Three years after finishing university, most of my reading is still historical non-fiction – be that books I read for this blog or just for my pleasure. Here are the three I enjoyed most this year.
You can find the other posts in the Farewell 2021 series here:
Richard Overy: Russia’s War
The Soviet Union’s performance in World War II was a mystery to western observers for decades. They needed to rely on the limited intelligence the western democracies had on the Soviet Union, and, after the war, increasingly on the German generals’ accounts of the war on the Eastern Front (always one-sided, and often self-serving). With the archives opened after the fall of the Soviet Union, several key works aimed to amend this – Russia’s War being one of them. Overy’s analysis points out both the Soviet Union’s assets (the forced industrialization of the 1930s, the high degree ideological of mobilization, and the Soviet citizens’ experience with harsh privations) and its liabilities (the extreme top-down structure of the Soviet Union, which was overcome by encouraging lower-level initiative – but only as long as the war lasted). Stalin, of course, falls in both categories, oscillating between good judgment and paranoia. The book works well as a companion to No Retreat! The Russian Front (Carl Paradis, GMT Games) – or the other way round.
Peter Steinbach/Johannes Tuchel: Georg Elser
I’ve read this for my blog post on German resistance to the Nazis and could not but devote a long paragraph of the post to Georg Elser – even though (or maybe because) Elser was the most peculiar of resistance fighters: A Communist, but not in touch with the party structure for years before his attempt to assassinate Hitler. A loner, but always able to make new relationships and trust in others when he needed it. Strictly against war, and thus even more convinced of the need to use violence.
The book is divided in three parts – first, an account of Elser’s life and assassination attempt, then an overview of the development of historiographical interpretation, finally the original sources. Notwithstanding all these details, it is a breeze to read. Unfortunately, there seems to be no translation of the German original.
Frederick the Great: History of the Seven Years’ War
Did I mention original sources? – It’s always a good idea to go back to what the contemporaries wrote. Thus, I read Frederick the Great’s account of the Seven Years’ War. The book begins with Frederick’s detailed refutation of the charges levelled against him that he was the aggressor in the conflict – while his troops may have fired the first shots in 1756, he says, the already-concluded offensive alliance of Austria, France, Russia, and Saxony was only finishing its preparations and planned to strike in 1757. Then follow the campaign narratives – from the heroic first Prussian offensives into Saxony and Bohemia and the strikes against French and Russian armies to the ever more desperate defense of Silesia. You feel why Frederick entered the war as a king in his prime and left it as an old man. Despite the gravitas, Frederick’s witticisms (and his gossipy assessment of friends and foes) will keep you entertained as well as educated. Several original documents – diplomatic as well as military – round out the book. And obviously, the book made me want to play Friedrich (Richard Sivél, Histogame) again.
What were your favorite historical non-fiction books this year? – Let me know in the comments!