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All European History Coverage

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How important are individuals in the shaping of history? Twentieth-century Europeans knew leaders whose decisions, good or ill, transformed their countries, the continent and, in some cases, the world. Ian Kershaw, one of our leading historians of the period, focuses on 12 of them in his enlightening and stimulating Personality and Power: Builders and Destroyers of Modern Europe. They range from the Russian revolutionary leader Vladimir Ilyich Lenin to Helmut Kohl, chancellor of West Germany in 1989 when the Berlin Wall came down. We learn of the personality traits and historical preconditions that brought each person to power, and Kershaw provides examples of how that power was used and an assessment of each leader’s legacy.

War was the most important enabler of power in the 20th century. Without World War I, the chances of Lenin, Josef Stalin, Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler becoming leaders would have been virtually zero. Without World War II, it is unlikely that Winston Churchill, Charles de Gaulle or Josip Broz Tito would have led their countries. Of the 12 figures in Personality and Power, only Konrad Adenauer, Mikhail Gorbachev and Kohl were never war leaders. (Francisco Franco had the Spanish Civil War, and Margaret Thatcher the war in the Falklands.)

Each leader profiled here had a strong sense of self, a relentless will to succeed and the ability to get complete loyalty from followers. Some have dark legacies, such as Hitler with the Holocaust and Lenin with communism, that still endure. Other legacies are more mixed. Between 1940 and 1945, probably no European democracy had a leader with more power than Winston Churchill. He was somewhat of a political failure before that, and his later return as prime minister from 1951 to 1955 was not a great success. But his example during the war continues to inspire people today. Similarly, although Gorbachev’s years in power were few, it is unlikely that anyone else could have instigated and pursued the policies that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. Leadership changed, however, and his policies were reversed.

These excellent in-depth profiles of major figures and their influence on millions of people help us better understand why the world is as it is today.

Ian Kershaw’s excellent in-depth profiles of 12 major leaders from 20th-century Europe help us better understand why the world is as it is today.

As World War II recedes further into the past, Jonathan Freedland has revived one story from the Holocaust that’s both historically significant and a riveting read. Freedland, the author of several thrillers and a correspondent for The Guardian, writes with a novelist’s verve to tell the story of Rudolf Vrba, the first Jewish person to escape from Auschwitz.

The Escape Artist opens with Vrba (born Walter Rosenberg) and Fred Wetzler, another young prisoner, in the middle of an escape attempt. With the help of two other prisoners, Vrba and Wetzler climbed into a woodpile to hide, the first step in escaping the death camp. “For the teenage [Vrba], it was an exhilarating feeling—but not a wholly new one,” Freedland writes. “Because this was not his first escape. And it would not be his last.”

In the late 1930s, leaders in Slovakia seized Jews’ assets and steadily banned them from public life, including schools. Even so, a young Vrba taught himself new languages and learned chemistry from an illicit textbook. As deportation approached, Vrba tried to escape to England but landed in a transit camp. He escaped the camp, got captured again and was eventually sent to Auschwitz. The Nazis had convinced the deported Jews that they were merely being resettled, but once inside Auschwitz, Vrba began to understand the truth: The Nazis were methodically killing millions of Jewish people.

When Vrba was put to work in the section of Auschwitz that processed stolen Jewish belongings, he found a new level of corruption: The Nazis had stolen every material possession from each deported Jewish person, and SS guards were making deals with enslaved workers to keep certain valuables. The brutality and inhumanity of Nazis at every level is chilling and can make for difficult reading. At the same time, Freedland’s depth of research gives a more complete picture of Auschwitz, and Vrba’s inventiveness and ultimate escape from the camp, and his efforts to tell the world the truth about its horrors, make for a gripping narrative.

The book’s last section follows Vrba through his long postwar life in Canada, where he worked as a biochemistry professor at the University of British Columbia. Vrba wrote his own memoir in the 1960s, but now The Escape Artist vividly brings his story to a new generation of readers.

Jonathan Freedland tells the story of Rudolf Vrba, the first Jewish person to escape from Auschwitz, with a novelist's verve.

Caroline Moorehead, author of the New York Times bestselling Resistance Quartet, brings her prodigious research and storytelling talents to Mussolini’s Daughter, her study of Edda Mussolini, the eldest and favorite child of Benito Mussolini and one of the most powerful women in 1930s Europe. In her foreword, Moorehead notes the challenges facing any biographer of the Mussolini family, including the difficulty of separating swirling myths from facts. Yet through her skillful mining of archival materials, personal papers and memoirs, Moorhead has created for readers—even ones previously unfamiliar with the rise of fascism in Italy—a nuanced portrait of a complex woman.

