These 10 Iconic Diaries Will Give You A Window Into the Most Fascinating and Tragic Times in History

These 10 Iconic Diaries Will Give You A Window Into the Most Fascinating and Tragic Times in History

D.G. Hewitt - July 15, 2018

For both the dedicated historian and wider reader alike, diaries offer an unrivalled glimpse into past lives. Not only do they record the mundane, they can often serve as unique, eye-witness accounts of major historical events. Of course, some diaries are more useful than others. The vast majority of journals are of little interest to anyone but the person who wrote them. Some, however, are hugely important. They help give a unique perspective of past times, boosting our understanding in a way history textbooks never can.

Interestingly, the most important diaries of all time have been penned by a wide range of individuals. While presidents and kings may pull the strings and be in the privileged position of being able to give first-hand accounts of momentous decisions, the accounts of ordinary people are often just as interesting – and just as useful to the historian.

So, from schoolgirls to scientists and from presidents to explorers, here we have 10 of the most important diaries ever written:

These 10 Iconic Diaries Will Give You A Window Into the Most Fascinating and Tragic Times in History
The diary of Samuel Pepys offers a first-hand account of the Great Fire of London . First Folio.

The Diary of Samuel Pepys

When the 27-year-old Samuel Pepys first started keeping a diary, he kept things simple. It was January 1660 and he was a family man with a steady job in the city of London. Over time, however, his writing changed. Rather than focusing on the mundane, he started looking both outwards and inwards, exploring the vibrant city around him while also discovering his own personality and character. Pepys would write his diary for almost a whole decade and, for his efforts, he would go on to be regarded as the ‘greatest diarist in English literature’.

As a government worker in the capital of Britain, Pepys had a unique insight into the workings of the city. More importantly, however, he was an eyewitness to some of the most important episodes of the English restoration period. Not only did he live through the Great Fire of London in 1666, he also saw first-hand the Great Plague sweep through the city. Plus, his career, which saw him rise to the office of Chief Secretary to the Admiralty not only meant that he got to meet both King Charles II and his successor King James II, but he was also in a position of influence during the Second Dutch War.

However, it’s not just the historical importance of Pepys’ 1 million words which has made his diary such a literary phenomenon. Ever since the 19th century, when his writings were published for a wider audience, readers have enjoyed the honesty of his writings. Throughout, Pepys admits his weaknesses, foibles and insecurities. What’s more, he even confessed his raunchy affairs with theatres actresses in the pages of his diary, giving a unique insight into love and relationships in 17th century England.

It was only when he feared that writing by candlelight would eventually cause him to go blind did Pepys give up his diary. The last entry was that of 31 May, 1699. Scholars of Pepys note that, by that point, he had lost much of the joy and exuberance which characterised his earlier writings. His final few entries were sad and remorseful and four years after he closed his diary for good, Pepys died. Thankfully for us, right before his death, he contemplated burning his journals, perhaps embarrassed by his youthful ways or constant infidelities, but changed his mind. Now, the original pages can be viewed in the library of Cambridge University, though the diary has been reproduced many times over the decades and has even inspired theatre productions, plays and TV adaptations.

These 10 Iconic Diaries Will Give You A Window Into the Most Fascinating and Tragic Times in History
Lena Mukhina lived through the Siege of Leningrad and kept a record of her experiences. Telegraph.

The War Journals of Lena Mukhina

“People are not born brave, strong and smart. These qualities must be acquired through perseverance and with determination, like the ability to read and write.” So wrote Lena Mukhina, a teenager who was forced to be both brave and strong as she endured the horrors of the Nazi siege of Leningrad. Commonly described as ‘the Russian Anne Frank’, her diaries are far more harrowing and traumatic than the writing of her more famous counterpart. Moreover, Lena’s diary entries are, at times, far more philosophical, getting deeper and darker as the siege wears on and takes its toll on the city’s desperate residents.

