.

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