For most of us, history lessons at school probably follow a clear, common thread: A bit of antiquity, a bit of the Middle Ages and then the focus is on national history, which unfortunately provided us with more than enough subject matter, especially in the 20th century.
No wonder that historical contexts of other European countries fall by the wayside a bit. These 11 books European history are fantastic door openers for learning about past. Without a dry upper school flavour, but with a gripping plot, touching language and diverse perspectives.
- 1. Herkunft by Saša Stanišić
- 2. Everyone but me by Francesca Melandri
- 3. Fabian or the Walk to the Dogs by Erich Kästner
- 4. In Another Country by Ernest Hemingway
- 5. Balkan Blues by Elvira Mujčić
- 6. The Years by Annie Ernaux
- 7. The Capital City by Robert Menasse
- 8. Oberkampf by Hilman Klute
- 9. Stierblutjahre (Bull Blood Years) by Jutta Voigt
- 10. Museum of Forgotten Secrets by Oksana Sabuschko
- 11. Middle England by Jonathan Coe
1. Herkunft by Saša Stanišić
“Herkunft” by Saša Stanišić is an autobiographical novel in which the author tells his family story in the first-person perspective interwoven with the Yugoslav wars and migration to Germany. The novel does not follow the narrator’s life chronologically, but repeatedly swings back and forth between historical, researched facts, personal memory fragments, different places and phases of life.
This structure and Stanišić’s poetic, loving way of describing characters make reading a great pleasure. “Herkunft” won the German Book Prize in 2019, received various other awards and was highly praised by critics. So if you haven’t read it yet, you should do so as soon as possible – it’s worth it.
2. Everyone but me by Francesca Melandri
Forty-year-old teacher Ilaria thinks she knows herself, her country and her family history – until the day when a young African suddenly stands on the stairs outside her flat in Rome and claims to be related to her. Ilaria begins to investigate. Through her family history, a portrait of Italian society emerges that is the product of 500 years of colonisation – even if no one talks about it. With “Everyone but me”, Francesca Melandri opens a conversation about colonialism that has also been avoided in society for far too long.
3. Fabian or the Walk to the Dogs by Erich Kästner
“Fabian” is probably one of Erich Kästner’s most famous works and was made into a grandiose film only last year starring Tom Schilling. The novel was published in 1931 and paints a picture of Berlin in the early 1930s, shortly before the National Socialists came to power. The story of Fabian, who stumbles rather aimlessly through this slowly darkening Berlin, which was still just steeped in the hedonism of the 1920s, is considered partly autobiographical; along with Kästner’s other works, “Fabian” was also banned in the course of the Nazi book burning in 1933.
4. In Another Country by Ernest Hemingway
In Another Country was published in New York in 1929 and tells the love story of a British nurse and an American soldier in the Italian army during the First World War. In the book, Ernest Hemingway processed the experiences he himself had as a medic on the Italian front. At the time of its publication, the novel was already celebrated as the best book about this war and established Hemingway’s career as a writer.
5. Balkan Blues by Elvira Mujčić
Lania’s grandmother has died and is to be buried in her native Bosnia according to Muslim custom. So Lania and her brothers set off from Italy, where they grew up, towards Srebrenica. This novel is a wild, melancholic road trip through Europe – including a search for identity between rest stops, coaches and the memory of a war that left the survivors scattered all over Europe. Despite the gravity of the subject matter, Elvira Mujčić has managed to tell this story with an extraordinary sense of humour, making “Balkan Blues” not only touching and instructive, but also truly entertaining.
6. The Years by Annie Ernaux
A modern classic: “The Years” is the autobiography of the French writer Annie Ernaux, tracing her life from the early 1940s to the early 21st century. The book has been much talked about mainly because of its unusual narrative strategy: although it is an autobiography, Annie Ernaux completely dispenses with the first-person perspective and tells her own story in an impersonal, universal form.
In doing so, she touches on many topics with which readers can not only identify themselves, but also better understand the social circumstances of France in the 20th century: It is about family, marriage and divorce, feminism, politics and consumption. An insane reading experience.
7. The Capital City by Robert Menasse
Robert Menasse’s “The Capital” has been heralded as “the great European novel” and yes, it should not be missing from a list like this. Menasse takes us to Brussels, where Fenia Xenopoulou, an official in the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Culture, is faced with the task of polishing up the Commission’s image. A fateful story unfolds across the different nations of the EU, hovering between disastrous bureaucracy and great emotions. A portrait of Europe that combines the beautiful and the terrible.
8. Oberkampf by Hilman Klute
Hilman Klute has dedicated a novel to one of the many dark chapters in European history, which was not so long ago: The year is 2015, and the protagonist Jonas moves to Paris in the week of January, of all weeks, when the attack on the editorial office of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo shakes the French capital.
Jonas nevertheless gives his new life a chance; after all, he has fled Berlin and a failed relationship to write a biography here in Paris about the writer Richard Stein, whom he admires. But then he meets Christine in a bar, falls in love with her – and for Christine the signs that have been hovering over the city since the terrorist attack seem to shine more clearly than for Jonas.
9. Stierblutjahre (Bull Blood Years) by Jutta Voigt
In “Stierblutjahre”, author and feature writer Jutta Voigt chronicles the longing of the GDR bohemians. Hedonism and desolation alternate between the crumbling tenement buildings in Prenzlauer Berg, Leipzig, Dresden or Halle, for there is not much to be had for the free spirits in this country. But the artists who become protagonists in “Stierblutjahre” create spaces for themselves, seek the right life in the wrong one. This book gives a deep insight into a scene that was not very visible from the outside at the time and allows us to understand the GDR in a different way.
10. Museum of Forgotten Secrets by Oksana Sabuschko
Oksana Zabushko, who teaches creative writing at the University of Kiev and is known for her feminist perspectives, relentlessly takes aim at the protagonists of Ukrainian society in the 20th century in her novel “Museum of Forgotten Secrets”. 700 pages that are really worthwhile if you want to get to know this country better and at the same time follow an incredibly exciting (love) story.
11. Middle England by Jonathan Coe
Last but not least, another historical turning point not so long ago, but which will probably shape European history for decades to come: In “Middle England”, Jonathan Coe settles the score with Brexit. His wickedly funny novel is set between multicultural London, the racist British provinces and the question of what British identity actually means today. In this way, Coe tries to get at least a little closer to the question of how England was able to leave the European Union.