|September 1, 1999||technology & culture magazine|
Books / Digital Culture:
Selected Past Articles:
Niall Ferguson, journalist, Oxford don and Thatcherite conservative infuriates millions (more likely thousands; at over 500 pages most will throw it down in frustration and quite possibly disgust) with his latest book The Pity of War: Explaining World War I. Released in the UK to coincide the 80th anniversary of Armistice Day (November 11, 1998) Ferguson makes the claim that Britain's entry into World War I was the greatest error of the century. Not a tragedy, he takes pains to state, which distinguishes itself by being unavoidable, but an fully avoidable error, a blunder made by the powers of the day (specifically the "Complete Angler" Sir Edward Grey, Foreign Secretary who insisted on Britain's obligation to align itself against Germany) that resulted in the loss of a third of Britain's men and paved the way for the Russian Revolution, the Third Reich and, ultimately, the use of nuclear weaponry for the first time in history.
Ferguson's style is not far off from the tomes churned out by Cambridge University Press (who published his first book Paper and Iron in 1995) and he has a fondness for the charts and graphs so often employed in such monographs. He does have zesty chapter titles like "The Death Instinct: Why Men Fought" or "Maximum Slaughter at Minimum Expense": War Finance" that owe a debt to his journalistic side. There are 80 pages of notes thankfully confined to the end, but this is no Guns of August. Ferguson, an economic historian, makes his most cogent points by analyzing the financial climate rather than the oft-explored political one. He examines bond rates, net national products and military expenditures in order to fortify his contrarian stance. His central argument is that Germany's aggresion in Beligium and France was because Germany sensed it was losing ground both militarily and economically. Germany, then needed to show enough force to keep its decline at bay. His ample financial evidence points to Britain rather than Germany as the militaristic, economically strong force in Europe at the time (ruling, through her colonies over 400 million people; British "warship tonnage" was more than twice that of Germany in 1913) and that Britain and Germany could both benefit from Germany's wartime goals, among them expelling the French and Portuguese from their colonies. Here Ferguson is at his best, delving into a different aspect than the widely-examined political and strategic ones.
The most fascinating chapter ("The Death Instinct" mentioned above) discusses the reasons why the men fought and continued to fight despite heavy casualties, the literally maddening shelling and combat that combined the high tech weaponry with antiquated strategy (advancing in formation was not abandoned until 1916). Ferguson claims that high casualty rates actually helped keep the war going, providing fresh soldiers before mutinous ideas could take hold; revenge, too was a factor. He mentions the divisions that fought because rather than in spite of heavy casualties like the British 29th Division which "suffered casualties equivalent to seven times its original strength but was still regarded as the elite force of the British Expeditionary Forces.". There was a low rate of desertion and mutiny with the exception of the Russians in 1918; and once the immediate needs of soldiers were met --food, clothes, drink, adequate accomodations, leave and rest--the soldiers went into battle willingly and often with relish. He invokes Freud quite a bit and then comes to the conclusion that men killed because they liked to. He quotes soldiers describing battle as "an opiate"; "an anaesthetic"; "the greatest adventure in my life".This disturbing argument is one of the many aspects of this book that fly in the face of conventionally-held ideas about war. I found it the most convincing.
Finally Ferguson engages in a game of counter-factual what-ifs to conclude the book. Working from the premise that German hegemony in Europe would have been preferable to the hard-won, financially-draining Allies' victory, Ferguson raises questions that are interesting but rely too heavily on givens. His givens, which are quite boldly stated in the conclusion. "The victors of the First World War had paid a price far in excess of the value of all their gains; a price so high, indeed, that they would very shortly find themselves quite unable to hold on to most of them." Yes, that may have proven true, but what would Britain stand to gain by having an equally powerful presence in continental Europe when Britannia was at the zenith of her powers? Ferguson poses one counter-factual scenario and the door is opened to several others.
In Niall Ferguson's eyes, the The pity of World War I is that Britain won the war but lost her Empire. Up until that point in history, when Britain fatefully cast her lot with France and Belgium, Germany and Britain could have ruled Europe and the world together...or is that just one of my counter-factuals? Ferguson states with clarity the economic reasons, the political reasons and the cultural reasons why Britain should have opted for neutrality, concluding that: "a friendless England is better than the exhausted England of 1919." While Ferguson details what would have happened had Britain not intervened, he ignores the pedestrian idea that his is only one scenario. What results is him tyring to prove the negative, an endeavor whose conclusions have nothing to do with what happened, or what information the players in history had at their disposal. Both sides were engaged in a gamble, not knowing the strategies and motives of the other side. At least not as well as Ferguson would have us believe. He makes a compelling argument but the tone is far too arch to satisfy as an "explanation" of World War I. Read it for the controversy.
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