This is a page where I will list some of the history books that I’ve read that really influenced me or that I thought deserved a recommendation. If they sound interesting, you should read them too!
Title: Augustus: First Emperor of Rome
Author: Adrian Goldsworthy
Summary: Augustus is an absolutely fascinating historical figure. He’s overshadowed by Julius Caesar in popular memory, but unlike his uncle, Augustus won. He entered Roman politics when he was eighteen, and died peacefully in his bed at the age of seventy, ruler of most of the known world. He brought an end to the internecine cycle of civil wars ripping the heart out of the Republic, and ushered in the Golden Age of the Pax Romana. Augustus is really good biography of him. It covers his entire life, providing excellent historical context and detailing both his rise to power and subsequent reign as “First Citizen” of Rome. I learned so much from this book. If you’re at all interested in the subject, I really recommend it.
Title: How Rome Fell: Death of a Superpower
Author: Adrian Goldsworthy
Summary: Historians have been debating the causes of the Fall of the Roman Empire for literally several centuries now, and How Rome Fell is a worthy addition to the genre. Goldsworthy provides a historical narrative of events from the Third Century Crisis onward, but also discusses the various theories and claims put forward over the years by scholars. His theory, which he thoroughly convinced me of, is that the roots of Roman collapse were in the lack of any standardized succession system, which soon turned each change of Emperor into a series of civil wars and sapped the state of any legitimacy. The book can be dense and scholarly at times, but I learned a lot from it.
Title: SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome
Author: Mary Beard
Summary: SPQR is a history of Rome, from deepest antiquity (the debate over just exactly when the city was founded is discussed at length) to 212 CE. Mary Beard weaves together social, cultural, and political history to tell the story of the rise of one of the most powerful and influential states of world history, examining not just what happened but how and why, and often if it really did. She’s not afraid to challenge conventional historical narratives, and argues persuasively that a number of traditional beliefs about Roman history are just simply not true, or at least that the evidence is severely limited. SPQR covers a span of five or six centuries, and so is necessarily an overview, but it’s really worth reading if you have any interest at all in Early to Mid Roman history.
Title: The Roman Empire and the Silk Routes: The Ancient World Economy and the Empires of Parthia, Central Asia and Han China
Author: Raoul McLaughlin
Summary: I’ve always been fascinated by how big the Ancient World. We tend to silo ancient history into distinct regions and times, looking at Greece, Rome, Egypt, China, India as separate places. But despite the vast distances the primitive modes of travel, our ancesestors continually pressed outward, creating a far more globally-interconnected world than we might realize. The Ancient Greeks had direct trade with the Baltic Sea, the Carthaginians sent an expedition all the way to the Gulf of Guinea, Alexander the Great’s influence left Greek communities scattered across Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the Roman Empire maintained a complex and intense trade relationship with China and India. McLaughlin explores this topic in depth, looking at both Roman and Chinese sources to explain how the Central Asian trade routes were opened, what commodities were exchanged, and the economic effects this had on both empires. It’s a fascinating story, and I was continually amazed by how much commerce was occurring, and how far people managed to travel in search of profits. McLaughlin attempts to extrapolate from the data to paint a broader economic picture of the budgets of both Empires and the effects that the Far Eastern trade had on China that is highly speculative, but very intriguing. I also recommend The Roman Empire and the Indian Ocean: The Ancient World Economy and the Kingdoms of Africa, Arabia and India, a companion volume that covers similar ground. They’re both rife with detail, sometimes to a overwhelming degree, but very much worth the read.
Title: Winter King: The Dawn of Tutor England
Author: Thomas Penn
Summary: This book covers the reign of the Forgotten Tutor, King Henry VII. A strange, enigmatic figure, Henry VII was cold, calculating, and brilliant. He eschewed foreign wars and conquests in favor of complex financial dealings and political intrigues that made him one of the richest monarchs in Europe by the time of his death. This was good for him, but left very little of interest to chroniclers, and he’s been overshadowed by his son Henry VIII and granddaughter Elizabeth I. But he was a fascinating figure, and Winter King does a great job both of illuminating this and illustrating the bizarre world of 15th century European politics. Folks, this book has everything you didn’t know you needed to know about the Papal Alum Monopoly and the Venetian-English-Ottoman efforts to circumvent it.
