The stochastically best books to read on Europe?

by on March 10, 2018 at 12:58 am in Books, Education, History | Permalink

What exactly does that title mean?  It means they are your suggestions, and I kind of/sort of trust some of you, and I didn’t want to throw in all of my opinions.  At the very least, I know a lot of these to be good, but I am reporting these recommendations from a distance.  These are pulled from the comments section on my earlier post on the best book to read about each country, with my recommendations.  So here are your contributions for Europe:

Roy Foster on Ireland.

James Hawes has just published what has been reviewed as an excellent short history of Germany. His previous book on Anglo-German relations before WW1 felt like a fresh and convincing re-interpretation of what is very well-trodden ground in political/diplomatic history.

Jonathan Steinberg’s “Why Switzerland”

For Poland, yes, Norman Davies’ God’s Playground is the best book in English.

Poland: A History by Zamoyski is concise, but probably too concise for someone not already somewhat familiar with Polish history.

For Scandinavia – The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia by Michael Booth.

One of the best books for understanding any nation, ignoring much of the history and most of the politics, is ‘Watching the English’ by Kate Fox.

Is it possible the best book for “getting” France is the Larousse Gastronomique? Because I already have that one also.

Czech Republic – “Gottland” by Mariusz Szczygiel. A description of the Czechs by a Pole. Will give you a lot of insight into the Czech character. I suppose a lot of Czechs will tell you The Good Soldier Swejk is the best book about Czechs, but that is self-serving.

Czechoslovakia: The State That Failed by Mary Heimann is also very good.

On Bulgaria: “Border” by Kapka Kassabova

The Basque History of the World: The Story of a Nation” by Mark Kurlansky
Simon Schama’s A History Of Britain

On Romania: “Along the Enchanted Way: A Story of Love and Life in Romania” by William Blacker or perhaps Robert D. Kaplan’s “In Europe’s Shadow”. I also liked Kaplan’s portrait of Oman in “Monsoon”.

My choice would be Iberia by Michener.

The Bible in Spain by George Borrow. Very old, very good.

Patrick Leigh Fermor on Greece, Crete – Mani…etc.

Netherlands: The Low Sky: Understanding the Dutch by Han van der Horst (De lage hemel in the original)

Netherlands, fun read, although a bit dated now (written 20 years ago?): The Undutchables by Colin White and Laurie Boucke

There are two good and readable historical books on Amsterdam (and, by extension, The Netherlands)—one by Russell Shorto and the other by Geert Mak. Both are available in English. A bit more highbrow than the other books mentioned.

On Spanish recent history I enjoyed Ghosts of Spain by Giles Tremlett. Specifically on Barcelona I’d recommend Robert Hughes’ Barcelona. Inside into Catalan physcho.

On Scandinavia: The almost nearly perfect people by Michael Booth

On Eastern Europe – Bloodlands by Timothy Snyder.

On the history of Russia you can’t beat ‘Internal Colonisation’ by Alexander Etkind.

And on English – wonderful AA Gill, RIP, ‘Angry Island: Hunting the English’

Spain – John Crow – Spain the Root and the Flower, Italy – Dark heart of Italy by Tobias Jones. Not sure these are the best, but they give an interesting psychological insight for the occasional traveller

Russia – big country so 3 books, not histories – War and Peace (Tolstoy), Life and Fate (Vasily Grossman), Everything is possible (Pomerantsev)…

Enjoy!  Here are previous installments in the series.

1 Dan March 10, 2018 at 2:10 am

Don’t forget Judt’s Postwar on the continent overall.


2 Thor March 10, 2018 at 10:46 am

Judt offers a left of centre perspective. An under appreciated classic covering the same ground but from a moderately anti-leftist point of view is Philip Thody’s “Europe Since 1945”.

It might appear dated to some because of the publication date, but do not be put off by that and thus deprive yourself of a riveting account of this period of Europe’s history.


3 Edan Maor March 10, 2018 at 4:01 am

Anyone have a recommendation for a good book on Argentina’s history? And in general, other South American countries?

Also, a book that focuses on the economic history of Argentina would be appreciated!


4 Hermann March 10, 2018 at 4:06 am

What’s the book on the USA? The book that encapsulates the chief cultural elements in that country?

Also still looking for the best Hungary book.


5 shrikanthk March 10, 2018 at 7:28 am

For USA, I recommend Daniel Boorstin’s trilogy –

Americans, the Colonial Experience
Americans, the National Experience
Americans, the Democratic Experience

Tyler – For Russia, I think Richard Pipes and his trilogy is very good, too.


6 inertial March 10, 2018 at 6:17 pm

Solzhenitsyn, who knew a thing or two about Russia, considered Pipes’ history to be terrible.


7 quanticle March 10, 2018 at 5:09 am

Davies is equally well known for his thorough overview of European History titled, appropriately enough, Europe: A History.


8 jb March 10, 2018 at 5:41 am

On Italy: Tobias Jones: “The Dark Heart of Italy”.
On Germany: Neil MacGregor: ” Germany: Memories of a Nation “.


9 Jan March 10, 2018 at 5:57 am

How about something on the former Yugoslavia? I liked “Love Thy Neighbor” about the conflict and fallout.


10 miles March 10, 2018 at 6:08 am

I endorse jb’s MacGregor on Germany.
On Alsace (and its troubled, very European history) I suggest Pascale Hugues ‘ “Marthe et Mathilde” (regrettably only in French and German)
On Kosovo (and Serbia and Albania) Noel Malcolm’s “Kosovo”.
On Europe Geert Mak’s “In Europe”.


