The best history books of all time

Our edit of the best books on history, spanning the birth of Christianity to Putin’s Russia.

6 minutes to read

As the oft-repeated quote by George Santayana goes, ‘Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’ The past fascinates historians and readers alike, and history has much to teach us about our present and future. Here’s our edit of the best history books of all time.

Discover our edit of the best historical fiction of all time. 

The true histories you might not have learnt at school

The Glass Wall

by Max Egremont

Book cover for 9781509845453

The Glass Wall features an extraordinary cast of characters – contemporary and historical, foreign and indigenous – who have lived and fought in the Baltic and made the atmosphere of what was often thought to be western Europe’s furthest redoubt. Too often it has seemed to be the destiny of this region to be the front line of other people’s wars. By telling the stories of warriors and victims, of philosophers and Baltic Barons, of poets and artists, of rebels and emperors, and others who lived through years of turmoil and violence, Max Egremont reveals a fascinating part of Europe, on a frontier whose limits may still be in doubt.

The Utopians

by Anna Neima

Book cover for 9781529023077

The Utopians is the remarkable story of six experimental communities – Santiniketan-Sriniketan in India, Dartington Hall in England, Atarashiki Mura in Japan, the Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man in France, the Bruderhof in Germany and Trabuco College in America – that sprang up in the aftermath of the First World War.

Until Proven Safe

by Geoff Manaugh

Book cover for 9781509867400

Quarantine has shaped our world, yet it remains both feared and misunderstood. It is our most powerful response to uncertainty, but it operates through an assumption of guilt: in quarantine, we are considered infectious until proven safe. 

Until Proven Safe tracks the history and future of quarantine around the globe, chasing the story of emergency isolation through time and space – from the crumbling lazarettos of the Mediterranean to the corporate giants hoping to disrupt the widespread quarantine imposed by Covid-19 before the next pandemic hits through surveillance and algorithmic prediction.

Part travelogue, part intellectual history – this is a book as compelling as it is definitive, and one that could not be more urgent or timely.

Day of the Assassins

by Michael Burleigh

Book cover for 9781529030136

While there has been enormous speculation on what lay behind notorious individual political assassinations – from Julius Caesar to John F. Kennedy – the phenomenon itself has scarcely been examined as a special category of political violence, one not motivated by personal gain or vengeance.

Now, in Day of the Assassins, acclaimed historian Michael Burleigh explores the many facets of political assassination, explaining why it is more frequent in certain types of society than others and asking if assassination can either bring about change or prevent it, and whether, like a contagious disease, political murder can be catching.

The best books on early history

A (Very) Short History of Life On Earth

by Henry Gee

Book cover for 9781529060560

This lyrical and moving account takes us back to the early history of the earth – a wildly inhospitable place with swirling seas, constant volcanic eruptions and an unstable atmosphere. The triumph of life as it emerges, survives and evolves in this hostile setting is Henry Gee's riveting subject: he traces the story of life on earth from its turbulent beginnings to the emergence of early hominids and the miracle of the first creatures to fly. You'll never look at our planet in the same way again.

The best books on World War Two

Lily's Promise

by Lily Ebert

Book cover for 9781529073409

This is the moving story of Holocaust survivor Lily Ebert, written with her great-grandson Dov. When Lily was liberated at the end of the Second World War, a Jewish-American soldier handed her a banknote with the words ‘the start to a new life, good luck and happiness!’ written on it. 

Decades later, when Lily was 96, Dov decided to use social media to track down the family of that soldier. Lily finally told her compelling life story to the world, from her happy childhood in Hungary to the deaths of her family members in Auschwitz to her new life in Israel and then London, fulfilling the promise she made to her 16-year-old self to share the horrors of the holocaust with the world – in the hope that such evil would never be seen again.

Going with the Boys

by Judith Mackrell

Book cover for 9781509882939

On the front lines of the Second World War, a contingent of female journalists were bravely waging their own battle. Barred from combat zones and faced with entrenched prejudice and bureaucratic restrictions, these women were forced to fight for the right to work on equal terms as men.

