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Second World War Fiction

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Second World War Fiction

Second World War Fiction is fiction about the Second World War, which occurred from 1939 to 1945. This fiction could be in the form of fictional letters, diary entries, novels and poetry.

Content warning: the following text contains terms about the Second World War that may be deemed offensive or sensitive material to some readers.

Second World War fiction meaning

The Second World War (WWII) took place from 1939 to 1945. It occurred due to Adolf Hitler’s invasion and occupation of Poland in 1939. This led France, Britain and other countries to support Poland against German occupation.

Second World War Fiction is fiction written about the era leading up to, during, or directly after the Second World War. It explores the real-life events and experiences of people who served in or were affected by the Second World War. Writers take these real-life elements and create fictional tales from these truths. Second World War fiction refers to books, poetry, letters and diary entries that are all fictional.

How do we define the genre of Second World War poetry?

The genre of Second World War poetry comes under the genre of war poetry. Second World War poetry looks specifically at poetry about the Second World War. Some of the themes prevalent in this genre of poetry are violence, reflections on humanity, and sacrifice.

The impact of the Second World War on English poetry

The Second World War was a war that disputed democracy and humanity. The politics of totalitarianism versus democracy was a prominent point of conflict. These themes were explored in poetry as a result of the Second World War.

Authors of Second World War fiction

Here are some well-known authors of Second World War fiction.

Elizabeth Bowen (1899-1973)

Bowen was an Irish-British author best-known for her fictional novel The Heat of the Day (1948). The novel depicts the romance between Stella Rodney and Robert Kelway during the Blitz.

The Blitz (short for German ‘Blitzkrieg’, meaning ‘lightening war’): A series of German bombings from 1940 to 1941. It was a barrage on Britain using air warfare. Its aim was to cripple industrial areas and cities.

John Boyne (1971-present)

Boyne is an Irish author who wrote the popular novel set in WWII, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (2006). The novel is set in Berlin and depicts the growing relationship between Bruno, a young boy whose father is the officer in charge of Auschwitz, and Schmuel, a young boy who is imprisoned in the Auschwitz concentration camp. The novel was adapted for film in 2008, and the film is also called The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (2008).

Auschwitz concentration camp: This is one of the most infamous camps where persecuted Jews and other people deemed a threat to the Nazi regime were held and worked to the bone. It was located in occupied Poland. Prisoners in the camp had their human rights grossly violated. They either died from being starved and overworked and abused, or they were murdered by lethal gas or other methods.

Second World War Fiction, Image of Auschwitz concentration camp building, StudySmarterAuschwitz concentration camp was one of the most infamous camps set up by the Nazis. These camps allowed for the mass murder of Jews and many other people who were not in line with the Nazis' vision of the future.

Historical fiction of the Second World War

Historical fiction of the Second World War is fiction that is heavily reliant on non-fiction events in WWII. This can be a retelling of a true event, so it remains true to the attitudes and political and social environment of the time. What makes it different from being a work of pure non-fiction is that it has fictional elements. Writers could use different characters and add fictional elements to their storytelling. It would still be plausible that the events described would happen in the era the text is set in.

An example of historical fiction of the Second World War is Thomas Keneally’s novel Schindler’s Ark (1982). This novel is based on real-life events involving Oskar Schindler, who was a member of the Nazis. Schindler helped over 1,000 Jews escape prosecution during the Holocaust. Keneally created fictional characters to represent the real-life people involved, but he remained influenced by real-life occurrences. He also included fictional events that could have happened during that era.

The Holocaust: The persecution and mass murder of millions of Jews by the Nazis directly before and during the Second World War.

In 1983, Keneally’s Schindler’s Ark (1982) received the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Fiction. The novel was extremely popular and was adapted for film by world-renowned director Steven Spielberg. The film, 'Schindler’s List' (1993) was a commercial success.

Examples of Second World War fiction

Here are some examples of Second World War fiction books.

Books

Some well-known Second World War fiction novels are The Book Thief (2005) by Markus Zusak and The Winds of War (1971) by Herman Wouk.

The Book Thief (2005) by Markus Zusak

The Book Thief (2005) is Zusak’s most notable literary work. The story is narrated by Death. Death has been personified in the novel. It details the life of Liesel Meminger, a young girl who lives in Germany whilst the National Socialists (Nazis) are in power. Meminger is witness to the atrocities happening in her neighbourhood under Nazi rule. Her foster parents take in Max Vandenburg, a Jewish man who is hiding from persecution. This is her parents' form of resistance.

Meminger’s own form of resistance is collecting and hiding books that would otherwise be destroyed by the Nazis. She also decides to write a book of her own, as she sees the power words have and the threat they pose to the Nazi regime. Whilst she is working on her novel in the basement, her neighbourhood is bombed. She is the only survivor because she is in the basement. Meminger lives till old age, having moved to Sydney, Australia. On her deathbed, she is met with Death. Death gives her the lost novel she was working on so many years ago.