Title: Catharine the Great: Portrait of a Woman
Author: Robert K. Massie
Summary: It’s a tale as old as time—minor German noblewoman is engaged to the Czar of all Russia, Czar turns out to be a blithering nitwit, noblewoman conspires with his military officers and courtiers, overthrows him in a coup d’etat, (possibly) has him murdered, seizes powers for herself, and becomes of one of Russia’s most important rulers. Catharine the Great is a really fascinating person, and this is a great biography of her and chronicle of her reign. If you know anything at all about her, this will probably interest you, and if you don’t, then hey! This is a good time to start learning.
Title: Danubia: A Personal History of Hapsburg Europe
Author: Simon Winder
Summary: One of the biggest shifts in European geopolitics over the last few century has been the disappearance of the Hapsburg Bloc. There has been a France and a Spain and an England (roughly) in the same places since the medieval era, but Central Europe is now a jumble of ethnically-based nation-states instead of the powerful network of Hapsburg ruled territories that for centuries was one of the continent’s Great Powers. Danubia isn’t a traditional history book, the author basically wanders around Austria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and the former Yugoslavia, mixing together travelogue and historical narrative of the Hapsburg family and their domains. It’s fascinating, and very funny, easily readable by anyone with any interest in the subject.
Title: Furies: War in Europe, 1450–1700
Author: Lauro Martines
Summary: Furies is not a history of European wars between 1450 and 1700 so much as it is a history of how wars were fought in that era. Spoiler: It was awful. By the Early Modern Era, armies had vastly outgrown the ability of states to pay or supply them. Military campaigns subsisted on stripped forage from the surrounding territories and loot from conquered cities, leaving trails of starvation, rape, murder, and devastation in their wake. Martines dives deep into these realities, while discussing the irony of one of the most horrific eras of European warfare occurring during the much-vaunted Renaissance. It’s a pretty grim read, but a very interesting one.
Title: The Island at the Center of the World
Author: Russell Shorto
Summary: I’m a lifelong New Yorker, and I can trace my matrilineal ancestry back to Dutch farmers who owned land in Manhattan in the 1680s, so I was absolutely delighted to read a book about how everything great about America really came from New Amsterdam. That’s a slight exaggeration, but Shorto paints a really interesting picture of the Dutch colony in New York as the true forebearer of the modern United States. Unlike the religious theocracy of Massachusetts, New Amsterdam was a cosmopolitan city, multiethnic and multireligious, built by the United Provinces of the Netherlands, one of the most tolerant societies in Europe at the time. It’s a thought-provoking and well-written exploration of both American and Dutch history that sheds some light on the early development of this country.
Title: Empires at War: The French and Indian War and the Struggle for North America, 1754-1763
Author: William M. Fowler Jr.
Summary: In American schools, the war between Britain and France over control over Canada and the Ohio valley is usually discussed solely in terms of it’s relationship to the American Revolution. The war weakened the British financial position, necessitating new taxes on the colonies, and removed the threat of French invasion, clearing the way for insurrection a few decades later. But while not wrong, this is a limited perspective. The French and Indian War was one theater of the Seven Years War, what Winston Churchill called “the first world war”, fought in Europe and America and India and the Caribbean and the Far East, between France, Britain, Austria, Prussia, Russia, Spain, Sweden, and others. While focusing on the North American theater, Fowler puts it in context, showing the global ramifications of the conflict and it’s effects on world history. It’s a great introduction to a topic that deserves to be more widely known.