11 Jeju March 10, 2018 at 6:13 am

Why stick to single countries if the title is “books on Europe”? Here a suggestion for a framing of the whole region:
Geert Mak: “In Europe: Travels Through the Twentieth Century”.
But is that the best starting point?

Some further suggestions about the Netherlands:
Christoph Driessen: “Geschichte der Niederlande: von der Seemacht zum Trendland”. Very good in linking history to still existing traits.
Related news article about the (missing) role of politeness in the Netherlands compared to other countries:


12 Anna Ryden March 10, 2018 at 6:48 am

Italy: “The force of Destiny” by the brilliant Christopher Duggan is a must.


13 Steve March 10, 2018 at 6:59 am

The reviews on Amazon for Roy Foster’s book “Modern Ireland: 1600-1972” wave potential readers away if they are not scholars or academics, and don’t already have an understanding of Irish history. Tyler’s recommended book may be more my speed.


14 jack March 10, 2018 at 9:12 am

I guess Tolstoy’s War and Peace is there because of its portrait of the Russian soul — a bit like recommending Ben Franklin for those who want a picture of modern America. A lot has happened in Russia since the late 19th century — the destruction of the nobility, the rise and fall of communism, Lenin, Stalin, the deaths of 30m Soviets in WW2, the collapse of the Soviet empire, the rise of grotesque consumerism. War and Peace is worth reading for a lot of reasons but i am not so sure as an insight into modern Russia. I would go for Yuri Slezkine’s “the House of Government.” There is a bit of the Russian soul peaking through and a lot more that is relevant to the modern world. Nadezhda Mandelstam’s Hope Against Hope is probably more relevant also.


15 Affe March 10, 2018 at 9:23 am

Fermor – amazing life but found his writing to be overwrought.


16 JDR March 12, 2018 at 12:24 pm

This was my experience too.


17 Christopher March 10, 2018 at 10:46 am

For the big picture on Europe: +1 for Geert Mak, Tony Judt, and Patrick Leigh Fermor. How about Norman Davies ‘Europe: A History’? Robert Massie’s books on Russia incorporate other parts of Europe as well; my favorite was probably ‘Peter the Great’. The Penguin History of Europe Series has a good reputation as well:


18 Ari March 10, 2018 at 10:51 am


For Scandinavia – The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia by Michael Booth.

Biased much?

How about:

Can you do a review of the books perhaps? I live in Finland so I can answer criticism but I haven’t read them.


19 triclops41 March 10, 2018 at 1:19 pm

In what way do you think that book is biased? The reviews describe it as generally positive, with some (mostly) lighthearted criticism of things the author doesn’t like about Scandinavia.
Do you think Scandinavians are actually perfect, or aren’t even nearly perfect?


20 WB March 10, 2018 at 11:14 am

Robert Putnam (with Robert Leonardi and Raffaella Y. Nanetti), Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy.

One of the best books ever written, on any country. Period.


21 edgar March 10, 2018 at 11:57 am

Europe between the oceans 9000BC – AD1000 by Barry Cunliffe. And his books on England too. Really, anything by Cunliffe.


22 Gil March 10, 2018 at 12:03 pm

Invertebrate Spain by Ortega y Gasset


23 Michael Tinkler March 10, 2018 at 2:26 pm

Tobias Jones is entirely dated by his focus on the wicked wickendness that is (not was – it’s that outdated) Silvio Berlusconi. There are nice bits on living in Italy, I’ll admit. The best 2 vol book is definitely

Paul Ginsborg
Italy And Its Discontents: 1980 To 2001
A History of Contemporary Italy: Society and Politics, 1943-1988

Brilliant. Just brilliant in every way. I reread them every time I teach a semester here.


24 Scoop March 10, 2018 at 4:38 pm

It doesn’t speak to the whole Italian experience, let alone the entire European experience, but Midnight in Sicily provides an incredible, visceral sense of how corruption pervades southern Italy and the Italian government.

It doesn’t lay things out neatly. It’s like a weird discursive dream that spirals back around and around, with things becoming clearer on each loop. And it provides the feeling of the south of Italy better than anything else I’ve ever read .


25 Matthew Rafat March 10, 2018 at 5:18 pm

I’m surprised Czechia is mentioned without mentioning Vaclav Havel. Try Zantovsky’s Havel: A Life (2014).

For light-hearted reading, try Rachael Weiss’ The Thing about Prague (2014).


26 Nick Savage March 10, 2018 at 8:30 pm

Strange to see a lack of books on England (although in the past they would have argued they weren’t in Europe anyways).

Best book on post-war England: Englishness and Empire, by Wendy Webster


27 dearieme March 10, 2018 at 8:49 pm

Graham Robb, The Discovery of France. Stunner.


28 jason March 11, 2018 at 12:56 pm

The Skin, by Curzio Malaparte.


29 Richard w March 12, 2018 at 3:09 am

Russia under the Old Regime, by Richard Pipes.
Definitely best book about Russia, infinitely more cost effect than War and Peace.


30 Richard w March 12, 2018 at 3:11 am



31 Smith March 12, 2018 at 9:19 am

Anyone have recommendations for Austria, Hungary, or the Austro-Hungarian empire?


32 wágnerúr March 13, 2018 at 3:43 pm

for Austro-Hungarian Monarchy: Hasek: Svejk


33 King Cynic March 13, 2018 at 3:58 pm


You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.


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