The symbolism of Death being the narrator is that death is ever-present during this time. There is no way to truly hide from it, as Vandenburg tried to do by hiding with the Meminger family. However, with Death as the narrator, Death is not presented as something to always be fearful of. Death is sometimes a comforting presence in the novel.

Second World War Fiction, Image of a book on fire, StudySmarterBanned books were burned in huge piles by the Nazis. These were books that were not exactly in line with Nazi ideology.

The Winds of War (1971) by Herman Wouk

Wouk’s novel The Winds of War (1971) is set just before and during the Second World War. It is based on true events and follows Victor Henry, an American naval commander who is deployed to Berlin. Henry discovers that the Nazis plan to invade and occupy Poland and he acts on this information. His efforts are recognised by American President Roosevelt and he is entrusted with reporting back to Roosevelt after meeting with important European political officials. When he is older, Henry’s son Byron also becomes involved in the war effort. The novel explores the effects of their involvement in the war on their personal relationships.

Examples of Second World War poetry

Here are some examples of well-known Second World War poetry.

‘War Poet’ (1943) by Sidney Keyes

Sidney Keyes was a well-known English poet. His poem ‘War Poet’ (1943) reads as follows:

I am the man who looked for peace and found

My own eyes barbed.

I am the man who groped for words and found

An arrow in my hand.

I am the builder whose firm walls surround

A slipping land.

When I grow sick or mad

Mock me not nor chain me:

When I reach for the wind

Cast me not down:

Though my face is a burnt book

And a wasted town.

Keyes was part of the British army in 1942, which was when he wrote this poem. The poem shows the contrast between the nature of the poet versus the experience of the soldier. He describes himself as ‘the man who looked for peace and found/ My own eyes barbed’ (lines 1-2). He also describes himself as ‘the man who groped for words and found/ An arrow in my hand’ (lines 3-4). The word ‘found’ being at the end of the lines creates a moment of suspense as readers wait to discover what Keyes has discovered in war. It could also be interpreted to show how Keyes was unsure of what he would discover in warfare, and how his character as a poet would be affected by it.

There is a sharp contrast between the peace described in being a poet and the violence that Keyes finds in war. As a poet, he would use his sight to be inspired by the world around him. Yet, his vision is pierced and overwhelmed by the barbed wire that would be found in war. As a poet, he would use a pen to write the words he searches for. Yet, he only finds an arrow, an instrument of war, in his hand. These things obstruct what is natural to him and put instruments of war in their place.

Keyes states, ‘When I grow sick or mad/ Mock me not nor chain me:/ When I reach for the wind/ Cast me not down:/ Though my face is a burnt book/ And a wasted town’ (lines 7-12). He asks for people to be gentle with him when he, perhaps inevitably, loses his wits because of the environment he is in. As a poet, he would ‘reach for the wind’ (line 9), seeing and trying to experience the world in the way poets do. This is not practical or useful in war. The realities of war are written on his face, as he describes a face being ‘a burnt book/ And a wasted town’ (lines 11-12).

‘Soliloquy in an Air-Raid’ (1941) by Roy Fuller

English poet Roy Fuller’s best-known poem is ‘Soliloquy in an Air-Raid’ (1941). In this poem, Fuller describes the events during the Blitz. He ponders on the waves of destruction left behind due to the barrage of bombings on London in particular. The ‘billion tons of broken glass and rubble’ (line 21) litter the streets of London and this is what will come to Europe. Fuller notes that it is difficult to speak on the events of the Blitz without exposing the brutality of warfare: ‘And who can speak/ And still retain the tones of this civilization?’ (lines 25-26).

Fuller uses the imagery of ‘vermilion on rocks’ (line 53) to depict his imagining of soldiers’ blood on the rocks of what could be a battlefield.

The poem could be called ‘Soliloquy in an Air-Raid’ because Fuller’s ponderings cannot be heard by anyone else because of how loud the air raids are. It could also be a soliloquy because there is no-one alive around to listen to him - they could have died in the air raids.

Trauma fiction in Second World War fiction

Trauma fiction in Second World War fiction is fiction that highlights traumatic experiences and events about WWII. Trauma in the Second World War could include:

  • The Holocaust

  • Atrocities committed during warfare

  • Air-Raids and battles

  • Soldiers’ experiences in combat

  • The aftermath of war trauma

Jane Yolen's The Devil's Arithmetic (1988) details the experiences of Hannah Stern as she jumps back in time to the Holocaust. The novel is set in 1941 and Stern is transported to a concentration camp in Poland.

Second World War Fiction, Two soldiers on a battlefield, StudySmarterSoldiers fighting on a battlefield. Soldiers often returned from war with shell shock/post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This was a disorder often caused by repeated exposure to a bombardment of artillery. Soldiers would be on-edge and struggle to walk, eat or sleep properly as a result.