Title: The Age of Napoleon
Author: J. Christopher Herold
Summary: This is a really excellent single-volume biography of Napoleon and history of his rise to and fall from power. It’s brisk, very readable, but full of fascinating information, and covers most of the relevant events while providing historical context. I really recommend it to anyone who wants a good overview of the time period and hasn’t really studied it before. The book was published in the 1960s, and it’s definitely a little dated at times, but I don’t think that’s a problem. The author also makes no secret of the fact that he considers Napoleon to be a monstrous human being, and is willing to directly interrogate some of the propaganda that’s seeped into the historical record. It’s not exactly objective, but it also happens to be accurate.
Title: Napoleon’s Wars: An International History
Author: Charles Esdaile
Summary: Esdaile provides a deeper perspective than Herold, but also a more limited one. Napoleon’s Wars focuses on the military history of the Napoleonic Wars rather than trying to provide a broad overview of the time period. In that task, it succeeds admirably, and this is a great source if you’re trying to get the tangled mess of Wars of the ___ Coalition sorted straight. Despite the name, Esdaile makes sure to include the various peripheral wars of the Napoleonic Era that didn’t involve Bonaparte himself; the fighting in Scandinavia between Russia and Sweden, the Balkan wars with the Turks and Austrians, and the fighting in the Caucasus between Russia and Persia. It’s certantly denser than The Age of Napoleon, and written at a more advanced level, but it’s very informative.
Title: The Pursuit of Power: Europe 1815-1914
Author: Richard J. Evans
Summary: The Pursuit of Power is an overview of European history between the Napoleonic Wars and the First World War. This is the time of the Industrial Revolution, of the New Imperialism, of the end of Serfdom and the rise of nationalism. Germany and Italy unify, monarchies are toppled or forced to reform by waves of revolution and unrest, the Communist Manifesto is published. Throughout it all, the old Dynastic Empires hold onto power, even as the Earth shifts under their feet. Suffice to say, it’s an exciting time. This was Europe at the height of it’s world-power, and Evans provides an excellent examination of this fascinating century. The book includes a historical chronology, but also detours to cover cultural and social changes, and is filled with interesting anecdotes and stories to enliven the narrative. For anyone interested in learning more about Nineteenth Century Europe, I firmly recommend this.
Title: The Scramble for Africa
Author: Thomas Pakenham
Summary: Pakenham provides a comprehensive overview of the carve-up of the African continent by the European powers between 1870 and 1900. The Scramble for Africa was the cornerstone of the New Imperialism of the 19th century, and this book provides a very good examination of it’s course, focusing on diplomatic and political events. It’s very much a top-down history, and by nature it elides a lot of detail and complexity. Additionally, I think Pakenham is too sympathetic to the colonizers, and the book is becoming rather dated, as it was written in the 1980s. But it provides a very useful introduction to the subject for someone seeking to gain basic understanding of this time period.
Title: The Imperial Cruise: A Secret History of Empire and War
Author: James Bradley
Summary: This is a book I definitely have mixed feelings about. It’s about one of my favorite time periods and historical events; the turn of the twentieth century and the Russo-Japanese War. It’s very well-written, and looks into some interesting stuff that a lot of American history books skim over. But Bradley isn’t a professional historian, and he really overstates his case. Essentially, the Imperial Cruise is about the establishment of the American Pacific Empire during the years 1898-1905, how Theodore Roosevelt’s foreign policy was driven in great part of absurd white supremacist theories, and the ways in which the U.S. cooperated with Japan when it was first creating it’s own Empire. I really like that The Imperial Cruise is willing to take on the myth of Theodore Roosevelt and examine some of the ugliest skeletons in America’s closet. But the book attempts to pin most of the blame for the Pacific War of 1941-1945 on Roosevelt’s shoulders based on some very limited evidence. It’s worth reading, but take it with a grain of salt.
