The best books on Eastern Europe

9 authors have picked their favorite books about Eastern Europe and why they recommend each book.

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Blue River, Black Sea

By Andrew Eames,

Book cover of Blue River, Black Sea

The Danube vies with the Rhine for the title of Europe's Amazon: a behemoth that spans a huge swathe of the continent, flowing from the Black Forest in Germany to the Black Sea in Romania. In this book, Andrew Eames travels along the river by bicycle, horse, boat, and on foot, meeting everyone from royals to boatmen and gypsies, and providing a sparkling history of south-eastern Europe on the way. Before Covid, I was planning to travel along the Danube myself and hopefully write something about it. If that ever happens, this will be in my backpack.


Who am I?

I'm an Anglo-Dutch writer living in the Netherlands, and the author of two books. Growing up in England I never thought much about rivers, but in the Netherlands they’re hard to avoid, and I’ve become fascinated by them. These days, when we all work remotely and (when rules allow) usually travel by car, train, or plane rather than boat, it’s easy to think of rivers as just scenic backdrops, rather than anything more important. But the truth is many of our cities wouldn’t exist without the waters which flow through them, and waterways like the Rhine, Thames, and Seine have had a huge influence on the history and culture of the people living alongside them. If you want to understand why somewhere like Rotterdam, London or Paris is the way it is, you could spend the day in a library or museum – but you’d be better off going for a boat ride or swim, poking around under some bridges and talking to the fishermen, boatmen, and kayakers down at the waterline.


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The Rhine

By Ben Coates,

Book cover of The Rhine

What is my book about?

The Rhine is one of the world's greatest rivers. Once forming the outer frontier of the Roman Empire, it flows 800 miles from the fun-loving Netherlands, through the industrial and political powerhouses of Germany and France, to the wealthy mountain fortresses of Switzerland and Liechtenstein. For years, Ben Coates lived alongside a major channel of the river in Rotterdam, crossing it daily, swimming and sailing in its tributaries. In The Rhine, he sets out to follow the river all the way across Europe; exploring the impact the river has had on European culture and history, and on the people who live alongside it. From rowing Dutch canals to riding a cow through the Alps, via Cold War nuclear bunkers, raucous Gay Pride parades, tranquil Lake Constance, and snowy mountain climbs, The Rhine blends travelogue and offbeat history to tell the fascinating story of how one river helped our world.

We Are Witnesses

By Jacob Boas,

Book cover of We Are Witnesses: Five Diaries of Teenagers Who Died in the Holocaust

Yes, it’s heartbreaking to know that these young people died in the Holocaust, but their words live on.  The author, who is a Holocaust survivor, does an outstanding job of putting each diarist’s thoughts, dreams, and hopes—and fears—in context with his gifted commentary.  Among the excerpted diaries featured in this book is the most famous of them all—Anne Frank’s.


Who am I?

I have penned more than 120 nonfiction books on a broad range of subjects for general audiences and middle-school readers, including five books about the true-life experiences of young people during the Holocaust.  The most heartbreaking, yet inspiring, moments in my decades-long writing career have been my interviews with Holocaust survivors, who, as children, relied on their courage, their faith, their smarts—and sometimes their luck—to endure years of unbelievable terror.


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Survivors: True Stories of Children in the Holocaust

By Allan Zullo, Mara Bovsun,

Book cover of Survivors: True Stories of Children in the Holocaust

What is my book about?

It tells the incredible true stories of nine brave young Jewish survivors of the Holocaust, whose riveting accounts are based on the personal, lengthy interviews with the author. These children each found a way to make it through the nightmare of genocide. Some hid, some fled, some fought. Others suffered unbearable agony in ghettos, death marches and concentration camps.

Although it’s hard to imagine that anyone that young could bear so much agony from so much cruelty, this book is a celebration of the human spirit — of the will to overcome unspeakable horrors, the will to triumph over evil, the will to live. In fact, these survivors all shared a common trait: They believed in their hearts that they would live even when so many around them were dying. 

How We Survived Communism & Even Laughed

By Slavenka Drakulić,

Book cover of How We Survived Communism & Even Laughed

In How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed, Slavenka Drakulić details the everyday indignities of living under communist Yugoslavia, including thin toilet paper and no access to luxuries such as strawberries or fruit juice. Her essays show the impact of high politics on everyday living but also how communism failed – to produce washing machines, manufacture tampons, or meet the needs of its citizens.


Who am I?

I have been fascinated by Russian history and American-Soviet relations since high school. Now at American University’s School of International Service, I teach courses on the history of U.S. foreign relations, the Cold War, as well as human rights and U.S. foreign policy. I have written two books on the role of human rights in U.S. foreign policy, including Human Rights Activism and the End of the Cold War: A Transnational History of the Helsinki Network and From Selma to Moscow: How U.S. Human Rights Activists Transformed U.S. Foreign Policy. When I’m not working, I love a good Cold War TV series (Deutschland 83 or The Americans).