Going with the Boys follows six remarkable women as their lives and careers intertwined in an intricately layered account that captures both the adversity and the vibrancy of the women’s lives as they chased down sources and narrowly dodged gunfire, as they mixed with artists and politicians like Picasso, Cocteau, and Churchill, and conducted their own tumultuous love affairs. 

In her gripping, intimate, and nuanced portrait, Judith Mackrell celebrates these courageous reporters who risked their lives for a story and who changed the rules of war reporting for ever.

The Happiest Man on Earth

by Eddie Jaku

Book cover for 9781529066333

This heartbreaking yet hopeful memoir shows us how happiness can be found even in the darkest of times. In November 1938, Eddie Jaku was beaten, arrested and taken to a German concentration camp. He endured unimaginable horrors for the next seven years and lost family, friends and his country.  But he survived. And because he survived, he vowed to smile every day. He now believes he is the ‘happiest man on earth’. This is his story. 

The Trial of Adolf Hitler

by David King

Book cover for 9781447251156

On the evening of November 8, 1923, the thirty-four-year-old Adolf Hitler stormed into a beer hall in Munich, fired his pistol in the air, and proclaimed a revolution. Seventeen hours later, all that remained of his bold move was a trail of destruction. Hitler was on the run from the police. His career seemed to be over.

In The Trial of Adolf Hitler historian David King tells the true story of how Hitler transformed the fiasco of the beer hall putsch into a stunning victory for the fledgling Nazi Party - and a haunting failure of justice with catastrophic consequences.

1939: A People’s History

by Frederick Taylor

Book cover for 9781509858767

In the autumn of 1938, Europe believed in the promise of peace. Still reeling from the ravages of the Great War, its people were desperate to rebuild their lives in a newly safe and stable era. But only a year later, the fateful decisions of just a few men had again led Europe to war, a war that would have a profound and lasting impact on millions.

Bestselling historian Frederick Taylor focuses on the day-to-day experiences of British and German people trapped in this disastrous chain of events and not, as is so often the case, the elite. Drawn from original sources, their voices, concerns and experiences reveal a marked disconnect between government and people; few ordinary citizens in either country wanted war.

1939: A People’s History is not only a vivid account of that turbulent year but also an interrogation of our capacity to go to war again . . .

The Women Who Flew for Hitler

by Clare Mulley

Book cover for 9781447274230

Hanna Reitsch and Melitta von Stauffenberg were talented, courageous women who fought convention to make their names in the male-dominated field of flight in 1930s Germany. With the war, both became pioneering test pilots and both were awarded the Iron Cross for service to the Third Reich. But they could not have been more different and neither woman had a good word to say for the other. 

In The Women Who Flew For Hitler, biographer Clare Mulley gets under the skin of these two distinctive and unconventional women, against a changing backdrop of the 1936 Olympics, the Eastern Front, the Berlin Air Club, and Hitler's bunker.  

Discover our edit of the best novels set in World War Two. 

The best books on British history

Black and British

by David Olusoga

Book cover for 9781529065602

Winner of the 2017 PEN Hessell-Tiltman Prize.

In Black and British, award-winning historian and broadcaster David Olusoga offers readers a rich and revealing exploration of the extraordinarily long relationship between the British Isles and the people of Africa. Drawing on new genetic and genealogical research, original records, expert testimony and contemporary interviews, Black and British reaches back to Roman times and to the present, and modern Britain, showing how black British history is woven into the cultural, social and economic histories of the nation.


by Peter Ackroyd

Book cover for 9780230706446

Innovation concludes Peter Ackroyd’s History of England, and runs from the end of the Boer War to  the long reign of Queen Elizabeth – via two world wars, three other monarchs and the triumphant rise of the Labour Party. Suffrage, the NHS, slum clearance, the Bloomsbury Group, 1960s idealism and free love all feature in Ackroyd's masterful narrative about the forces that shaped modern Britain.


by Linda Porter

Book cover for 9781509877058

Charles II ruled over a hedonistic court, and was described as being ‘addicted to women’, many who succumbed to his charms. In Mistresses, Linda Porter tells the story of the women who shared Charles’s bed, painting a vivid picture of both these women and of Restoration England, an era that was both glamorous and sordid.

