The best books to truly understand the First World War

Who am I?

Adam Zamoyski is a British historian of Polish origin. He is the author of over a dozen award winning books. His family originates in Poland. His parents left the country when it was invaded by Germany and Russia in 1939, and were stranded in exile when the Soviets took it over at the end of World War II. Drawn to it as much by the historical processes at work there as by family ties, Zamoyski began to visit Poland in the late 1960s. His interest in the subject is combined with a feel for its connections to the history and culture of other nations, and a deep understanding of the pan-European context.


I wrote...

Warsaw 1920: Lenin’s Failed Conquest of Europe

By Adam Zamoyski,

Book cover of Warsaw 1920: Lenin’s Failed Conquest of Europe

What is my book about?

Zamoyski documents the dramatic and little-known story of how, in the summer of 1920, Lenin came within a hair's breadth of shattering the painstakingly constructed Versailles peace settlement and spreading Bolshevism to Western Europe.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of World War One: A Short History

Adam Zamoyski Why did I love this book?

This is undoubtedly the best overview of the war. It really is short and takes the reader on a brisk, witty, and thoroughly enjoyable canter through the events. Yet it is by no means superficial. Thoughtful and insightful, it is the work of a master.

By Norman Stone,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked World War One as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The First World War was the overwhelming disaster from which everything else in the twentieth century stemmed. Fourteen million combatants died, four empires were destroyed, and even the victors' empires were fatally damaged. World War I took humanity from the nineteenth century forcibly into the twentieth,and then, at Versailles, cast Europe on the path to World War II as well. In World War One , Norman Stone, one of the world's greatest historians, has achieved the almost impossible task of writing a terse and witty short history of the war. A captivating, brisk narrative, World War One is Stone's masterful…


Book cover of Towards the Flame: Empire, War and the End of Tsarist Russia

Adam Zamoyski Why did I love this book?

The outbreak of war was hastened, if not actually caused by, the fact that the whole of Central and Eastern Europe was governed by failed states. The Russian, German and Austrian empires had outlived their respective raisons d’être and, either unwilling or incapable of forging new ones through radical reform, hoped to justify their survival through the pursuit of success in the international arena, and ultimately through war. This is a brilliant account of the doomed attempts to reform the greatest yet most fragile of these states, and of the slow car-crash that ensued.

By Dominic Lieven,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Towards the Flame as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

FINANCIAL TIMES BOOKS OF THE YEAR 2015

The Russian decision to mobilize in July 1914 may have been the single most catastrophic choice of the modern era. Some articulate, thoughtful figures around the Tsar understood Russia's fragility, and yet they were shouted down by those who were convinced that, despite Germany's patent military superiority, Russian greatness required decisive action. Russia's rulers thought they were acting to secure their future, but in fact - after millions of deaths and two revolutions - they were consigning their entire class to death or exile and their country to a uniquely terrible generations-long experiment…


Book cover of Dance of the Furies: Europe and the Outbreak of World War I

Adam Zamoyski Why did I love this book?

This book provides a radically alternative perspective on what this event meant for ordinary people. Using a wide range of letters, diaries, and memoirs, Neiberg reveals that most people had no idea what the war was about and saw no good reason for it, while the soldiers were often confused as to whom they were fighting and which part of the world they were in. It is a short book but an enlightening read.

By Michael Neiberg,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Dance of the Furies as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The common explanation for the outbreak of World War I depicts Europe as a minefield of nationalism, needing only the slightest pressure to set off an explosion of passion that would rip the continent apart. But in a crucial reexamination of the outbreak of violence, Michael Neiberg shows that ordinary Europeans, unlike their political and military leaders, neither wanted nor expected war during the fateful summer of 1914. By training his eye on the ways that people outside the halls of power reacted to the rapid onset and escalation of the fighting, Neiberg dispels the notion that Europeans were rabid…


Book cover of The Fortress: The Siege of Przemysl and the Making of Europe's Bloodlands

Adam Zamoyski Why did I love this book?

This book not only tells the fascinating story of the great siege in 1914-15 of the supposedly impregnable fortress of Przemyśl. It is a highly readable and often darkly humorous account, based on an extraordinary array of sources in several languages, paints a vivid picture of the political and military shambles into which the Austro-Hungarian Empire had fallen. With chilling precision, it also identifies the presence of many of the germs which would flourish into the horrors which visited the same area in the following decades.

By Alexander Watson,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Fortress as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?


A prizewinning historian tells the dramatic story of the siege that changed the course of the First World War

In September 1914, just a month into World War I, the Russian army laid siege to the fortress city of Przemysl, the Hapsburg Empire's most important bulwark against invasion. For six months, against storm and starvation, the ragtag garrison bitterly resisted, denying the Russians a quick victory. Only in March 1915 did the city fall, bringing occupation, persecution, and brutal ethnic cleansing.

In The Fortress, historian Alexander Watson tells the story of the battle for Przemysl, showing how it marked the…


Book cover of Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World

Adam Zamoyski Why did I love this book?

The complicated business of tidying up after the defeat of the Central Powers and the attempt to put in place a lasting peace is nowhere better covered than in this book. It performs the far from easy feat of explaining the myriad conflicting interests with a detached understanding, which helps one understand the power of the forces unleashed by the war and just how insoluble were the problems these had created.

By Margaret MacMillan,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Paris 1919 as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

National Bestseller

New York Times Editors’ Choice

Winner of the PEN Hessell Tiltman Prize

Winner of the Duff Cooper Prize

Silver Medalist for the Arthur Ross Book Award
of the Council on Foreign Relations

Finalist for the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award

For six months in 1919, after the end of “the war to end all wars,” the Big Three—President Woodrow Wilson, British prime minister David Lloyd George, and French premier Georges Clemenceau—met in Paris to shape a lasting peace. In this landmark work of narrative history, Margaret MacMillan gives a dramatic and intimate view of those fateful days, which…


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A Long Way from Iowa: From the Heartland to the Heart of France

By Janet Hulstrand,

Book cover of A Long Way from Iowa: From the Heartland to the Heart of France

Janet Hulstrand Author Of A Long Way from Iowa: From the Heartland to the Heart of France

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Who am I?

Author Reader Editor Francophile Minnesotan Once and forever Brooklynite

Janet's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

This memoir chronicles the lives of three generations of women with a passion for reading, writing, and travel. The story begins in 1992 in an unfinished attic in Brooklyn as the author reads a notebook written by her grandmother nearly 100 years earlier. This sets her on a 30-year search to find her grandmother’s journals and uncover the hidden interior lives of her mother and grandmother.

Her adventures take her to a variety of locations, from a small town in Iowa to New York, Washington, London, and Paris—and finally to a little village in France, where she is finally able to write the book that will tell her own story, intertwined with the stories of her mother and grandmother.

A Long Way from Iowa: From the Heartland to the Heart of France

By Janet Hulstrand,

What is this book about?

This story, about three generations of women with a passion for reading, writing, and travel, begins in 1992, in an unfinished attic in Brooklyn, as a young writer reads journals written by her grandmother as a schoolgirl nearly 100 years earlier. This sets her on a 30-year quest to uncover the hidden lives and unfulfilled dreams of her mother and grandmother. In this coming-of-middle-age memoir, the author comes to realize that the passion for travel and for literature that has fueled her life's journey is a gift that was passed down to her by the very role models she was…


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Interested in World War 1, Russia, and Germany?

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