One of the pleasures of a deeply researched biography is being transported into the past through rich details that bring historical figures to life. Moorehead is masterful at this. For instance, we learn early on that in 1910, Edda’s mother, Rachele, already pregnant, defied her family and left home to live with Mussolini. The young couple walked five kilometers in a downpour, taking with them only “four sheets, four plates and six knives, spoons and forks.”

Moorehead writes that “Mussolini and Fascism made Edda what she was.” With this in mind, the author devotes considerable space to tracing Mussolini’s rising political career, which paralleled Edda’s youth. By the time Edda was 11, her father was the editor of a successful newspaper “and the leader of a quickly growing political movement.” In 1922, he became prime minister of Italy and set about consolidating power to become dictator.

In 1930, in an impressive ceremony Moorehead describes as “the wedding of the century,” glamorous, mercurial 19-year-old Edda married Count Galeazzo Ciano, son of one of the founders of the Fascist Party. Although she was part of a “golden couple,” Edda also had a fierce independent streak.

Moorehead spends ample time covering World War II and the ways in which the military conflict, Italy’s alliance with Germany and complex internal power struggles determined the fates of the two men closest to Edda. Despite her efforts to save him, her husband was executed for treason in January of 1944—an outcome Mussolini did little to prevent. Mussolini himself was killed in April 1945. Edda, meanwhile, escaped to Switzerland with her three children. Though for a time she professed to hate Mussolini, Edda once told an interviewer that her father “was the only man I ever really loved.”

Moorehead’s clear, compelling prose and sure-handed grasp of historical events combine to make Mussolini’s Daughter read like a page-turning thriller, one that will have special appeal for readers fascinated by European history, World War II and the conditions that gave rise to fascism.

Caroline Moorehead’s clear, compelling prose and sure-handed grasp of historical events combine to make Mussolini’s Daughter read like a page-turning thriller.
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When award-winning British journalist Simon Parkin (A Game of Birds and Wolves) dug through the National Archives in London looking for a story idea, he literally found one: A newspaper called The Camp was mistakenly folded between some pages. Produced by German and Austrian internees at a camp for “enemy aliens” during World War II, the newspaper revealed details about a time and place discreetly buried within a shameful chapter of England’s fight against the Nazis. The Island of Extraordinary Captives: A Painter, a Poet, an Heiress, and a Spy in a World War II British Internment Camp brings to light a truly extraordinary example of humanity at its best and worst in a country at war, sometimes with itself.

With copious and often heart-wrenching detail, Parkin brings this interlude back to life through the experiences of those imprisoned in Hutchinson camp on the Isle of Man and their thwarted yet persistent rescuers. In 1938, Peter Fleischmann, a Jewish teenager thought to be an orphan, escaped Berlin via the legendary Kindertransport train and landed in England. Then, in 1940, he was arrested. Suspected of (but never charged with) being a Nazi spy, he was released, then arrested again, as British fears about refugees intensified. Thousands of people, young and old, Jews and Nazi sympathizers alike, were deported or imprisoned in camps on the Isle of Man in the Irish Sea. 

In Hutchinson camp, the arts were encouraged as an antidote to anxiety and despair, enabling imprisoned painters, composers, journalists, scholars, poets, sculptors and musicians to create “Hutchinson University.” There, Fleischmann flourished. He and many others—such as his mentor, Dadaist pioneer Kurt Schwitters—would later excel in their fields.

Justice seekers like Bertha Bracey of the Germany Emergency Committee kept pressure on the government to end the misbegotten idea of mass internment, but Prime Minister Winston Churchill defended it as a necessary wartime protection. “Most regrettable and deplorable things have happened,” Sir John Anderson said in an address to Parliament in 1940. It was as close as England ever came to an apology.

In addition to the prison newspaper, Parkin’s primary sources include firsthand accounts of the tragic sinking of the SS Andora Star, an ill-equipped former cruise ship that deported hundreds of “enemy aliens” to Canada and was attacked by a German U-boat, and interviews with internees’ friends and descendants. It is a cautionary yet inspiring tale, one that bears remembering.

Simon Parkin brings the shameful history of British internment camps during World War II to life in The Island of Extraordinary Captives.
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“Finis Austriae” was the only entry in Sigmund Freud’s journal on the day the Nazi army flooded over the Austrian border. In Saving Freud: The Rescuers Who Brought Him to Freedom, former Newsweek foreign correspondent Andrew Nagorski maps the Nazi takeover of Austria and the urgent operation to rescue Freud, one of Austria’s most famous and most devoted Jewish sons, along with fifteen other people, including his personal doctor, in-laws and other family members.

