The best history books of all time

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

21/10/2021
6 minutes to read
Stack of old books with a pocket watch draped over them

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.

Looking for fiction? Discover our edit of the best historical fiction books of all time.

The true histories you might not have learnt at school

In the Midst of Civilized Europe

by Jeffrey Veidlinger

Book cover for In the Midst of Civilized Europe

In Ukraine and Poland, over 100,000 Jews were murdered by peasants, townsmen, and soldiers between the years of 1918 and 1921. Jews were seen as causing the turmoil of the Russian Revolution, resulting in ordinary people robbing, assaulting, and killing their Jewish neighbours without impunity. 

Today these pogroms – ethnic riots – have been mostly forgotten, despite dominating headlines and international affairs at the time, with aid workers warning that many Jewish populations were in danger of extermination. Twenty years later, these grave predictions would prove devastatingly true.

In the Midst of Civilized Europe reframes the pogroms as a turning point in the twentieth century. In captivating prose, renowned historian Jeffrey Veidlinger shows for the first time how this wave of genocidal violence created the conditions for the Holocaust.

The World's War: Forgotten Soldiers of Empire

by David Olusoga

Book cover for The World's War: Forgotten Soldiers of Empire

In this vital work, historian David Olusoga describes how Europe's Great War became the World's War, and explores the experiences and sacrifices of four million non-European, non-white people whose stories have remained too long in the shadows.

A unique account of the millions of colonial troops who fought in the First World War, and why they were later air-brushed out of history, David Olusoga's meticulously researched The World's War is simply not to be missed.


The Glass Wall

by Max Egremont

Book cover for The Glass Wall

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 The Utopians

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 Until Proven Safe

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 Day of the Assassins

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 A (Very) Short History of Life On Earth

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 history books about World War Two

Lily's Promise

by Lily Ebert

Book cover for Lily's Promise

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.

Eight Days at Yalta

by Diana Preston

Book cover for Eight Days at Yalta

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. . .

Going with the Boys

by Judith Mackrell

Book cover for Going with the Boys

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 The Happiest Man on Earth

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 The Trial of Adolf Hitler

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 1939: A People’s History

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 The Women Who Flew for Hitler

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 Black and British

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.

Innovation

by Peter Ackroyd

Book cover for Innovation

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.

Mistresses

by Linda Porter

Book cover for Mistresses

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 The Burning Time

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 A History of Modern Britain

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 A House Through Time

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 best books on world history

The Best of Times, The Worst of Times

by Michael Burleigh

Book cover for The Best of Times, The Worst of Times

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.

Falling Off the Edge

by Alex Perry

Book cover for Falling Off the Edge

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, international corporations and governments have embraced the idea of a global village: a shrinking, booming world in which everyone benefits. What if that's not the case? Alex Perry, award-winning foreign correspondent, travels from the South China Sea to the highlands of Afghanistan to the Sahara to see first-hand globalization at the sharp end -- and it's not pretty.

The best books on ancient Greece

Thebes

by Paul Cartledge

Book cover for Thebes

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.

Pandora’s Jar

by Natalie Haynes

Book cover for Pandora’s Jar

The Greek myths are among the world's most important cultural building blocks and they have been retold many times, but rarely do they focus on the remarkable women at the heart of these ancient stories.

Now, in Pandora's Jar: Women in the Greek Myths, Natalie Haynes – broadcaster, writer and passionate classicist – redresses this imbalance. Taking Pandora and her jar (the box came later) as the starting point, she puts the women of the Greek myths on equal footing with the menfolk. After millennia of stories telling of gods and men, be they Zeus or Agamemnon, Paris or Odysseus, Oedipus or Jason, the voices that sing from these pages are those of Hera, Athena and Artemis, and of Clytemnestra, Jocasta, Eurydice and Penelope.