Lena Mukhina was aged just 16 when she started keeping a diary. It was 1941 and she was a schoolgirl. Like any teenager, she was just as worried about boys as she was with her grades, as her diary entries attest. Notably, she also recorded her efforts to learn German. After all, the Soviet Union had become allied with Nazi Germany, so the language might help her build a brighter future. All this changed in June 1941. On the 22nd of that month, the Nazis broke the pact and invaded. By September, they had reached the outskirts of Leningrad. Unable to take the city, the Nazis laid siege to it instead, hoping to starve its 2.5 million residents into submission. Lena was a witness to it all.

Above all, her pages give an eyewitness account of the first winter of the siege. Up until November, the city was completely cut off. As Lena testifies in her daily entries, people were starving to death by the thousand. Many would resort to desperate measures to stay alive. One December entry reveals that the family were forced to kill and eat their pet cat (“I never thought cat meat would be so tender and tasty”) and, more shockingly, she also tells of how the family housekeeper, an elderly lady called Aka struggled the most (“It would be better if she died…she is just an extra mouth to feed.”).

Despite it all, Lena lived through the worst of the siege. In May 1942, she was evacuated from Leningrad, along with many other children. It was here that her diary ended. She went to live with an aunt in Gorky and, though she never married and had children of her own, she did carry on being creative, working as an artist for several decades. Lena died in Moscow in 1991 at the age of just 66. Like many who lived through the Siege of Leningrad, it’s thought that the malnutrition she suffered as a child shortened her life.

As with Anne Frank, Lena didn’t write her diaries for publication. Indeed, after an anonymous individual handed them into the Soviet state archives in 1962, they lay unread for many years. Eventually they were unearthed by the historian Sergei Yarov. In 2011, they were finally published to global interest and acclaim. Lena’s teenage dream of being a published writer had finally come true, even if she wasn’t around to see it.

These 10 Iconic Diaries Will Give You A Window Into the Most Fascinating and Tragic Times in History
President Truman’s diaries include his personal thoughts on dropping the Atomic Bomb. Pinterest.

The Memoirs of Harry S. Truman

Giving the order to drop nuclear bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was undoubtedly the defining moment of Harry S. Truman’s Presidency, if not his life. The political, strategic and moral considerations were huge, with strong arguments put forward on both sides. Fortunately for the historians, Truman was a dedicated diarist and didn’t shy away from recording his thoughts on that momentous day towards the end of the Second World War. The diaries also give insights into many other aspects of life in the Oval Office and are widely regarded as being among the most important political memoirs in all of American history.

Truman was sworn in as President less than three hours after the death of political titan FDR on 12 April 1945. He would remain in office until 1953, with his administration making many big policy decisions both at home and abroad. Given the demands of the job, Truman was unable to write in his diary every day. However, he did record his thoughts on some of the most eventful days, not just in his life, but in American history. From his sudden ascension to the top job, through to his successful re-election and daily life in the White House, it’s all in here. However, it’s the days before and after the decision was made to drop the Bomb that are of most interest to the general reader.

Of that momentous decision, Truman wrote: “We have discovered the most terrible bomb in the history of the world…This weapon is to be used against Japan between now and August 10th. I have told the Sec. of War, Mr. Stimson, to use it so that military objectives and soldiers and sailors are the target and not women and children. Even if the Japs are savages, ruthless, merciless and fanatic, we as the leader of the world for the common welfare cannot drop that terrible bomb on the old capital or the new.”

Tellingly, while he acknowledges the destructive power of nuclear weapons, Truman’s diaries show that the Commander-in-Chief had no hesitation in ordering it to be used. Indeed, while he did certainly express some regret that innocents would almost inevitably be killed in large numbers, he concluded of the Japanese, “the only language they seem to understand is the one we have been using to bombard them”.

Harry S. Truman was one of the few modern presidents to keep a diary, making the pages of even greater interest and value. The full diary can be seen at the Truman Library and some of the key entries can be viewed online.

These 10 Iconic Diaries Will Give You A Window Into the Most Fascinating and Tragic Times in History
Charles Darwin kept a fascinating diary as he explored the world. Wikipedia.