Nagorski is masterful at juxtaposing the evolution of the global emergency that became World War II with the deep interiority of a man whose passionate life work concerned people’s half-hidden thoughts. The father of psychoanalysis downplayed the threat the Nazis posed, clinging to his optimism that humans would turn back to the light and all would be made right, until it was almost calamitously too late. Saving Freud is the sort of book that, though you know the outcome of the events, still makes you hope with Freud that something might take a turn for the better. Nagorski has a gift for revealing that everything—worldwide emergencies, far-away news, political decisions—is, in the end, about people. This is wonderfully appropriate for a book about Freud, who laid the groundwork for interrogating and understanding the inner self.

It is dizzying to think of everything that had to be achieved to move a large, wealthy and well-known Jewish family out of Nazi territory and into the relative safety of the broader world, which was still often unwelcoming to both Jews and immigrants. Yet Saving Freud tells the story of a group of people—including Freud’s daughter Anna and her lover, Dorothy Tiffany Burlingham (heiress to the Tiffany & Co. fortune); the U.S. ambassador to France, William Bullitt; and Marie Bonaparte, princess of Greece and great-grandniece to Napoleon—who did just that. Motivated by love and towering respect for a man and his work, the unlikely team cooperated seamlessly to achieve the near impossible. It is a tale of good-heartedness, of human devotion and of people who unhesitatingly rushed in to do the right thing. In this way, it feels like a relief to read. Far from being a dry historical account, the book’s emphasis on the personal creates a compelling, page-turning narrative that is wholly engrossing and difficult to put down. Nagorski has written a book for our time, reminding us of the potential for good and adherence to higher ideals in moments of global emergency.

Far from being a dry historical account, Saving Freud is a compelling, page-turning narrative of the urgent operation to rescue Sigmund Freud from the Nazis.
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Reading One Hundred Saturdays: Stella Levi and the Search for a Lost World by Michael Frank is like watching an artist piece together a mosaic. A splash of blue sea here. A mother’s song over there. The smell of Purim pastries. The flash of first love. But the mosaic is never completed. Instead, a terrible wind descends, leaving the artist to pick up the pieces as best she can and begin a new image.

Here, the artist is Stella Levi, a 99-year-old Jewish woman living in New York City. The mosaic is the Juderia, the main Jewish quarter on the island of Rhodes, where Levi was born in 1923. And the wind is the Holocaust, which reached the Juderia in the last months of World War II and scattered Levi’s parents, family, friends and community. One Hundred Saturdays is the story of that time and place, but it is also much more: a story of friendship, survival, reinvention and courage.

Frank, author of The Mighty Franks and What Is Missing and a 2020 Guggenheim Fellow, met Levi by chance—or perhaps serendipity—when he rushed in late to attend a lecture, and the elegant older woman in the chair next to him struck up a conversation. The following Saturday, he found himself in Levi’s Greenwich Village apartment, the first of 100 Saturdays that he would spend with her over the following six years. Over the course of those visits, Levi became both a friend and muse as she recounted the minutest details of her life, from its rich beginning to its remarkable present.

Maira Kalman’s illustrations, heavily influenced by Matisse with their deceptive simplicity, rich colors and delicate textures, are perfect complements to Levi’s story, portraying vanished scenes from life on Rhodes before the Holocaust. Together with the text of Frank’s beautiful book, they create a sensitive portrait of an extraordinary woman. Fiercely independent, keenly intelligent and remorselessly honest, Levi refuses to be defined solely by the tragedy of her youth. Her life has been a constant evolution, and her final years are being lived with the same vitality as her earliest ones.

One Hundred Saturdays is the story of a Jewish community before the Holocaust, but it is also much more: a story of friendship, survival, reinvention and courage.
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The role Pope Pius XII played during World War II has long been a subject of controversy. Under great pressure to align himself with the Allies or Axis powers, he chose silence and diplomatic neutrality. Some saw him as a heroic champion of the oppressed. Others thought he turned a blind eye to the killing of Jews and other vulnerable populations and did not use his moral authority to work for peace. Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David I. Kertzer explores the truth of how Pius XII handled this situation with great skill, combining extraordinary documentation and elegant writing, in The Pope at War: The Secret History of Pius XII, Mussolini, and Hitler.

