Niall Ferguson 1967-
The following entry presents an overview of Ferguson's career through 1999.
Oxford historian Niall Ferguson quickly made a reputation for himself as a brilliant young iconoclast in his field, breaking new ground by calling into question previously accepted ideas about modern European history. The author of several ambitious, meticulously researched monographs on subjects ranging from World War I to Weimar Republic hyperinflation to the Rothschild financial dynasty, Ferguson is known for his nontraditional interpretations of historic events, particularly his use and advocacy of “counterfactuals”—the study of alternative historical outcomes based on “what if” scenarios. While politically conservative, Ferguson spurns the entrenched academic notion of the isolated “ivory tower” intellectual, choosing instead to embrace a fame for which he has assiduously worked. Ferguson plays a significant role in reinvigorating the field of history, despite the sometimes strong opposition his books encounter.
Ferguson was born into a well-educated Glasgow family—his father was a doctor, his mother a physicist—and Ferguson attended Glasgow Academy, a respected grammar school. His interest in history was fostered by the writings and televised lectures of historian A. J. P. Taylor. After winning a scholarship, Ferguson studied history at Oxford's Magdalen College, where he became attracted to student “Thatcherites” (named after conservative prime minister Margaret Thatcher) and joined the Oxford Union. He further studied medieval financial history under economist Gerald Harris, who impressed upon Ferguson the importance of finance to the study of history. Ferguson graduated with a “First” in history and entered the college's postgraduate program, studying under historian Norman Stone, with whom he shared a conservative view of politics. After Oxford, Ferguson traveled to Hamburg, where, using the Warburg archives, he studied German hyperinflation during the 1920s. His first book, Paper and Iron (1995), was the result of this dissertation work. To help support himself, Ferguson supplemented his fellowship as a journalist for London's Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail. When the Daily Telegraph closed its Bonn office, he became the newspaper's only correspondent in Germany. Ferguson married Susan Douglas—his editor at the Daily Mail—in 1994. Ferguson returned to England in 1989 to teach at Cambridge, where, owing to his numerous leaves of absence and fashionable clothing, a rumor developed that he was an agent for the MI5, the British equivalent of the CIA. At Cambridge, Ferguson taught at the college of Peterhouse, where he met and befriended another conservative historian, Maurice Cowling. Ferguson was asked in 1990 to write the authorized version of the Rothschild family, a request that resulted in The World's Banker (1998), subsequently published in two volumes. In 1992, Ferguson returned to Oxford for a position as Fellow and Tutor of Modern History at Jesus College, where he continues to work today. He divides his residence between a flat in London's stylish Soho district and a seventeenth-century farmhouse outside Oxford, where he lives with his wife (currently a consultant) and their three children.
An indefatigable scholar and writer, Ferguson penned hundreds of items for newspapers and journals and wrote three books and edited another by his mid-thirties. His first published book, Paper and Iron, examines German politics and hyperinflation during the first three decades of the twentieth century. While most studies of this phenomenon tend to focus on the years 1914 to 1924, Ferguson begins much earlier, during the late German empire, and extends his analysis into 1927 and further, to the era of National Socialism. Ferguson's work also departs from previous studies, which focused on industry, labor, and agriculture, by looking at the interaction between the Hamburg business elite and the national government. “Keynesian” (after John Maynard Keynes) economists and historians tend to downplay the effects of inflation on the Weimar Republic; Ferguson, in contrast, takes the position commonly held by contemporary analysts, that hyperinflation was fatally undermining the stability of the German government. However, what most distinguishes Paper and Iron from earlier works on the topic is Ferguson's attempt to demonstrate how the hyperinflation could have been avoided. In his thesis, he argues that the German government could have installed conservative fiscal policies to halt the inflation. The social unrest accompanying the recession that most likely would have followed, Ferguson maintains, could have been controlled with authoritarian measures taken by the government. Most importantly, the revitalized bourgeois society to follow, Ferguson asserts, would have been less susceptible to the Nazi movement of the early 1930s. In Paper and Iron, Ferguson is offering an alternative scenario to what actually occurred, thereby presenting a “counterfactual” history.
