The best books about the search for truth in history

Why am I passionate about this?

I come from a small country, Hungary, the past of which was consciously falsified in the political system under which I grew up. Some chapters of it, like the cold war period, Soviet rule, the revolution of 1956 couldn't even be discussed. I was lucky because communism collapsed and archives were gradually opened just as I started my career as a historian. Books on international history are usually written from the perspective of the powerful states, I was interested in looking at this story from the perspective of the small guy. Writing this book was both a professional challenge and a personal matter for me. I'm currently a professor at Indiana University-Bloomington.


I wrote...

Hungary in the Cold War, 1945-1956: Between the United States and the Soviet Union

By László Borhi,

Book cover of Hungary in the Cold War, 1945-1956: Between the United States and the Soviet Union

What is my book about?

In light of the current war in Ukraine, and the reemergence of U.S.-Russian conflict it is interesting to see the historical roots. This book reflects on the motivations of Soviet and American policy towards Hungary and East Central Europe after the second world war and shows that it was a battleground in the political and ideological struggle among the two superpowers. The book challenges the myth that Stalin’s conduct was triggered by U.S. policies that allegedly challenged legitimate Soviet interests in East Central Europe. In addition, the book argues that the ideological and imperial aspects of Soviet expansion were the two sides of the same coin, one reinforced the other. Moscow’s expansionist policies had a distinct military and economic aspect, in fact East-Central Europe became Moscow’s military and economic space.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Gambling with Armageddon: Nuclear Roulette from Hiroshima to the Cuban Missile Crisis

László Borhi Why did I love this book?

I was privileged to know Marty Sherwin in person. He was the friendliest person ever with a tremendous sense of humour – and a magnificent, honest scholar.

He was the friendliest person ever with a tremendous sense of humour – and a magnificent, honest scholar. History, as Paul Ricoeur has reminded, is not a record to be played. The Cold War nuclear standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union, and mainly, the Cuban missile crisis did not have to end as they did, peacefully.

When two A bombs were dropped on Japan in 1945, a genie was released that the world will not be able to get rid of any time soon. Martin J. Sherwin, the doyen of American nuclear historians always argued that this did not have to be so. Nuclear technology could have been placed under international supervision and arms race and proliferation could have been avoided.

In his last book he argues that only pure chance saved the world from a nuclear Holocaust. Based on a decade of research unearthing hitherto untapped primary sources Sherwin challenges the prevailing myths about the Cuban missile crisis and concludes that Khrushchev and the Kennedy administration almost sleepwalked into a nuclear war.

The U.S. discussed policy options that would almost certainly have escalated into a direct clash with the USSR and these options were seriously considered both by the president and his brother.

Sherwin’s analysis of American decision-making is one of the most profound ever attempted on any conflict, including World War I and World War II. History is a function of individual actions and responsibility, judgement and prudence.

Were it not for two officers, one American, one Soviet, who exercised individual judgement, we would not be sitting here. Sherwin’s book is a reminder that history is more exciting than any plot imagination can conjure.

By Martin J. Sherwin,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked Gambling with Armageddon as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of American Prometheus comes the first effort to set the Cuban Missile Crisis, with its potential for nuclear holocaust, in a wider historical narrative of the Cold War—how such a crisis arose, and why at the very last possible moment it didn't happen.

In this groundbreaking look at the Cuban Missile Crisis, Martin Sherwin not only gives us a riveting sometimes hour-by-hour explanation of the crisis itself, but also explores the origins, scope, and consequences of the evolving place of nuclear weapons in the post-World War II world. Mining new sources and materials, and going…


Book cover of The Lights That Failed: European International History 1919-1933

László Borhi Why did I love this book?

This is a book for academics, college professors, graduate students, and those members of the educated public who are interested in historical scholarship at its best.

This, at first sight intimidatingly large volume makes a deep dive into the diplomatic history of the first decade after the first world war. All angles, diplomatic, intelligence, and economic are examined from the perspective of the actors of the international stage, large and small alike.

The magnitude of Steiner’s work can be compared to Gibbon’s opus on the Roman Empire – it will remain a classic in the genre. It took a lifetime to piece together the puzzle of why the stabilization of Europe in the aftermath of the hitherto most destructive war in history.

This book – and its sequel, The Triumph of the Dark is a must for those who are interested in understanding the vast complexity of international politics as well as the roots of the most destructive conflict in history, World War II.

By Zara Steiner,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Lights That Failed as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The peace treaties represented an almost impossible attempt to solve the problems caused by a murderous world war. In The Lights that Failed: European International History 1919-1933, part of the Oxford History of Modern Europe series, Steiner challenges the common assumption that the Treaty of Versailles led to the opening of a second European war. In a radically original way, this book characterizes the 1920s not as a frustrated prelude to a second global conflict
but as a fascinating decade in its own right, when politicians and diplomats strove to re-assemble a viable European order. Steiner examines the efforts that…


Book cover of On Looking into the Abyss: Untimely Thoughts on Culture and Society

László Borhi Why did I love this book?