Early in his papacy, which began in 1939, Pius XII decided to tread a careful path. Once World War II began, his public pronouncements were crafted so that each side could interpret them as supporting their cause. The pope often said, for example, that true peace required justice—a familiar theme to Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini, who complained that the Treaty of Versailles was not a true peace because it was unjust. The pope insisted it was his role to attend to spiritual, not political, matters. Using this excuse, he didn’t criticize Italy’s anti-Jewish racial laws. He didn’t denounce totalitarian states, until the only one left was the Soviet Union. In his first speech after the war, he emphasized the Nazi regime’s campaign against the Catholic Church and didn’t make any mention of the Nazis’ extermination of European Jews nor Italy’s part in the Axis cause.

The Vatican archives of this period were sealed when Pius XII died in 1958, but they became available to researchers in March 2020. This book is based on many sources but is the first to take advantage of these previously unexplored materials. (Among their revelations are secret negotiations between the pope and Hitler.) Kertzer believes, based on this new evidence, that “Pius XII saw his primary responsibility to be the protection of the institutional church, its property, its prerogatives, and its ability to fulfill its mission as he saw it.” But Pius XII was also aware that, to many people, he failed to provide courageous moral leadership, which Kertzer outlines in gripping detail in his outstanding book.

David I. Kertzer explores the role Pope Pius XII played in WWII with great skill, extraordinary documentation and elegant writing.

Magda Hellinger was a 25-year-old Jewish kindergarten teacher when she was deported to Auschwitz from Slovakia in March of 1942. She was one of the few who survived more than three years in a concentration camp, eventually relocating to Australia, where she lived to be almost 90. During her lifetime, Hellinger shared her experiences in interviews with organizations such as the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, all while secretly writing a memoir of her experiences at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

The Nazis Knew My Name is grounded in that memoir, self-published in 2003, but enhanced by Hellinger’s daughter, Maya Lee, who has added further research and details from her mother’s oral testimonies. The result is a compelling and seamless portrait of a young woman who managed to survive and save others through cunning bravery and compassionate leadership.

At the core of Hellinger’s approach was this: “I constantly encouraged women to work together—a very simple form of resistance. A lonely, isolated woman was always more vulnerable than one who had others looking out for her.” Her determination and use of resistance tactics emerge time and again in this chronological account of her imprisonment, which lasted until the end of World War II.

When Hellinger was given the role of block leader at Auschwitz, she realized it was crucial that the prisoners under her charge avoid any behavior that would attract attention from Nazi officials. She therefore focused on trying to keep the women under her care as healthy as possible, making sure newcomers understood the rules of the camp and warning them of the most volatile guards. And while it was dangerous to challenge SS officers directly, at key moments Hellinger did exactly that, often risking her own life to win some small concession, such as replacing worn clothing for the prisoners.

The strain of Hellinger’s various roles must have taken an enormous psychological toll. At one point, she had 30,000 women under her care, yet she didn’t falter and always returned to the touchstone of cooperation. She mobilized others to improve sanitary conditions, ensure that food was distributed fairly and hide the most vulnerable prisoners to prevent them from being selected for the gas chamber. “If we could do these things, we might save a few lives, or make life a little more bearable,” Hellinger writes. “But we had to work together.”

The Nazis Knew My Name offers dreadful insights into the workings of Auschwitz-Birkenau, but at its heart, it remains an extraordinary portrait of one young woman who fought for others in the midst of unimaginable horror.

Holocaust survivor Magda Hellinger offers a compelling memoir of fighting for others in the midst of unimaginable horror.
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Sure, the Plantagenets fought each other for a couple of generations, and the Tudors had wives and dynastic rivals beheaded. But if you think their reigns were bloody, just wait until you meet the Merovingians, the riveting royal family in Shelley Puhak’s The Dark Queens: The Bloody Rivalry That Forged the Medieval World. The violent struggles of House Brunhild and House Fredegund make those later conflicts look like kindergarten playtime.

The Merovingians were the rulers of the Franks in the Middle Ages, in territory now encompassing most of France and western Germany. History books have tended to neglect them—but two Merovingian queens have survived in legend and art, in much distorted forms. Puhak, an acclaimed poet, now brings a feminist eye to Queens Brunhild and Fredegund, who in real life were savvy, powerful and dangerous women.

Brunhild, a Visigoth princess, and Fredegund, a formerly enslaved woman who charmed her way to a throne, were married to half-brothers, each of whom ruled over part of the Frankish territory. The brothers were deadly competitors, and after they were both assassinated, their widows took power as regents for young sons and continued the savage rivalry.

Murders, kidnappings, perilous escapes, suicide missions, poisoned knives, marriage plots, witchcraft allegations: This book has them all. Fredegund, the more vicious ruler, attempted 12 assassinations and succeeded at six. Brunhild maneuvered her way into regencies for her son, grandsons and great-grandsons. One queen died in her bed; the other met an end so horrible that it’s the only thing many French people know about her.