The best books on ancient Egypt

A World Beneath the Sands

by Toby Wilkinson

Book cover for A World Beneath the Sands

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 The Russian Job

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 Kremlin Winter

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 The Last of the Tsars

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 Diary of Lena Mukhina

by Lena Mukhina

Book cover for The Diary of Lena Mukhina

In May 1941 Lena Mukhina was an ordinary teenage girl, living in Leningrad, worrying about her homework and whether Vova - the boy she liked - liked her. Then, on 22 June 1941, Hitler broke his pact with Stalin and declared war on the Soviet Union.

All too soon, Leningrad was besieged and life became a living hell. Lena and her family fought to stay alive; their city was starving and its citizens were dying in their hundreds of thousands. From day to dreadful day, Lena records her experiences: the desperate hunt for food, the bitter cold of the Russian winter and the cruel deaths of those she loved.

A truly remarkable account of this most terrible era in modern history, The Diary of Lena Mukhina is the vivid first-hand testimony of a courageous young woman struggling simply to survive.

The best books on Indian history

India After Gandhi

by Ramachandra Guha

Book cover for India After Gandhi

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.

India

by V. S. Naipaul

Book cover for India

Nobel laureate V. S. Naipaul first visited India in 1962 at the age of twenty-nine, hoping to settle the ghosts of a painful ancestral past. An Area of Darkness chronicles his initial visit as estrangement gives way to connections and conversations. Prompted by the Emergency of 1975, India: A Wounded Civilization presents an intellectual portrait of a country whose people are no longer so willing to speak or bear witness. India: A Million Mutinies Now captures a panorama of voices and stories fifteen years later, at another moment of national upheaval.

Born of Naipaul’s wish to see for himself the homeland from which he was twice displaced, India emerges as an invaluable account of a nation in times of dramatic change.

The best books on the history of religion

God: An Anatomy

by Francesca Stavrakopoulou

Book cover for God: An Anatomy

Three thousand years ago, in the region we now call Israel and Palestine, people worshipped an array of deities led by a god called El. El had seventy children, all of whom were gods themselves; one of these children, Yahweh, fought humans and monsters and eventually evolved into the God of the great monotheistic faiths. The history of God in culture stretches back centuries before the Bible was written.

Elegantly written and fiercely argued, Professor Francesca Stavrakopoulou provides a fascinating analysis of God’s cultural DNA, and in the process explores the founding principles of Western culture.

The Darkening Age

by Catherine Nixey

Book cover for The Darkening Age

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'. 

Lost Islamic History: Reclaiming Muslim Civilisation from the Past

by Firas Alkhateeb

Book cover for Lost Islamic History: Reclaiming Muslim Civilisation from the Past

In the bestselling work Lost Islamic History, Firas Alkhateeb seeks to shine a new light on the contributions of Muslim thinkers, scientists and theologians, not to mention statesmen and soldiers, which have been overlooked for millennia. This important book rescues from oblivion a forgotten past, charting its narrative from Muhammad to modern-day nation-states. From Abbasids and Ottomans to Mughals and West African kings,  Alkhateeb sketches key personalities, inventions and historical episodes to show the monumental impact of Islam on global society and culture.


The best books on German history

How to Be a Refugee

by Simon May

Book cover for How to Be a Refugee

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. 

Germania

by Simon Winder

Book cover for Germania

There are many reasons to be fascinated by Germany: forests, architecture and fairy tales, not to mention its history and inhabitants’ penchant for very peculiar food. Our distant and often maligned cousin, this is a place in which innumerable strange characters have held power, in which a chaotic jigsaw of borders have moved about seemingly at random, and which at the dark heart of the 20th century fell into the hands of truly terrible forces. And now Simon Winder is here to tell us everything else there is to know about this mesmerizing, tortured and endlessly fascinating country.


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 Dutch Light

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. 

Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands

by Mary Seacole

Book cover for Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands

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.

Machiavelli

by Alexander Lee

Book cover for Machiavelli

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.