Charles Darwin’s Diary of the Voyage of HMS Beagle

Charles Darwin’s journey to the Galapagos Islands was, without a doubt, one of the most important voyages ever undertaken. From it, the British naturalist developed his theory of evolution, turning the popular understanding of the world on its head. But Darwin didn’t just visit this one group of islands on his intrepid adventures. His trusty ship, the HMS Beagle, also took him up and down the coastline of South America, allowing him to see Patagonia and the Andes mountains, among many other natural wonders.

As any good scientist would, Darwin kept meticulous journals while he was away at sea. Above all, his writings, collected in The Voyage of the Beagle offer a fascinating insight into how the legendary naturalist worked. More specifically, they hint at the impact he was to have on the scientific world upon his return to England. In one entry, for example, Darwin writes: “I industriously collected all the animals, plants, insects & reptiles from this Island. It will be very interesting to find from future comparison to what district or “centre of creation” the organized beings of this archipelago must be attached.”

It’s not all science, however. In his diaries, Darwin also provides a unique document shedding light on everything from South American politics to what it’s really like being away at sea for months at a time. In one notable entry, for instance, he recalls a clove shave with a certain General Rosas, a bloodthirsty military leader in Patagonia, while at other times, Darwin simply uses the pages of his journal to praise the beauty of the starry night sky or of the Andes mountains.

Such is the scientific, as well as the literary merit of The Voyage of the Beagle that, even if he hadn’t gone on to publish On the Origin of Species, Darwin would still have been remembered as a great, and important, writer. However, he did indeed publish his seminal work and, by 1890, his theory of evolution had come to be accepted by much of the scientific community. His famous book, widely regarded as one of the most important tomes ever produced, has long overshadowed his diaries. However, for anyone who wants an insight into the mind of Darwin himself, both as a scientist and as a man, then his journals will always be an essential read.

These 10 Iconic Diaries Will Give You A Window Into the Most Fascinating and Tragic Times in History
Aside from her scientific notebooks, Marie Curie kept a revealing personal diary. Wikipedia.

The Personal Diary of Marie Curie

Marie Curie’s contributions to science are common knowledge. Indeed, the Polish-born physicist and chemist is arguably the most famous female scientist of all time, thanks largely to her pioneering research into radioactivity. Incredibly, she remains the only person to win a Nobel Prize in two different sciences, and this isn’t the only way in which she made history. Curie also remains the only woman to win a Nobel Prize, plus she also smashed the glass ceiling by becoming the first female professor at the prestigious University of Paris.

Curie’s notebooks – which remain highly radioactive – give a fascinating insight into her scientific method. They also provide a step-by-step guide to the breakthroughs she made, both alone and in collaboration with her husband Pierre. However, Curie was not just an amazing scientist. She was also a complex person, too. She overcame serious obstacles, leaving her native Poland for a new life in France. It was here she made a happy life for herself with Pierre, with their happy union producing two children. It’s this part of her life that Curie’s diaries illustrate. Reading them give a glimpse into the woman behind the scientific breakthroughs.

It was only after Pierre died in a tragic accident in 1906 that Marie started writing a diary. While her notebooks were largely reserved for her work, the pages of her diary were mostly dedicated to her personal life. And they often make for tragic reading. Above all, they show how close she was to Pierre, how theirs was far more than just a research partnership. Indeed, many of the diary entries are addressed to “My Pierre”, as she shares her daily experiences and thoughts with her deceased partner. On one occasion, Curie noted: “It seems to me that my mind gets clumsier every day. Before, I flung myself into scientific or other divagations; today I barely touch on subjects and do not allow myself to be absorbed by them any more.”

As the diaries reveal, Curie’s interest in science waned in the years following Pierre’s death. Within a few years, however, she was back at work. She even enjoyed a short relationship with the physicist Paul Langevin, an affair which caused a scandal, one largely driven by anti-Semitism. However, she did never marry again and she died in 1934, possibly as a result of her exposure to radiation back in the 1890s. Her notebooks from the time of her pioneering research, remain kept in a lead box and are likely to still be radioactive for hundreds of more years. However, their contents can be read in numerous published collections as well as online, with her diaries showing a more intimate side to the scientific genius.