What is considered the best Second World War fiction book?

The best Second World War fiction book is a debated question. Two novels that are considered some of the best works of Second World War fiction are Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief (2005) and Thomas Keneally’s Schindler’s Ark (1982).

Second World War Fiction - Key takeaways

  • Second World War Fiction is fiction about the Second World War, which occurred from 1939 to 1945. This fiction could be in the form of fictional letters, diary entries, novels and poetry.
  • The impact of WWII on English poetry is that themes of humanity, democracy and totalitarianism were frequently explored.
  • Some authors of Second World War Fiction are Elizabeth Bowen and John Boyne.
  • Historical Fiction of the Second World War is fiction that is heavily reliant on non-fiction events in WWII. This can be a retelling of a true event, so it remains true to the attitudes and political and social environment of the time.
  • An example of a WWII poem is Sidney Keyes' 'War Poet' (1943).

Frequently Asked Questions about Second World War Fiction

‘War Poet’ (1943 by Sidney Keyes is an example of WWII poetry.

The genre of Second World War poetry comes under the genre of war poetry. Second World War poetry looks specifically at poetry about the Second World War. Some of the themes prevalent in this genre of poetry are violence, reflections on humanity, and sacrifice. 

The Second World War was a war that disputed democracy and humanity. The politics of totalitarianism versus democracy was a prominent point of conflict. These themes were explored in poetry as a result of the Second World War.  

Second World War Fiction is fiction written about the era leading up to, during, or directly after the Second World War. It explores the real-life events and experiences of people who served in or were affected by the Second World War. Writers take these real-life elements and create fictional tales from these truths. Second World War fiction refers to books, poetry, letters and diary entries that are all fictional. 


Two novels that are considered some of the best works of Second World War fiction are Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief (2005) and Thomas Keneally’s Schindler’s Ark (1982). 

Final Second World War Fiction Quiz

Question

Which poem is an example of WWII poetry? 

Show answer

Answer

Sidney Keyes' novel 'War Poet' (1943) is an example of WWII poetry.

Show question

Question

How do we define the genre of second world war poetry? 

Show answer

Answer

The genre of Second World War Poetry comes under the genre of war poetry. Second World War poetry looks specifically at poetry about the Second World War.  

Show question

Question

What was the impact of the second World War on English poetry?


Show answer

Answer

The impact of WWII on English poetry is that themes of humanity, democracy and totalitarianism were frequently explored.

Show question

Question

What is trauma fiction in Second World War Fiction?

Show answer

Answer

Trauma fiction in Second World War Fiction is fiction that highlights traumatic experiences and events about WWII.  

Show question

Question

What is the best Second World War Fiction book?

Show answer

Answer

There are many popular Second World War Fiction books, so it is difficult to say what the best one is. Popular WWII fiction books are Markus Zusak's The Book Thief (2005) and Thomas Keneally's Schindler's Ark (1982). 

Show question

Question

What is the symbolism of Death in Markus Zusak's The Book Thief (2005)?

Show answer

Answer

The symbolism of Death being the narrator is that death is ever-present during this time. There is no way to truly hide from it, but it can have a comforting presence. 

Show question

Question

What are some examples of topics that could be included in trauma fiction in Second World War Fiction?

Show answer

Answer

  • The Holocaust

  • Atrocities committed during warfare

  • Air-Raids and battles

  • Soldiers’ experiences in combat

  • The aftermath of war trauma

Show question

Question

What are the key takeaways of Roy Fuller's poem 'Soliloguy in an Air-Raid' (1941)?

Show answer

Answer

  • The air-raid bombings during the Blitz left a wave of destruction behind in London.
  • Warfare is brutal and its events cannot be recalled without highlighting the lack of civilisation in warfare. 
  • The poem could be called ‘Soliloquy in an Air-Raid’ because Fuller’s ponderings cannot be heard by anyone else because of how loud the air raids are. It could also be a soliloquy because there is no-one alive around to listen to him- they could have died in the air raids.  

Show question

Question

What are the key takeaways of Sidney Keyes' poem 'War Poet' (1943)?

Show answer

Answer

  • The poem shows the contrast between the nature of the poet versus the experience of the soldier. 
  • Keyes' usual instruments as a poet (his eyes for observing and a pen for writing) are replaced with instruments of war (barbed wire and an arrow).
  • Keyes asks for people to be gentle with him in the likely event that he loses his wits because of the environment he is in. He is unused to functioning in such an environment.  

Show question

Question

What is historical fiction of the Second World War?

Show answer

Answer

Historical Fiction of the Second World War is fiction that is heavily reliant on non-fiction events in WWII. This can be a retelling of a true event, so it remains true to the attitudes and political and social environment of the time. It has non-fiction inspirations within a fictional story.

Show question

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