History Resources (documentaries etc.)

In summary: ...the extreme weather conditions in Russia. The cold, wet weather caused widespread starvation and epidemics, which resulted in the death of over a million French soldiers, many of them young conscripts.
  • #1
Gold Member
2023 Award
I've been very interested in history a long time, read many books and watched many documentaries during the years.

I've recently started to watch documentaries on parts of history I did not know very well (the Napoleonic era), and I thought it would be a nice idea to have a thread where those who are interested in history could share resources like documentaries and books we have enjoyed.

Therefore I start this thread, so please add titles, info and/or links of history documentaries and books that you have enjoyed!

This could be any and every part of history, from ancient times to modern times, including civilizations, persons and wars, and including history of science.

In the next post I will add a list of documentaries I've enjoyed over the years, and in the post after that I will add a bunch of documentaries of the Napoleonic era which I've recently seen.

Last edited:
Science news on Phys.org
  • #2
I read some paperbacks from an author about history which historians wouldn't accept as a historian. He summarized a certain section of history in a funny way, bringing complex stories at the point of what he thought is really behind. It matched my tendency to simplifications, but I'm also convinced, that complexity really breaks down to some simple key points.

I remember a sentence like: "Lady Liberty was a gift from the French. However, the French are pranksters: she is hollow inside." This was not only a pun, it was an entire critic of the American fetish "freedom", in the sense that arbitrary freedom doesn't work. He wrote a couple of paperbacks in this style.

Another one was: "Do not break the law! But you can break the constitution as often as you want."
  • Like
Likes Klystron and DennisN
  • #3
Ancient history and various documentaries:
History of Science documentaries:
World War I:
World War II and The Third Reich:
Last edited:
  • Like
Likes Oldman too and Evo
  • #4
The Napoleonic era (Europe, ca 1799 – 1815)
(documentaries about Napoleon Bonaparte, Nelson and H.M.S. Victory):
  • The Defeat of Napoleon: Documentary on the Battle of Waterloo (youtube link)
  • Napoleon (PBS) (imdb, part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4)
  • Napoleon Russian Campaign Documentary (part 1, part 2)
  • Napoleon Bonaparte: The Road To Moscow, 1812 (link)
  • Nelson's Trafalgar (link)
  • Battle Stations: HMS Victory (link)
  • HMS Victory - The Original Fast Battleship (link)
Edit, some sidenotes from me about this era and why I got interested in it:

Recently I started to assemble and paint a model of the famous battleship H.M.S. Victory, and since I wanted to get the colors right, I studied real photos of the ship which is located in Portsmouth, England. This led me to look for documentaries about the ship, and soon I was binge watching documentaries about the ship, Nelson and later Napoleon :smile:.

The history of the ship itself is fascinating, but what I found more interesting was the war in which it was involved, and in particular, the circumstances and consequences of the Battle of Trafalgar.

H.M.S. Victory was a 104-gun first-rate ship of the line, a fast battleship, and it was the flagship which admiral Nelson commanded during the battle of Trafalgar where the British Royal Navy thoroughly defeated the French and Spanish fleets. The Royal Navy did not lose any ships, while France and Spain lost 22 ships. Trafalgar Square in London is a commemoration of the battle.

One consequence of this naval battle was that it would be practically impossible for Napoleon to invade Britain, since an invader needed to have naval dominance in the English Channel in order to cross it. As the lines in Rule, Britannia! goes: "Rule, Britannia! rule the waves: "Britons never will be slaves." :smile:

The rise of Napoleon Bonaparte and his empire is itself a very interesting and eventful part of history, and a fun thing is that Beethoven dedicated his third symphony to Napoleon when Napoleon was First Consul, but later withdrew the dedication when Napoleon declared himself emperor.

Another thing I found fascinating was the circumstances during the "Hundred Days", which was the time between Napoleon's escape from the exile on Elba, his defeat at Waterloo and the subsequent restoration of King Louis XVIII and the French kingdom.

Before the "Hundred Days", Napoleon had invaded Russia while the Russians had continously retreated and refused any major battle with the French army. Napoleon took Moscow, but soon retreated due to various problems and the fact that the Russians would not capitulate. The French retreat was devastating due to the assaults of Russian forces and due to the winter.

Napoleon's Grande Armée had entered Russia with more than 500,000 soldiers and they returned with less than 40,000 soldiers.

Later, a larger coalition was formed against Napoleon and France, which later led to a surrender in 1814 and a subsequent forced abdication of Napoleon, after which he was exiled to the small island of Elba.

But it was not quite over for this ambitious artillery lieutenant from Corsica...!
He spent less than a year on Elba, gathered a small force and escaped from the island, returned to Paris, assumed command and soon France mobilised again.

This resulted in Great Britain, Austria, Prussia and Russia almost immediately forming a coalition, but not against France, but Napoleon himself! :))

This is mentioned here in one of the documentaries, and here on Wikipedia.

And here are the full declarations and treaty on wikisource:
Treaty of Alliance against Bonaparte said:
III. The High Contracting Parties reciprocally engage not to lay down their arms but by common consent, nor before the object of the War, designated in the first Article of the present Treaty, shall have been attained; nor until Bonaparte shall have been rendered absolutely unable to create disturbance, and to renew his attempts for possessing himself of the Supreme Power in France.
Last edited:
  • Like
Likes Evo
  • #5
Napoleon, War and Peace, Tolstoy; fiction, but it's "great" fiction. Rome, I Clavdivs, and Clavdivs the God, Robert Graves, ditto. Plus, of course, videos of both; A. Hopkins for WAP, and Derek Jacoby for IC&ICtG.
  • Like
Likes Klystron and DennisN
  • #6
Alexandre Dumas pere wrote several historical novels sometimes seen as allegories for the rise of Napoleon and imperial politics in his own era. I enjoy Dumas and the many movies made from his novels such as "The Three Musketeers", "Twenty Years After", "Prisoner in the Iron Mask", and "The Count of Monte Cristo".

