The Pity of War: Explaining World War I by Niall Ferguson

Ferguson, Niall. The Pity of War: Explaining World War I. New York, NY: Basic                            Books, 1999.

 

 

 

Niall Ferguson’s The Pity of War: Explaining World War I is not a chronological account of the war, but rather he has attacked this work by asking, and then analytically answering, a series of questions. This is not a book dedicated to the trenches. His guiding focus is “…relating economic and solid history more closely than is customary to diplomatic and military history.” (p. xxv) He believes the economic constraints have too long been overlooked as well as the historian’s tendency to focus on a single nation.

This book can be divided into ten parts because there are ten main questions evaluated. The first four chapters attempt to answer whether the war was inevitable. He studies each of the possible causes, whether it was due to militarism, imperialism, or even the arms race, and then gives the reader valid reasons why they may or may not have been plausible. The rest of Ferguson’s questions are as follows: “Why did Germany’s leaders gamble on war in 1914? Why did Britain’s leaders decide to intervene when war broke out on the Continent? Was the war, as is often asserted, really greeted with popular enthusiasm? Did propaganda, and especially the press, keep the war going, as Karl Kraus believed? Why did the huge economic superiority of the British Empire not suffice to inflict defeat on the Central Powers more quickly and without American intervention? Why did the military superiority of the German army fail to deliver victory over the British and French armies on the Western Front, as it delivered victory over Serbia, Rumania, and Russian? Why did men stop fighting? Who won the peace—to be precise, who ended up paying for the war?” (p. xxv-vvvi) This list of questions is important for two reasons. First, he has brought up well-rounded, key elements of the war that touches on all the governments. Secondly, some of his explanations are provocative and debatable but nonetheless are valid opinions.

Here is a man who grew up in a school dedicated as a war memorial. Each day as he walked to class he would see the names of the fallen on engraved plaques lining the walls. Niall Ferguson’s grandfather, John Gilmour Ferguson was a veteran of World War I, having served with a Scottish regiment. This direct link to the war along with his grammar school curriculum, which indoctrinated the works of men like Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, and Robert Graves upon his conscience, eventually would see him become the scholar he is today.

He graduated from Oxford with honors and finished his dissertation from Magdalen College that was titled Business and Politics in the German Inflation: Hamburg 1914-1924. He taught at several universities and is currently teaching at Harvard University. Some of his most popular works are Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World, Kissinger: 1923-1968: The Idealist, The Assent of Money: A Financial History of the World, and Civilization: The West and the Rest.

Unsurprising, or at least less surprising once you have read The Pity of War, is that the author is no stranger to controversy. This is, after all, a book about tearing into the so-called ten myths of the Great War. “Myths” that have been historian’s building blocks for years. He believes that before 1914 Germany was the least militaristic country, especially compared to France and Britain. Despite direct opposition to this opinion, he states that “Militarism…was far from being the dominant force in European politics on the eve of the Great War,” and “…nowhere was the anti-militarist Left stronger than in Germany, which had one of the most democratic of all European franchises.” (p. 28, 30)

Another myth buster of Ferguson’s is that Britain did not side with France and Russia because of a German naval threat, but because France could simply offer them a better deal. Though he is debunking the German naval threat as a non-issue, he does make a valid argument. France agreed to Britain’s continued presence in Egypt, an opportunity too good to pass up. Although for him to discount the naval rivalry between Germany and Britain, knowing that this was a grand cause of friction between the two countries, seems absurd. He goes further to back his claim that Britain considered Germany a non-threat by exploring the ways that Britain chose to appease the strong time and again. The United States was proving her dominance in imperial expansion. Germany, compared to the United States, did not compare. “British foreign policy between 1900 and 1906, then, was to appease those powers which appeared to pose the greatest threat to her position, even at the expense of good relations with less important powers.” (p. 55) France, Russia, and the United States were power players and Ferguson argues that Germany simply was not.

