Choosing the best European history books is no easy task.
European history has often been tumultuous, barbaric and cruel, as well as inspirational, uplifting and revolutionary. It seems there’s no in-between in the over two-thousand-year history of Europe.
Given recent developments with Russia’s war in Ukraine, I thought it would be helpful to put together a list of good European history books that will help you understand the various threads that pull the continent together. Threads that might explain the historical factors that play a part in the turmoil.
As a history graduate from the UK, a lot of my studies involved Europe and its history. The problem is, there’s so much to learn, it’s hard to know where to start.
Unless you’re studying a specific part such as Nazi Germany or Napoleonic France, it can be overwhelming to try and get a handle on certain themes and topics.
What I’ve aimed to do with this list is provide some books on European history that give an overview of the continent, ranging from the past to the present. There’s more of an emphasis on the history of modern Europe, as this still impacts the continent today, but there are some books that look further and provide more context into Europe’s past.
Table of Contents
Best European History Books
Bloodlands by Timothy Snyder
Bloodlands looks at the mass murders committed by the Soviets and Nazis in Eastern Europe, during the Second World War. If you’re unaware of just how bloody this theatre of war was, it’s estimated 14 million non-combatants were killed between 1933 and 1945.
When the Nazis launched Operation Barbarossa on 22 June 1941, not only did they invade the Soviet Union, they devised a plan to exterminate millions of people. Following the infantry was a group known as the Einsatzgruppen, whose task was to eliminate civilians in the newly occupied lands, among them Jews, the local intelligentsia and Romani people.
The two opposing forces met each other and intensified the bloodshed and death that marked both regimes. Stalin’s forced starvation of millions, murder of innocent people and extensive use of gulags were more than matched by the Nazi’s obsession with racial purity and obtaining Lebensraum (living room) for the German people.
The Eastern front is often forgotten about in the Second World War, considering what happened elsewhere and the appalling atrocities that occurred during the Holocaust. But Bloodlands shows just how much blood was shed in Eastern Europe and how brutal these two totalitarian regimes were in their desire to subjugate this area.
Gates of Europe by Serhii Plokhy
The Gates of Europe is perhaps the most relevant book on the list considering the events of early 2022. It’s a look at the history of Ukraine, its future, and how it relates to the present.
What we learn from Serhii Plokhy’s book is that what’s happening in Ukraine today, is a repeat of events that have happened time and time again throughout history.
Ukraine’s sovereignty has been attacked on multiple occasions, not least during the Soviet era, when millions died during the Holodomor, a man-made famine that caused untold suffering.
Due to Ukraine’s position, straddling the west and east of Europe, it has played a central role in many conflicts, with the Romans, Ottomans, Nazis and Soviets all vying for control of its fertile land.
If you want to understand why Putin is so desperate to bring Ukraine under his control, there aren’t many better books than The Gates of Europe to help explain why.
To Hell and Back by Ian Kershaw
To Hell and Back looks at the period from 1914 to 1949, one which saw Europe engulfed in wars that shook the continent to its foundations.
Kershaw is a fantastic historian. While this book is a broad look at that period, he does a fantastic job of telling the important stories that resulted in the two world wars that dominated the era.
A glaring point that stood out to me was there was nothing inevitable about war in Europe. Rather, it was a failure of politicians at the time to understand the threats they faced, in particular, the desire of Hitler to grab land in Eastern Europe.
If you want a deeper dive into either the First or Second World War in Europe, there are other books out there. But To Hell and Back does a fantastic job of breaking down the whole period not just from the perspective of those in charge, but the average citizen too.
Which is why I consider it to be among the best European history books.
The Silk Roads by Peter Frankopan
The Silk Roads is a fantastic book that looks at the world from the perspective of trade and economics. It takes you back over two thousand years to the present day to explain the rise and fall of various empires.
It’s a big book, at over 600 pages, but it’s worth reading because you will learn a lot. As you might have gathered from the title of the book, it looks at the trading route that sprung up from Europe to Asia, the Silk Road.
While the book isn’t looking at a certain time or place in history, it offers a fascinating look at how this trading route influenced the world and continues to influence it to this day.
Once you’ve read The Silk Roads, you’ll have a better understanding of the geopolitical shifts that have taken place throughout history and how the economics of these societies contributed to their rise and fall.
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Roller Coaster Europe by Ian Kershaw
Roller Coaster Europe, the second book on the list by Ian Kershaw, looks at the period of European history from 1949 to the present day.
It charts how the continent came to terms with the atrocities of the Second World War and rebuild a shattered and fractured Europe back up again.
This is a period of history that’s often overlooked because it’s within living memory for many, but it has huge implications for the world we live in today. The Cold War between the Soviet Union and western powers, still shapes the world today, as evidenced by Russia’s invasion of a former part of the Union, Ukraine.