One of my favorite novelists Umberto Eco has a scene in his historical novel "The Island of the Day Before" set during the siege of Casale where characters from Dumas's "The Three Musketeers" briefly appear during a lull in the fighting similar to the musketeers lunching during the battle at La Rochelle in the latter story. Cardinal Richelieu and his assistant Cardinal Mazarin provide menace and advance the plot of both novels.

I have read and enjoyed dozens, perhaps hundreds, of novels set during the Napoleonic Wars on all sides. One maritime novel even has an American privateer helping the British defeat Napoleon using a tactic of sneaking up behind French warships and firing grapeshot at the stern directly down the gun decks taking out the most experienced French gunners and cannon before they can fire broadside to the British ships. In another series a Dutch-English officer devises this technique from a modified fluyt.

British historian Bernard Cornwell wrote numerous historical novels set in this period including the "Sharpe's" series also made into movies and television serials. C. S. Forester gives us the great Horatio Hornblower always a fictional thorn in the Emperor's side in books and film.
Last edited:
  • Like
Likes BillTre and DennisN
  • #7
Always been interested in the period. Have you read The Battle by Patrick Rimbaud? Unlike Sharpe, which is more or less an adventure story, this is a novel but also a realistic account of the battle of Aspern Essling. Also the beginning of Stendhal’s The Charterhouse of Parma has a good account of Waterloo (the author was a veteran of the Russian campaign)
  • #8
BWV said:
Always been interested in the period. Have you read The Battle by Patrick Rimbaud? Unlike Sharpe, which is more or less an adventure story, this is a novel but also a realistic account of the battle of Aspern Essling. Also the beginning of Stendhal’s The Charterhouse of Parma has a good account of Waterloo (the author was a veteran of the Russian campaign)
Thanks @BWV . I have reserved "The Battle" to read next week and placed "The Retreat" on my list at the library. I have read stories and poems by Arthur Rimbaud but Patrick may be new to me.

I agree about Sharpe's but thought it would be familiar to many members. Cornwell wrote many fun historical reads set in different periods including medieval monk murder detectives and abbesses who rival Sherlock Holmes in ability. Even light reading provides historical information such as what characters ate and drank.

I also reserved a copy of "Charterhouse of Parma" and listed "The Red and the Black" for later. I read Charterhouse but too long ago to remember, and at too young an age to appreciate, the plot.
  • #9
I am glad you say books – history books are a excellent source for historical knowledge.

I have since early elementary school been fascinated by history, maybe I chose the wrong university subject and career. I have read extensively and have some shelf loads of history books. There is just about nothing in human history I find uninteresting. Well, maybe the early Church Fathers, but that's nearly all. My big limitation is that reading it as relaxation, I have not gone in for note-making and I do not have that retentive memory for detail, which limits on what I might benefit from it. You've heard the expression forgotten history? – I am the man who forgot it. But if culture is what remains when you have forgotten everything you have ever learnt, I have a historical culture enough to very confidently make the recommendations below.

I thought there is little point in just a list without saying why I recommend it, from which anyone could see whether it would be of interest to them. I have put my must reads in red - there is no must about it of course, I just mean I think these will take you fastest (not very fast) to the heart and essence of a theme. There are a handful of historical concepts and terms you really must know, I identify in green. A personal selection but mostly according to my best knowledge on above criteria (and then most of the recommendations also bestsellers, so hardly eccentric) plu I've also included some relatively obscure stuff, but explained why.

I recently bought several new books, they were going for 99p as e-books on Amazon. But basically reading history is a very cheap hobby.

Once I started this, it expanded so I will present it in several sections. I do not necessarily stand by anything I say here, since if I checked up every last thing I would never get this done.

1 General and world history

For framework of overview all about the most important century and a half, few will dispute you could hardly do better than start with Eric Hobsbawm's tetralogy

The Age of Revolution: Europe 1789–1848

The Age of Capital: 1848–1875

The Age of Empire: 1875–1914

The Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century, 1914–1991

These are almost World History, not quite (such a thing may not make sense) let's say expanded Eurocentric that takes into a considerable extent North and South America. Asia and Africa instead as objects of European Imperial exploitation and dominance, not much for their internal dynamics. I read the first volume soon after it appeared, it had a big impact generally including on me. The author is a Marxist, no bones about that, but the Marxism was of a far more broadminded, and therefore plausible and useful, type than anything I and most people had come across before, e.g. from the Communist party of which he was nevertheless a member. That was the reason for its immediate and prolonged success worldwide. But watch out, in this book he is no drawing-room and tea-party Marxist, but an enthusiast for revolution. The 'Age of Revolution' treats the 'Dual Revolution' - the combination that irreversibly upset the world of the industrial revolution (mostly British in his period) and political revolution (French). Of these it is the second that enthuses him most. He has no time for moralising on the costs, the cruelties the injustices, the atrocities, the genocide of The French Revolution, he sees political necessities through Jacobin eyes. This hard streak comes back into his fourth volume, a more than competent and certainly acceptable analysis of the ( first half) 20th century in the main, except for its incredible and total whiteout of the human and moral disaster that was the Soviet Union. I attributed this to an imprinting of Stalinist loyalty knocked into him in the street fights against Nazis in 1930s Berlin he was in. He could never disavow this, although in actual UK politics he was quite important in moderating extremism on the left and in trade unions during the 1970's. Make a few allowances though, and these are extremely enlightening books.Unlike almost everything else I will mention, these volumes have a particular interest to scientists in that every one of them has a chapter on the science of the period. And there is no denying connections between science and the industrial revolution, nor between science and the French Revolution with, er, The metric system, the guillotine, something important about saltpetre, balloons, Napoleon's expedition to Egypt, Laplace, Monge,...! Within the period, Galois, real revolutionary dying for his cause whatever it was. Revolutionary ideas overturning everything like non-Euclidian geometry. Science was revolutionary then! Science was always revolutionary! I lapped it up! It seemed to give me strength - I might seem to be doing experiments on my supervisor's ideas, not stupid but not Inspiring me any great enthusiasm for, the results of which might fit into a jigsaw that would reveal something about how enzymes work, but really at the same time I was contributing to making a revolution, in some fashion. That was more inspiring than the Philistine framework of the immediate reality. Such highflown ideas or just the ordinary connection science = progress = better life for everyone did not well prepare me for the revolutionary movements which came along a few years later, which enjoined me to believe that science was an instrument of bourgeois oppression, social discrimination, imperialistic domination etc.