The Burning Time

by Virginia Rounding

Book cover for 9781447241089

A vivid account of the men and women who were burned at the stake for heresy by the Tudor monarchs at London's Smithfield. The Burning Time tells the true story behind some of the key players in C. J. Sansom's Shardlake novels and Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies

A History of Modern Britain

by Andrew Marr

Book cover for 9781509839667

A brand new 10th-anniversary edition of Andrew Marr's acclaimed Sunday Times number one bestseller, updated with an extensive new chapter taking readers from Blair to Brexit.

A House Through Time

by David Olusoga

Book cover for 9781529037241

Historian and award-winning TV presenter David Olusoga and research consultant Melanie Backe-Hansen offer readers the tools to explore the histories of their own homes, as well as giving a vivid history of British cities, industry, disease and class. Packed with remarkable human stories, A House Through Time is an intimate history of ordinary lives through extraordinary buildings across Britain.

The King's Assassin

by Benjamin Woolley

Book cover for 9781509837083

The rise of George Villiers from minor gentry to royal power seemed to defy gravity. Becoming gentleman of the royal bedchamber in 1615, the young gallant enraptured James, Britain’s first Stuart king, royal adoration reaching such an intensity that the king declared he wanted the courtier to become his ‘wife’. For a decade, Villiers was at the king’s side – at court, on state occasions and in bed, right up to James’s death in March 1625. The King’s Assassin is the scandalous story of George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, lover – and murderer – of King James I.

Eight Days at Yalta

by Diana Preston

Book cover for 9781509868773

In the last winter of World War Two, Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin arrived in Yalta. Over eight remarkable days they decided on how to conduct the final stages of the war against Germany, how a defeated and how occupied Germany should be governed.

Only three months later, less than a week after the German surrender, Roosevelt was dead and Churchill was writing to the new President, Harry S. Truman, of ‘an iron curtain’ that was now ‘drawn down upon [the Soviets’] front’.

Meticulously researched and vividly written, in Eight Days at Yalta Diana Preston chronicles eight days that created the post-war world. . .

The best books on world history

The Best of Times, The Worst of Times

by Michael Burleigh

Book cover for 9781509847945

In a forensic examination of the world we now live in, acclaimed historian Michael Burleigh sets out to answer: are we living in the best, or the worst of times? Who could have imagined that China would champion globalization and lead the battle on climate change? Or that post-Soviet Russia might present a greater threat to the world’s stability than ISIS? And while we may be on the cusp of still more dramatic change, perhaps the risks will – in time – bring not only change but a wholly positive transformation.

The best books on ancient Greece


by Paul Cartledge

Book cover for 9781509873180

Acclaimed historian Paul Cartledge brings ancient Thebes vividly to life in this fascinating account of what was once the most powerful city in Ancient Greece. With a history as rich as its mythic origins, Paul argues that Thebes is central to our understanding of the ancient Greeks’ achievements – and thus to our own culture and civilization.

The best books on ancient Egypt

A World Beneath the Sands

by Toby Wilkinson

Book cover for 9781509858736

The golden age of Egyptology was undoubtedly the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a time of scholarship and adventure which began with Champollion's decipherment of hieroglyphics in 1822 and ended with the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb by Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon a hundred years later. In A World Beneath the Sands, the acclaimed Egyptologist Toby Wilkinson tells the riveting stories of the men and women whose obsession with Egypt's ancient civilisation drove them to uncover its secrets.

The best books on Russian history

The Russian Job

by Douglas Smith

Book cover for 9781509882915

Award-winning historian Douglas Smith tells the story of how American volunteers fought famine in Bolshevik Russia, saving Lenin’s revolutionary government from chaos and millions of people from starvation. Vividly written, with a rich cast of characters and a deep understanding of the period, The Russian Job shines a bright light on this strange and shadowy moment in history.

