The best books for understanding your Eastern European Grandma

Why am I passionate about this?

I was born into a family with an Eastern European heritage, and lived and studied in the region for some years – including during the period of the collapse of the communist regimes. I am comfortable in Polish and Hungarian, and more vaguely functional in Russian and German – with Bulgarian a distant last. My undergraduate degree in history included an Eastern European specialization (including a paper co-administered between American and Hungarian institutions), and my graduate degree in economics included a focus on emerging economies. In my “day job” as a business analyst, I deal frequently with the business landscape in the region. I am married to a Pole, and have family in Poland.    


I wrote...

Eastern Europe! Everything You Need to Know About the History (and More) of a Region that Shaped Our World and Still Does

By Tomek Jankowski,

Book cover of Eastern Europe! Everything You Need to Know About the History (and More) of a Region that Shaped Our World and Still Does

What is my book about?

When the legendary Romulus killed his brother Remus and founded the city of Rome in 753 BCE, Plovdiv―today the second-largest city in Bulgaria―was thousands of years old. Indeed, London, Paris, Berlin, Vienna, Madrid, Brussels, Amsterdam are all are mere infants compared to Plovdiv. This is just one of the paradoxes that haunts and defines the New Europe, that part of Europe that was freed from Soviet bondage in 1989, and which is at once both much older than the modern Atlantic-facing power centers of Western Europe while also being much younger than them. Eastern Europe! is a brief and concise (but informative) introduction to Eastern Europe and its myriad customs and history.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of By Steppe, Desert, and Ocean: The Birth of Eurasia

Tomek Jankowski Why did I love this book?

Barry Cunliffe is a celebrated British archaeologist who specializes in both Europe’s and Britain’s origins.

Admittedly, Barry gets into the weeds a bit which can be challenging for those just looking for an introduction, but what he does better than most is connect the dots that bind Europe, Asia, the Middle East and North Africa together.

Most histories of Europe pretend that Europe is an island, separate from Asia and everything else, as if it developed in a vacuum – but Barry reminds us that Charlemagne and Columbus are only part of the full European story.

Barry is a great place to start to understand the Eastern European, Asian, and Middle Eastern side of your British or Irish heritage – and yes, they are connected in some very direct ways.  

By Barry Cunliffe,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked By Steppe, Desert, and Ocean as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

By Steppe, Desert, and Ocean is nothing less than the story of how humans first started building the globalized world we know today. Set on a huge continental stage, from Europe to China, it is a tale covering over 10,000 years, from the origins of farming around 9000 BC to the expansion of the Mongols in the thirteenth century AD.

An unashamedly 'big history', it charts the development of European, Near Eastern, and Chinese civilizations and the growing links between them by way of the Indian Ocean, the silk Roads, and the great steppe corridor (which crucially allowed horse riders…


Book cover of Microcosm: A Portrait of a Central European City

Tomek Jankowski Why did I love this book?

In his exploration of East Prussia in its final stages, author Max Egremont noted, “This is a part of Europe where boundaries are vague, where names deceive.” (2011; Pg. 220)

It is true across all of Europe but more so in Eastern Europe that ethnic and cultural boundaries often overlap – though nationalists try to claim exclusive domain.

This is a book about one city, today known as Wrocław (in southwestern Poland) which has a rich Polish history – but whose background includes strong German (“Breslau”), Czech (“Vratislav”), Jewish (ברעסלוי /Bresloi), Romany, and even more layers. Often these cultures coexisted, and mixed.

This book is a wonderful introduction to the ethnic complexity of Eastern Europe, and how today’s political borders can give the false impression of simple, clear ethnic boundaries.   

By Norman Davies, Roger Moorhouse,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

In May 1945, the city of Breslau was annihilated by the Soviet Red Army. At the beginning of February the Russians had laid seige to the city, an ordeal that was to last for nearly five months. Much of Breslau was destroyed, thousands of its inhabitants were killed. Breslau surrendered four days after Berlin and was thus the last Fortress of the Reich to fall and one of the very last areas in Germany to surrender. The story of Central Europe is anything but simple. As the region in between East and West Europe, it has always been endowed with…


Book cover of Inventing Eastern Europe: The Map of Civilization on the Mind of the Enlightenment

Tomek Jankowski Why did I love this book?

Again, this may be a bit dense reading but Wolff tackles the very notion of “Eastern Europe.”

The Enlightenment was a philosophical movement that began in the mid-17th century and lasted until about 1800, and it focused on remaking politics. Enlightenment thinkers believed in change and progress, that Europeans were not doomed to suffer under the tyranny of feudal kings.

Wolff explores how these Enlightenment thinkers celebrated an Age of Progress in Western Europe – but were less impressed with the Eastern half. For thinkers like Voltaire, “Eastern Europe” came to mean backward, under-developed, superstitious, and violent Europe.

