World War II raged on for over six years and countless acts of great heroism were performed by both the soldiers fighting on the front and the civilians back at home. This terrible period of human history has inspired countless works of great literature from authors around the globe, some of whom even experienced it first hand.
These authors have not only helped keep the memory of all those who were lost alive, but have also served to help make sure future generations can get an idea of the horror that was unleashed upon the world and, hopefully, prevent such horrors from occurring again. As the philosopher and essayist George Santayanna once said: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
We asked you over on our social media pages which books you think are not only a great but are also interesting depictions of civilian life during World War II. We got hundreds of answers and here are the top 20 books about civilian life during World War II, as voted by you.
The Book Thief – Markus Zusak
With almost a hundred votes, there’s no doubt that this book has touched a lot of people. The Book Thief tells the story a young girl named Liesel Meminger, a ten-year-old living in Germany who is adopted by a kindly foster family named the Hubermanns. As the war rages on, Liesel is exposed to the true horrors of war and is torn between her childhood innocence and the brutality of the Nazi regime.
The Hubermanns face great danger after hiding a Jewish man named Max. Max forms a close bond with Liesel and teaches her to read. This ignites Liesel’s passion for reading and she takes to stealing books set to be burned on Nazi bonfires. Reading and writing helps Liesel deal with the trauma of war and find sanctuary in a world of chaos. The book Thief is not only a touching story about a girl who loves books, but also highlights damage that the Nazi regime inflicted on its own people. It’s certainly earned the top spot on our list.
The Diary of a Young Girl – Anne Frank
Perhaps one of the most important pieces of literature produced during the war. Anne Frank kept the diary for the two years that she and her family went into hiding in a concealed room in a building where her father worked. Trusted employees were their only connection to the outside world and, as the war continued, avoiding suspicion became harder and harder. The diary was given to Anne on her 13th birthday and she began documenting the restriction being forced upon the Jewish people.
Anne’s diary examines with great honesty her relationship with her family and documented her strained feelings towards her sister and mother, no doubt exacerbated by being forced to live in such close quarters. Over the course of her time in hiding, Anne’s feelings towards her family change and she expresses regret at judging them harshly. Anne’s diary also touches on her belief in God and the nature of humanity.
Anne also expresses her ambitions of becoming a journalist, writing: “I finally realized that I must do my schoolwork to keep from being ignorant, to get on in life, to become a journalist, because that’s what I want!” She continues: “When I write I can shake off all my cares. My sorrow disappears, my spirits are revived! But, and that’s a big question, will I ever be able to write something great, will I ever become a journalist or a writer?”
Tragically, Anne and her family were discovered in the Summer of 1944 and sent to Auschwitz. Anne and her sister were later selected with a group of other women to be transported to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Due to the terrible conditions disease was rife and, in early 1945, both Anne and her sister both died only weeks before the camp was liberated by British soldiers. Otto Frank, Anne’s father, was the only member of the family to survive the war and obtained Anne’s diary. He transcribed Anne’s diary and, in the Summer of 1946 it was published. The diary went on to become a huge success and has helped people around the world understand the persecution people suffered throughout the war. It has since sold over 30 million copies and has been translated to over 67 different languages.
Night – Elie Wiesel
Written by Elie Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor, Night is Wiesel’s account of his experience of being imprisoned with his father in Nazi concentration camps Auschwitz and Buchenwald from 1944 to 1945. In Night, Wiesel writes about the death of God and his disgust towards humanity for the terrible things that have been done.
When his father declines to a state of helplessness, the teenage Wiesel becomes his caregiver and struggles between caring for his father and his guilty thoughts that he would stand a better chance of survival if he only cared for himself. Night sees the value of human decency destroyed. Wiesel’s father did not survive the camps, but Wiesel himself did and went on to become a hugely successful writer. Night is considered to be among the best literature to borne from the Holocaust and is a tough but essential read.
The Hiding Place – Corrie Ten Boom
The Hiding Place is a book written by Corrie Ten Boom and tells the story of how she and her family helped hide Jewish people during the Nazi invasion of the Netherlands. Guided by her strong Christian morals, Corrie helped her Jewish friends as much as possible and became involved with the Dutch resistance movement against the Nazi occupiers.
Corrie and her family were eventually arrested and locked away as a political prisoner. Several of her relatives died during this period and, when a counter-offensive against the Nazis began, Corrie and her sister were transferred with other prisoners to a women’s concentration camp called Ravensbrück. Corrie recalls that she was amazed at her sister’s faith and ability to pity the Nazi rather than hate them. Her sister didn’t survive the camp but Corrie returned to the Netherlands in 1945 and became an accomplished writer. The Hiding Place is an excellent example of how far some people were willing to go to do what was right.
