These best WW2 historical fiction books will shock and surprise you, yet give you hope, and allow you to be a witness to the stories of others (as many of these books are based on true stories).
Note: I dedicate this post to my maternal grandfather, who survived the Pearl Harbor attack, and my paternal grandfather, who survived the storming of the beaches of Normandy. And I realize that this one sentence is such a minuscule tribute to their heroism, from which we all now benefit.
World War II is always a popular backdrop for fiction, and somehow, each story is so different and compelling in its own right. I picked only the most popular and beloved books for this list of the best WW2 historical fiction books, all of which I read and personally recommend.
Best WW2 Historical Fiction Books
Beneath a Scarlet Sky by Mark T. Sullivan
USA Today and #1 Amazon Charts bestseller
Beneath a Scarlet Sky is one of the most popular books on the list of best WW2 historical fiction books, and it’s based on a true story. Pino Lella meets Anna as World War II reaches his hometown of Milan, Italy. Lella then plays two major roles in World War II: first, in the Italian Alps, he joins the underground railroad, led by a group of Catholic priests, and helps Jews escape by traversing the Alps.
Thereafter, Lella’s parents force him to enlist as a German soldier, in order to both avoid being drafted and sent directly to the front lines of the battle for Italy and also to operate as an Italian spy. He enlists as a German and becomes the personal driver for Adolf Hitler’s left-hand man in Italy.
Lella endures the horrors of World War II in this suspenseful and emotional story of family and love in the face of War, as he dreams of a peaceful future with Anna.
Beneath a Scarlet Sky is an especially good choice for an adult male reader who enjoys history, suspense, and cars. It’s a page-turning, epic tale with an Italian bent, in memory of those Italians who didn’t survive.
For more, check out my full review of Beneath a Scarlet Sky.
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
- #1 New York Times bestseller
- One of America’s best-loved novels by PBS’s The Great American Read
In Nazi Germany 1939, death hovers. Young foster girl Liesel makes a meager living for herself by stealing books, and her accordion-playing foster father teaches her to read. She shares her stolen books with her neighbors during raids, as well as with the Jewish man hidden in her basement whom she befriends.
The Book Thief is a very uniquely crafted work, complete with illustrations, to form one of the most unforgettable stories of World War II.
For more, read my full review of The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak.
Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly
NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER
Lilac Girls is my personal favorite on my list of best WW2 historical fiction books. It both made an impact on me while I was reading it, and it is the one that has really stayed with me years later. It centers on the lives of women known as “Ravensbruck Rabbits,” captive in a concentration camp, and American heroine Caroline Ferraday, who breathes life and hope into a truly grim tale.
I don’t was to give away exactly how the “Rabbits” got their name, as I believe it’s best learned by the reader. I personally was shocked that I had never heard of the “Rabbits” before, and I realized that there must be countless World War II stories that had yet to be told or heard, and I knew then that I had to keep reading as many books as possible to do my part in hearing their stories. So, Lilac Girls was really the impetus for what is now my list of best WW2 historical fiction books.
The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah
- #1 New York Times bestseller
- Wall Street Journal Best Book of the Year
It’s the story of two sisters during World War II in France. In a quaint town, teacher Vianne and her young daughter Sophie say goodbye as their husband and father, Mauriac, goes off to fight. Then, a Nazi soldier takes shelter in their home, and Vianne’s life is at constant risk, as life’s necessities become hard to come by.
At the same time, Vianne’s younger sister, Isabelle, a rebel and a spitfire, quickly meets and falls in love with the partisan Gaetan. After Gaetan betrays her, though, she joins the underground resistance and, like her sister, continually faces dangerous decisions.
That’s just the beginning of this epic story filled with emotional twists and tearful tragedies. What happens will both touch your heart and shock your conscience at the same time. The Nightingale is a must-read.
For more, read my full review of The Nightingale with book pairings.
Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay
New York Times Bestseller
Sarah’s Key is told by two female narrators: Sarah and Julia. Ten-year-old Sarah’s story centers on the “Vel’ d’Hiv’ roundup” by French police, of French Jews, in Paris in July 1942. In the roundup, 13,152 Jews were arrested in Paris, deported, and assassinated. In the Vélodrome d’Hiver, 1,129 men, 2,916 women, and 4,115 children were first packed in inhumane conditions.
After the French police enter her family’s apartment and arrest them, Sarah locks her younger brother in a cupboard in the family’s apartment with a key, unknowingly thinking that she will return in a few hours to retrieve him.
Julia’s story begins in Paris, May 2002– the 60th anniversary of Vel’ d’Hiv’. She is a former American married to a French man, writing an article about the roundup.
But, it was a dark day, and the French are reluctant to revisit it. Then, she stumbles upon the secrets of her husband, connected her to Sarah. As she re-traces Sarah’s story, she reevaluates her own life.
Sarah’s Key brings the Vel’ d’Hiv roundup to light, and author Tatiana de Rosnay reminds us that it is important to talk about a painful past in this popular WW2 historical fiction book.
For more, read my full review of Sarah’s Key with book pairings.
The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris
#1 International Bestseller & New York Times Bestseller
The Tattooist of Auschwitz is the popular bestseller about hope and courage, based on interviews with Holocaust survivors and Auschwitz-Birkenau tattooist Ludwig (Lale) Sokolov, a Slovakian Jew.
It’s a story of love in the face of atrocity. In April 1942, Lale is transported to the concentration camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau and put to work as a tattooist, permanently marking his fellow prisoners.
Over two and a half years, he witnesses both horror and compassion, and he even risks his own life to exchange jewels and money from murdered Jews for food to keep the prisoners alive.
When prisoner 32407 comforts a trembling young woman waiting in line to have the number 34902 tattooed onto her arm, Lale vows to survive and marry her.
It’s a testament to the endurance of love under the most atrocious conditions.
We Were the Lucky Ones by Georgia Hunter
NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER
At the outset of We Were the Lucky Ones, the Kurc family gathers for dinner, unaware of what WW2 has in store for them. According to the book, just 300 of the 30,000 Jews from Radom, home of the Kurcs, survived.
World War II ensues and the Kurcs endure bombings, hidings, captures, imprisonments, and every other atrocity you may imagine.
We Were the Lucky Ones gives the reader a deeper understanding of Poland during World War II, and it leaves the modern reader with another “unimaginable” — what it was like to not speak to the family for years on end.
There is beauty that remains for the survivors, and it’s just as beautiful to hear what becomes of them. We Were the Lucky Ones is a consistently highly-rated book, and I would recommend the written version to those who yearn for “based on truth” stories about World War II.
For more, read my full review of We Were the Lucky Ones with book pairings.
From my personal recommendations, those are the best WW2 historical fiction books. I sincerely hope you choose to read one or more.
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