Farewell 2019 – Historical Non-Fiction

Welcome to my second post looking back on 2019! I always select three nominees for each categories and crown one winner. You can find the first post on new-to-me games here.

One of the nice side effects of writing this blog is that I read a lot of history books for my research – in addition to the history books I read just for pleasure. Yes, I’m a huge nerd. Anyway, here are the three best historical non-fiction books I read this year:

John Julius Norwich: Four Princes

Since the 500th anniversary of Luther’s 95 Theses, I have spent a lot of time with early modern Europe (for example, playing Here I Stand (Ed Beach, GMT Games)). If you want to understand this period, I recommend two books: Kenneth G. Appold’s The Reformation covers the religious part, Norwich’s Four Princes takes care of the power politics as told by the stories of the leaders of the four most powerful states: the kings of France and England, Francis I and Henry VIII, the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman, and Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.

Four Princes

Four princes, four horses. Image ©Atlantic Monthly Press.

Norwich shines at interweaving the strands of the four rulers as well as linking individual events with the larger narrative. Not an academically trained historian, the author is free of the dryness that often comes with those accounts and presents a superbly entertaining book instead. On the other hand, he also feels less inhibition to present his personal biases in the book – for example, Catholicism does not exactly get a good rap in it. With that in mind, I can cordially recommend Four Princes – just make sure you don’t accidentally get the „reverse harem fantasy” of the same name.


Paul Kennedy: The Rise and Fall of British Naval Mastery

It’s surprising that it took my until this year to read this book – after all, I’m quite interested in naval matters, and Paul Kennedy’s Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (written later than The Rise and Fall of British Naval Mastery) was the book that made me realize I wanted to major in history. So here are two perspectives on the book – the points it makes in regards to sea power (especially in reply to Alfred Thayer Mahan’s The Influence of Sea Power Upon History), and its position in regards to Kennedy’s later work:
Instead of Mahan’s battle-fleet heavy interpretation of sea power, Kennedy follows a more nuanced one (a triangle of naval, commercial, and colonial strength which mutually reinforced each other during Britain’s predominance on the seas). Similarly, it was not an alleged British single-minded focus on naval matters that gained them naval mastery, but rather a balanced strategy of securing European equilibrium and expanding navally and overseas.

The Rise and Fall of British Naval Mastery

Boats, boats, boats. Image ©Humanity Books.

Just like Kennedy’s Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, this book is very well written and argues with immense strategic clarity. Not only do the books have similar titles, but Kennedy also professes at the end of the book that he is becoming more interested in the rise and fall of great powers. Talk about foreshadowing! Amusingly, however, Kennedy ends the chronological part of the book by saying that historians reaching the future in their accounts must either stop writing or leave their profession. Here, Kennedy chooses the former, but in The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, he embraces the latter with his predictions that made the book a phenomenon outside of academic circles.


Two strong books! The best historical non-fiction which I read this year, however, is…

Mary Elise Sarotte: The Collapse

I read this while doing the research for my Century of German History post on the fall of the Berlin Wall. And boy, do I wish I could convey the drama and sheer unlikeliness of the events the way Sarotte can. Her book is a masterclass in historical writing: She draws both on a variety of archival sources and has conducted a plethora of interviews with many people involved. Despite that richness of source material, the book is never dry, but instead as gripping as a novel (with many footnotes) – hinting at Sarotte’s work experience as a journalist.

The Collapse

Looking for freedom. Image ©Basic Books.

The book especially excels when writing about specific people – many of whom Sarotte has interviewed first-hand. Their motivations and challenges as well as the special circumstances under which they acted become clear, and you understand the unexpected agency people from the middle of society in this exceptionally fluid historical situations. Many of the most fateful decisions were made by mid-level executives with no directions from above (or against those directions), others were forced by the masses below.
The Collapse reminds us that history is an open-ended, contingent process, and that sometimes people like you and me – or even you and me! – have it in their hands to change it.

Which history books did you enjoy this year? Let me know in the comments!


12 thoughts on “Farewell 2019 – Historical Non-Fiction

  1. Pingback: Farewell 2019 – Non-Historical Games | Clio's Board Games

  2. Pingback: Farewell 2019 – Historical Fiction | Clio's Board Games

  3. Pingback: Farewell 2019 – Historical Board Games | Clio's Board Games

  4. whovian223

    Great list! I’m currently reading Castles of Steel (in honour of Robert Massie after I learned he has passed away this month). It’s an excellent book about the naval war in World War I. I also highly recommend the first book, Dreadnought, about the naval build-up prior to the war. I read it years ago and loved it.

    Also loved Max Hastings’ Vietnam: an Epic Tragedy. I even did a review of it! (You may have read it LOL)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. cliosboardgames Post author

      Thanks for stopping by to comment!
      Yes, I’ve read your review of Hastings’ “Epic Tragedy”. For next year, I have his “Armageddon. The Battle for Germany 1944-45” on my reading list. Checked it out from the library already!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. whovian223

        I could have sworn I had read that book, but maybe I did before I started recording my reads on Goodreads.

        In thinking about it, though, I think it was Anthony Beevor’s The Fall of Berlin: 1945. That was an excellent book.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: Farewell 2019 – On the Blog | Clio's Board Games

  6. cliosboardgames Post author

    You tempt me! I’ve always wanted to dive a bit deeper into the battle for Berlin. I know the city pretty well (been there very frequently during my undergrad years), so I could actually follow the troop movements.
    So maybe I’ll read Beevor’s account for that! But Hastings must come first, as his is a bit wider (includes the end of 1944 and the Western Front as well).

    Liked by 1 person

      1. whovian223

        Have you read “After the Reich” by Giles MacDonogh? It’s a great book about Germany immediately following World War II, not shying away from the horrors but also talking about the political and social situation as the immediate post-war period passed.

        I wrote a review of it in 2007: http://www.curledup.com/aftreich.htm

        It’s also a fascinating book.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. cliosboardgames Post author

    I haven’t! The era is very interesting – being in the twilight between World War II and the Cold War. So far, my readings on the matter have been exclusively by German authors, I think (some of which wrote in English, though).

    Liked by 1 person


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