The best books that capture the complexity of Poland and Polish history

Patrice M. Dabrowski Author Of Poland: The First Thousand Years
By Patrice M. Dabrowski

Who am I?

I am a Harvard-trained historian of Central and Eastern Europe who focuses primarily on Poland. Although I am of Polish descent, my interest in Polish history blossomed during my first visits to the country in the 1980s. My initial curiosity quickly turned into a passion for Poland’s rich and varied past. Poles, who put great stock in their history, seem to have liked my books: in 2014 I was awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Republic of Poland. The books on Poland listed below, all by outstanding female historians, only scratch the surface of what is truly a rich field. Enjoy!

I wrote...

Poland: The First Thousand Years

By Patrice M. Dabrowski,

Book cover of Poland: The First Thousand Years

What is my book about?

Poland: The First Thousand Years is a lively and accessible introduction to Polish history, presented from its medieval beginnings up to the present.

My book is a sweeping account designed to amplify major figures, moments, milestones, and turning points in Polish history. These include important battles and illustrious individuals, alliances forged by marriages and choices of religious denomination, and meditations on the likes of the Polish battle slogan "for our freedom and yours" that resounded during the Polish fight for independence in the long 19th century and echoed in the Solidarity period of the late 20th century.

Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy books, we may earn an affiliate commission.

The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Devil's Chain: Prostitution and Social Control in Partitioned Poland

Why did I love this book?

Who would have thought that late-nineteenth-century Poles’ preoccupation with the problem of prostitution could reveal so much about the Polish mindset? Concerns over the sex industry arose during a period of rapid change when there was no Polish state. Poles voiced their concerns about their nation’s future—and their womenfolk. A historian at the height of her powers, Keely Stauter-Halsted skillfully shows how debates on prostitution and an obsession with the bodies of impoverished women reflected a variety of visions of a future Poland.

By Keely Stauter-Halsted,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

In the half-century before Poland's long-awaited political independence in 1918, anxiety surrounding the country's burgeoning sex industry fueled nearly constant public debate. The Devil's Chain is the first book to examine the world of commercial sex throughout the partitioned Polish territories, uncovering a previously hidden conversation about sexuality, gender propriety, and social class. Keely Stauter-Halsted situates the preoccupation with prostitution in the context of Poland's struggle for political independence and its difficult transition to modernity. She traces the Poles' growing anxiety about white slavery, venereal disease, and eugenics by examining the regulation of the female body, the rise of medical…

Book cover of If the Walls Could Speak: Inside a Women's Prison in Communist Poland

Why did I love this book?

This moving book gives insightful and humane treatment to a difficult, even taboo, subject: the cell life of female prisoners during the Stalinist period. Empathetic as well as eloquent, Anna Müller relies on numerous interviews as well as archival sources to piece together the world of the prison cell. While seemingly at the mercy of the guards and interrogation officers, back in their shared cell women prisoners are shown to seize upon what agency they had and actively shape their imprisoned existence. This is a book you won’t soon forget.

By Anna Müller,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked If the Walls Could Speak as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Drawing on autobiographical writings, oral histories, interrogation protocols, and cell spy reports, If the Walls Could Speak focuses on the lives of women in prison in postwar communist Poland. Some were jailed for their alleged collaboration with the Nazis during the war, some for postwar activities in various civil as well as quasi-military groups, still others for allegedly dubious activities on the basis of their relationships with those already
imprisoned. In some cases, there was some evidence of their anti-state activities; in many others, the accusations were absurd and based on cumbersome definitions of "anti-state."

Anna Muller shows how these…

Book cover of Colonial Fantasies, Imperial Realities: Race Science and the Making of Polishness on the Fringes of the German Empire, 1840-1920

Why did I love this book?

While there are many treatments of the Polish-German borderlands, this pioneering work integrates borderlands and colonial history. Here medicine, migration, and colonization intersect in interesting ways. Among other things, it is striking to see how the colonized Poles, finding themselves in between the Germans and the native populations, also sought to be colonizers overseas. This is a shining example of transnational history.

By Lenny A. Ureña Valerio,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Colonial Fantasies, Imperial Realities as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Urena Valerio illuminates nested imperial and colonial relations using sources ranging from medical texts and state documents to travel literature and fiction. She analyzes scientific and medical debates to connect medicine, migration, and colonialism, providing an invigorating model for the analysis of Polish history from a global perspective.

Book cover of On Civilization's Edge: A Polish Borderland in the Interwar World

Why did I love this book?

From mud and muck to modernity? This elegant examination of the margins of interwar Poland sheds much light on the ins and outs of belonging as well as broader Polish ambitions of being considered part of the civilized world. While Kathryn Ciancia focuses on the push to modernize the ethnically complex eastern borderland that was the province of Volhynia, inhabited by Jews and Ukrainians as well as Poles, she also importantly situates Poland within a global framework.

By Kathryn Ciancia,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

As a resurgent Poland emerged at the end of World War I, an eclectic group of Polish border guards, state officials, military settlers, teachers, academics, urban planners, and health workers descended upon Volhynia, an eastern borderland province that was home to Ukrainians, Poles, and Jews. Its aim was not simply to shore up state power in a place where Poles constituted an ethnic minority, but also to launch an ambitious civilizing mission that would transform a
poor Russian imperial backwater into a region that was at once civilized, modern, and Polish. Over the next two decades, these men and women…

Book cover of King Sigismund of Poland and Martin Luther: The Reformation Before Confessionalization

Why did I love this book?

Poles have long prided themselves on having been tolerant of religious differences, this toleration dating from the deep historical past. In this pathbreaking and provocative work, Natalia Nowakowska challenges such interpretations of King Sigismund’s relationship to Protestants and Protestantism. Exquisitely argued, the book is an absolute tour de force, one that sheds new light on the period of the early Reformation.

By Natalia Nowakowska,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked King Sigismund of Poland and Martin Luther as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The first major study of the early Reformation and the Polish monarchy for over a century, this volume asks why Crown and church in the reign of King Sigismund I (1506-1548) did not persecute Lutherans. It offers a new narrative of Luther's dramatic impact on this monarchy - which saw violent urban Reformations and the creation of Christendom's first Lutheran principality by 1525 - placing these events in their comparative European context. King Sigismund's realm
appears to offer a major example of sixteenth-century religious toleration: the king tacitly allowed his Hanseatic ports to enact local Reformations, enjoyed excellent relations with…

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in Poland, church and state, and anti-communism?

9,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about Poland, church and state, and anti-communism.

Poland Explore 104 books about Poland
Church And State Explore 13 books about church and state
Anti-Communism Explore 9 books about anti-communism