Title: The Vertigo Years: Change and Culture in the West, 1900-1914
Author: Philipp Blom
Summary: This is one of the books on this list that really reshaped how I think about history. The Vertigo Years covers the last decade and a half before the Great War breaks out. Whereas this is usually portrayed as the Old World’s Indian Summer, a last period of halcyon days before the storm descended to rip apart Europe’s foundations, Blom argues that it was a time of incredible change and social upheaval. The Vertigo Years covers a number of topics, but is mostly a social and cultural history, looking at how European society was already in chaos years before the killing fields of Somme and Gallipoli. One of the things I really liked about it is that the book looks at topics that are usually segregated from conventional history, such as the evolution of gender, sexuality, and the emerging women’s mass movements which would fundamentally reshape European society. His argument that there was a “Crisis of Masculinity” among European men frightened by mechanization and rapid social change is, I think, profoundly relevant today. I didn’t agree with everything that Blom says in here, but it was provocative and insightful, and I really recommend it.
World War I
Title: Germany’s Aims in the First World War
Author: Fritz Fischer
Summary: When Germany’s Aims in the First World War was published in the 1960s, it helped cause a paradigm shift in how WWI was studied. Before then, most historians had treated the outbreak of the war as essentially a mistake, a misunderstanding between the Great Powers that had blown up accidentally. Fischer argued that the German government had deliberately provoked a major diplomatic crisis in the hopes of crushing the Entente before Russian rearmament efforts rendered it unbeatable. He also shows the extent to which Germany hoped to gain continental hegemony out of the War. The Imperial government dreamed of yoking France to Germany economically through trade treaties, turning Belgium and the Netherlands into German annexes, and creating a network of puppet states in Eastern Europe to provide a buffer zone between Germany and Russia. This is a very long, very dry book. It’s difficult to get through, but the topic is very interesting, and I was certantly convinced by Fischer’s arguments.
Title: Cataclysm: The First World War as Political Tragedy
Author: David Stevenson
Summary: At heart, Cataclysm is just a really good single-volume overview of WWI. Do you want to know about the Great War? Read this book! It covers all of the major fronts, the diplomacy, and big battles, and the political decisions. It’s an excellent introduction to the war if you’re someone new to the topic who wants to learn more. I don’t know if Stevenson agrees with Fischer’s specific theses about German culpability for the war, but he does follow in his footsteps in eschewing the historiography that treats WWI as some sort of force of nature. He’s very good at making it clear that this was the result of deliberate political decisions by people who understood what they were doing. I very much recommend this to anyone interested.
Title: Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany, and the Winning of the Great War at Sea
Author: Robert K. Massie
Summary: Naval Warfare in World War I stands at a crossroads. The dreadnought battleships of the prewar era were the largest, most powerful conventional warships the world had ever seen—and they see almost no conflict during the four years of war. Submarines, a prewar curiosity, would become key weapons. New weapons platforms like the destroyer and the battlecruiser would be tested. By war’s end, early aircraft carriers were being deployed. Massie’s book focuses on the British and German battlefleets, built up before the war at horrendous expense in a Naval Arms Race that helped contribute to the outbreak of war. Besides providing a chronology of events, Castles of Steel also explores the ways in which the outnumbered Imperial German Navy was actually superior to the vaunted Royal Navy in a large number of factors, and looks at the infighting within the British command. It’s a great book about a fascinating moment in naval history.
Title: A Higher Form of Killing: Six Weeks in World War I That Forever Changed the Nature of Warfare
Author: Diana Preston
Summary: A Higher Form of Killing covers the six week period in Spring 1915 during which the Lusitania was sunk, the first Zeppelin bombing of London occurred, and poison gas was first used on the Western Front. Preston argues that collectively, these three events form a pivotal transition point into the era of Total War, inaugurating the beginning of the mass firebombing of cities, unrestricted submarine warfare, and use of weapons of mass destruction. Each of these acts violated the letter of the 1907 Hague Convention, but from here on out international law would have increasingly little impact on how European wars were fought for the next fifty years. One of the most interesting books I’ve ever read, just in terms of changing how I looked at a piece of history. I very much recommend it.