Suite Française (French Suite) – Irène Némirovsky
French Suite is a series of five books that were planned to be published by a French writer named Irène Némirovsky who was of Ukrainian and Jewish origin. The first two books were published but Némirovsky was arrested for her Jewish ancestry before the rest could be completed. She was sent to Auschwitz and died there a month later from typhus.
The series of books were designed to portray what life in France was like following the Nazi occupation in 1940. The first novel, called Tempête en juin (Storm in June) depicts the retreat of citizens from France following the Nazi invasion. The second novel, Dolce (Sweet) depicts life in a small town just outside Paris in the oddly peaceful early months of occupation. The first two novels don’t appear to be directly linked by characters but, as Némirovsky noted, they are combined by history. A plot outline for the third novel, Captivité (Captivity), had been written and would have depicted the French resistance. The fourth and fifth novels would perhaps have been called Batailles (Battles) and La Paix (Peace), but these appear in Némirovsky’s notebooks wife question marks. Their characters and plot can only be speculated upon. Since their publication, the books have received huge acclaim from critics.
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society – Mary Ann Schafer and Annie Barrows
This historical novel, originally written by Mary Ann Schafer and edited by her niece Annie Barrows, tells the story of a correspondence between a young writer and a man from Guernsey in the aftermath of World War II. He reveals to her the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and the life of those who lived in Guernsey during the Nazi occupation.
The book was inspired by a trip Shaffer took to England. Whilst there, she visited Guernsey but after she arrived the airport was shut down due to heavy fog. Shaffer spent her time in the airport’s bookstore and read about the Nazi occupation of Guernsey. It would be 20 years before Shaffer’s book would take form but in 2006 the first draft was finished. Her editor’s required some rewrites for the manuscript but Shaffer’s health was starting to fail. She enlisted the help of her niece who finished the work on her behalf. Shaffer passed away in 2008 but the book has since become a big hit and a film adaptation is currently in the works.
Sarah’s Key – Tatiana de Rosnay
Published in 2007, Sarah’s Key tells the story of two parallel plots which, at first seem entirely separate, but eventually reveals the links between two groups of strangers. The first plot tells the story of Sarah, a young girl who’s family is arrested during the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup and sent to Auschwitz. Her younger brother is the only one not to be found by the Nazis and, after escaping Auschwitz, she desperately tries to get back home to him. The second story begins some time later and follows the story of a young writer named Julia who, whilst researching the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup, begins to uncover Sarah’s story.
Unlike many other books on this list, Sarah’s Key isn’t a first hand account of the horrors of World War II, but it’s certainly every bit as brutal to read. Whilst the plot itself is fictional, it’s firmly rooted in true events and does not shy away from the pain and torment people suffered under Nazi occupation.
The Nightingale – Kristin Hannah
The Nightingale is a historical novel published in 2015. It centres around two young sisters living in France during the beginning of World War II and how they struggle to resist the Nazi occupation. Although the main story is fictional, it is inspired by a Belgian woman named Andrée de Jongh who aided downed Allied pilots trying to escape the Nazis.
The two sisters in the book both take different paths during the war but both show great courage and endure great sacrifice and pain. One sister joins the French Resistance and plays an active role in undermining German authority in France. The second sister has a family to care for but plays her part by taking in Jewish children and hiding them from the Nazis. The book not only inspires the reader with the bravery displayed by civilians during the war, but also highlights the different forms of bravery one can show.
All the Light We Cannot See – Anthony Doerr
Set in Nazi occupied France, All the Light We Cannot See tells the story of a blind French girl named Laurie and a German boy named Werner who’s paths cross. Published in 2014, the book has been a huge hit and has spent over one hundred weeks on the New York Times bestseller list.
Though Laurie and Werner don’t meet until towards the end of the book, their fates are intertwined and Wener’s journey in particular gives readers an insight into the moral crises that plagued many Germans. Having won numerous awards, it’s not hard to see why readers praise this book so highly.
Number the Stars – Louis Lowry
Published in 1989, Number the Stars follows a Jewish family trying to escape Copenhagen during World War II. Though a fictional novel, the book’s characters take part in the rescue of the Danish Jews, an event that saw thousands of Jews aided to reach the neutral Sweden in order to escape the Nazis.
Since its publication, Number the Stars has become one of the best selling children’s books of all time and won the Newberry Medal in 1990, being described as the previous year’s “most distinguished contribution to American literature for children.”
Taking our list to cover the top twenty here are the next ten books in order of selection:
The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas – John Boyne
The Storyteller – Jodi Picoult
Goodnight Mr. Tom – Michelle Magorian
Man’s Search for Meaning – Victor Frankl
The Silver Sword – Ian Serrallier
Schindler’s Ark – Thomas Keeally
Two Brothers – Ben Elton
Life After Life – Kate Atkinson
Sophie’s Choice – William Styron
This Way to the Gas Lades and Gentlemen – Tadeusz borowski