These 10 Iconic Diaries Will Give You A Window Into the Most Fascinating and Tragic Times in History
The Civil War-era diaries of Emilie Davis offer a different perspective on American history. Penn State University.

Emilie Davis’s Civil War Diaries

Historians wishing to study the American Civil War can draw on numerous accounts penned by soldiers, and in particular officers and politicians, for their research. However, the diary of Emilie Davis offers another, equally important, perspective on the conflict that tore the nation in two. The pages of the diary, written by a free black woman, feature some of the most important events in American history. Plus, they also give a unique insight into American society at the time, including the underlying threat of violence and the prevalence of racism.

Born in 1838, Emilie Davis was a free, African American woman who worked as a seamstress in the city of Philadelphia. As with many of her peers, her life revolved around work, family and the church, while she also worked to improve her prospects by attending the Institute for Colored Youth. The diary she kept from 1863 to 1865 cover all of these subjects, giving an unrivalled insight into the freed black community of Philadelphia at the time. However, the diaries are perhaps most notable for Davis’ observations on the Civil War that was raging around her.

Davis lived through some momentous events, including the announcement of the Emancipation Proclamation, the Battle of Gettysburg and the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. All of these are mentioned in her diary. However, rather than being simple historical records, they are more personal. Davis used her diary to record her own community’s reactions to such important events, giving a fascinating alternative to the usual Civil War histories. In between the horrors of the war and the major political developments of the time, Davis also recorded the mundane, everyday experiences of the wider community, making them essential reading for anyone wanting a proper understanding of 1860s America.

The Historical Society of Pennsylvania purchased the diaries – small books, no more than 10 centimetres in length – in 1999. They were carefully transcribed and annotated and, since then, they have been made publicly available in a number of publications and have been widely welcomed as a valuable addition to the wider understanding of the Civil War. Indeed, as the historian Karsonya Wise Whitehead notes, Davis, while not unique in her insights, was still important. She was of the “middling sort” of “regular folk” who experienced the Civil War, either directly or indirectly, and whose stories deserve to be told just as much as those of generals and presidents.

These 10 Iconic Diaries Will Give You A Window Into the Most Fascinating and Tragic Times in History
Business leaders have studied Edison’s diaries trying to find the secret of his success. Wikipedia.

The Journals of Thomas Edison

In 1931, soon after his death, friends of Thomas Edison found the great man’s journals. The inventor and businessman, who is widely regarded as one of the greatest thinkers who ever lived, was a prolific journal keeper. Indeed, in all, he filled some 3,500 notebooks, all of them only discovered after his demise. The pages of these notebooks are filled with his inventions, offering a fascinating insight into his creative process. But what’s more, they also offer a unique insight into the man behind inventions such as the lightbulb and the motion picture camera. For that reason, his diaries and journals make for essential reading.

During his 84 years, Edison held more than 1,090 patents. He worked up to 20 hours a day, sometimes even staying awake working for three days straight and was famed for his ability to find creative solutions to a wide range of problems. According to some of the Edison’s biographers, his journaling habits were key to his success as an inventor. Not only did he keep track of his research and progress, he also used the pages to write ‘to do lists’ and to keep himself motivated and on track.

However, Edison’s diaries are more than just the notebooks of a genius inventor. The great man also kept personal diaries. Here, we are able to get an insight into his life away from the workshop, including his everyday routines and his private thoughts on a wide range of subjects, from literature to monetary reform. In one intriguing entry, he recalled a trip to New York City to buy books, revealing his indecisiveness. The entry of 13 July 1885 states: “Went into Scribner & Sons on way up, saw about a thousand books I wanted right off. Mind No 1 said why not buy a box full and send to Boston now. Mind No 2 (acquired and worldly mind) gave a most withering mental glance at mind No 1 and said You fool, buy only two books, these you can carry without trouble and will last until you get to Boston. Buying books in N ewYork to send to Boston is like “carrying coals to Newcastle.” Of course, I took the advice of this earthly adviser.”

