The best books on German history that aren't about the Nazis

Why am I passionate about this?

I was born in East Germany and experienced the disappearance of that country and the huge changes that followed as a child. My history teachers reflected this fracture in the narratives they constructed, switching between those they had grown up with and the new version they had been told to teach after 1990. It struck me how little resemblance the neat division of German history into chapters and timelines bears to people’s actual lives which often span one or even several of Germany’s radical fault lines. My fascination with my country’s fractured memory has never left me since. 


I wrote...

Book cover of Blood and Iron: The Rise and Fall of the German Empire; 1871-1918

What is my book about?

Before 1871, Germany was not a nation but an idea. Its founder, Otto von Bismarck, had a formidable task at hand. How would he bring thirty-nine individual states under the yoke of a single Kaiser, convincing proud Prussians, Bavarians, and Rhinelanders to become Germans? Once united, could the young European nation wield enough power to rival the empires of Britain and France—all without destroying itself in the process?

In a unique study of five decades that changed the course of modern history, Katja Hoyer tells the story of the German Empire from its violent beginnings to its calamitous defeat in the First World War. It is a dramatic tale of national self-discovery, social upheaval, and realpolitik that ended, as it started, in blood and iron.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Kaiser Wilhelm II: A Life in Power

Katja Hoyer Why did I love this book?

Wilhelm II, the last German emperor, has always been a subject of fascination to me. Often portrayed as a caricature of the archetypical Prussian and blamed single-handedly for the outbreak of the First World War, the man behind the historical figure has remained an enigma. Very little has been written about him in Germany itself. Christopher Clark, who is perhaps better known for his seminal work The Sleepwalkers and his excellent biography of Prussia, Iron Kingdom, has done a great job tackling this delicate subject. Neither tied down by the weight of German memory culture nor by the constraints of academic writing, Clark’s biography of Kaiser Wilhelm is readable, informative and well-balanced. I would highly recommend it to anyone who seeks to understand Germany before and during the First World War.

By Christopher Clark,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Kaiser Wilhelm II as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Christopher Clark's Kaiser Wilhelm II: A Life in Power is a short, fascinating and accessible biography of one of the 20th century's most important figures.

King of Prussia, German Emperor, war leader and defeated exile, Kaiser Wilhelm II was one of the most important - and most controversial - figures in the history of twentieth-century Europe. But how much power did he really have?
Christopher Clark, winner of the Wolfson prize for his history of Prussia, Iron Kingdom, follows Kaiser Wilhelm's political career from his youth at the Hohenzollern court through the turbulent decades of the Wilhelmine era into global…


Book cover of Frederick the Great: King of Prussia

Katja Hoyer Why did I love this book?

Growing up in rural Brandenburg, just outside of Berlin, the towering figure of Frederick the Great accompanied my childhood. One of my earliest memories is running down the endless steps of the vineyard terraces at his summer palace of Sanssouci, excited by the splendour of the landscaped gardens below. On these family outings, my father would tell me tales about how ‘Old Fritz’ introduced the potato in Germany and how he won many wars by whipping the Prussian army into shape. But Frederick was also a complicated and troubled man. A patron of the arts and fascinated by the ideals of the Enlightenment, he could also be ruthless in pursuing his ambition to make Prussia a European power. Blanning’s excellent biography captures Frederick in all his complexity. 

By Tim Blanning,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

'Highly readable and deeply researched' - Andrew Roberts

'Masterful ... brilliantly brings to life one of the most complex characters of modern European history' - Sunday Telegraph

'It is sure to be the standard English-language account for many years. It instructs; it entertains; and it surprises' - Philip Mansel, The Spectator

Frederick the Great, King of Prussia, dominated the eighteenth century in the same way that Napoleon dominated the start of the nineteenth. He was a force of nature, a ruthless, brilliant, charismatic military commander, a monarch of exceptional energy and talent, a gifted composer, performer, poet and philosopher, and…


Book cover of Europe's Tragedy: A New History of the Thirty Years War

Katja Hoyer Why did I love this book?

It is impossible to understand Germany or indeed continental Europe without understanding the horrific conflict that raged on its soil during the first half of the 17th century. One of the most devastating conflicts ever fought in Europe, it tore communities and families apart along dynastic, religious, and political lines. Famine and disease added to the horrors of war, depopulating regions in Germany by up to two-thirds of pre-war levels. The conflict left a deep scar in German collective memory, the consequences of which can still be seen in religious, linguistic, and cultural divisions today. It was a collective experience of trauma with loud echoes in the 19th and 20th centuries. Wilson’s excellent work remains the best overview in English.

By Peter H. Wilson,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Europe's Tragedy as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Winner of the Society for Military History Distinguished Book Award 2011

The horrific series of conflicts known as the Thirty Years War (1618-48) tore the heart out of Europe, killing perhaps a quarter of all Germans and laying waste to whole areas of Central Europe to such a degree that many towns and regions never recovered. All the major European powers apart from Russia were heavily involved and, while each country started out with rational war aims, the fighting rapidly spiralled out of control, with great battles giving way to marauding bands of starving soldiers spreading plague and murder. The…


Book cover of Aftermath: Life in the Fallout of the Third Reich, 1945-1955

Katja Hoyer Why did I love this book?

