However, while they help us gather information, facts and figures, diaries and journals can be the most revealing and intimate of all texts, allowing the reader to gain a personal account of the authors’ lives with minimal mediation or literary fiction. The most famous of these is, of course, Anne Frank’s remarkable diary, which highlighted the horrors of living as a teenager through the Second World War. Yet there are many other lesser-known, but just as poignant, diaries that are must-reads for anyone wanting to broaden their knowledge about these significant eras. Here, we have listed ten of the most famous diaries.
Resistance is the secret diary of a spirited woman who never gave up. A respected art historian, Agnes Humbert showed bravery and courage as the grip of the German Occupation tightened on Paris in the summer of 1940. She, along with her colleagues at the Musee de l’Homme, formed one of the very first organised groups of the French Resistance. However, in 1941, many of its members were betrayed – they were sent to the Gestapo and imprisoned. Seven of the men were killed, with the women being deported to Germany as slave workers. This diary offers deeply personal and frank insights into this dark period in history.
Amy Helen Bell, author of London Was Ours, has lectured and written extensively on civilian experiences in wartime Britain, and this book is a fascinating glimpse into London under siege through the people who lived it. An amalgam of diary entries, she cleverly brings them together – focusing on various themes of courage, loss and love. The book reveals personal insights from hundreds of Londoners during the brutal bombing attacks of the Blitz. From the air raid shelters in Tube stations to Nazi night-time raids, this collective testament tells a story of our nation’s history.
This diary gives an honest account of what it was like to be a female during the war. Nella Last began her diary in September 1939, and the detailed, regular accounts have created a heartfelt and powerful record of the Second World War. From watching her son join the army to turning 50 and reviewing her marriage, this honestly-written testimonial is a no-glamour perspective on the war years. It is written in a very moving, but often humorous, way, by a very talented writer. In fact, Last claimed in 1939: “Next to being a mother, I’d have loved to write books”.
Janusz Korczak (1879-1942) is considered by many to be a war hero. A well-known author and paediatrician in his hometown of Warsaw, he decided to leave behind his career and devoted himself to a life caring for orphans. Like many other Jews, he was sent into the Warsaw Ghetto after the Nazis occupied Poland and set up an orphanage for over 200 children. He then went with the children when the Nazis ordered them to board a train taking them to the Treblinka death camp. This book is Korczak’s account of the days spent in the Ghetto, along with an introduction by the author of the book, Betty Jean Lifton.
Handsome Englishman Frank Thompson spoke nine languages, was a skilled poet and was the eccentric brother of the radical historian E.P. Thompson. In September 1939, he enlisted; first serving with the Royal Artillery, then Phantom, before moving to SOE. He wrote many letters, diaries and poetry, all documenting his wartime experience. Aged 23, Frank was captured, before being tortured and executed in Bulgaria. His words still read fresh off the page today, and Peter J. Conradi – author of the book – manages to skilfully bring to life his brave and eclectic personality.
Richard Brown was an ordinary member of the public during World War II, but kept a personal diary of how he perceived it. He manages to capture an image of what it was like to live through this period as a “normal person”, describing the development of the war, as well as his perceptions of what was being said in the newspaper, through the wireless, and hearsay. He also talks about the changes to everyday life – there were now rations, blackout restrictions, interrupted sleep and the threat of evacuation. He conveys an educated attitude towards war, with witty and scathing comments throughout. He also never doubts ultimate victory, despite his disagreements with the conduct of the war.
This emotive, engrossing and factually engaging book is a rare glimpse of what it was like to be a nurse during the First World War. Dorothea Crewdson was a newly-trained Red Cross nurse and, along with her best friend Christie, was sent off to Le Treport in northern France. She began writing a diary, full of excitement about this new adventure. She continues to record her life over the next four years, where she was to witness some of the worst horror of the Great War, including death and shell shock. Throughout the book, she never loses her hearty innocence that allows her to write in a positive and matter-of-fact way.
These vivid diary entries, written in prose, give the reader an insight into what it was like to live as a soldier in the trenches. Henri Desagneaux, along with thousands of others, had to live in appalling conditions, carrying out orders which ensured dozens of men had to die. His diary is considered to be one of the classic French accounts of war, conveying what it was like to execute such orders and the sheer intensity of the shellfire. He also talks of the increasing demoralisation, living with boisterous and rebellious men.
Over 60 years old, but just as poignant today, Anne Frank’s diary has touched millions of people all over the world. Anne received a diary for her 13th birthday in June 1942 and began writing in it two days later. During the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands, Anne went into hiding with her parents and sister, along with another family, in an annex at the back of her father’s company building. The diary vividly describes her thoughts and frustrations of living in such a small space. They were there for two years and one month before they were all betrayed, and Anne’s diary abruptly ends.
This definitive biography, written by Jean Moorcroft Wilson, combines the works of one of the twentieth century’s greatest poets, Siegfried Sassoon. Bringing together material from The Making of a War Poet and The Journey from the Trenches, the book follows his complete life – from his time on the frontline to his flamboyant love affairs. The notebooks he kept during his service are among the most extraordinary documents of their time. With new poems and access to Sassoon’s personal correspondence, this is a moving analysis of his catastrophic war experience.