Ever since his death, inventors, scientists, academics and even business leaders and politicians have pored over Edison’s diaries in an attempt to find the secret of his genius. But, far from revealing a secret formula, the diaries largely confirm what Edison had always maintained: hard work, long hours and single-mindedness were the reason for his success – along with a little natural talent, of course.

These 10 Iconic Diaries Will Give You A Window Into the Most Fascinating and Tragic Times in History
The fate of Scott’s team was captured in his tragic, revealing diary. Encyclopedia Britannica.

The Diary of Robert Falcon Scott

Captain Robert Falcon Scott is regarded as one of Britain’s greatest, and bravest, explorers. However, by his own standards, his most famous expedition was something of a failure. Along with his team of select individuals, ‘Scott of the Antarctic’ aimed to be the first man to reach the South Pole. However, he was beaten to it by a matter of days and was then forced to make the ultimately fatal journey back from the Pole. Scott kept a diary throughout, even documenting the tragic demise of his team and himself.

Scott and his team finally reached the South Pole on 17 January 1912. When they got there, however, they learned that their rivals, the Norwegian team led by Roald Amundsen, had beaten them by just one month. After reaching their goal, the Britons had to make the perilous journey back to their base camp. It was, as Scott’s diaries reveal, a dangerous journey, beset with danger, and the team were hit by a series of misfortunes. With the typical understated manner of an upper-class English gentleman, Scott notes how Edgar Evans died of a fatal concussion. More famously, the diary also records the death of Captain Oakes. It notes how Oates, fearful he was becoming a burden to his colleagues, left the camp of his own accord, walking to his death. His final, heroic words, recorded for posterity in Scott’s journal, “I may be some time,” have become the stuff of legend in Britain.

Scott’s diaries become increasingly gloomy by day. Finally, when the remaining members of the team are caught in a severe blizzard some 11 miles from their next supply dump, Scott evidently came to the conclusion that they were all destined to never make it back to England. Famously, however, Scott’s final diary entry is not about him. Rather, with the threat of war looming in Europe, he expresses his concern for his country. “For God’s sake, look after our people,” he wrote. After that, the diary pages are empty.

A rescue team finally found Scott’s final camp, recovering the team’s bodies as well as the famous diaries. The diaries are now held by the British Library, though they have been reproduced and published many times over the decades. As well as providing an insider account of one of the most famous journeys in history, they are also a testament to camaraderie and, above all, to bravery.

These 10 Iconic Diaries Will Give You A Window Into the Most Fascinating and Tragic Times in History
Ahmad Ibn Fadlan’s diary gives us a valuable account of Vikings in the east. Muslim Heritage.

Ahmad Ibn Fadlan’s Travel Journals

Everyone knows that Vikings left Scandinavia to plunder, and then to settle, northern England, Scotland and Greenland, right? But few people are aware of the so-called ‘Eastern Vikings’, otherwise known as the ‘Volga Vikings’. These were Norsemen who left modern-day Denmark and Norway and traveled east, forming trade links with modern-day Ukraine. It was here they came into contact with Muslim traders, and it’s thanks to Ahmad Ibn Fadlan that we have so much information about this fascinating meeting of cultures. His writings were part diary, part travelogue and they continued to be pored over by historians to this day.

Almost nothing is known about Ibn Fadlan, including his early life. What is known is that he was a legal expert and spent at least some of his career in the service of the Abbasid Caliphate. In the year 921, he was sent from Baghdad to work for Almis, the first Muslim ruler of what was then Volga Bulgaria. While the main focus of his job was to teach Islamic law, Ibn Fadlan was also instrumental in establishing caravan trade routes towards Uzbekistan and the Caspian Sea. His travels, and his work as an ambassador for the Caliphate meant that he came into contact with a wide range of people, from traders and salesmen to rulers and peasants. He recorded his observations in his diary.

