discussions · shanti

Why are we so obsessed with World War Two?

I’ve suddenly been filled with a passion to write discussion posts—which is surely a good thing, right? Today, as the title of this post may indicate, I’m going to talk about World War Two. I’ve learnt about it in lots of classes; read nonfiction and fiction about it; seen many movies and documentaries; seen so many pictures and pieces of art. In short: the media is obsessed with World War Two—including a lot of YA fiction. Why is that?


Some of my favourite books are set during World War Two. I absolutely love the Montmaray Journals. The Book Thief is totally fabulous. All The Light We Cannot See is amazing. I’m currently listening to Salt to the Sea, and it, too, is wonderful. Which is to say: this is not a criticism.It’s a discussion. Out of all the books on my ‘historical’ goodreads shelf, about a third of them are WWII (and quite a few others are the French Revolution). While there are exceptions, most WWII books are set in Europe or occasionally the US. Not the rest of the world, which was so deeply involved in the war. I think there are several reasons why World War Two pops up over and over again: 1. It is easy to research, 2. Most readers of YA (at least in English) will have some understanding of it, 3. It is seen by a lot of people as a defining moment for humanity and 4. There are a lot of stories that can come from it.

WWII occurred in our fairly recent history. There were books being written, lots of reporters and newspaper articles, and lots of people who are still alive to talk to. It is pretty easy to find out about World War Two—you could ask a relative (my grandmother had to knit socks for soldiers in school), and there are comprehensive newspaper archives, as well as places like the Holocaust Musuem or the London War Museum. There are diaries, like Anne Frank. This makes it much easier to write about an ‘ordinary’ person’s understanding and Experience of War Two compared to, say, an illiterate Indian women’s experience of southern Andhra Pradesh during the seventeenth century.

Another reason that World War Two may be so common in fiction is that most people have learned about it. I’ve talked about it in numerous history and social studies classes, but it’s also so fresh in peoples minds that it comes into conversation pretty regularly. Most people who read will have a basic understanding of WWII. Because it’s so common, it’s easier to write about. If you were writing about early cattle ranchers in the South American Pampas, there would be a lot of explaining to do for the author/ other media creator. But as it is, WWII is so familiar to the relatively educated readers of YA/ consumers of most English media, that it doesn’t need explaining.

But these same things are true, or even more true of, say, the early seventies. So why does WWII get written about so much more? I think it’s because WWII is seen as such a defining moment in history. Humanity went through great struggles of morality and courage and there was death but also hope, where you might not expect it. That’s great story fodder. After World War Two Western nations became much more developed than the rest of the world; many colonies gained independence; there were social justice movement on a greater scale than before; average wealth increased for most(if not all) of the YA readers ancestors; the UN, and shortly after, the European Economic Community (EU’s predecessor) was born. Things were looking up. It was as if the blood soaked battle fields birthed a new world. Whether or not this is true is up for debate; regardless, many people perceive World War Two as the beginning of great changes leading to our modern era, which is why people care, and want to read stories about it.

World War Two was horrendous, for basically everyone involved, whether soldier or Jew, civilian or leader, German or French, Indian or Nigerian. There was a great amount of death, and tragedy. Those things make good stories. They don’t always make happy stories *cue Code Name Verity sobbing* but they make good stories. Human love stories. We love to read them, to write them, to tell them, to know them. Awful as it was, the legends of WWII (and, in fact, most wars), tell terrible, wonderful stories. Stories that people can care about, because it affected their ancestors. Stories that people can care about because they perceive it as leading to their lives. That’s a huge part of why the media is so obsessed with World War Two.

So is it a bad thing that a lot of the stories about history available to readers (and film-watchers and art-lookers and curriculum writers) are centred on the European experience of World War Two? No, not at all. World War Two has had a huge influence on all the world, and particularly Europe. Do I wish that there were more stories about other times and places? Yes. There are wonderful stories (just as terrible and fantastic as the ones about WWII) to be found in South African diamond mines and Indian soldiers WWI Mesopotamia battles and New Zealands Musket Wars and Nicauraguas plantation exploitation. Some of those stories have already been written down, some have not, and either way I want to read them. As a lover of world  history, I want to read world historical books, not just WWII.

So how do you feel about WWII in books? I would love to hear your thoughts. Oh, and tell me a non-WWII, non-European historical novel that you love.


14 thoughts on “Why are we so obsessed with World War Two?

  1. This post was so well thought out and intelligent…stop being so clever (except don’t). You make good points about it being easy-access – I think we studied WWII about four times in the seven years I did history. I’m not even exaggerating. It would be interesting to see it from a non-Western perspective, because DIVERSITY. Non-European, non-WWII…it’s gotta be The Help. *feels*


    1. Aww, Thank you! I’m glad you appreciated. WWII is so important, but there is a heck of a lot of really-important history that doesn’t get covered in most curriculums. I know! Today in one of my classes, I found out that Hitler had a whole lot of Indian soldiers in prisoner of war camps, and didn’t know what to do with them, so tried to pass them off to this Indian Marxist who didn’t like him, so then he popped the Indian Marxist into and submarine and sent him to Japan. Truth is stranger than fiction and all that. The Help is fabulous!