Title: Empires at War: 1911-1923
Author: Robert Gerwarth & Erez Manela (Editors)
Summary: I’ve talked about this book at length before, so I’ll brief. Empires at War is a volume of essays exploring WWI from the Imperial Perspective, examining the ways in which combatants mobilized the strength of their colonies, the extent to which Imperial war-aims were key to the conflict, and how and when colonial subjects resisted the domination of the metropole. It also puts forward a thesis that we should look at the First World World War as the epicenter of a broader civilizational conflict starting with the Italian invasion of Ottoman Libya in 1911 and only ending with the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923. It’s good!
World War II
Title: Empires in the Balance: Japanese and Allied Pacific Strategies to April 1942
Author: H.P Willmott
Summary: In the first six months of the Pacific War, the Imperial Japanese Armed Forces overran Burma, Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, the East Indies, and the Philippines; decisively defeating much larger ground forces and without taking significant naval losses of their own. It is one of the most successful military operations in world history, and it was an absolute disaster for Imperial Japan, sending them down the road to annihilation. Willmott provides an incisive and detailed look at the opening months of the war, focusing on how the Japanese were able to win so devastatingly and why they were unable to translate their tactical victories into strategic ones. It’s a very dense book, with a lot of technical details, but I think it’s worth reading. It was one of my major sources for this piece. Also, if you’ve ever wanted to read a British military historian drily excoriating the entire British military and political command structure for their failures during the Singapore Campaign and commenting that most militarys would have had Douglas MacArthur shot for his actions in the Philippines rather than award him the Medal of Honor, than I cannot recommend this highly enough.
Title: When Titans Clashed: How the Red Army Stopped Hitler
Author: David M. Glantz, Jonathan M. House
Summary: It’s an embarrassing but true fact that the Soviet Union won WWII. Oh, not to dismiss the contributions of the other Allied nations. Soviet victory was probably impossible without U.S. economic aid and the opening of the Second Front. But throughout the war, approximately three-quarters of the German military fought (and died) on the Eastern Front. It’s virtually impossible to envision successful landings in Italy or France without this. When Titans Clashed provides a really interesting chronology of this monumental struggle, made possible by the opening of Russian archives after the end of the Cold War. Before then, most Western histories of the war relied on German sources which depicted the Red Army as mechanistic mobs who overran the brave soldiers of the Wehrmacht through sheer numbers alone. But Glantz and House delve into the tactical and strategic advantages of the Soviet Union, demonstrating clearly the way in which the Germans were outfought as well as outnumbered. It’s a very technical book, and I wouldn’t recommend it if you’re not very interested in military history. But if you are, and you want to learn about Marshal Zhukov won the Second World War, check this out.
Title: The Rise of Germany 1939-1941
Author: James Holland
Summary: Holland provides a revisionist history of the opening years of WWII, persuasively arguing that both German strength and British weakness have been consistently exaggerated by both contemporaries and historians. The Wehrmacht, far from being an unstoppable military machine, was riddled with weaknesses and flaws, and Britain and France were in a far better position in 1939 than they realized. There was basically never any chance of Germany achieving a military victory over the British Empire, even before American and Soviet entry into the war. I don’t agree with everything he says, but it’s definitely a worthwhile read.
Title: The Liberation Trilogy
Author: Rick Atkinson
Summary: In these three weighty volumes, Atkinson provides an in-depth history of the Liberation of Western Europe from the Nazis. The first book, An Army at Dawn, covers Operation Torch and the North African Campaign. The second, The Day of Battle, is about the invasions of Sicily and Italy. The conclusion, The Guns at Last Light, relates the story of D-Day and the liberation of France, the Low Countries, and Germany. The books are very long, but they’re also very readable, written by an non-academic for a lay audience. They cover the military history, but also the politics and diplomacy that made the victories on the battlefield possible. Atkinson doesn’t shy away from some of the more unpleasant details either; much of the books focus on the personal infighting between Allied commanders, the mistakes and in competences of the American Armed Forces, coverups of war crimes, and the venereal disease epidemic that ravaged the U.S. Army in Italy. If you’re interested in learning a lot about the Western fronts of the Second World War, I can’t recommend it enough.