While the establishment of the European Union showcased a new way to conduct relations between nations. One of increasing dependence and intertwining of legal structures to try and avoid the devastation that crippled Europe from 1939 to 1945.
Kershaw also looks at how solidarity has begun to fray in Europe. While Roller Coaster Europe concludes in 2017, it has many pertinent lessons for us today and will give you an overview of why Europe is the way it is today.
The Shortest History of Europe by John Hirst
If you’re looking for a quick guide to European history, then John Hirst’s The Shortest History of Europe is the place to start.
The book starts with a look at how European civilisation started and charts a course through the great events that shaped the continent’s history. As well as looking at the cultural, religious and social frameworks that featured during those years.
The Shortest History of Europe is perfect if you’re looking to educate yourself about Europe in general. It provides a quick overview and allows you to take in Europe’s history in a broad sweep.
Once you’ve made your way through this book, then you can move on to other books that look at a specific period in time that you find interesting.
Vanished Kingdoms: The History of Half-Forgotten Europe by Norman Davies
It’s easy to forget that the world we see today is only a snapshot of what it was previously. This is especially true in Europe, where countries and empires have risen, fallen and ceased to exist.
This is why Vanished Kingdoms is a brilliant book to read. It brings to life those places that have been lost to time across Europe.
While there are many kingdoms that you might not be familiar with, Aragon, Litva, Byzantion, and Borussia that have vanished or been subsumed into greater countries, some countries have recently dissolved.
Think, Czechoslovakia, the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, all were once countries just over 30 years and are now remnants of a past era. Vanished Kingdoms is a great example of how the past is often stranger and more interesting than we realise.
Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe by Anne Applebaum
Anne Applebaum is one of the best historical and political writers today, and I could have chosen any one of her books to put here, but I felt Iron Curtain was the most relevant.
After the Second World War, the Iron Curtain that went up between eastern and western Europe defined the next 40 years until 1989 when the Berlin Wall fell.
During this time, countries such as Hungary, Poland and Czechoslovakia were mere vassals of the Soviet Union, while thriving countries today such as Estonia and Lithuania were subsumed into the union altogether.
What Iron Curtain does so well is to explain how the Soviets came to dominate Eastern Europe and the methods they employed to ensure they remained the dominant force in the region. A book that explains the present situation in Eastern Europe as well as any.
In Europe: Travels Through the Twentieth Century by Geert Mak
In Europe: Travels Through the Twentieth Century is a fascinating book by the Dutch reporter Geert Mak that was written in 1999 and looked at the history of Europe during the fast-closing century.
The book is a kind of travelogue through places that shape the history of the continent in the 1900s, for better and worse. Think Srebrenica, Dresden, Chernobyl and Brussels. All of these places shaped the world we live in today regardless of whether you live in Europe or not.
What makes the book fascinating is the insights of Mak as he makes his way around the continent. As someone who road-tripped around Europe for 6 months, I had similar experiences and revelations during my own trip.
In Europe: Travels Through the Twentieth Century is an ambitious book and were it not for the author’s fantastic writing and descriptions of the places he visits, it might be tedious. Instead, it’s an intriguing insight into the places and events that shaped modern Europe.
If This Is A Man by Primo Levi
If This Is A Man is a harrowing of life in Auschwitz written by the Italian-Jewish author, Primo Levi.
Levi was arrested in December 1943 and transported to Auschwitz in February 1944, where he remained until the camp was liberated. His story is remarkable and the words he uses to describe the horrors he witnessed are gripping.
My trip to Auschwitz greatly affected me and I can only imagine the grim horror that would have been surviving in the camp at the hands of the Nazis. Auschwitz is a horrible reminder of the worst in humanity and what happens when we demonise others simply for being different.
This is why everyone should read If This Is A Man, and, ideally, visit Auschwitz. Not only will you gain perspective on one of the most horrendous acts in European and world history but discover the best and worst of humanity too.
This is why it’s one of the best books on European history.
Homage To Catalonia by George Orwell
Homage to Catalonia is George Orwell’s account of his time in Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War. This war is often forgotten about when it comes to the 1930s, but it played an important role in the events that were to follow.
The aerial bombing of Guernica was a phenomenon the likes of which had not been seen before. Wanton destruction on an unprecedented scale was a sign of what was to come in the Second World War.
The civil war was also a harbinger of the rise of totalitarianism. Although Hitler would be defeated in 1945, the Soviet Union continued to survive. While the fascist regime of Franco, the victor in the civil war, survived until his death in 1975, cutting Spain off from the rest of Europe.
Perhaps the most important parts of Homage to Catalonia are Orwell’s descriptions of war. Expecting an exciting and lively time, he instead finds a war that is mundane and a slog.
Orwell’s writing is a vivid account of an oft-forgotten part of European history and a warning of the follies of war. It ranks among Orwell’s best books and provides a stark warning for us now nearly 100 years later.