I wrote...

Human Rights Activism and the End of the Cold War: A Transnational History of the Helsinki Network

By Sarah B. Snyder,

Book cover of Human Rights Activism and the End of the Cold War: A Transnational History of the Helsinki Network

What is my book about?

Human Rights Activism and the End of the Cold War helps us understand how decades of international conflict ended peacefully.  My book demonstrates the significance of collective and individual human rights advocacy in ending the Cold War, offering important lessons in affecting nonviolent political change and resolving seemingly intractable international struggles. It reveals how a range of individuals and groups committed to human rights in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe fundamentally reshaped East-West diplomacy.  

My book shows how diplomats and human rights activists involved in a series of international conferences directly and indirectly influenced both Western and Eastern governments to pursue policies that facilitated the rise of organized dissent in Eastern Europe, freedom of movement for East Germans, and improved human rights practices in the Soviet Union – all factors in the end of the Cold War. 

After the War

By Carol Matas,

Book cover of After the War

I like this book because it shows in an exciting and engaging way, that a war is not over, just because it is declared to be over. For many survivors, such as Ruth Mendenberg, it is the beginning of a new war in which they fight to re-establish their identity and their right to a place to call home once again.


Who am I?

I am a child of Holocaust survivors. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I truly appreciated the horrendous circumstances that they lived through. But even more than their plight and will to survive, I was impressed with the heroism of the people willing to sacrifice their lives in order to help others. It is their story, above all else that I want to tell in my books.


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Ivan's Choice

By Kathy Clark,

Book cover of Ivan's Choice

What is my book about?

“I’m not Hendrik,” he said. “I am Jakob. Jakob Kohn. And I am a Jew!” Ivan and Hendrik have been best friends for years. Then in the fall of 1944, when they are both 13, Hendrik makes an astounding revelation which forces Ivan to make some very difficult choices - choices that will impact both of their lives, and the lives of their families forever. Ivan must now maneuver through the intricacies of life in Nazi - occupied Hungary and within his own family without giving away his secret allegiance.

Ivan’s Choice is a companion book to The Choice, giving Ivan’s side of the story. It is a story of courage and the inner conflict that many young people confront when establishing the values they want to live by. Ivan's Choice is a novel inspired by real events.

The Historian

By Elizabeth Kostova,

Book cover of The Historian

The Historian is brilliantly brooding. Kostova builds a wonderfully gothic atmosphere of menace using a combination of history and legend to make her fiction utterly believable. The novel is fascinating, delving behind the iron curtain as it does. Her characters are strong and step right out of the page for the reader, so you are completely gripped by their story throughout.


Who am I?

I’ve been a connoisseur of all things terrifying and fantastical since I was 5, and so scared of my Baba Yaga book downstairs I couldn’t sleep. I pursued the delicious fear of a well-written monster through my teens and into adulthood but found that so many books within the horror and fantasy genres are aimed at younger readers. So I wrote the books I wanted to read. I’d always planned to write, but it was developing extreme anxiety that inspired me to nurture my creative side and finally do it. I was having terrible nightmares at the time, and these awful dreams became the central scenes of my novels.


I wrote...

Darkly Dreaming: Book 1 of the Darkly Vampire Trilogy

By Chloe Hammond,

Book cover of Darkly Dreaming: Book 1 of the Darkly Vampire Trilogy

What is my book about?

Darkly Dreaming is for readers who savour rich characters and carefully crafted writing; it’s as much about friendship as it is about vampires. It’s been accused of giving people ‘the feels’. Rae and her best friend Layla have just moved back in together after their marriages ended. They’re busy being violently happy, pretending everything is fine. They stumble into a party infested with vampires.

Infected with the vampire virus, which mutates and distorts their DNA, Rae, and Layla struggle to come to terms with losing their humanity and their old lives, and coming to terms with their strange new gifts. They should be wary in a Pride rife with jealousies and ancient rivalries. They aren’t safe, but will they recognise the threats in time?

Between the Woods and the Water

By Patrick Leigh-Fermor,

Book cover of Between the Woods and the Water: On Foot to Constantinople: From the Middle Danube to the Iron Gates

This book is the second in a trilogy about a long journey Fermor made—mostly on foot—from Holland to Istanbul in 1934, when he was nineteen years old. Fermor wrote the books from memory many years afterward, so their veracity is open to question, but his imagination and skill aren't: he might resent the comparison, but his books gave me the same thrills as an adult that I remember from my parents reading The Lord of the Rings to me as a child. Though all three are astounding, Between the Woods and the Water is my favorite— it begins as he crosses the Danube into Hungary from the west, follows him across Romania, and ends up in the Balkans, a region that would soon be transformed (and, in part, erased) by World War II. Fermor knows that too, but he doesn't mention it: he lets the places he walks through and…


Who am I?