Title: Case Red: The Collapse of France
Author: Robert Forczyk
Summary: The stunning collapse of France after only six weeks of fighting in 1940 remains one of the pivotal events in modern military history. It permanently shattered French prestige, and meant that the Allies would have to mount a bloody series of amphibious assaults to regain access to the European continent. The history of those weeks remains dominated by myth and stereotype, with French defeatism, cultural decadence, cowardice, or incompetence usually being blamed. Forczyk examines the collapse of the French military and government carefully, from an empirical point of view, and presents a series of convincing arguments as to the actual military weaknesses that undermined French resistance along with the treason of the French right-wing military leadership who saw their defeat as a useful excuse to overthrow the Republic. It’s a very dense book, providing an almost day-by-day account of the fighting, and it’s probably not going to be of interest to someone who doesn’t read military history. But if the subject matter sounds intriguing, you should think about picking it up.
Title: Hitler’s Empire: How the Nazis Ruled Europe
Author: Mark Mazower
Summary: I’ve honestly read this book, like, three times. It’s so interesting! Hitler’s Empire dives into how Germany administered it’s wartime empire, looking at the complexity of puppet states, protectorates, provinces, and satrapies created by the Nazi Viceroys as they tried to shape a continent they had unexpectedly come to bestride. There was no real consensus in prewar Nazi Germany as to what their victory would look like, and fierce debates raged between different factions of the NSDAP as to how to administer and rule Europe, a rule often marked by shocking incompetence and mismanagement. Mazower also talks about the continuities between Nazi political aims and 19th century German politics, and the ways in which the Nazis applied existing colonial structures pioneered by the Western Powers in Asia and Africa in Europe for the first time. It’s a really unique way of looking at the Second World War.
Title: Travelers in the Third Reich: The Rise of Fascism: 1919-1945
Author: Julia Boyd
Summary: Travelers in the Third Reich tells the story of the rise and fall of Nazi Germany through the eyes of students, businessmen, tourists, and diplomats who visited the country during the Nazi takeover and rule. It’s a unique premise, and Boyd collects a wide array of perspectives, demonstrating how easy it was to take things for granted. Almost up to the outbreak of the war, British and American tourists flocked to Oktoberfest, students took a semester in Berlin to learn German, and writers came to chronicle these strange new “Nazis” who seemed to promise such great things for Germany. There were some who loved what they saw; British aristocrats who admired Hitler for putting the socialists in their place, American pastors who looked approvingly on the burning of “degenerate literature”, some few who were horrified by what they saw coming, but most simply went on holiday and had a lovely time. I’m not sure the book has a clear thesis, or that it will change how you think about the world, but Boyd collects an amazing compendium of anecdotes and stories that are well worth your time.
Title: The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers
Author: Paul Kennedy
Summary: I’m filing this here for convenience’s sake, but Kennedy covers the clash of the Great Powers of Europe (and later the world) on a timescale beginning with the Hapsburg–Bourbon Dynastic Wars of the 1500-1600s and ending in the Cold War of the 1980s, when the book was published. In The Rise and Fall, Kennedy takes the reader through a history of the Great Power conflicts of the last five hundred years or so, focusing on why some nations succeed and why others fail. In general, he takes a materialistic approach, arguing that economic and financial strength is the key indicator of victory. It’s a very dry, very dense book that took me a long time to get through, but it’s really interesting. Kennedy backs up his arguments with copious amounts of data, and I’ve found myself using this as a reference book many times since.
Title: The Past Has Another Pattern: A Memoir
Author: George W. Ball
Summary: George Ball was the American Undersecretary of State during the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations, where he earned eventual fame as the only senior government official to oppose greater intervention in Vietnam. His career before that was fascinating as well, as he had served in a number of positions in the Roosevelt Administration, as well as a lawyer for the French government during the formation of the European Coal & Steel Community. His memoirs provide a look at a half-century of American foreign policy from the mid-level view, someone senior enough to be in the room where decisions were being made, but not senior enough to be a true public figure. It’s a truly fascinating book, filled with amazing stories and insights, that I read almost a decade ago and still talk about constantly. You should read it!