The best books about heads of state

3 authors have picked their favorite books about heads of state and why they recommend each book.

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By Simon Sebag Montefiore,

Book cover of Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar

Sebag Montefiore was the first western historian to really take advantage of the opening of Russian – and Georgian – archival sources on Stalin and his career. Court of the Red Tsar offers a precious glimpse into Stalin’s inner circle and the way the USSR was governed in the 1930s and 1940s. Although gossipy at times, and written in a popular style some professional historians resent, the book is deeply researched and a treasure trove of information which is hard to find elsewhere.

Who am I?

In 1992, I graduated high school and although I did not then know how to read or speak Russian, I interviewed six Soviet veterans who happened to live in a nursing home in Rochester NY. I was blown away by their stories; each was missing at least one limb and had a tale to tell about it. The timing was fortuitous in that there was an exhibition at the U.S. Library of Congress that summer on “Revelations from the Russian archives,” which has just opened to researchers. Although it took me some years to master Russian, I resolved then and there to go to the source and research Soviet history in Moscow itself. I am a historian now and I have been working in Moscow archives for nearly a quarter-century now. Stalin’s War is my eighth book to date, all of which draw on this work in the Russian archives.

I wrote...

Stalin's War: A New History of World War II

By Sean McMeekin,

Book cover of Stalin's War: A New History of World War II

What is my book about?

World War II endures in the popular imagination as a heroic struggle between good and evil, with villainous Hitler driving its events. But Hitler was not in power when the conflict erupted in Asia--and he was certainly dead before it ended. His armies did not fight in multiple theaters, his empire did not span the Eurasian continent, and he did not inherit any of the spoils of war. That central role belonged to Joseph Stalin. The Second World War was not Hitler's war; it was Stalin's war.

Drawing on ambitious new research in Soviet, European, and US archives, Stalin's War revolutionizes our understanding of this global conflict by moving its epicenter to the east. Hitler's genocidal ambition may have helped unleash Armageddon, but as McMeekin shows, the war which emerged in Europe in September 1939 was the one Stalin wanted, not Hitler. So, too, did the Pacific war of 1941-1945 fulfill Stalin's goal of unleashing a devastating war of attrition between Japan and the "Anglo-Saxon" capitalist powers he viewed as his ultimate adversary.


By Antonia Fraser,

Book cover of Cromwell

For those who like biographies, this story of Oliver Cromwell (1599 – 1658) follows him from young man to gentleman farmer, reluctant politician, military leader, regicide, and Lord Protector of England. To me, Cromwell will always be the cold destroyer who led his most brutal and devastating army across Ireland after England’s civil war. But, there are many differing opinions. This interesting read presents all sides of the man, so you can be the judge. 

Who am I?

Nancy Blanton is an American author of Irish descent. She’s written three award-winning Irish historical novels and has a fourth underway. A former journalist, her focus on the 17th century derives from a history lesson about Oliver Cromwell, weariness of Tudor stories, decades of enlightening research, and a little help from supportive friends in County Cork.

I wrote...

When Starlings Fly as One

By Nancy Blanton,

Book cover of When Starlings Fly as One

What is my book about?

Based on a true story of the 1641 Rebellion and Ireland's longest siege, When Starlings Fly as One is not a classic hero’s journey, but a story of war, struggle, spirit, and survival—a story of two sides.

Secretive and often bold, Merel de Vries seeks only escape from the English nobility she serves. When Rathbarry Castle is besieged by rising Irish clans, she faces an impossible choice: allegiance to owner Sir Arthur Freke, loyalty to new-found love Tynan O’Daly, and inner yearnings belonging to her alone. Merel insists she can help—but no one will listen. When opportunity comes, can she truly do what her spirit urges? Or, will a sudden betrayal change everything?

Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China

By Ezra F. Vogel,

Book cover of Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China

Deng Xiaoping is the most important person in contemporary Chinese affairs. It was under his time as the paramount leader of China that modernization started in earnest. He judged policy effectiveness on whether it worked or not. His story is engagingly told by historian Ezra Vogel.

Who am I?

I am East-and-West. Born in British Hong Kong, studied in England, and worked for a US multinational in Beijing, I had a range of experiences that traversed Chinese and western cultures. Sucked into politics in Hong Kong prior to and post-1997, I had a ringside seat to colonial Hong Kong becoming a part of China. I too went from being a British citizen to a Chinese national. Along the way, I got interested in the environment and was appointed a minister in Hong Kong in 2012. I have always read a lot about the world and how things work or don’t work. I hope you like what I have enjoyed!

I wrote...

No Third Person: Rewriting the Hong Kong Story

By Christine Loh, Richard Cullen,

Book cover of No Third Person: Rewriting the Hong Kong Story

What is my book about?