To do this job Hobsbawm was up against a problem - It is very hard for the generalist historian to understand what he is writing about when writing about science, and the more recent it is, the harder it is. So he didn't. He got some fellow Marxist scientists from the University (one or two of which I had occasional encounters with) to tell him what was what and what it was all about, with him tying it up into the final form and synthesis. His resulting account stresses more ideology than readers from here would mostly think matters in Science. By his fourth volume years later I imagined myself referee, and its pages would have been black with my corrections and objections. But a valiant effort at synthesis and if you have not read anything like it before, you should.

I can on the other hand recommend without reservation a slice of history of science among other things: "The Intellectual origins of the English Revolution" By Christopher Hill, concerned with scientific and other thought and activity before during and after the Civil War and Cromwell's Commonwealth. Which I mention here because Hill was from the same stable as Hobsbawm, and fellow member of the remarkable Communist Party historians group https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Communist_Party_Historians_Group , set up by CPGB but whose members were not obliged to toe any dogmatic party line. Read here of the islands called Briggs His Mathematicks, of that intellectual, patron and dabbler in the Sciences and author of the first attempted History of the World, Sir Walter Raleigh, of the speculations of other inhabited worlds, by an important Bishop! in Cromwell's time, and much else you may know of but possibly not correctly placed, all drawn together thematically
Last edited:
  • Informative
  • Like
Likes Oldman too, Klystron and DennisN
  • #10
2 Thoughts on essential minimal History for schools.

Having written section 1 above I then realized that people have to know at least something to understand it. I know that historians are generally aghast at the lack of historical knowledge amongst the young least. Hobsbawm said something to the effect that they live in a 'permanent present'. For them everything was always like it is now, and if it wasn't that's boring.

But I think it is compulsorily taught in most schools in most countries. I wonder if some corrections in history teaching are needed. In British secondary schools most students get taught up to age 16 and take an exam in History.When I was at school, taught History ended in 1914. (I was one of the few to read the textbook beyond that year). By the time my son did history at school, it had moved on. The treaties I knew of as 'Versailles' he knew about each individual one, Trianon etc., as he did in some detail about the various interwar treaties and conferences, Geneva, Locarno, Stresa etc. I doubt he remembers much now, and that it has all that much value. However when something came up in the news of some flare-up about Korea, Israel-Palestine, India-Pakistan etc. he had no idea where these places and these problems were coming from.

So I would propose generally for the last, compulsory, examinable year or two of history students take a course that starts in 1945. If ever there has been anything like a clean slate, a totally new situation worldwide, it was then and a lot of contemporary issues trace back essentially to about then. That is the most important thing, after which it is interesting to know about how the world got there, and about the overhang of the previous world still influencing the post-1945 one.
Last edited:
  • Like
Likes Klystron and DennisN
  • #11
I love maps including old maps and mathematics underlying cartography but, even so, Geography must be taught alongside History.
  • #12
3 British HistoryI mentioned the hard streak in Hobsbawm. I noticed its exact opposite in Simon Schama. Schama Is an example of what we in Britain call a 'telly don'. 'Don' from an antique honorific prefix now meaning a university teacher, so a 'telly-don' is a university person who does TV series, often acquiring fame, fortune, the envy and despisal of academic colleagues, and become a national celeb, whose opinions are sought on talkshows, such as the BBC's weekly BBC Question Time. This phenomenon is made possible by the fact that the British are particularly interested in history (as you can note wandering into any bookshop, or surveying any week's TV programmes) especially their own, which I don't find paralleled in other countries. Possibly because it is a largely creditable success story while for other countries it may be a victim story ("Englishmen are born gloaters; Irishmen born brooders" - Conor Cruise O'Brien") or a shameful story with too many taboo areas too sensitive to touch, or a protected mythological story?

Simon Schama Is easy viewing, https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_History_of_Britain_(TV_series)

the corresponding book easy and absorbing reading. The style is worth a comment. Partly it is donnish, that is, a kind of almost condescending urbane superiority, worldly wise and cynical. But the point is his cynicism applies always only to the powerful, those with the power who know what to do with it or think they do. Never to the sufferings of the little people, to the English martyrs under Bloody Mary, the slaves, early trades unionists and strikers, etc. who receive eloquent lest-we-forget emphasis and sympathy (slavery "a stain that no amount of riteuous self-congratulation at its eventual abolition can altogether wash away") just what I contrasted with the somewhat callous and mechanical outlook of Hobsbawm above. Literarily I found it notable. Mixed in with language natural to the Cambridge academic it is the first text I have read written partly in Estuary English - one of the maxi-dialects that in British English are now replacing local dialects. In 2000 it was a surprise to encounter phrases like 'fast-forward to' in a serious text of any pretentions. The old style Cambridge don imported phrases from Greek, the modern one from Geek.

Another telly don, in a sense rival, is David Starkey. He also produced a TV series for a rival TV Network, a less lavish production than Schama's, though he was very well remunerated for it. It is really nothing but a series of monologues by David Starkey, much like a series of university lectures – with the difference that he holds your attention from beginning to end! The only difference from a university lecture is a bit of scenery, A few minutes might be delivered whilst walking up the aisle of a ruined abbey, other minutes from a castle turret, or standing beneath a portrait of a famous Monarch or would-be Monarch, or handling a precious manuscript in the Bodleian or British Library etc.

Following my recent cheap 99p acquisitions I have read a book issued from that : Monarchy: From the Middle Ages to Modernity.No, wait a minute. This is not a story of kings and queens, but that of an institution which, and the evolving ideas about it which, he claims, and more than half convinces me, is the indispensable key to the understanding of English and British history in the whole turbulent period, encompassing wars of religion in Britain as elsewhere, almost exactly two centuries, from the coronation of Henry VIII to the death of Queen Anne 1714. Because of the book's TV origins, it does read a bit like potted history, but many readers will welcome that. The condensation enables him to concentrate on the essentials of his argument and put his message across.