Jähner’s Aftermath is one of the best books about post-1945 Germany. Defeated and confronted with the horrors their country had unleashed during the preceding six years of genocidal war in Europe, most ordinary Germans were keen to move on, rebuild and forget. A myth was born that saw 1945 as Germany’s ‘Zero Hour,’ a kind of tabula rasa, from which the nation could start anew. Jähner’s social history of the first ten years after the Second World War shatters this illusion powerfully and definitively. His book is a great foundation for anyone who wants to understand Germany today.

By Harald Jähner, Shaun Whiteside (translator),

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Aftermath as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

How does a nation recover from fascism and turn toward a free society once more?This internationally acclaimed revelatory history—"filled with first-person accounts from articles and diaries" (The New York Times)—of the transformational decade that followed World War II illustrates how Germany raised itself out of the ashes of defeat and reckoned with the corruption of its soul and the horrors of the Holocaust.

Featuring over 40 eye-opening black-and-white photographs and posters from the period.
 
The years 1945 to 1955 were a raw, wild decade that found many Germans politically, economically, and morally bankrupt. Victorious Allied forces occupied the four zones…


Book cover of The Berlin Wall

Katja Hoyer Why did I love this book?

As someone who was born in East Germany, I have experienced, studied, read, and heard a fair bit about the German Democratic Republic and the famous Wall that separated it from the West. As the fault line of the Cold War, it’s hard to overestimate the symbolic significance of this structure and it is therefore hardly surprising that so much has been written about it. Taylor’s book stood out to me because it is about people as well as politics. The many anecdotes that lace his book shed light on the personal stories behind this inanimate object as well as making it a great read.

By Frederick Taylor,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

The astonishing drama of Cold War nuclear poker that divided humanity - reissued with a new Postscript to commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of the fall of the wall.

During the night of 12-13 August 1961, a barbed-wire entanglement was hastily constructed through the heart of Berlin. It metamorphosed into a structure that would come to symbolise the insanity of the Cold War: the Berlin Wall. Frederick Taylor tells the story of the post-war political conflict that led to a divided Berlin and unleashed an East-West crisis, which lasted until the very people the Wall had been built to imprison breached…


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Who Is a Worthy Mother?: An Intimate History of Adoption

By Rebecca Wellington,

Book cover of Who Is a Worthy Mother?: An Intimate History of Adoption

Rebecca Wellington Author Of Who Is a Worthy Mother?: An Intimate History of Adoption

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

I am adopted. For most of my life, I didn’t identify as adopted. I shoved that away because of the shame I felt about being adopted and not truly fitting into my family. But then two things happened: I had my own biological children, the only two people I know to date to whom I am biologically related, and then shortly after my second daughter was born, my older sister, also an adoptee, died of a drug overdose. These sequential births and death put my life on a new trajectory, and I started writing, out of grief, the history of adoption and motherhood in America. 

Rebecca's book list on straight up, real memoirs on motherhood and adoption

What is my book about?

I grew up thinking that being adopted didn’t matter. I was wrong. This book is my journey uncovering the significance and true history of adoption practices in America. Now, in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade, the renewed debate over women’s reproductive rights places an even greater emphasis on adoption. As a mother, historian, and adoptee, I am uniquely qualified to uncover the policies and practices of adoption.

The history of adoption, reframed through the voices of adoptees like me, and mothers who have been forced to relinquish their babies, blows apart old narratives about adoption, exposing the fallacy that adoption is always good.

In this story, I reckon with the pain and unanswered questions of my own experience and explore broader issues surrounding adoption in the United States, including changing legal policies, sterilization, and compulsory relinquishment programs, forced assimilation of babies of color and Indigenous babies adopted into white families, and other liabilities affecting women, mothers, and children. Now is the moment we must all hear these stories.

Who Is a Worthy Mother?: An Intimate History of Adoption

By Rebecca Wellington,

What is this book about?

Nearly every person in the United States is affected by adoption. Adoption practices are woven into the fabric of American society and reflect how our nation values human beings, particularly mothers. In the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court's overturning of Roe v. Wade, the renewed debate over women's reproductive rights places an even greater emphasis on adoption. As a mother, historian, and adoptee, Rebecca C. Wellington is uniquely qualified to uncover the policies and practices of adoption. Wellington's timely-and deeply researched-account amplifies previously marginalized voices and exposes the social and racial biases embedded in the United States' adoption industry.…


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Interested in Germany, the Thirty Years' War, and the Berlin Wall?

10,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about Germany, the Thirty Years' War, and the Berlin Wall.

Germany Explore 478 books about Germany
The Thirty Years' War Explore 10 books about the Thirty Years' War
The Berlin Wall Explore 29 books about the Berlin Wall