Ferguson further explores counterfactual history in Virtual History (1998), a collection of essays for which he served as both editor and contributor. The volume examines the use of counterfactual hypotheses (such as “What if Nazi Germany had won World War II?” and “What if John F. Kennedy had lived?”) to provide alternative scenarios to now foregone historic events. In his introduction, Ferguson contends that the use of counterfactual historical argument is a necessary check against determinism—particularly Marxist determinism—which, in his view, treats history as a fixed, teleological narrative. Ferguson explains that by comparing alternative outcomes, a better understanding of what actually occured can be achieved, thus illuminating historical study further. In addition to the various “virtual history” chapters by others, Ferguson presents his own, a speculative survey of alternative events beginning in the seventeenth century and ending in the 1990s with the Confederation of American States declaring its independence from Stuart-ruled Britain. Ferguson's penchant for counterfactual history played a significant role in his next book, The Pity of War (1998), his best-known work to date. Drawing upon extensive analysis of economic and statistical data, Ferguson reconsiders the origins, rationale, and impacts of the First World War and advances several arguments that debunk standard historical interpretations of this much-studied topic. Most notably, Ferguson concludes that the war was neither inevitable nor necessary, and furthermore, that Britain was largely to blame for intervening in—and prolonging—a conflict that posed no immediate threat to its national interests. According to Ferguson, Britain actually feared France and Russia, and in order to create alliances with its imperial adversaries, it needed to attribute aggressive intentions to the Germans. In another controversial section, Ferguson suggests—citing Sigmund Freud's concept of the “death instinct”—that the war was further prolonged by the fact that both British and German soldiers actually enjoyed killing. Ferguson's counterfactual argument considers the less disastrous course of events if Britain had not entered into the war. According to Ferguson, Germany would have won the war and the internal problems that led to the rise of Hitler could have been avoided. Without Hitler, the Holocaust and World War II would not have occurred, as well as the subsequent Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. Instead, Germany would have remained content to dominate the European continent and would not have posed a significant threat to Britain. Moreover, Ferguson's argument goes, World War I was unnecessary. Had Britain not entered the continental conflict, Europe would still have turned out similar to the way it actually is today—dominated by a Germany more economically powerful than any other European nation. Ferguson's interest in economics is again apparent in the more conventional work, The World's Banker (also published in two volumes under the title The House of Rothschild.) This comprehensive history of the Rothschild financial empire documents the family's extraordinary rise from humble eighteenth-century origins in a Frankfurt ghetto to prominence as a leading international credit and investment franchise during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. For his research, Ferguson was given unrestricted access to the Rothschild archives, including confidential letters, ledgers, and memos, some of which were encrypted in Hebrew code. The resulting work, in addition to illustrating how this fabled Jewish family acquired and extended its immense wealth, demonstrates the significant political influence the Rothschilds exerted on the sphere of world history.
Since the beginning of his professional career, Ferguson has been associated with controversial positions in historical scholarship. The main exception to this trend is The World's Banker, which takes a rather traditional look at its subject. Reviewers found little, if anything, polemical in this extensive family history. Instead, critics were mainly divided in their opinions as to whether Ferguson had successfully managed to bring together the wealth of information from which he worked. Ferguson's unconventional approach to history was, however, the focus of critical commentary following the publication of Virtual History. While the use of counterfactuals had, for the most part, been confined to fiction (for example, novels featuring a world in which the Nazis prevail), Virtual History called attention to the use of them in historical studies. Though the several “What if?” essays of the volume were found to have varying degrees of success, Ferguson's introductory defense of counterfactuals was generally greeted as persuasive, opening the way for future discussions of their use. Ferguson's first book, Paper and Iron, was praised as a welcome reassessment of the period of German hyperinflation. In particular, the author was credited for examining the perspective of the Hamburg business elite and providing insightful analysis of Hamburg's social and business history. However, Ferguson's assertion that German hyperinflation posed as great a threat as the deflationary crisis a decade later has been questioned, as has his counterfactual argument that a conservative fiscal policy on the part of the German government to fight the inflation would have had beneficial results. Critics also questioned the author's sympathy for the economic troubles of the bourgeois elite, as well as his suggestion that rightist authoritarian measures could have been enacted to subdue the laboring class. The controversy surrounding Paper and Iron, however, was relatively minor compared to that following the publication of The Pity of War, Ferguson's most contentious book to date. In Britain, where World War I is remembered by many as a tragic demonstration of moral courage and sacrifice, the author's claim that Britain was at fault for creating the war was especially galling, especially in light of the tremendous human cost exacted on that nation. Despite this unpopular view, Ferguson was praised for effectively bringing economics into the debate concerning the origins of World War I. In its argument that the war between Britain and Germany was avoidable, though, The Pity of War is generally faulted for not taking into account the true nature of the rivalry between the two countries, as well as for greatly underestimating Germany's expansionist tendencies. Some commentators also suggest that the book expresses a political conservative's longing for the British imperial past. While his conclusions were not widely accepted, Ferguson was again credited with giving new life to a much-studied event. A critic of New Labour politics, Ferguson is often disparaged as a “Dial-a-Don,” a dismissive moniker attributed to certain British intellectuals who do not hesitate to give their opinions to the British media. Despite such criticism, Ferguson shows no inclination to change his approach to writing history, which has renewed interest in his subjects and established him as an academic celebrity.
Paper and Iron: Hamburg Business and German Politics in the Era of Inflation, 1897-1927 (history) 1995
The Pity of War: Explaining World War I (history) 1998
Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals [editor and contributor] (history) 1998
The World's Banker: The History of the House of Rothschild [reissued in two volumes: The House of Rothschild: Money's Prophets, 1798-1848, 1998; and The House of Rothschild: The World's Banker, 1849-1999, 1999] (history) 1998
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SOURCE: A review of Paper and Iron, in Journal of Economic History, Vol. 56, No. 2, June, 1996, pp. 506-7.
