For many, 2022 was a year of momentous change and loss, marked by events that will undoubtedly be discussed in history books for generations to come. Russia invaded Ukraine, launching a war that shows few signs of slowing. Elizabeth II, the long-reigning British queen, died at age 96, marking the end of an era for a once-unparalleled empire. The global death toll for Covid-19 surpassed six million, and in June, the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, dealing a significant blow to reproductive rights across the United States.
This year, the ten history books we’ve chosen to highlight serve a dual purpose. Some offer a respite from reality, transporting readers to such varied locales as Renaissance Italy, the Nile River and Yellowstone National Park. Others reflect on the fraught nature of the current moment, detailing how the nation’s past—including the military’s racist treatment of Black World War II soldiers and the government’s collaboration with a Mexican dictator—informs its present and future. From a searing exploration of slavery’s lasting consequences to a dual biography of two European queens, these are some of Smithsonian magazine’s favorite history books of 2022.
River of the Gods: Genius, Courage, and Betrayal in the Search for the Source of the Nile by Candice Millard
Where does the Nile, the world’s longest river, begin? It’s a question that’s sparked debate for some 2,000 years, prompting speculation from Herodotus, Alexander the Great and Victorian scientists. Even today, the source of the Nile River remains elusive, with at least one contemporary scholar suggesting the Semliki River over the more commonly cited Lake Victoria.
In River of the Gods, author Candice Millard traces arguably the most famous search for the river’s fabled origins: a series of mid-19th-century expeditions led by polymath Richard Francis Burton and army officer John Hanning Speke. While previous narratives have focused largely on these friends-turned-enemies, Millard’s book adds another central character to the mix: Sidi Mubarak Bombay, a formerly enslaved waYao explorer who played a crucial role in the quest.
The Escape Artist: The Man Who Broke Out of Auschwitz to Warn the World by Jonathan Freedland
When Jonathan Freedland was 19 years old, he attended a London showing of Shoah, Claude Lanzmann’s 1985 Holocaust documentary. Listening to nine hours of testimony from witnesses to the genocide, Freedland was especially struck by Rudolf Vrba, who’d escaped Auschwitz at age 19, becoming one of the few to successfully evade recapture by the Nazis.
Imprisoned for nearly two years, Vrba and fellow escapee Alfred Wetzler broke out of Auschwitz by hiding under a woodpile (laced with petrol-soaked tobacco to throw guard dogs off their scent) near the camp’s edge for three days. The men eventually made their way back home to Slovakia, surviving the arduous trek with help from Polish peasants and resistance members. From there, they turned their attention to informing the world of the atrocities occurring at Auschwitz and other Nazi extermination centers.