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Top 10 Books: Poland and Lithuania


The long and closely intertwined histories of Poland and Lithuania have experienced a recent renaissance, thanks partly to the popular works of Norman Davies (several of which feature below), and partly to the decline of communism. Popular opinion may focus on Poland's domination by neighbouring states, but this obscures a rich, and often fascinating, past.

1. God's Playground - A History of Poland 1: The Origins to 1795 by Norman Davies

This is the first volume in Norman Davies' superb two-part history of Poland, a study that remains highly relevant despite being nearly twenty years old. The text explores Polish history until 1795, and the author maintains a balanced approach that doesn't err into patriotism or mythologising; instead, Davies is a reliable, insightful and entertaining guide.
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2. God's Playground - A History of Poland: 2: 1795 to the Present by Norman Davies

The companion volume to pick 1, this book continues the history of Poland from 1795 until the 1980's. Although too large for anyone wanting a brief introduction - the complete history includes well over 1200 pages - Davies' work is the best way for all but experts to learn about Polish history. Recent editions of both books are available.
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3. A Concise History of Poland by Jerzy Lukowski and Hubert Zawadzki

Although larger than many concise histories, this is the perfect choice for any reader who's balked at the sight of Norman Davies' two-part behemoth. A Concise History of Poland isn't too detailed, and it focuses largely on the region's complicated political history, but it is clear, easy to read, highly educational and particularly affordable.
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4. The Polish Way by Adam Zamoyski

Zamoyski's text, which traces Polish history across a millennia, focuses more on cultural issues than politics and economics, and as such it's the perfect book for anyone who wants history to come alive. A range of marvelous illustrations complement Zamoyski's enjoyable style - which one critic has described as being of "unusual distinction" - to create a thoroughly enjoyable book.
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5. Heart of Europe by Norman Davies

This book has been described as the short version of Davies' God's Playground (picks 1 and 2), but that's a little too simplistic. Heart of Europe is certainly far shorter, but Davies explores Polish history in a slightly different manner and, as the title suggests, discusses Poland's role in Europe's past and, with material relating to the late twentieth century, the future.
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6. The Last King of Poland by Adam Zamoyski

The king in question was Stanislaw Poniatowski, and the political events that wracked Poland during his reign guarantee excellent subject matter. However, Zamoyski broadens his focus by examining Poniatowski, not just in his own right or in relation to Polish history, but in a wider European context. The result is a fascinating book with good insights.

7. The Northern Wars by Robert I. Frost

Despite their massive importance to the history of central, eastern and northern Europe, the 'Northern Wars', a series of conflicts fought during the sixteenth, seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, are relatively unknown. Frost's book is the perfect volume to change that, as his account examines the war, and its social and political effects on Europe, especially Poland, Sweden and Russia.
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8. After the Deluge: Poland and the Second Northern War 1655 - 1660

Although only a part of the Northern Wars - tackled by the same author in pick 7 - the 'second' conflict shattered the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The emphasis is firmly on Poland, but this volume should be of interest to anyone studying seventeenth century Europe, the formation of states, or European history in general.
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9. The Polish-Lithuanian Monarchy in European Context c.1500 - 1795 by Butterwick

This volume's title would appear to present all you need to know about this essay collection, which concerns a monarchy that historians have previously treated as a fluke, deserving of only scant attention. Anyone interested in European monarchies and political development - as well as the history of Poland and Lithuania - should find it relevant.
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10. Poland Between the Wars 1918 - 1939 edited by Peter D. Stachura

The product of an academic conference organised by The Polish Society, this volume collects a set of new and often heavily revisionist interpretations on inter-war Poland. However, the cost of this volume, and the specialised nature of the material, results in a book which is for dedicated enthusiasts and historians only.
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