  2. Good points! I do think WWII is talked about a lot because the stories can be so vastly different, even if they focus on the same moments of period of time. Some of the books are about the Holocaust, but not all of them. Even all the books about the Holocaust are still different because of where they are set, the perspective (age of the person, gender, what they went through, etc.). I don’t read a lot of historical fiction, but I do find stories set in WWII to be interesting. Some of my favorite books are set in this time – The Book Thief, Code Name Verity and Rose Under Fire, Number the Stars, etc.



    1. There are a lot of stories to be told– and there are so many unheard voices still. while I didn’t actually enjoy the novel, I though Elizabeth’s Weins Black Dove, White Raven was really interesting for being set in Abyssinia, which was such a major factor in the war. I’ve read all of those books, and they’re all great. I guess my concern is that the media has become so infatuated with Western experiences of WWII that other important stories aren’t told.


  3. interesting… why the fascintion with WW2- western wars, western characters??
    What about “The Kite Runner” as a modern story of conflict not set in WW2 or the west. Or try Andrew Pham’s “Catfish and Mandala” not a novel, just a t beautifully written true story unraveling his life backwards to the Vietnam invasion.


    1. Yeah. People are really fascinated by it, which doesn’t mean it’s not important, but still. I really need to read the Kite Runner! that Andrew Phan book sounds interesting too.


  4. I have never really considered the fact that WWII might be so popular because it’s easily researchable. Personally, WWII is one of my favorite time periods, since American Girl Dolls and Molly introduced me all those years back… Something about that period… hm. I just really enjoy it. I’d say love, but I don’t really love war, because ya know, gore and death… but the whole era, and struggle and the truth? Basically everything you said above.
    Great discussion post! I’m just awful at disscussion-ing *sits back in corner to listen and nod to other people*


    1. Yeah, it’s definitely a really interesting time in world history, and there is a plethora of information. I love reading stories set in that time, but I still think that there is a disproportionate number of them. It was as horrible as it was interesting for sure. Well, thanks for listening and contributing.


  5. I do think that World War II is a stage that most of us understand and have learned about, just because it was the greatest war to have ever happened in all of history and the effects of it are still impacting us today. The war and fear we’re experiencing is very much connected to the wars and conflicts that occurred during the twentieth century, and I’d like to think that some of what we’re trying to do is look at ourselves now and see how we’re still very much a part of the warring tradition that was started during that decade. I also think it has to be a lot more real to us because of that. We know about the immense suffering that war can cause because of that era. We know about what blindness can lead people to follow incredibly corrupt people. We know that entire histories can be destroyed because of what happened.

    And if you go to your artsy-fartsy happy-happy-joy-joy Antebellum romance novel, all you’re going to get is big dresses, abusive love stories, and a shallow consideration of the problematic and horrendous racial injustices happening at the time. It just isn’t going to speak to the same reality that we know exists today, because that level of pain was either being ignored or hadn’t yet been born.

    Which doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a bad book, of course. I’m just saying that it can be hard to connect with a book that is so different from our experiences here.


    1. Thank you so much for your thoughtful comment, Heather <3. Violence is totally cyclical, and the values that these stories convey often reflects that. I think it has changed over time though– these days there aren't many novels glorifying war, they mostly show how horrible it was for everyone. There are other twentieth century conflicts that also were really important too, like the Vietnam war and all of the fighting for independence in African colonies and India and the Korean War and of course the cultural revolution. Even the breakup of the USSR was really important, but I've never seen a novel set in that time (though they undoubtedly exist). Writing about war is definitely important if we don't want it to happen again though.
      Well, for the wealthy people living in Western Nations, maybe the prewar period was fluffy. But slavery and the Crusades and the global suffrage movement are also really important, and there are fewer books about that. I guess it comes back to diversity again– there should be a lot of different experiences and places and time periods reflected in history, more than a mere focus on WWII, important though it is.


  6. I absolutely TOTALLY agree with your reasons behind why WWII books are so popular. *nods* It’s just not that far away and we have information about it, right?! Like a person could write a WWII book with actual people’s experience in it and there are countless accounts and museums to go to…like it’s THERE and research can be done easily. Well, not that research is ever EASY but it’d be easier than trying to research Persia in the 1st century, right? But it’s kind of disappointing that it’s so hard to find HF in other settings/times. Oh oh I SO wanted to find some African medieval-ish fiction to read??? Because I wanted to base a fantasy world off it? BUT I COULDN’T FIND A SINGLE YA BOOK SET IN AFRICA DURING THE DARK AGES….or even, like, any ages. :O That saddens me because the best way to learn, I think, is through reading books. It makes it stick and makes it fun/feelsy. Merp. But anyway, I won’t complain too much either because some of my favourite books of ever are in WWII. Code Name Verity. Rose Under Fire. The Book Thief (omg why do they all reduce me to gross sobbing and yet I like them???)


    1. I’m glad you agree! (not that I’m always right… but you know, usually). There are a lot of sources in World war too, even if compiling them into a great book is difficult. And the museums and real life accounts for other places are closed off to you by remotness or language barriers or not being an academic for a lot of other times in history. YES THERE ARE SO FEW AFRICAN NOVELS AND I NEED THEM. Though The Ear, The Eye, and The Arm is a great AFrican dystopia that actually deals with poverty and Chanda’s Secrets by Allan Stratton is a fabulous African contemporary. Documentaries and classrooms and non-fiction is great, but I seriously learn so much from reading books. It’s the readers dilemma, Cait: we love what breaks us. *comfort* Thanks so much for this thoughtful comment!


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