If you’re curious about the world, you can find secret doors that open onto unexpected vistas. For me, exploring the lives and origins of the caracaras in A Most Remarkable Creature revealed a vast and surprising story about the history of life on Earth, and about South America’s unique past—stories as wonderful and absorbing as any fantasy. These books are some of my favorite revelations of hidden marvels in the world we think we know. 


I wrote...

A Most Remarkable Creature: The Hidden Life and Epic Journey of the World's Smartest Birds of Prey

By Jonathan Meiburg,

Book cover of A Most Remarkable Creature: The Hidden Life and Epic Journey of the World's Smartest Birds of Prey

What is my book about?

In 1833, a young Charles Darwin met a species in the Falkland Islands that astonished him: tame, curious birds of prey that looked and acted like a cross between a hawk and a crow. They stole hats and other objects from the crew of the Beagle, and Darwin wondered why they were confined to a few islands at the bottom of the world. But he set this mystery aside, and never returned to it—and a chance meeting with these unique birds, now called striated caracaras, led Jonathan Meiburg to pick up where Darwin left off, sending him on a grand and captivating odyssey across thousands of miles and millions of years. “To call this a bird book,” wrote The Dallas Morning News, “would be like calling Moby-Dick a whaling manual.”     

War of Annihilation

By Geoffrey P. Megargee,

Book cover of War of Annihilation: Combat and Genocide on the Eastern Front, 1941

If my first two listings are somewhat inaccessible to the average reader, fear not, Megargee’s concise study of Operation Barbarossa is a masterful summary of the campaign as well as the parallel German war of annihilation in the East. Richly illustrated with maps and photos, Megargee transforms a huge and complex war into a short (150 page), straightforward read. There is also a helpful bibliographic essay at the end and numerous sub-headings to guide the reading. It is the perfect introduction to the German invasion of the Soviet Union.


Who am I?

When I was a young man reading my first books about the Second World War I was struck by the dimensions of Germany’s war in the East. Battles at El Alamein, Monte Cassino, and Normandy were familiar to me, but suddenly there emerged dozens of new battlefields in the East, most dwarfing the Anglo-American experience of the war, which I’d never heard of. My curiosity drove my reading and, as the saying goes, the more I knew, the more questions I had. Thirty years on, and ten books under my belt, has not yet satisfied that curiosity, but at least, thanks to Shepherd, I can share some of it.


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Operation Barbarossa and Germany's Defeat in the East

By David Stahel,

Book cover of Operation Barbarossa and Germany's Defeat in the East

What is my book about?

Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of the Soviet Union, began the largest and most costly campaign in military history. Its failure was a key turning point of the Second World War. The operation was planned as a Blitzkrieg to win Germany its Lebensraum in the east, and the summer of 1941 is well-known for the German army's unprecedented victories and advances. David Stahel presents a new history of Germany's summer campaign from the perspective of the two largest and most powerful Panzer groups on the Eastern front. Stahel's research provides a fundamental reassessment of Germany's war against the Soviet Union, highlighting the prodigious internal problems of the vital Panzer forces and revealing that their demise in the earliest phase of the war undermined the whole German invasion.

Iron Curtain

By Anne Applebaum,

Book cover of Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956

People in the West tend to celebrate 1945 as a year of liberation; but, of course, in Eastern Europe, the defeat of Germany merely heralded the beginning of four more decades of repression. In this book, Anne Applebaum describes the Communist takeover of three European countries – East Germany, Poland, and Hungary. It’s a masterpiece both of research and of analysis. Communism, just like capitalism, had many faces: this book shows brilliantly just how varied repression can be. In 2013 it won the lucrative Cundill Prize, and deservedly so.


Who am I?

Keith Lowe is the author of several works on postwar history. His international bestseller, Savage Continent, won the English PEN/Hessell Tiltman Prize and Italy’s Cherasco History Prize. His book on the long-term legacy of World War II, The Fear and the Freedom, was awarded China’s Beijing News Annual Recommendation and was shortlisted for the Historical Writers Association Non-Fiction Crown. His books have been translated into more than twenty languages.


I wrote...

Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II

By Keith Lowe,

Book cover of Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II

What is my book about?

Savage Continent is the story of post-war Europe, from the close of the war right to the establishment of an uneasy stability at the end of the 1940s. This is the chronicle of a world gone mad, the standard history of post–World War II Europe for years to come. The story of a continent where individual Germans and collaborators were rounded up and summarily executed, where concentration camps were reopened and violent anti-Semitism was reborn.

