That war ended 97 years ago. It has of course always been recognised as a cataclysmic episode in European history but with each passing year it seems more and more obvious that it was an even more significant event than it appeared at the time. The outbreak of war in 1914 was the moment that the long slow suicide of European civilisation began. It was the event that started our civilisation on the path of self-hatred and guilt. It was the moment that we began to lose faith in our own civilisation.
It being Armistice Day I hope I will be forgiven for another post on the First World War.
Which brings me to Niall Ferguson’s 1998 book on the Great War, The Pity of War. Ferguson is one of the more controversial historians of our time but then controversial historians tend to be the most interesting.
The book is certainly not a straightforward narrative history of the war. Ferguson sets out to answer ten questions about the war and along the way he demolishes several persistent myths and then goes on to draw some startling conclusions.
Economic history being one of Ferguson’s specialties you won’t be surprised to find that economic factors are dealt with in considerable depth. While he makes some interesting points on this subject I found the book to be much more intriguing when the author switches his focus away from economics.
The first few chapters are the most impressive. Ferguson has little patience with the idea that whatever happened in history must have happened because it was inevitable that it would happen. The idea that history is shaped by remorseless economic and social forces that cannot be altered has of course always been popular with Marxist historians and it has become more or less generally accepted. Ferguson rejects this pernicious idea in a pleasingly forthright manner. He argues that the First World War was far from inevitable. He also argues that the war was not the inescapable consequence of the naval arms race between Britain and Germany, or the economic rivalry between the two countries. Nor was it the result of German militarism. In fact he argues that if anything it was the lack of militarism in Germany that contributed to the outbreak of war. It was the military weakness of Germany that contributed to the outbreak of war – Germany was motivate by fear rather than ambition.
Ferguson is also convinced that there was no necessity for the British to become involved in the war and that Britain would have been much better off having nothing to do with it. More provocative is his claim that cynical calculations of party political advantage led the Liberal Government to embroil the country in the war. Lloyd George and Churchill wee among the chief villains in this sorry saga.
The First World War to some degree marked the beginnings of the modern intrusive surveillance state, of political censorship and the rise of propaganda as a frightening tool of government policy, subjects dealt with in some depth in this book.
One of the most important questions Ferguson sets out to answer is not who won the war, but who won the peace. His conclusions are rather startling.
Ferguson’s most controversial conclusion is undoubtedly that Europe would have been far better off had Britain and the US kept out of the war and if Germany had been victorious. It has to be said that he makes a reasonably persuasive case for this conclusion.
I found the many chapters dealing with the complex ins and outs of international finance to be a little on the dry side, or perhaps they were just a little too technical for a reader like myself who is not an expert in such matters.
The Pity of War makes some interesting and thought-provoking contributions to the ongoing and indeed never-ending debates about what is arguably the key event in modern history. Recommended.