Statistically the reader of this post is most likely to be American. These two authors are writing of British history, quite narrower than the universal history of Hobsbawm so the likely reader might consider it irrelevant to him. But neither of these authors think that.

Starkey: "Thereafter, Britain and America went their separate ways. But only one remained loyal to its eighteenth-century roots. These show clearly in Washington, ... it is America today which best embodies the ideas of freedom, power and Empire which inspired that great denizen of Stowe, William Pitt, in the reign of George II. And it does so for better or for worse." Schama offers similar thoughts and I think it would not be easy to find as good a contextualised history of North America in the decades immediately before and including the American Revolution as in his long chapter entitled "The Wrong Empire" (by which he refers to the opening of the new one in India, which he thinks a Bad Thing https://www.historyextra.com/period/1066-and-all-that/ just when the American one was lost.)

Politically Schama and Starkey are almost poles apart. Schama is a man of the conventional British left (Diane Abbott, the shadow Home Secretary in the shadow cabinet of Jeremy Corbyn, Labour party leader with whom her relations were once of the closest) was once his student and listening to her you can sometimes hear his influence, though of course she is not Schama's fault. Starkey on the other hand belongs to the category of right wing intellectuals, something that has not existed in my lifetime in Britain until about 20 years ago, and would previously have been considered a contradiction in terms. Very far from universally popular, really hated in some quarters, he is also a frequent guest on talkshows which benefit from the trenchancy with which he offers his opinions and even more reacts to others', which is sometimes in a manner that has earned him the title "The rudest man in Britain".

The first and original telly-don was AJP Taylor who started in the days of black-and-white TV in the 1950s. A sound historian yet at the same time a maverick and provocateur given to eccentric opinions whose purpose you often suspect was to draw attention to himself. Nevertheless his runaway best seller English History 1914–1945 is not only sound, but by common consent the best you can find with that coverage. Extremely prolific, he never wrote a dull word, except maybe for his biography of Bismarck which is just depressing. But everybody else's biography of Bismarck is just depressing so I think this must be Bismarck's fault, not that of any historian. Taylor has one knack otherwise I've seen only in HG Wells and George Orwell – he can write a sentence that you instantly recognise has to be true. Example – "Lloyd George complained: "the French are entitled to know what we mean. The British people are entitled to know what we mean, and I should not be a bit surprised if the Prime Minister would like to know himself what we mean." Here Lloyd George was wrong. McDonald did not want to know what he meant. Imprecision was the essence of his policy."

When in London, for light relief I carry a volume of his essays and book reviews to read on the bus or underground train. If you read a lot of one writer you begin to notice limitations. Maybe Taylor occasionally let his liking for aphorisms get the better of his drilling for truth.

Not rivalling, but supplementing, Taylor is Andy Marr. He is one step above a telly-don, he is a very well known TV personality. For long he reported and commentedon on each day's happenings in Parliament, and impressed by his shrewdness. Now he hosts a Sunday news-chat show programme that includes interviews with one or two politicians. What is said in these interviews often is the news in Monday's newspapers. So instead of a historian becoming TV personality and journalist, a journalist becoming historian.

Well known TV personalities more often than not cash in on their celebrity by writing books, which tend to be published towards Christmas. They are intelligent people in a stimulating profession, so the books are often not bad. I had no great expectations of what I thought would be a modest potboiling routine historical rehash when I bought, being sold off at half price, Andrew Marr's The Making of Modern Britain. I was wrong.

Maybe the big thing to point out here is that of all the books mentioned this is the book for those usually little inclined to read History. Not written like a newspaper, but the journalistic talent is felt in the liveliness, empathy and focus. Unlike Taylor he is free to talk about only what he chooses. For instance although the two reach similar conclusions about Lloyd George or Oswald Mosley, Marr you gives you more dirt about skulduggery, mysterious murders or disappearances around Lloyd George's peerages sales scandals, more of the outstanding personality and involvements of Mosley (founder of the fortunately short lived British Union of Fascists aka Blackshirts) and those connected with him, like the Mitford sisters, who you cannot fail to come across if you read at all widely about 20th century England. Marr is free to not tell you anything about the Local Government Reform Act of 1934 (example I made up) whereas Taylor, whose book is one of the multivolume Oxford History of England, would have been be held am sure by his publishers to maintain a certain comprehensiveness whether he wanted to or not. So this maverick, livewire, controversial historian looks almost staid when compared to Marr. Marr is rather good at giving you a sense of what it felt like to be there in Britain in these past times. For instance we nowadays have crystallised categories about what ideas are left and what right wing. But this was much more fluid in the interwar period, hence you can have Mosley being a left-wing hero at one time. Marr gives out any number of original thoughts, and facts I never heard of before. Thought: the extent to which 'Edwardian' building (strictly 1901-1910 but say 1890-1914) shaped and still shapes British townscapes - it is so familiar to us we don't notice it; he calls this the Shock of the Familiar. Fact: the BUF Blackshirts for a brief period were up to 50,000 members, but the Greenshirts in their heyday had many more and a more effective street presence. The who? As he says. They are completely forgotten now. There is so much of this originality and research that I thought someone with his jobs would be able and would have to employ researchers to dig it out for him, But he explicitly says not.

I have not read but look forward to reading A. Marr's History of Modern Britain which covers 1945-2007; both books were also TV series.

The British historians above are all patriots. All (except for Taylor, in his period the question simply does not arise) have a concern with the question of Britishness or British identity. This has been brought into question either by the rapidly altered ethnic composition of Britain, EU membership (though rapid recent changes there of course, instead of membership that should maybe become constitutional crisis) fissiparous movements and sentiment of the component nations, increase and excess of inequality, not only between individuals but between regions, drastic loss of respect for institutions, the monarchy, Parliament, seemingly hollowed-out incompetent administrations like ministries, the political parties whose mass membership has been decimated and which seem fallen into the hands of sects. The authors talk somewhat of this in the books, but also a lot in public life outside them. All f them think awareness of our country's history is indispensble to a national identity and consciousness.