The king who ultimately succeeded to both their thrones consciously erased them from history in a Stalin-esque purge. Later medieval writers vilified them as bossy harridans. Bizarrely, Brunhild lives on in name only as the “Brünnhilde” of the German epic poem “The Song of the Nibelungs” and Wagner’s Ringoperas.

Puhak doesn’t pretend these women weren’t ruthless in their pursuit of power, but she also acknowledges the misogynist social and political context that shaped them. Most of all, The Dark Queens demonstrates that Brunhild’s and Fredegund’s names deserve to be in the historical annals as much as any king’s.

Murders, kidnappings, perilous escapes, suicide missions, poisoned knives, marriage plots, witchcraft allegations: The Dark Queens has them all.
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While the Middle Ages may seem like ancient history, the proliferation of medieval-themed festivals testifies to our enduring interest in knights, jousting and chivalry. Such gatherings present only the thinnest veneer of the times, of course, masking the rich details that characterized the Middle Ages. With fast-paced storytelling, historian Dan Jones’ captivating Powers and Thrones: A New History of the Middle Ages carries readers over the expansive history of the years 410 to 1527. We meet kings and philosophers, clerics and bankers, theologians and scientists, and explorers and navigators as Jones illustrates an era full of the sorts of challenges we still grapple with today: pandemics, the privilege of a moneyed merchant class, war, climate change and more.

Jones’ magisterial history opens with the fall of Rome in the early fifth century. Mass migrations and a changing climate contributed to an already weakened imperial government, and invaders eventually tore down the walls of the empire. By the sixth and seventh centuries, the first Islamic empires came to power, ushering in new developments in politics and science. Jones examines the roles of monks and knights during this time and explores the age of the Franks, who established a pseudo-Roman Christian empire that gave birth to the Crusades. Jones also helpfully points out that the Crusades did not always feature conflict between Christians and Muslims in battle for control of Jerusalem, but in fact several Crusades grew out of intra-Christian disagreements about orthodoxy and heresy.

In all, Jones introduces readers to the “merchants who invented extraordinary new financial techniques to make themselves and the world richer; scholars who revived the wisdom of the ancients and founded some of today’s greatest universities; and the architects and engineers who built the cities, cathedrals, and castles that still stand five hundred years on, as portals back to the medieval world.” A sprawling book to cover a sprawling history, Powers and Thrones is essential reading for everyone interested in the ways a 1,100-year period changed the course of our cultural history in profound ways.

With fast-paced storytelling, Dan Jones introduces the kings, philosophers, clerics, bankers, theologians, scientists and navigators who defined the Middle Ages.
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Clothing can accomplish many things. It can bestow group identity or express individuality. Creating it can be both an artistic outlet and drudgery. It can reflect the highest standards of craftsmanship or be as simple as sewing a seam. It is both performance and practicality. And, as we learn from Lucy Adlington’s The Dressmakers of Auschwitz: The True Story of the Women Who Sewed to Survive, clothing can be a lifeline out of hell.

It’s difficult to imagine a more unlikely (or hideous) juxtaposition than a fashion salon in Auschwitz. But there it was: a fashion studio and workshop literally yards away from the interrogation block used to torture prisoners. Author and costume historian Adlington discovered the “Upper Salon” while researching a book on the global textile industry during World War II. Established by the larcenous and amoral Hedwig Höss, wife of Auschwitz commander Rudolf Höss, the salon’s official mission was to provide beautiful, haute couture clothing to the wives of top-ranking Nazis, female SS guards at the camp and, foremost, Frau Höss herself. The salon’s other purpose was to provide a safe haven for the enslaved female laborers who, under the supervision of Marta Fuchs, a Jewish prisoner from Slovakia, cut, sewed and altered the outfits that would adorn their tormentors.

Adlington does an excellent job of telling the story of Marta and all the other women whose lives were spared because they had the skills to work in the comparative safety of the Upper Salon. She also provides the greater historical context of how the Nazi government viewed fashion as both a powerful propaganda weapon and an important tool for funding the Holocaust.

This information is helpful in understanding the journeys these designers, seamstresses and cutters took to Auschwitz and the Upper Salon, and overall Adlington weaves historical information into the individual dressmakers’ stories well. But the most powerful lesson from The Dressmakers of Auschwitz is how the bonds of friendship, family and skill allowed these women to survive with humanity while resisting the brutality around them.

It’s difficult to imagine a salon in Auschwitz, but there was in fact a fashion studio mere yards away from the interrogation block used to torture prisoners.

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