Kremlin Winter

by Robert Service

Book cover for 9781509883059

Robert Service, one of the finest historians of modern Russia, brings his deep understanding of the country to this deeply insightful book about the man who leads it. This is a riveting exploration of power politics in Russia as the country faces difficulties both at home and abroad. 

The Last of the Tsars

by Robert Service

Book cover for 9781447293101

A riveting account of the final eighteen months of the life and reign of Nicholas II, the last Tsar of All the Russias, as well as a compelling account of Russia in the aftermath of Alexander Kerensky's February Revolution, the Bolshevik seizure of power in October 1917 and the beginnings of Lenin's Soviet Republic.

The best books on Indian history

India After Gandhi

by Ramachandra Guha

Book cover for 9781447281887

Born against a background of privation and civil war, divided along lines of caste, class, language and religion, independent India emerged, somehow, as a united and democratic country. Ramachandra Guha’s hugely acclaimed book tells the full story – the pain and the struggle, the humiliations and the glories – of the world’s largest and least likely democracy.

Massively researched and elegantly written, India After Gandhi is a remarkable account of India’s rebirth, and a work already hailed as a masterpiece of single-volume history. This tenth-anniversary edition, published to coincide with seventy years of India’s independence, is revised and expanded to bring the narrative up to the present.

The best books on the history of religion

The Darkening Age

by Catherine Nixey

Book cover for 9781509816071

A Sunday Telegraph History Book of the Year for 2017.

Classicist and journalist Catherine Nixey’s debut book tells the largely unknown story of how the rise of Christianity attacked and suppressed vast swathes of classical literature, ushering in centuries of unquestioning adherence to 'one true faith'. 

The best books on German history

How to Be a Refugee


Book cover for 9781529042818

The fate of Jews living in Hitler’s Germany is most familiar as either emigration or deportation to concentration camps. But another, much rarer, side to Jewish life at that time was denial of your origin to the point where you manage to erase almost all consciousness of it. How to Be a Refugee is Simon May’s gripping account of how three women – his mother and her two sisters  – grappled with what they felt to be a lethal heritage. 

The best books on American history


by Beth Macy

Book cover for 9781447278092

The extraordinary story of two brothers from the American South who were stolen away to become circus freaks and their distraught mother’s twenty-eight year struggle to get them back.

The best books on historical figures

The Three Mothers: How the Mothers of Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and James Baldwin Shaped a Nation

by Anna Malaika Tubbs

Book cover for The Three Mothers: How the Mothers of Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and James Baldwin Shaped a Nation

These are the stories of Louise Little, Alberta King, and Berdis Baldwin – the mothers of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., and James Baldwin, respectively. 

Anna Malaika Tubbs' vital history book is part-biography, part-manifesto, and centers on three remarkable women who were traumatized by the country that both they and their sons would go onto change irrevocably.

This essential celebration of their lives and contributions to the civil rights movement serves to ensure that their stories are not erased, and that we can all learn from their wisdom and strength in this timely and important book that gives credit where it is long overdue.

Dutch Light

by Hugh Aldersey-Williams

Book cover for 9781509893317

Dutch Light is both a vivid account of the remarkable life and career of Christiaan Huygens and the story of the birth of modern science as we know it today. Christiaan Huygens was a true polymath and Europe’s greatest scientist during the latter half of the seventeenth century, developing the theory of light travelling as a wave, inventing the mechanism for the pendulum clock, and discovering the rings of Saturn – via a telescope that he had also invented. 


by Alexander Lee

Book cover for 9781447275008

This riveting biography reveals the man behind the myth, following him from cradle to grave, from the great halls of Renaissance Florence to the court of the Borgia pope, Alexander VI, from the dungeons of the Stinche prison to the Rucellai gardens, where he would begin work on some of his last great works. 

Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands

by Mary Seacole

Book cover for 9781529040326

Mary Seacole was a fiercely independent self-funded entrepreneur from Jamaica. A trained nurse, she was desperate to offer help during the Crimean War, but was denied work by officials and by Florence Nightingale. Mary knew what she wanted to achieve and wouldn’t let anything stand in her way, so she set up her famous hotel for British soldiers, offering respite from the front line. Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands is her gutsy autobiography.