Starkey is pro-Brexit, as are about 1%, maybe even 2% of the British Professorate. This

gives an idea of his personality when put in a good mood through friendly questioning (and notice how he sparkles with original historical ideas and insights); he needs to be seen when antagonised by a historian not as well documented as he, or by a leftist student parroting half-baked ideas

The debate involves the profession of historian in Britain generally. https://www.ft.com/content/86c8faa8-1696-11e6-9d98-00386a18e39d
Last edited:
  • Like
  • Informative
Likes DennisN and Bystander
  • #13
4 European History

Those who hate Starkey probably mostly love another telly don and national celeb, almost national treasure because an eccentric, Mary Beard. Her SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome is in my collection of recently bought bargains waiting to be read. It did receive rave reviews, but also critical ones. Apparently strong and a bit novel on society, institutions, daily life, weak on chronological narrative, so it could depend what you are looking for. I am looking forward to reading it because despite spending a lot of my time in the modern city, I could never get much interested in ancient Rome.So a bit of stimulation of interest and perhaps to get around to see more than I have of what is left of it could be valuable to me.

Coming to modern Europe I have read numerous books on the two world wars and also the period between them. But I'm going to particularly recommend (again from my recent acquisitions) To Hell and Back: Europe 1914 to 1949 by Ian Kershaw. There are of course plenty of other books if what you want is details of the wars, campaigns, interwar treaties; much of this detail is missing here. This this an interpretive work trying to make sense of it all (by an author previously mostly known for his studies of Hitler). But I still found it a good factual supplement to something missing in almost all books. They all concentrate overwhelmingly on the half-dozen major European players plus secondarily the USA and Turkey, during and after WW1. Kershaw takes practically all of the countries of Europe in e.g. the usually not much discussed until the mid 30s Spain, and even Albania. And, related, he is good on the messy time immediately after WW1. The war finished in 1918, but for a swathe of countries from Finland to Turkey not to mention Russia, violence and terror did not end then but continued for several years. Connected again, I like the periodisation. Most histories of or including the war end in 1945 which sounds logical, but is not quite right. The first five years after, are a confusing between period difficult to treat historically, you could say its end around 1950 is the transition into the next definitive period, the classical Cold War. But it justifies the last part of the title 'and Back'. Enough in those years emerged to make likely that the mistakes and tragedies of the wars and interwar period would not be repeated, and to see the emergence of real international collaboration institutions including the embryo that became the European Union (even if the outlook in East Europe was less bright).

Of far less scope but I found interesting, concentrated on the brief period where the wartime alliance began to turn sour and a lot of the bad seeds were planted is Six Months in 1945: FDR, Stalin, Churchill, and Truman--from World War to Cold War by Michael Dobbs. A lot happened but it was a short time so this concentration enables him to tell you details like the difficulties for everyone of actually getting to Yalta for the fateful conference, and the unsatisfactory bathroom arrangements when the motley bunch did, about which you always wondered but were afraid to ask.

And afterwards? I had long felt the need for it when in 2005 Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 by Tony Judt appeared. It is pretty well acknowledged and unchallenged as best for this period.It is nearly 900 pages, so not a quick easy read, But for many people this will be eased by links to things they remember, half-remember, or have heard about and would have liked to know. European in focus, rest of world only when it impinges on Europe, for example decolonisation, European reactions to Vietnam war.

Overlapping, I've read no small amount of military history, especially WW2 and 1. The most recent is from my £1 haul is Catastrophe: Europe goes to war about WW1 by the reliable Max Hastings (2013). I skipped a fair amount of this, feeling I have no immediate need to deepen my knowledge of Tannenberg or the Brusilov Offensive, and I was more interested in the outbreak and ever puzzled-over lead up to it. In Britain we are above all aware of the Western Front, but every front was a horror story. Largely new to me was the horror story of Serbia, with its massive killings and atrocities, also against civilians, from the start. Hastings' 'Overlord: D-Day and the Battle for Normandy I have not read (I thought I had but instead I'd read 'D-Day, the Battle for Normandy by Anthony Beevor, confusing eh?) but he has written numerous others, mainly WW2 military histories. They have a reputation for completeness and accuracy, but nevertheless put together very readably, reflecting the fact that he is a journalist and a public figure, not an academic. In fact he has done so much in all these ways and his books are so very detailed and well researched I do find it hard to believe he finds time for the researches all by himself and suppose he has a team of researchers to help him. I would not see anything wrong with that. He was for a time editor of the London evening newspaper, the Evening Standard. Earlier, working for the Daily Telegraph, he was the boss of Boris Johnson, then its correspondent in Brussels. The experience and resentment built up in that time recently boiled over and he went public with an exposé of the unscrupulous lying charlatan character and history of Boris, a man quite unfit to be Prime Minister.

I'll say no more about military history (for now :oldbiggrin:) but I have long had one question about it. Why is it that not one book of military history has ever been written that contains maps adequate for following the story?
Last edited:
  • Like
  • Informative
Likes DennisN and Klystron
  • #14
5 Histories of 4 important countries- France, Italy, Germany, USA

That's a bit about Europe in general and Britain. Other countries? France?

France. We have to talk about the Revolution. Hundreds of books. I recently read The Terror by Graeme Fife 2004. It could cure you of wanting to read books on the Revolution - the effect is like reading Solzhenitsyn. Particular strengths probably compared to other books is that is this less Paris-centred, and fuller about the country-wide civil war (sometimes not against Royalists, but between different factions of revolutionaries) in Lyons, the South, the West (Nantes, Vendée), more than usual about the modest and obscure, many by chance victims as opposed to the famous distinguished ones. The latter are mentioned but the balance is different from general accounts like that of Cobban (below, vol. 2) or the partisan, Hobsbawm.

I believe standard is A History of Modern France by Alfred Cobban of which I have 3-volume paperback Pelican edition covering from 1715 to 1962. Parts of it I have read several times, which with my retentiveness is needed. Its impact on me was such that I don't exclude there could be also other equally good books. And indeed for the third period there now is such a better book (though its author pays tribute to Cobban). I have long felt the need for this book because of this period the first part (Orleanist monarchy etc.) is confusing and like Churchills pudding, seems to have no theme, and the Second (or Third, depending who's counting) Empire is more spectacular but you wonder if it was ever real (Cobban's IMHO best chapter is about it). But then, ah, the ( best part of) the Third Republic, La Belle Epoche, https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Belle_Époque that shines as France's brilliant Golden Age of flourishing culture, every art, the sciences and technology, and progressive politics (from a bad start, and not without hard struggle). In short much of what has created an admired image of France.