British Hong Kong had a good story in the run-up to 1997. Its people worked hard and had an indomitable spirit. China had its own story about Hong Kong: after reunification, the city would prosper as never before due to China's wise and pragmatic "one country, two systems" policy. Hong Kong people and the world bought those stories.

But now it is clear that the British version of the Hong Kong story no longer holds while Hong Kong people are not so sure about themselves and their future seems less bright. The city and its people are stuck--they have no compelling narrative that joins the past and the future. This book is based on our thoughts of what a new Hong Kong story might be: a story about "us" and "you", the people who care about Hong Kong, not an impersonal "he/she/it" story--a story, moreover, to be worked out between Hong Kong and mainland China and no one else.


By Marie Arana,

Book cover of Bolivar: American Liberator

This fabulous book tells not only of Bolivar’s struggle to create an independent united states of South America, but why. The author graphically describes what it means to be a colony, subject to Crown rule. The control exerted by Spain over her colonies was nothing less than feudal. This book illuminates what it is like to have your country pillaged as a colony. Franklin Roosevelt’s original 1941 reason for going to war, if we had to, was to help liberate all the enchained European colonies through a treatise called the Atlantic Charter

Who am I?

I grew up just north of Chicago, took courses at the University of Madrid (La Complutense), and graduated from Marquette University.  I speak 5 languages and have written for such diverse reviews as The Journal of the American Revolution and Atlantic Coastal Kayaker. Nothing has possessed me like my father’s Navigation Case. Besides learning how this young college graduate helped pioneer the nascent aviation industry training in 11 different types of aircraft, I take pride in the astonishing role he played in American history. He was a combat pilot in the first-ever demonstration of air superiority over an enemy, leading to the greatest campaign victory in the history of the US Air Force. 

I wrote...

The Navigation Case: Training, Flying and Fighting the 1942 to 1945 New Guinea War

By John E. Happ,

Book cover of The Navigation Case: Training, Flying and Fighting the 1942 to 1945 New Guinea War

What is my book about?

I lived 18 years under my father’s roof. In all that time he never spoke about what he did in the Pacific War. After he died I inherited a mysterious, crusty leather case, found in our long-ignored attic: my father’s pilot Navigation Case. In there I was shocked to learn that he flew 64 violent and deadly attack missions as a combat pilot in New Guinea. But if we were fighting Japan, what was he doing in New Guinea of all places? When he was rotated off the front lines he flew Battle of the Bulge wounded to hospitals closer to their native homes. It was called Medical Air Evacuation Transport. And in that role he went missing, lost, completely unaccounted for...


By Ian Kershaw,

Book cover of Hitler: A Biography

If you only have time to read one book on the Nazi leadership, it should be this one. It is not the lightest of books (and it has two volumes), but it is well worth your time. Adolf Hitler was obviously central to the Nazi dictatorship and the number of books written about him reflects that. There are lots of biographies on Hitler – even a lot of good ones – but Ian Kershaw’s two-volume life of Hitler remains unsurpassed in my view. Kershaw skillfully combines his biography of the dictator with a wider social and political history of the Nazi dictatorship, so readers learn a great deal about both the man at the top of the regime and the ways in which the Third Reich functioned.

Who am I?

Robert Gerwarth is a professor of modern history at University College. After completing his DPhil at Oxford, he has held visiting fellowships at Harvard, the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, and the European University Institute in Florence. He is the author and editor of more than ten books on modern German history, most recently November 1918: The German Revolution.

I wrote...

Hitler's Hangman: The Life of Heydrich

By Robert Gerwarth,

Book cover of Hitler's Hangman: The Life of Heydrich

What is my book about?

Reinhard Heydrich is widely recognized as one of the great iconic villains of the twentieth century, an appalling figure even within the context of the Nazi leadership. Chief of the Nazi Criminal Police, the SS Security Service, and the Gestapo, ruthless overlord of Nazi-occupied Bohemia and Moravia, and leading planner of the "Final Solution," Heydrich played a central role in Hitler's Germany. He shouldered a major share of responsibility for some of the worst Nazi atrocities, and up to his assassination in Prague in 1942, he was widely seen as one of the most dangerous men in Nazi Germany. Yet Heydrich has received remarkably modest attention in the extensive literature of the Third Reich.

Robert Gerwarth weaves together little-known stories of Heydrich's private life with his deeds as head of the Nazi Reich Security Main Office. Fully exploring Heydrich's progression from a privileged middle-class youth to a rapacious mass murderer, Gerwarth sheds new light on the complexity of Heydrich's adult character, his motivations, the incremental steps that led to unimaginable atrocities, and the consequences of his murderous efforts toward re-creating the entire ethnic makeup of Europe.

