(Perseus Books Group)
subject is War, and the pity of War, wrote Wilfred Owen, an
English poet who died on the French front in World War I. In his
The Pity of War
, Mr. Niall Ferguson, an economic historian
at Oxford, offers a challenging reassessment of the Great War, which,
as he affirms, could have been avoided.
This encyclopedic and analytical treatise
embraces history, military science, and economics, as well as the
lesser-explored avenues of psychology and literary critique, in
relation to the First World War. The author investigates a great
many existing views on the wars causes, including attempts
to justify the war or portray it as inevitable, social darwinisms
great principle of struggle for survival, the Leninist
view that the war was the consequence of imperialist economic rivalries,
and the myth that World War I was caused by the culture of militarism
and uncanny prescient prophecies of pre-war writers. Neither militarism,
imperialism, nor secret diplomacy, as Mr. Ferguson maintains, made
the war inevitable.
He shows the importance of radical
forms of religion and the continuing dominance of the elite in the
evolution of radical nationalist ideology as well as how popular
support for the war was a creation of the media. In his analysis
of the role of the arms race, Mr. Ferguson concludes that the defeated
power was the power with the greatest reputation for excessive militarismGermany.
The reason its leaders gambled on the war was their belief in a
weakness which was not due to a lack of economic resources, but
due to political and fiscal constraints; the decentralized federal
system made it impossible for the Reich government to match the
defense expenditure of its more centralized neighbors. He asserts
that higher German military spending before July 1914a more
military Germanymight have averted it.
He scrutinizes the chain of events
which led to the war, the balance of forces, and the possible outcomes
at each stage. Against popular conceptions, he shows that the most
important economic factor in the early twentieth-century world was
not the growth of the German economy, but British financial power
which led to the inclusion of political developments similar to
globalization in the late twentieth century. He contends
that Britain could have limited its involvement in a continental
war. Had Britain not intervened immediately, Germanys war
aims would have been significantly different from those in the September
program; no evidence for prewar Germanys Napoleonic strategy
Mr. Ferguson infers that the greatest
of all the paradoxes of the First World War is that, despite being
economically disadvantaged in comparison with the Entente Powers,
the Central Powers were far more successful at both inflicting death
and taking POWs. The Germans achieved and maintained a higher level
of military effectiveness for most of the war, and their military
victory over Serbia, Rumania, and Russia, despite an immense inferiority
in economic resources, was primarily due to the tactical excellence
of the German army.
In answering the question Why
did men keep fighting? he explores various aspects of human
nature. Morale was only partly dependent upon discipline. It was
also the result of a reward system that relied on immediate short-term
comfort; a subtle way of coping with the slaughter was religion.
But the crucial point, as Mr. Ferguson states, is that men fought
because they did not mind fighting. Freud suggested that the war
made life interesting again because it swept away this
conventional treatment of death.
The author demonstrates that surrender
was the key to the outcome of the First World War because it proved
possible to get the enemy to yield in such large numbers that his
ability to fight was fatally weakened. Once the Germans lost their
fear of surrendering to the Allied army, the war was over. Another
cause of the wars conclusion, Mr. Ferguson maintains, was
that German soldiers were war-weary. However, he states,
for many men who had fought, the violence had become addictive.
When it stopped on the Western Front, they sought it elsewhere.
He ruefully muses: conversely, if more men had taken no prisoners,
the war might have carried on indefinitely. And, then, again, perhaps
by other means.
The Great War, as a turning point in
a long-held stand-off between monarchy and republicanism, gave rise
to a number of republics in Europe, but its victors paid a price
far in excess of the value of their gains. Apart from killing, maiming,
and mourning, the war literally and metaphorically blew up the achievements
of a century of economic advance. Mr. Ferguson affirms that in many
ways Germany came out of the war no worse off than Britain, with
the exception of inflation, a product of irresponsible fiscal politics
adopted by the Germans themselves.
In his research, Mr. Ferguson draws
on ample evidence from a vast variety of sources: military and economic
literature, accounts from newspapers and official documents, personal
diaries and memoirs, poetry and prose. Art and music, with their
striking tendency to produce more pro- than anti-war art and to
seek inspiration in the aesthetics of mass death and destruction,
were especially compelling. He presents an enormous amount of factual
information interchanged with counter-factual digressionshow
events might have turned out if circumstances had in one way or
another been altered.
Apart from the major paradoxes of the
First World War, the book hosts off-center inferences. For example,
the author contends that propaganda had the greatest influence on
the social group which matters least to the war effort: children.
He also notes that the real purpose of war memorials was to transmit
the pain to those who had suffered no immediate loss.
Yet, interesting though it may be,
Mr. Fergusons idea that a German victory might have brought
about a unified Europe and thus averted World War II, still seems
far too conclusive.
Historic as it is, the book, with its
extrapolations into modern economics and politics, is very contemporary.
Hosting a mass of shrewd observations, it gives the reader a chance
to communicate with a fascinating narrator. It is an elegant and
audacious writing, albeit a bit voluminous and overladen with illustrative
charts, diagrams and statistical data. Nonetheless, the author treats
the figures with caution and translates the numbers into emotions,
expectations, and moods. Although his description of political leaders
and diplomats is vivid and convincing, he questions and brings into
close focus the motives behind politicians behavior. Despite
the fact that he might face criticism for tabulating the price of
the wars deaths, his writing is humanistic, penetrative, and
One may find his voice somewhat authoritative,
but it may be seen as a necessary attribute of someone
who puts his arguments on the scales against common opinion. He
revises the classic studies and offers strikingly unexpected answers
to almost all aspects of the war, already sorted out by generations
of historians. Undoubtedly, many will see this book as too controversial,
but history hardly can be squeezed into the tight limits of a multiple
choice test. Unfortunately, we cannot have clear-cut answers to
all our questions about the recent events, let alone the historically
distant calamity, but The Pity of War
is an opportunity to
revise our perceptions about the things we seem to already know.