But not just to recount, rather to explain as well , that is a difficult and huge job. That is the job achieved by France 1814-1914 by Robert Tombs. Without a guide like this you can easily fail to understand, get it wrong in fact. Example, we read the political parties form governments which last averagely less than a year, from changing coalitions of parties. The average British or American reader sees 'party' and assumes that these are like a Liberal or Conservative, the Republican or Democratic parties, just more of them, making it more complicated to form a government from. But for real historical understanding you have to look into what actually is a political party in France of that time. What relation with electors, with local power, with central Authority, what even does a Ministry amount to and how does it all work. Or a more obvious theme: we think of France as an essentially left-wing country, at least in its soul, and certainly in its intellectuals. Tombs points out it has a far from negligible right wing soul and set of intellectuals (OK maybe less brilliant) too. That the two split in the Revolution, and have been locked in a secular struggle, in a sort of stalemate society, ever since, only ending perhaps in the 1970s. And so on, Tombs puts all these things, everything, the classes, parties, institutions, the army, the colonial Empire (mostly created in this period, most of the earlier one having been lost) etc. under the microscope. This is somehow the deepest, the most scientific in the sense of newness and closeness to primary research rather than general review, of the books I have reviewed here. It's not so much for relaxation reading, more like for study.

Italy? Mussolini, (1981) and Mussolini's Roman Empire(Le guerre del Duce), 1976. by Dennis Mack Smith. Two oddities there? - only 20 years of history and a British author. But actually Italians are not very interested in history, not even their own, and what interest there is is concentrated mainly on il ventennio, which is also the case internationally since it was then that Italy and its leader most mattered to the rest of the world. And Mack Smith is the best-selling historian in Italy! So that backs up my recommendations. As did a nephew of mine studying History at University I gave the book to who said it was the best book on the subject ever written - then he said no, it was just the best book ever written.

In my recent £1 haul I netted Mussolini: a new life by Nicholas Farrel.2003. Have yet read only two chapters and it's clearly a 'revisionist' work. One chapter is on how the Duce met his end, where Farrel cuts his way through a lot of mythologising. He rubbishes the partisans (Resistance) in general, or let's the evidence do it, which will have earned him enemies. The other chapter I read is an exceptionally clear account of the Abyssinian crisis, a crucial event since it turned Mussolini from Anglo-French ally into the arms of Hitler, with incalculable consequences. Farell criticises the fumblings of the British and French politicians and diplomats. The appeasers should have appeased the minor threat, enabling them take a strong line against the major one, instead of the other way round, he thinks. But that even this bunch of people might have got it right enough if it had not been for the pressure of a moralistic British public opinion fixated in a faith in the League of Nations. This is not far from a thesis of AJP Taylor in his 1961 book The Origins of the Second World War, which back then unleashed a storm of controversy, due to its contradiction in this and other questions with conventional thinking of the time. Farrel draws on much new documentation (and Taylor lamented the paucity of that available to him). For instance it is news to me that Mussolini was extremely well informed of the considerations determining British policy by a spy in the British Embassy.

When doing sightseeing tourism it adds to have knowledge of the history of where you visit beyond the guide books and pamphlets, which is why I mention A History of Sicily in two volumes, Medieval Sicily 800-1713and Modern Sicily after 1713, also by Dennis Mack Smith. I've read it twice and been there twice. Not saying this is required reading for anyone, but just in case you think of it as a out-of-the-way place, well for about two millennia Sicily was situated pretty much about the centre of our civilization, though seldom master in its own house. So there is much more to be seen there than you may imagine. Its history often parallels that of the rest of Europe, just going in the opposite direction. Checking up through wiki I had a strange confirmation of a thought that struck me on first reading 40 years ago. I thought, ah, historian is dependent on his documentary sources. Like tax accounts - this book (exaggerating) could almost be called 'History of tax avoidance in Sicily'. Wiki now tells me "He belonged to the post-World War II generation of Cambridge historians, many based at Peterhouse (a Cambridge College), who learned to appreciate the primacy of documentary evidence." And that his father was a tax inspector!

As for the rest of the 150-year history of united Italy, I see I have on my bookshelves Italy and Its Monarchy, 1989 which I have never got around to reading. I see that it is by one Dennis Mack Smith. Some more about pre-united Italy in another section below.

Germany As for Italy most readership interest is concentrated on one period 1914-1945. I have read a lot of WW1, WW2, Hitler and the Nazis, but am not going to single out anything in particular other than what I have already put under Europe.The unified German state is already crystallised, as it were, before 1914 where all these histories start. I would like to read more about how it got that way, say from Napoleon to then or at least to 1871. Before Napoleon one doesn't have to worry about it for some centuries, as a stable and self-perpetuating system had been created where no one but Germans had to worry about it. A good time ago I read "The Course of German History" by AJP Taylor, but unusually for him it left little impression. So I thought maybe I needed a potted history and The Shortest History of Germany by James Hawes 2017. But I wonder if these two authors aren't a bit eccentric. Taylor's book was published in 1945, when feelings were different, and he has bluntly stated he did not like Germans. He starts one essay with the words "What is wrong with Germany is that there is too much of it." Hawes seems of similar opinion. He seems to have a good and ideal heartland Germany that is the West and South, which of everything had stopped there might have been ideal, a normal, progressive, indeed brilliant country. Not incidentally, and quite emphasised by him, a lot of this area is Catholic. But his ideal Germany was spoilt by the influence of firstly Austria, which is outlying and also the centre of a multinational empire, so could not be good for the formation of Germany, and then especially by another periphery, Prussia, which also started as Imperial conquest enterprise which brought Germany militarism and contributed backwardness. I guess a lot of people have a vague picture of something like that. If you want a brief rundown and of how Germany got from the Middle Ages to the military-dominated setup of 1914 maybe chapter 1 and 11 of The Germans by Gordon A Craig (1982).

