The range of war-related themes is very wide—life and death, heroism and shame, duty and conscience—so it can go on for quite a while. The biggest war, World War II, inspired various literary works. Some of them remain important and interesting for decades and new ones appear. As different as those books are, they suggest that humanity might have actually learned lessons from the most terrible war. What lessons? Let’s see.
The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
“Whoever is happy will make others happy too.”
“I don’t think of all the misery but of the beauty that still remains.”
“What is done cannot be undone, but one can prevent it happening again.”
A real-life 13-year-old Jewish girl’s diary describing how she has to hide from Nazis during the occupation of the Netherlands. Unjustly persecuted, Anne still manages to maintain hope, courage and faith in humanity.
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne
“And who decided which people wore the striped pajamas and which people wore the uniforms?”
Although heavily criticized for naivety and implausibility, a touching, tale of a Nazi officer’s 9-year-old son becoming friends with a Jewish boy of the same age, a prisoner of a death camp. Whether a fable, a fairytale or a profanation, the book was an international success and actually made its point: Adults may keep playing their deadly games with outrageous stubbornness and refusal to admit the absurdity of those games.
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
Death: “I see their [people’s] [ugliness] and their beauty, and I wonder how the same thing can be both.”
A story about a 9-year-old girl living in Germany during World War II, hating Nazis and stealing the books they are seeking to destroy, this work is a story of finding right values, of cruelty and compassion, and of human nature told by a perplexed and amazed narrator, Death.
The Young Lions by Irwin Shaw
“It is always necessary to remain barbarians, because it is the barbarians who always win.”
An attempt to identify what being a human means and how humans become bestialized, this is the story of three men struggling throughout a war that appears to be three quite different wars to them.
Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman
“In great hearts the cruelty of life gives birth to good.”
A resolute reproof of totalitarianism. The war of the Soviet Union against Nazi Germany is here depicted not as a war against evil, but as a war of two evils: two totalitarian regimes, both fatal to their own people and to the rest of the world. In the course of narration about the war, the author discovers kindness to be the main virtue: “I don’t believe in your ‘Good.’ I believe in human kindness.”
Night by Elie Wiesel
“Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust.”
A condemnation of the Holocaust from a then-16-year-old prisoner of Auschwitz and Buchenwald, this work is the story that unfolds when “[e]verything came to an end—man, history, literature, religion, God.”
The Good War by Studs Terkel
“The reason you storm the beaches is not patriotism or bravery. It’s that sense of not wanting to fail your buddies.”
An oral history about the war collected from dozens of interviewees of different ages, nationalities and occupations, The Good War is a good chance to see dramatically different perceptions next to each other.
Maus by Art Spiegelman
“My father bleeds history.”
A comic book based on the author’s interviews with his father, a Holocaust survivor. Encompassing a wide range of issues both historical and personal (father-son issues), the book won the Pulitzer Prize and attracted much attention from academics. For its style and format (e.g. depicting Nazis as cats and Jews as mice), it was both criticized for not taking the Holocaust seriously and praised by telling its story in the most striking way.
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
“Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane, he had to fly them. If he flew them, he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to, he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.”
A book proving that absurdity, paradoxes and unsolvable puzzles are possibly the best way a book about war can be written, Catch-22 helps us stop pretending that a war is not insanity.
Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade, by Kurt Vonnegut
“So it goes.”
A powerful anti-war satire disguised as a story about the firebombing of Dresden, this work is pretty much about crashing heroic and valorous images of war and revealing the ugly meaninglessness of it. The disjointed narrative helps us realize that, indeed, as it is said in the preface, “there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre.”