These thinkers began using this term, “Eastern Europe” in the 1770s to mean “the Other Europe,” like an embarrassing, unwanted sibling. Wolff describes how these attitudes shaped Western policies towards Eastern Europe. 

By Larry Wolff,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

This is a wide-ranging intellectual history of how, in the 18th century, Europe came to be conceived as divided into "Western Europe" and "Eastern Europe". The author argues that this conceptual reorientation from the previously accepted "Northern" and "Southern" was a work of cultural construction and intellectual artifice created by the philosophes of the Enlightenment. He shows how the philosophers viewed the continent from the perspective of Paris and deliberately cultivated an idea of the backwardness of "Eastern Europe" the more readily to affirm the importance of "Western Europe".


Book cover of Historical Atlas of East Central Europe

Tomek Jankowski Why did I love this book?

Look, Eastern European history is messy and complicated, and involves an almost non-stop parade of border changes.

Countries emerge and even dominate, only to disappear two centuries later. (Ever hear of the Avar Khanate, or medieval Halych?)

British historian Eric Hobsbawm noted once how a person born in 1900 in what is today Mukachevo, Ukraine who lived to be 91 years old would have collected over their lifetime the passports of 5 different countries – without ever moving from the house they were born in.

The Magocsi atlas is a wonderful and well-organized introduction to Eastern Europe’s political, ethnic, economic, and etc. borders, laid out in colorful maps that are easily understood. This is a must-have for anyone delving into the region. 

By Paul Robert Magocsi,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Historical Atlas of East Central Europe as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

For the first time in any language, here is an atlas that covers all of East Central Europe, from the early fifth century through 1992. The atlas encompasses the countries of Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Yugoslavia, Macedonia, Albania, Bulgaria, and Greece. Also included are the eastern part of Germany (historic Mecklenburg, Brandenburg, Prussia, Saxony, and Lusatia), Bavaria, Austria, northeastern Italy (historic Venetia), the lands of historic Poland-Lithuania (present-day Lithuania, Belarus, and Ukraine up to the Dnieper River), Moldova, and western Turkey.


Book cover of Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin

Tomek Jankowski Why did I love this book?

This book recommendation is admittedly driven by current events.

Snyder describes the rock-and-a-hard-place situation Eastern Europe found itself in over the 20th century, trapped between two aggressive imperial powers.

He uses this exploration to, in part, blunt common Western criticism of Eastern European policies and decisions from this era – but there is a subtext that goes deeper, using the example of Hitler and Stalin to also present an Eastern European perspective on notions like security.

Going back to the 18th century the West has often been frustrated with Eastern Europe, but Snyder is presenting a stark picture of how Eastern Europe’s past might be relevant (and helpful) for the modern West. This was written before the current Ukraine war – but you’d swear it was written for it.  

By Timothy Snyder,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Americans call the Second World War "the Good War." But before it even began, America's ally Stalin had killed millions of his own citizens-and kept killing them during and after the war. Before Hitler was defeated, he had murdered six million Jews and nearly as many other Europeans. At war's end, German and Soviet killing sites fell behind the Iron Curtain, leaving the history of mass killing in darkness.
?
Assiduously researched, deeply humane, and utterly definitive, Bloodlands is a new kind of European history, presenting the mass murders committed by the Nazi and Stalinist regimes as two aspects of…


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Book cover of The Hunt for the Peggy C: A World War II Maritime Thriller

John Winn Miller

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What is my book about?

The Hunt for the Peggy C is best described as Casablanca meets Das Boot. It is about an American smuggler who struggles to rescue a Jewish family on his rusty cargo ship, outraging his mutinous crew of misfits and provoking a hair-raising chase by a brutal Nazi U-boat captain bent on revenge.

During the nerve-wracking 3,000-mile escape, Rogers falls in love with the family’s eldest daughter, Miriam, a sweet medical student with a militant streak. Everything seems hopeless when Jake is badly wounded, and Miriam must prove she’s as tough as her rhetoric to put down a mutiny by some of Jake’s fed-up crew–just as the U-boat closes in for the kill.

The Hunt for the Peggy C: A World War II Maritime Thriller

By John Winn Miller,

What is this book about?

John Winn Miller's THE HUNT FOR THE PEGGY C, a semifinalist in the Clive Cussler Adventure Writers Competition, captures the breathless suspense of early World War II in the North Atlantic. Captain Jake Rogers, experienced in running his tramp steamer through U-boat-infested waters to transport vital supplies and contraband to the highest bidder, takes on his most dangerous cargo yet after witnessing the oppression of Jews in Amsterdam: a Jewish family fleeing Nazi persecution.

The normally aloof Rogers finds himself drawn in by the family's warmth and faith, but he can't afford to let his guard down when Oberleutnant Viktor…


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