Maybe this site doesn't need me to comment US history. But since I'm here…
A very long time ago I read the Pelican Paperback History of the United States by J E Nye & R B Morpurgo (2 vols). From which I learned basic iterminology like Gilded Age, New Deal, normalcy, and even that America once had Whigs and Tories, Then I never felt the need for anything else. It's now been replaced in the Pelican series by History of the United States of America by Hugh Brogan, first edition in 1984 I think it has gone through a number of editions.I have not read it, but it is said to be brilliant, at least by the publishers. In British schools (white} American history is treated as British history until Independence, see also Schama above

I was amused to read that in the in the US historiography stratosphere has become impossible to work because there is too much history http://archive.boston.com/news/education/higher/articles/2006/12/24/the_rejection_bin_of_history/ . Perhaps they will put it into a giant database like that at CERN and a supercomputer could extract from it at high confidence level a standard model that accounts for, if not necessarily explains, all the facts. What happened could become a minor subfield as the programme should give different results each time you run it and there could be more interest in investigating the effects of changing the historic election results etc.

Whilst on the subject of America, I stumbled across the other day this rather deep analysis, even meditation, mainly on Puritanism and its input into the formation and later history of the USA. I don't know immediately what to make, and, nor perhaps nor will many of you. https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/to...il&utm_term=0_717bc5d86d-5c29292e97-407368851To be continued... :oldbiggrin:
Last edited:
  • Informative
  • Like
Likes Oldman too, DennisN and Klystron
  • #15
Many thanks for your detailed and informative posts, @epenguin !
I have a couple of comments on them which I will post later.

Klystron said:
British historian Bernard Cornwell wrote numerous historical novels set in this period including the "Sharpe's" series also made into movies and television serials. C. S. Forester gives us the great Horatio Hornblower always a fictional thorn in the Emperor's side in books and film.
Thanks to your post I have recently seen the entire tv series Horatio Hornblower, and I think it was very, very enjoyable, excellent stories and great acting.

I also recently rewatched Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, and though I also liked it the first time I saw it, I enjoyed it even more this time since I now had a better grasp of the history of the era, and also a bit better knowledge about naval warfare. It is a pity there has not been a sequel to that movie, I think.

I will also see the Sharpe TV series.

I also want to mention two other historical fiction drama/adventure tv series which I enjoyed very much:
  • Rome (2 seasons) about the lives of two roman soldiers, and
  • Black Sails (4 seasons) about the stories of various pirate and colonial constellations in the Caribbean (1715-). I thought the first season was ok, but the series really took off for me in the second season and then I was hooked, hehe. And this seems to be the case for others who have seen it too (but if anyone wants to see the series with an open mind, I suggest don't read about the reception :smile:).
Last edited:
  • Like
Likes Klystron
  • #16
Rome. We hope for a third season 3. Kevin McKidd plays a sad older evocati Centurion. Octavian Augustus ruled for many years and owes 'Titus Pulla' (Ray Stevenson) and his former commander, now a famous Galdiator turned merchant in the Sinai; for saving Julius Cesar's nephew from Ptolemy. Who would play Cesar Augustus, adult Octavius of the fictional Julii family?

Not to mention Cleopatra's children. The semi-fictional Attia of the Julii requires no changes due to time as Attia (Polly Walker) conveys mortal beauty and scheming ruling class whim.
  • Like
Likes DennisN
  • #17
There is always the old BBC I Claudius (or the Robert Graves books). No Rome season 3, but I Claudius begins where Rome ended, with a mature Augustus Caesar. There was some news years ago that HBO and the BBC acquired the rights to produce this, but not much since
  • Like
Likes DennisN and Klystron
  • #18
Rather than amplify/modify my previous post 3 [#12] on British history, I find it better to just add the following separately. Minor point is first I take in an Andy Marr book I hadn't read then and which for many purposes would be my first recommendation to many readers. The more important point is that some of quite old history is at present no academic backwater, but rather has exploded into some very present politics which cannot be ignored, though I cannot cover it in full. In between I've also added a piece on the different kinds of patriotism of these various historians, a bit overlapping what I wrote before which I had forgotten!

A History of Modern Britain
Updating my earlier version I've now read Andy Marr's I confirm Marr's history books are books for people who don't read history books. So A History of Modern Britain would be my top reading recommendation for such people for, but not only them, if you're interested in modern Britain at all This is the best place I know to start. The book covers the period from immediate post World War II to Brexit. Which is a good point to pause and survey, like the moment you have an ecosystem area that is about to disappear, flooded by uncharted waters because of a new dam to be inaugurated shortly. There is no real plan for Brexit, it is based on faith, ideology and sentiment (misplaced) . I personally enjoyed his book on the first half of the century a bit more than this one, but that is only because there were more surprises in it, my own life having largely overlapped the period of this one. But surprises and originality there were. One main theme in state is that (contrasting with outstanding British creativity in the arts, music, pop culture, and the sciences (though much less in their profitable applications) successive governments struggled with the one after another struggled with the same constant problems such as a sluggish economy in different ways. Everyone sees Thatcher governments as the break with the past point. Marr tells us how much this was down to luck, which Thatcher had and Heath and Wilson didn't. She benefited from the boom of the banking industry, whose transformation was something totally unforeseen and unintended, and from North Sea oil, whose existence and contribution she never recognised. I also was unaware till reading Marr that Chancellor Healy's humiliating recourse to an emergency IMF loan was quite unnecessary, but a product of the manipulations by the Sir Humphreys of the Treasury completely in accord with Labour traditional conviction and suspicion. The readability of this book does not mean superficiality at all.