The Body Of Il Duce

By Sergio Luzzatto,

Book cover of The Body Of Il Duce: Mussolini's Corpse And The Fortunes Of Italy

Once a dictator dies, his statues might come down and his books might disappear from school curriculums, but his legacy can endure for generations. Mussolini was the man for whom the term “totalitarian” was coined, and he pioneered many of the techniques of domination that other dictators deployed later in the century. When it was all new, a lot of people thought he might be onto something and “Il Duce” even enjoyed the support of such famous figures such as Churchill and Gandhi. The sight of his bullet ridden corpse strung upside down outside an Esso gas station in Milan must have seemed like the ultimate fall from grace, an indelible image of his regime’s failure. But that was not the end of the story, and in this remarkable book, Luzzato explores what happened next — both to Mussolini’s corpse, and to his ideas, as they continued to linger on…

Who am I?

I lived in the former Soviet Union for ten years, primarily in Moscow, the home of many a brutal tyrant. My obsession with dictator literature began after I discovered that Saddam Hussein had written a romance novel, following which I spent many years reading the literary output of all of the 20th century’s most terrible tyrants, from Mussolini to Stalin to the Ayatollah Khomeini. This monumental act of self-torture resulted in my critically acclaimed book The Infernal Library: On Dictators, the Books They Wrote, And Other Catastrophes of Literacy

I wrote...

The Infernal Library

By Daniel Kalder,

Book cover of The Infernal Library

What is my book about?

Since the days of the Roman Empire dictators have written books, but in the twentieth century the phenomenon went into overdrive, and despots inflicted their soul-killing prose upon (literally) captive audiences. They produced theoretical works, spiritual manifestos, poetry, memoirs, and (as I mentioned above) even the occasional romance novel. What do these books reveal about the dictatorial soul? What function did they serve for so many terrible regimes? Did any of these despots have even a smidgen of literary talent? These questions and many others are answered in The Infernal Library.

Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader

By Bradley K. Martin,

Book cover of Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty

A mammoth volume, and yet somehow an unputdownable page-turner. It’s the best available overview of North Korea’s first, and most influential, leaders, Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il, and the society they created. It’s clear, measured, and detailed – and even though it’s fifteen years old, as an explainer, it’s a necessary foundation for any layperson trying to get to grips with the dynamics behind the headlines.

Who am I?

I’ve always been fascinated by niche film world stories, and the kidnapping of Shin Sang-Ok and Choi Eun-Hee was my way in to North Korea, a country I was a layman about until I started researching A Kim Jong-Il Production. One thing I’ve found, through the writing of that book, traveling to North Korea, and the ensuing book tour, is that it’s a country it’s impossible not to be obsessed with once you’ve scratched the surface. The struggles and lives of ordinary people – in the face of such a repressive authoritarian regime – are unforgettable.

I wrote...

A Kim Jong-Il Production: The Extraordinary True Story of a Kidnapped Filmmaker, His Star Actress, and a Young Dictator's Rise to Power

By Paul Fischer,

Book cover of A Kim Jong-Il Production: The Extraordinary True Story of a Kidnapped Filmmaker, His Star Actress, and a Young Dictator's Rise to Power

What is my book about?

Before becoming the world's most notorious dictator, Kim Jong-Il ran North Korea's Ministry for Propaganda and its film studios. Conceiving every movie made, he acted as producer and screenwriter. Despite this control, he was underwhelmed by the available talent and took drastic steps, ordering the kidnapping of Choi Eun-Hee (Madam Choi) —South Korea's most famous actress—and her ex-husband Shin Sang-Ok, the country's most famous filmmaker. 

A nonfiction thriller packed with tension, passion, and politics, A Kim Jong-Il Production offers a rare glimpse into a secretive world, illuminating a fascinating chapter of North Korea's history that helps explain how it became the hermetically sealed, intensely stage-managed country it remains today.

Hitler (Harvest Book)

By Joachim C. Fest,

Book cover of Hitler (Harvest Book)

This remains the outstanding full-length biography of Hitler, not least because it is brilliantly written; it is also extraordinarily prescient.

Fest’s portrayal of the Nazi leader, the first to be written by a German, shows how any human society, no matter how cultured or educated, if far enough degraded and humiliated will be willing to listen to a banal, humourless bully whose singular obsessions were to pick at Germany’s war wounds and delegate the slaughter of the blameless minority he deemed responsible.

In Fest’s hands, Hitler emerges as no freak of nature with god-like powers, no monster beyond our comprehension…but shockingly human, the living fulfillment of the racist fantasies of the ordinary, pot-bellied fascists who brought him to power.