This book is the symbol of intellectual brilliance and honesty and one which argues that if we are to preserve western civilization, we must restore historical truth as the center of historical inquiry.

I will advertise this magnificent book with a quote: “Looking into the most fearsome abysses of modern times, the historian sees not beasts but faceless bureaucrats, not corpses but statistics, not willful acts of brutality and murder but the banal routine of everyday life, not gas chambers and gulags but military-industrial-geopolitical complexes.” The reader also will learn why. 

The reader also will learn why footnotes disappeared from history books. A book to be enjoyed and savored when in a contemplative mood.

By Gertrude Himmelfarb,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked On Looking into the Abyss as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Discusses the intellectual arrogance and spiritual impoverishment at the heart of structuralism, deconstructionism, and postmodernism, and shows how they have led to the belittling of the Holocaust


Book cover of Hungary between Two Empires 1526-1711

László Borhi Why did I love this book?

For those who are interested in Central European history – Hungary then engulfed what is today Hungary, Slovakia, Croatia, a part of Romania, and a chunk of Serbia – in the formative period of the modern world.

The collection of essays discusses US foreign policy, nuclear politics, and the Cold War. My favorite is Trachtenberg’s critical reassessment of the origins of the First World War, a destructive conflict no one wanted to happen but still walked into. 

It is about the clash of empires, Christian and Islamic, of civilizations, and of course, war machines. Author has single-handedly rewritten the history of this battleground between the Habsburgs, Hungarians, and Turks on the basis of primary sources from many archives in the region.

His book is a fascinating synthesis of international, economic, and cultural history for the reader who time to immerse in history.

By Geza Palffy,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Hungary between Two Empires 1526-1711 as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Hungarian defeat to the Ottoman army at the pivotal Battle of Mohacs in 1526 led to the division of the Kingdom of Hungary into three parts, altering both the shape and the ethnic composition of Central Europe for centuries to come. Hungary thus became a battleground between the Ottoman and Habsburg empires.

In this sweeping historical survey, Geza Palffy takes readers through a crucial period of upheaval and revolution in Hungary, which had been the site of a flowering of economic, cultural, and intellectual progress-but battles with the Ottomans lead to over a century of war and devastation. Palffy…


Book cover of History and Strategy

László Borhi Why did I love this book?

For readers who are interested in learning how to think about international relations, strategy, security, and history.

The collection of essays discusses US foreign policy, nuclear politics, and the Cold War. My favorite is Trachtenberg’s critical reassessment of the origins of the First World War, a destructive conflict no one wanted to happen but still walked into.

I always assign this book to my students.

By Marc Trachtenberg,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

This work is a powerful demonstration of how historical analysis can be brought to bear on the study of strategic issues, and, conversely, how strategic thinking can help drive historical research. Based largely on newly released American archives, History and Strategy focuses on the twenty years following World War II. By bridging the sizable gap between the intellectual world of historians and that of strategists and political scientists, the essays here present a fresh and unified view of how to explore international politics in the nuclear era. The book begins with an overview of strategic thought in America from 1952…


You might also like...

Book cover of Benghazi! A New History of the Fiasco that Pushed America and its World to the Brink

Ethan Chorin Author Of Benghazi! A New History of the Fiasco that Pushed America and its World to the Brink

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Author Story-lover Middle East expert Curious Iconoclast Optimist

Ethan's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

Benghazi: A New History is a look back at the enigmatic 2012 attack on the US mission in Benghazi, Libya, its long-tail causes, and devastating (and largely unexamined) consequences for US domestic politics and foreign policy. It contains information not found elsewhere, and is backed up by 40 pages of citations and interviews with more than 250 key protagonists, experts, and witnesses.

So far, the book is the main -- and only -- antidote to a slew of early partisan “Benghazi” polemics, and the first to put the attack in its longer term historical, political, and social context. If you want to understand some of the events that have shaped present-day America, from political polarization and the election of Donald Trump, to January 6, the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, Russian expansionism, and the current Israel-Hamas war, I argue, you need to understand some of the twists and turns of America's most infamous "non-scandal, scandal.”

I was in Benghazi well before, during, and after the attack as a US diplomat and co-director of a medical NGO. I have written three books, and have been a contributor to The NYT, Foreign Affairs, Forbes, Salon, The Financial Times, Newsweek, and others.

By Ethan Chorin,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Benghazi! A New History of the Fiasco that Pushed America and its World to the Brink as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

On September 11, 2012, Al Qaeda proxies attacked and set fire to the US mission in Benghazi, Libya, killing a US Ambassador and three other Americans.  The attack launched one of the longest and most consequential 'scandals' in US history, only to disappear from public view once its political value was spent. 

Written in a highly engaging narrative style by one of a few Western experts on Libya, and decidely non-partisan, Benghazi!: A New History is the first to provide the full context for an event that divided, incited, and baffled most of America for more than three years, while silently reshaping…


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Interested in the Cuban Missile Crisis, military history, and Hungary?

10,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about the Cuban Missile Crisis, military history, and Hungary.

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