Friday, 22 December 2000

Niall Ferguson: The Pity of War (1998)

Edition: Allen Lane, 1998
Review number: 699

Niall Ferguson takes a fresh look at the First World War, looking mainly to see whether there is evidence to support the various historical traditions which have grown up around certain aspects of the war, principally its cause and outcome. It is not a book aimed at someone who knows nothing about the history of the period; a fair amount is assumed and much of Ferguson's argument is quite technical.

The issues that Ferguson wishes to raise are distilled by him into ten questions, printed both in the Introduction and in the Conclusion, where they are answered in summary. The first three deal with the War's causes, looking at the traditional view that German militarism made it inevitable. Then the next two are about what in the Second War would be called the Home Front (though in all the main combatants not just Britain), examining the tradition that the non-fighter viewed the war with an enthusiasm fired by the propagandist media. The next four are about the end of the war - why it didn't come sooner through the Allies' superior economic might, or through the German superior military might, and why the appalling conditions on the Western Front in particular did not bring an end through mutiny, and what eventually brought the War to an end. The final question is who was the real victor in economic terms, if any country could really have been said to have won.

Ferguson takes issue with the traditional answers to all these questions, as might be expected. Much of his argument is based around analyses of figures - for example, the amount spent on defence by the various combatants - which makes some parts of the book quite complex. He hardly touches on the tactics and strategy which fill most books about the War. As far as I can tell, his arguments seem convincing and fair, though they are hardly likely to topple the traditionally held, popular views. One or two individuals come in for a great deal of criticism, notably Sir Edward Grey, British Foreign Secretary in the years immediately before the War, and economist Maynard Keynes, and I suspect that more patriotically British readers than myself would consider Ferguson to be rather pro-German.

However, I don't feel this myself, and it doesn't seem at all unlikely to me that English language histories might have tended to put more blame on Germany and whitewashed Britain. Ferguson's approach can be criticised; it occasionally seems rather callous to those who lost their lives in the conflict - though this is defensible in terms of what he aims to do, which means he needs to look at casualties as figures rather than as individual tragedies. His use of counterfactuals (alternative historical scenarios) is interesting but a dangerously seductive technique. It is not overused here, and is always clearly signposted as speculative. The Pity of War is generally a book which will fascinate anyone looking for a deeper understanding of the First World War.

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