In his choices, writer Ron Rosenbaum emphasizes works that bring one nearer to those who experienced Hitler and the war at close hand. “It was no easy task to narrow it to six books,” says Rosenbaum, whose 1998 bestseller, Explaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of His Evil, has been translated into 12 languages. A recent Da Capo edition features an extensive new afterword by the author.

The Führer: Hitler’s Rise to Power
Konrad Heiden (1944)

“A revelation, notable for its immediacy and the insight that Hitler may have drawn his underhanded politics from those ascribed to Jews in the anti-Semitic screed The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. As early as 1920, Munich native Heiden was reporting on Hitler for the Frankfurter Zeitung—it was said that the Nazi leader would not begin a press conference until Heiden was present—but after 1933 he was driven into exile.”

The German Generals Talk
B. H. Liddell Hart (1948)

“Liddell Hart, the noted British strategist, is often credited with devising in the 1930s the tactics the Wehrmacht embraced and turned into the blitzkrieg, so there’s irony in these conversations, undertaken immediately after the war. It is utterly fascinating to hear what elite German military men thought of Hitler’s strategic decisions—and to try to separate truth from self-serving post-defeat comments.”

Enigma: The Battle for the Code
Hugh Sebag-Montefiore (2004)

“Books abound about the Enigma code, whose decryption by the Allies many credit with guaranteeing victory. I don’t know if the war-winning business is overstated, but the story of the code’s deconstruction makes for addictive drama and uneasy questions. Churchill, for example, refused to warn the residents of Coventry of an imminent firebombing for fear the Germans would realize their code was being read.”

The War Against the Jews 1933–1945
Lucy S. Dawidowicz (1975)

“This deep study concludes that Hitler gave priority to war for extermination over defeating the Allies, a claim recently endorsed by Sir Richard Evans, a leading authority on Hitler and the war, whose own exhaustive Hitler trilogy is well worth reading.”

Berlin Noir: March Violets, The Pale Criminal, A German Requiem
Philip Kerr (1993)

The Eyewitness
Ernst Weiss (1938)

“These novels illuminate aspects of Hitler and the roots of the war. Kerr introduces Chandleresque private eye Bernie Gunther in the mid- 1930s as the horror is emerging. The later Gunther novels place Kerr’s protagonist in the wartime moral abyss of the Eastern Front. Some believe that Weiss, a friend of Kafka, may have provided the key to the transformation of Hitler from lowly corporal to charismatic Führer. Weiss supposedly based his book, available in English since 1977, on an actual physician who may have treated the combat-raddled Hitler with hypnosis, restoring his health by convincing him he was destined to avenge Germany’s defeat—which he falsely blamed on a ‘stab in the back’ by Jews on the home front. The novel illustrates how difficult an enterprise ‘explaining Hitler’ is.”

Ron Rosenbaum’s books include The Shakespeare Wars, How the End Begins, and The Secret Parts of Fortune. Rosenbaum is currently a columnist for Slate and a national correspondent for Smithsonian

Originally published in the December 2014 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.