Who am I?

I’ve devoted most of my life as a writer, historian, and teacher to understanding and connecting the events of the 20th century and their origins in the deep past. I believe World War I stands as one of the greatest human tragedies because the bloodiest events of the past century were directly caused by it. The tyrants Hitler and Stalin who thrived on mayhem and parasitized their societies were simply inconceivable without the destruction wrought by the Great War. I’m sometimes asked how I get up in the morning. I reply, ‘writing 20th-century history is a dirty job but some of us have gotta do it.’

I wrote...

Hiroshima Nagasaki: The Real Story of the Atomic Bombings and Their Aftermath

By Paul Ham,

Book cover of Hiroshima Nagasaki: The Real Story of the Atomic Bombings and Their Aftermath

What is my book about?

Paul Ham’s Hiroshima Nagasaki will infuriate anyone who still believes the atomic bombs avoided a land invasion of Japan, ‘shocked’ Japan into unconditional surrender, and ‘saved up to a million American servicemen’. These post-war fabrications were part of an ex post facto narrative concocted by politicians to justify a war crime, as Ham’s exhaustive research demonstrates.

Hiroshima Nagasaki is being made into a 6-part television series by an Anglo-Australian production company. No American studio would touch it because, as one studio head remarked, ‘It’s not the story we were taught in school’.

The Last Days of Hitler

By Hugh Trevor-Roper,

Book cover of The Last Days of Hitler

There have been more recent accounts of Hitler’s retreat to the bunker in the last weeks of his life. But even if some new information has surfaced since Britain’s H.R. Trevor-Roper wrote his report, the vividness is hard to match. Trever-Roper recorded his thoughts on Hitler’s end before the rubble of war had been cleared away. It was almost on-the-scene reporting.

Who am I?

Unlike most children of immigrants who were told nothing about the past, I grew up surrounded by family history—my grandfather’s village in Russia, my father’s memories of 1930s Europe, and my mother’s childhood on a migrant worker farm during the Great Depression. I realized that history isn’t just names and dates but a unique opportunity to study human behavior. I wrote Hammer of the Gods about the Thule Society because Thule was often mentioned in passing by historians of Nazi Germany, as if they were uncomfortable delving into an occult group recognized as influential on the Nazis. I decided I wanted to learn who they were and what they wanted.

I wrote...

Hammer of the Gods: The Thule Society and the Birth of Nazism

By David Luhrssen,

Book cover of Hammer of the Gods: The Thule Society and the Birth of Nazism

What is my book about?

Hammer of the Gods examines a network of secretive occult societies whose Munich branch, the Thule Society, founded the Nazi Party at the end of World War I as a front group for reaching the working class with some of their ideas. The Thule Society was anti-Semitic, invoked ancient Nordic gods, and was involved in paramilitary operations against leftist forces.

The Meaning of Hitler

By Sebastian Haffner, Ewald Osers (translator),

Book cover of The Meaning of Hitler

As in the case of Joachim Fest, it is impossible to read this book without having some sense of the author’s own autobiography. Haffner was an emigré who had left Germany for Britain in 1939, was briefly interned in the war, and became a correspondent for The Observer. The essayistic reflections offered in this short book are not so much biographical as a set of attempts to place Hitler within the wider context of German history and to understand Hitler as a historical phenomenon. Readable, astute, and thoughtful, they are an engaging introduction to his life-long attempts to make sense of the regime from which he had fled.

Who am I?

I am Professor of Modern European History at the University of Southampton, UK, and publish widely on diverse aspects of Nazi Germany. The first history book that I ever read was Alan Bullock’s Hitler. A Study in Tyranny - the first scholarly biography of Hitler to appear. I still recall the fascination of reading this as a teenager: it sparked a curiosity that formed the basis of a scholarly career that has spanned nearly three decades. The desire to make sense of the phenomenon of Nazism was never purely academic, however – my own family origins in Germany, and the stories elderly relatives told of their wartime experiences, gave the history texture, immediacy, and urgency.

I wrote...

How to Read Hitler

By Neil Gregor,

Book cover of How to Read Hitler

What is my book about?

This short book introduces the general reader to the ways in which we might read and understand the most writings of Adolf Hitler, the leader of the Nazi Party. They are notoriously badly written, and often dismissed as incoherent ramblings with little to tell us about what Hitler intended to do when he came to power. Taking a series of key passages and subjecting them to close analysis, this book shows how the careful reader can detect a coherent worldview in Hitler’s writings. It shows how Hitler may not have had a clear plan for conquest and genocide, but he did have a clearly genocidal vision, and a mindset of extreme violence to accompany it.

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