Patriots for me
The principal British historians recorded here mentioned here are all patriots, except for the polyglot internationalist Hobsbawm who is above that kind of thing. Patriots in different ways. Taylor belongs to and writes about an epoch where It goes without needing him to say anything. Later writers have to deal with the nationalities and nationalisms within Britain. Marr is a Scotsman but almost all his very full journalistic career has been in London; you can't be a petty nationalist with his CV. His political tuning fork resonates with all frequencies, ensured by having been a raving lefty, later schooled by working for the Economist where he even sometime wrote the Bagehot column. Scama is a very thoughtful but otherwise conventional left-wing patriot, above all a British patriot. That is he is strongly for the Union that is the UK, He regards it as a unique and very valuable political construction. That is what he is explicitly and eloquently preaching in the last chapter of his book, In fact it is behind the whole book. Maybe this sort of explicit consciousness needs somebody a bit foreigner: his parents are Jews from Lithuania, Moldova etc. His books very much play up the Scottish contribution in particular, like the Scottish Enlightenment. He emphasises the disproportionate contribution of Scots to the Empire and slavery. Which does not best please Scottish Nationalists who are busy rewriting history casting Scots as victims, who are more fashionable than Imperialists these days. What Schama plays up, Starkey plays down - he is an English nationalist. Or perhaps The English Nationalist as I don't know of any others that I could take for a moment seriously. His speciality is the Tudor and Stuart periods which you can at a pinch think of as English history with numerous Scottish and Irish complications in the second part. His ideal Brexit, is the independence from Europe whose first step was taken by Henry VIII freeing the country from any subjection to the Papacy. Well, it's all in the mind you know. He'd okay Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland if they have enough sense to come along too, otherwise he wouldn't be too bothered.

My Telly Don Told Me
Mainly I had to update this post because a lot of people who never heard of Starkey before will have done so in the last two days. A telly Don does not shirk controversy - that is his oxygen. And now we have a peculiar situation in the UK, that 100, 200 and 300-years old history is suddenly today's hot politics!

What broke out has been in preparation for a long time, but the spark was the Floyd murder by American Police. Which of course caused a lot of indignation and disgust internationally, and public figures, political parties etc protested. After which you might think that beyond a certain point there is a US problem that the Americans have to sort out, high time we mostly think. Not our problem, but some people would like to say we have a similar one. Well guess what, race relations in the UK have not been at all times 100% harmonious, so some people want to find our own examples. Hardly any worse example of race-based human rights abuse than slavery and the slave trade could be found. Activists have found this guy Colston who was a philanthropist in Bristol where he has statues and monuments to him on that account - made his money in the Royal African Company which traded slaves three and a half centuries ago. Apparently people could no longer bear the oppression of walking past his statue any more, and a mob ripped it out and threw it in the Bristol harbour, the police standing by. Now statues and monuments and just names everywhere exist only provisionally and on sufferance till vetted by self-appointed committees, if they get even that. Actually the organisations responsible for the statuary or commemorated names, especially universities, are desperately trying to jump before they are pushed, so for example even the name of the arch-Liberal WE Gladstone has been removed from institutions in Liverpool. There is much else, but you have probably seen similar, besides just statues under attack, there is decolonising the curriculum etc etc. And History.

Just what I would expect Starkey to wade straight into. I don't think he walked into a trap, I think he knew exactly what he was saying and what it would provoke. He made one phrase, taken to be offensive and racist in this 50 minute dialogue https://youtu.be/2tVjZ9hA4SQ : "Slavery was not genocide otherwise there wouldn't be so many damn blacks in Africa or Britain would there? An awful lot of them survived." This has gone viral e.g. https://www.thejakartapost.com/life...ian-quits-cambridge-over-slavery-claim--.html, and everyone who has ever had anything to do with him is falling over themselves to dissociate from any association, he has lost fellowships, lectureships and publishers, none of which I could name offhand, because these institutions are less well-known than he is, but who declaim their wishes to dissociate themselves from this man's 'Racist views'.

I had to update this post because I have spoken with a lot about Starkey and this latest changes something. And of course I dissociate myself from his racist views, if he has any.
Last edited:
  • #19
Thanks for the information @epenguin. As for perceived racism; I suppose all authors remain products of their time. When I open a history book or historical novel or watch an accurate series, I mentally note:
  1. What is the period of the story? Where is it set?
  2. When was the material written? Who was the intended audience?
  3. What is the period of the author? What were their influences?
Author bashing has become blood sport in some circles, ignoring the cultural milieu.

I have been enjoying reading Russian science fiction this Summer. Thanks to @DennisN I watched HBO's "Rome" for the nth time and have begun re-watching StarZ's "Black Sails".

To paraphrase author Samuel R. Delany from "Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand":
'Seeing familiar characters in familiar situations under an entirely new light'.
  • Like
Likes Oldman too and DennisN

What are the benefits of using history resources, such as documentaries?

History resources, such as documentaries, provide a visual and engaging way to learn about historical events and figures. They often include primary sources and expert commentary, making them a reliable source of information. Additionally, they can help bring historical events to life and make them more relatable to modern audiences.

How can I find reliable history resources?

To find reliable history resources, it is important to check the credibility of the source. Look for documentaries created by reputable organizations or experts in the field. Additionally, reading reviews and checking for awards or nominations can also indicate the quality and accuracy of the resource.

Are there any potential biases in history resources?

Like any source of information, history resources can have biases. It is important to critically evaluate the perspective and agenda of the creator or producer of the resource. Look for multiple sources and perspectives to get a well-rounded understanding of the topic.

Can history resources be used as a substitute for traditional textbooks?

History resources can be a valuable supplement to traditional textbooks, but they should not be used as a substitute. Textbooks often provide a more comprehensive and detailed overview of historical events, while documentaries may focus on specific aspects or perspectives. It is best to use a combination of both resources for a well-rounded understanding.

Are there any limitations to using history resources?

One limitation of using history resources is that they may not always be completely accurate or unbiased. It is important to critically evaluate the information presented and cross-reference with other sources. Additionally, history resources may not cover all aspects or perspectives of a historical event, so it is important to use a variety of resources for a comprehensive understanding.

Similar threads

  • Art, Music, History, and Linguistics
  • Art, Music, History, and Linguistics
  • Art, Music, History, and Linguistics
  • Art, Music, History, and Linguistics
  • Art, Music, History, and Linguistics
  • Art, Music, History, and Linguistics
  • Art, Music, History, and Linguistics
  • General Discussion
History For WW2 buffs!
  • Art, Music, History, and Linguistics
  • Art, Music, History, and Linguistics