THE PITY OF WAR

NONFICTION BY NIALL FERGUSON

Basic Books
(Perseus Books Group)
ISBN: 0-465-05711-X
My 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 war’s causes, including attempts to justify the war or portray it as inevitable, social darwinism’s “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 militarism—Germany. 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 1914—a more military Germany—might 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, Germany’s war aims would have been significantly different from those in the September program; no evidence for prewar Germany’s Napoleonic strategy existed. 
     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 war’s 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 it did… 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 digressions—how 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. Ferguson’s 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 war’s deaths, his writing is humanistic, penetrative, and compassionate. 
     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.