The best history books of 2014 – as rated by historians

2014 has been a great year for history books. Here, three leading historians reveal their favourites…

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Nigel Jones

Roger Moorhouse is a friend, but I can honestly nominate The Devils’ Alliance: Hitler’s Pact with Stalin 1939–1941 (Bodley Head) as easily the best of the books that I have read for duty and pleasure this year.

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This study of the shattering accord between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia that began the Second World War reveals that the twin tyrannies – ostensibly mortal enemies – had more in common than has been previously acknowledged. Moreover, the book is written with a grim delight in human stories that is Moorhouse’s hallmark.

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Nigel Jones is the author of Peace and War: Britain in 1914 (Head of Zeus, 2014).

Helen Castor

This has been a rich year for history, so choosing one book is particularly hard. I loved two superbly written books on the religious and political turmoil of the 16th and 17th centuries – Jessie Childs’s God’s Traitors: Terror and Faith in Elizabethan England and Charles Spencer’s Killers of the King: The Men Who Dared to Execute Charles I.

But closest to my 15th-century roots is Dan Jones’s The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses and the Rise of the Tudors, which makes historical and human sense of the nightmarish convolutions of the Wars of the Roses in a compellingly vivid narrative that keeps pages turning until the very end.

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Helen Castor is the author of Joan of Arc (Faber and Faber, 2014).

 

Simon Sebag Montefiore

Serhii Plokhy’s The Last Empire: The Final Days of the Soviet Union (Oneworld) is a superb read: a deeply researched, indispensible reappraisal of the fall of the USSR that has the nailbaiting drama of a movie, the gripping narrative and colourful personalities of a novel, and the analysis and original sources of a work of scholarship.

Plokhy is the author of a recent fascinating history of the Yalta Big Three conference, Yalta: The Price of Peace (Viking, 2011). Now, sweeping with equal authority from the White House to the Kremlin, from Kiev to Tbilisi, The Last Empire resets the history of the fall of the USSR, showing how it was less the result of Western democratic momentum and the more of internal pressures, in which Ukraine was as decisive as Russia itself.

Jessie Childs’ God’s Traitors: Terror and Faith in Elizabethan England (Bodley Head), meanwhile, is wonderful, both scholarly history and Tudor espionage thriller exploring Elizabeth I’s secret war against the Catholics. And Victor Sebestyen’s 1946: The Making of the Modern World (Macmillan) is an excellent, elegant and exciting panoramic portrait of the dark world emerging from the Second World War.

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Simon Sebag Montefiore is a historian and author. His next book, on the Romanovs, is set to be published in 2015.