Above all, Ibn Fadlan’s diaries are notable for the entries related to what he called the ‘Rus’. These were the Volga Vikings who had established a vibrant Volga trade route. In his diary, he described the Norsemen as “the perfect physical specimens, tall as date palms, blond and ruddy”, adding that they were perhaps vain, even disgusting, in habits such as combing their hair every day. Ibn Fadlan contrasted the Rus with eastern traders, concluding that the latter were far more sophisticated and cultured in almost every way. Nevertheless, he studied the Rus with great curiosity, and his first-hand account of a Viking ship funeral – and, notably, a funeral that involved human sacrifice – remains hugely important to scholars of the period. His also wrote in his diaries accounts of Viking revelry, with the drinking and womanizing a huge shock to a pious man of letters such as himself.

For centuries, Ibn Fadlan’s diary lay unread and unappreciated. It was only in 1923 that a scholar found the manuscript lying in the Quds Museum of Iran and immediately recognised its historical significance. The original manuscript was painstakingly translated and has now been widely published.

These 10 Iconic Diaries Will Give You A Window Into the Most Fascinating and Tragic Times in History
Anne Frank’s literary journal is perhaps the best known diary ever penned. Irish Times.

The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank

Anne’s Frank’s diary is arguably the best-known memoir of all time. It’s been read by millions worldwide, and the Amsterdam house where Anne wrote it as a teenager caught up in the turmoil of the Second World War is among Europe’s top visitor attractions. Moreover, the book is taught in schools right around the world and held up as an example of one young girl’s courage in the face of brutality and as a key eyewitness account of the evils of the Nazi regime.

Annelies Marie Frank was born in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1929. Since her family was Jewish, they fled to the Netherlands in 1933 to escape persecution at home. For several years, they were safe. However, when Amsterdam came under Nazi control, they were forced into hiding. The whole Frank family lived in hidden rooms, concealed behind a bookcase in the canal-side building where Anne’s father, Otto, worked.

Just before the family went into hiding, Anne was gifted a diary for her birthday. In the words of the Anne Frank Museum, this became her “best friend”. In it, she would record the everyday challenges of being confined in a small, hidden space. However, Anne also used the pages of her diary to note down her deepest thoughts, ranging from her schoolgirl crushes through to her fears for herself, her family and even for the rest of humanity. The diary is at once a journal, a historical record and a work of moral philosophy.

The Frank family successful hid from 1942 right through to the summer of 1944. During this time, the entries in Anne’s diary show that she is maturing as a person. She also increasingly includes short stories and, prompted by something she hears on BBC radio, starts to transform her writings into a novel. However, the family were betrayed before she could complete the book. Along with her sister Margot, Anne was taken to a concentration camp and then moved to Auschwitz, where both of them died.

Incredibly, Otto survived the war and returned to Amsterdam. There, he was handed Anne’s journals by one of the friends who tried to hide them. He worked tirelessly to get the diaries published and, in 1947, he saw his wish come true. Just two years later, it was translated into English as The Diary of a Young Girl and became a global phenomenon. As well as its historical significance, the diary has also won widespread praise for Anne’s writing skills, leading to speculation that she might have gone on to be a major literary talent had she not been murdered at such a young age.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“The story of Anne Frank.” The Anne Frank Museum.

“The 100 Best Nonfiction Books of All Time: The Diary of Samuel Pepys.” Robert McCrum, The Guardian, November 2016.

“The Diary of Lena Mukhina by Lena Mukhina, review ‘harrowing and philosophical.” Charlotte Hobson, The Daily Telegraph, February 2015.

“When the president said yes to the bomb: Truman’s diaries reveal no hesitation, some regret.” Erik Slavin, Stars and Stripes, August 2015.

“Marie Curie, in Her Own Words.” American Institute of Physics.

“Emilie Davis’s Civil War: The Diaries of a Free Black Woman in Philadelphia, 1863-1865.” Penn State University Press.

“Captain Scott’s Diary, Volume 3.” The British Library.

“The Travels of Ibn Fadlan.” Salah Zaimeche, Muslim Heritage.

“Let Me Be Myself – The Life Story of Anne Frank”. Museum of Texas Tech University.