One of the lists of questions, or myths, deals with a play written by Karl Kraus who believed that propaganda kept the war going and writes that the press even initiated it. Ferguson does an excellent job of breaking down the five main reasons men volunteered for the war, and it did not have to do with media theatrics. The first discussed is how successful recruitment methods were. There were numerous volunteers setting up meetings and speeches. The female pressure was another method. Ladies would sometimes hand men who didn’t join a white feather to let them know they thought they were cowards. Peer pressure should never be underestimated. No one wanted to be left behind or considered cowardly by their mates. Several ‘Pals’ battalions were formed when friends and neighbors joined together. Ferguson disagrees with many historians and makes an effective point, that there were economic motives involved in enlisting. “…the peak of enlistment in Britain coincided with the peak of unemployment caused by the August financial and commercial crisis.” (p. 206) He contends that “…nine out of ten of the working men laid off in Bristol in the first month of the war joined up.” (p. 206) This data came from Ian F. W. Beckett’s book A Nation in Arms. It would have been preferable for Ferguson to cite the original source of material to be more impactful to his argument. He does agree partially with Kraus in that there would be no stories of atrocities written if there had never been atrocities. The media may have exploited this, but there was plenty of slaughter to exploit.

One of the most controversial myths that he takes issue with revolves around whether or not Germany could have paid her debt. He believes that the Versailles Treaty was not nearly as severe as the Germans made it out to be. The real issue was not that Germany could not have paid, but that the Allies could not collect. He offers some alternatives to hyperinflation that would need to begin with the stabilization of the mark. He does not contend that the mark could ever get to its prewar equivalence, but it could have been steadied nonetheless. The mark, he believes, could have been stabilized at 50 marks to the dollar, which put it at 8 percent of its pre-war value. The budget deficit also needed to be reduced, and “Better-designed taxes could have raised more revenue.” (p. 429) He cites several occasions that sway one to believe that the Germans were very aware that without changes to their monetary policy, and that letting inflation climb steadily out of control, Germany was headed for disaster. Included is an exert taken from Chancellor Konstantin Fehrenbach’s speech on June 28, 1920, where he urged the Reichstag to make the necessary reforms to their finances. Some believed that this type of stabilization, or devaluation, was not a solution, and in fact “…it was argued, firms and individuals with wartime foreign currency debts would be deprived of the theoretical possibility of some longer-term recovery of the mark.” (p. 431)

There are those who dislike when an author reimagines history, a counterfactual take. When done well, and he does do it well, it can add meat to the author’s argument. Ferguson knows how to spin a beneficial tale. For instance, he writes that had Britain only stood aside it might have transformed continental Europe. Civil war and Bolshevism may have been averted in Russia, American financial assistance would have been avoided, and Britain would have stayed financially dominant, and Fascism would have been in France rather than Germany in the 1920s. His final fantasy of what-ifs begins with the Kaiser’s triumph, which would mean that “…Adolf Hitler could have eked out his life as a mediocre postcard painter and a fulfilled old soldier in a German-dominated Central Europe about which he could have found little to complain.” (p. 460) Of course, this would mean an avoidance of World War II.

There is an extraordinary amount of zingers the author throws at his audience, but none more surprising than what is found in the conclusion under the heading Some Conclusions. He attempts to again speak of Britain’s decision to enter into the war. Was it not so they could stay in Egypt? As it turns out, even though “…the majority of ministers were hesitant,” they ended up agreeing to support Grey so that their positions would remain secure and the Tories would not be let in. (p. 443) At no time does the author divulge information that backs up this claim.

Despite the author’s controversial stances, for the sake of controversy alone, The Pity of War should still be given a place on any World War I reading list. However far-fetched some of the author’s declarations may be, he does have a lot of very valid economic particulars that have had little exploration before now. In going against so many common theories that have long stood as the Great War’s backbone, he has forced the reader to either come up with thoughtful, intelligent arguments to prove him wrong or be swayed to his rationale. Whatever side of the myth you land, it is always a pleasure to read a book that can engender such intense debate.

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