The Dark Frontier

By Eric Ambler,

Book cover of The Dark Frontier: A Spy Thriller

One rainy day in 1930s Paris, a copywriter decided to write a thriller and devised a tale about the nuclear bomb, Nazi scientists, and a mysterious Balkan country. This sounds like the start of a novel, but it is the real-life birth of master storyteller Eric Ambler’s first book. A curmudgeonly English physicist is invited to corroborate the nuclear formula, but then... the twist. He is concussed in a car accident and awakes convinced that he is now a super-spy, one Carruthers, who takes on the forces of evil with a Bond-like nonchalance. 

Is the book a parody of earlier spy novels? Perhaps Ambler is seduced by the cleverness of his own story. I don’t actually care. It remains a satisfyingly imaginative tale about the role of science in war, all written in a witty, gritty style that sets the tone for many enjoyable books and films to come.


Who am I?

I inherited a love of ‘noir’ from my father. I’m not ashamed to say that Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon are my favourite movies. I’m Scottish born, and read John Buchan as a child. I am drawn to stories that combine fast adventure with dark threats. Some years ago, we visited Tromsø and I was inspired to quit journalism and write a book filled with all my favourite ingredients. Half Life is a pre-war ‘noir’ thriller based on authentic scientific detail, researched and supplied by my husband Rob, a chemistry professor with a passion for planes. I now know more about thorium, nuclear reactors, and seaplanes than I ever thought possible.


I wrote...

Half Life

By Robert J. Deeth, Pamela Kelt,

Book cover of Half Life

What is my book about?

It is autumn in 1936. Clouds of war are gathering in Europe, while in Scandinavia the Fascists are covertly assessing possible nuclear resources. High-flying Cambridge nuclear scientist Dr. Dulcie Bennett travels to northern Norway to join an elite group of researchers eager to unlock the secrets of the atom. She makes a startling breakthrough but a suspicious lab explosion derails her plans. As she investigates, she encounters troubled Canadian journalist John Kirkwall on a personal quest, and they are drawn to each other despite initial misunderstandings.

As winter grips, they become embroiled in a shady world of political skulduggery and sexual intrigue, populated by spies, saboteurs, neurotic academics, and secret police in a tense race that could tilt the balance of power in Hitler’s favour.

Calus

By Gail Kligman,

Book cover of Calus: Symbolic Transformation in Romanian Ritual

Humans also draft dance to help heal body and mind. I loved Kligman’s personal ventures deep into the complex concerns about life and death, fertility and health, found in related pre-Christian rituals in three areas of the Balkans: the Căluşari in SW Romania, the Rusaltsi in NW Bulgaria, and the Kraljevi—often with other names—just west in former Yugoslavia. (The word Rusaltsi comes from Rusalka, a Slavic name for the “dancing goddess”, as does Rusalii, the thrice-yearly festival in their honor.)  Her intriguing study comes from direct observation of the healing rituals, and on personal discussions with the dancers—including one who was particularly vulnerable to trance!  This is also true of L. Danforth’s remarkable account of the firewalkers of SE Bulgaria and northern Greece (Firewalking and Religious Healing). 


Who am I?

I’m an information junkie who loves to dance. I fell in love with folk dancing at age 6, European archaeology at 11, linguistics and cognition at 21—and could never drop any of them. My scientist-father always said, “Follow the problem, not the discipline,” and I began to see how these fields could help answer each other’s questions. Words can survive for millennia—with information about what archaeologists don’t find, like oh-so-perishable cloth. Determining how to reconstruct prehistoric textiles (Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years) then led me to trace the origins of various European folk costumes, and finally even to reconstruct something about the origins of the dances themselves.


I wrote...

The Dancing Goddesses: Folklore, Archaeology, and the Origins of European Dance

By Elizabeth Wayland Barber,

Book cover of The Dancing Goddesses: Folklore, Archaeology, and the Origins of European Dance

What is my book about?

European communal dance developed around farming beliefs about fertility and health, when farming spread to Europe 8,000 years ago. Food crops depended on soil and rain: the ancestors, buried below, could push up the sprouts, but who managed rain? Perhaps the spirits of girls who died before bearing children (many by drowning) and hadn’t used their natural allotment of fertility. Dance rituals appeased spirit-maidens when angry, and told them when it was time to leave their watery homes and shed fertility by dancing across the fields. My book traces traditional seasonal rituals, folklore of the dancing spirit-maidens, wedding customs around those most potent maidens, Brides, plus the matching archaeological evidence, concluding with insights from cognitive science on “Why do we humans just love to dance?”

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