[In the following review, Wengenroth offers a tempered assessment of Paper and Iron, concluding that final judgement of the book depends upon a reader's “political taste.”]
After a plethora of books examining the German inflation after World War I via the documents of the Reichsbank, the Berlin government, and those of the magnates of the Ruhr’s heavy industry, Niall Ferguson’s Paper & Iron represents a most welcome shift of perspective in making Hamburg and its business elite the point of departure. At the center of this elite stood the Jewish banker Max Warburg whom Ferguson portrays as the “hero” of his story (p. 30). The book’s main issue, however, is not the unfolding tragedy of this hero but a major revisionist attack on the established orthodoxy in the interpretation of the government’s and the interest groups’ policies during the inflation years. Almost two-thirds of the book is dedicated to the years 1919 to 1923 with the Hamburg perspective often used as an illustration only for what Ferguson really wants to convey: the view, that “a stabilisation of monetary and fiscal policy could in theory have been achieved in 1920 without a British-style recession: indeed without a recession as severe as that which did occur in Germany 1923/4” (p....
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SOURCE: A review of Paper and Iron, in The Historian, Vol. 59, No. 1, Fall, 1996, pp. 186-7.
[In the following review, Lieberman provides a generally positive assessment of Paper and Iron.]
Entering into a field of history crowded with recent studies, including the authoritative analysis of Gerald D. Feldman, Niall Ferguson makes a valuable contribution to the historiography of German inflation by recasting the history of the inflation of the early 1920s as a study of long-term structural weaknesses of the German state together with the interplay between local business élites and the national government. In contrast to most studies of inflation, which concentrate on the period from 1914 to 1924, Ferguson extends his analysis to examine inflationary pressure from the late German empire through 1927 and even into the National Socialist era. He argues that structural weaknesses of the German central government, namely its limited power to tax and the failure of the central bank to regulate credit effectively, combined with demands for state services to create favorable conditions for inflation from the reign of Wilhelm II into the Weimar Republic and perhaps beyond. Stressing the lack of integration of government policy in the early 1920s, Ferguson disputes Peter-Christian Witt’s suggestion that early Weimar governments carried out “something like counter-cyclical policy” (270). This book...
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SOURCE: A review of Paper and Iron, in Social History, Vol. 21, No. 3, October, 1996, pp. 386-7.
[In the following review, Tooze analyzes the methodology of Paper and Iron, which he describes as “unconvincing and distasteful,” though the book's themes are “of considerable interest.”]
In recent years the Oxford historian, Niall Ferguson, has made a name for himself as a right-wing pundit in the pages of the British press. Paper and Iron is Ferguson’s first scholarly monograph and, true to form, it is a highly ambitious, politically charged and intellectually provocative work.
Ferguson’s topic is the history of inflation in Germany in the first half of the twentieth century. His main focus is, naturally, on the hyperinflation which scarred the Weimar Republic in its youth. However, as Ferguson points out, the hyperinflation of the early 1920s was merely the most dramatic episode in a half-century of inflation which stretched from the late 1890s to the aftermath of the Second World War. This, according to Ferguson, reflects a characteristic weakness of the German nation state—its inability to raise sufficient taxes to match its hypertrophic expenditure on the twentieth-century demands of warfare and welfare. The failure of the Reich to extract sufficient taxes resulted from the peculiarly decentralized structure of the German state and the well-organized...
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SOURCE: “Some Revised Versions,” in The Spectator, April 26, 1997, pp. 34-5.
[In the following review, Caute offers a negative evaluation of Virtual History.]
This is another novelty item in the post-modernist pavilion of ‘what if?’ history. Virtual History begins with Niall Ferguson’s long, heavyweight and impressively erudite bombing raid on ‘determinist’ theories of history. He may be justified in putting down previous volumes in this genre, including If I Had Been … Ten Historical Fantasies (1979) and For Want of a Horse (1984), but the majority of the contributors to his own book are still writing orthodox history spiced by speculative passages.
Niall Ferguson would have us believe that ‘virtual history’ and ‘counterfactuals’ are hugely up against it. Up against what? Well, this whole entrenched, stubborn, lefty, unyielding thing called ‘determinism’, which bestrides the History Faculty and simply will not permit the idea that anything could have turned out other than it did. In short, the commissars of ‘inevitability’. You might think that Ferguson was a Yevtushenko trying to get ‘Stalin’s Heirs’ and ‘Babi Yar’ past the ageing Soviet establishment. In reality there are no penalties in the era of triumphant capitalism for ridiculing ‘progress’ and ‘meaning’, with their critical connotations.
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SOURCE: “Castles in the Air,” in New Statesman, June 6, 1997, p. 45.
[In the following review, Russell offers a tempered analysis of Virtual History.]
Historians are less impressive at handling conceptual questions than at assembling empirical data. Like bad builders, we erect edifices of factual bricks on soft, sandy soil. When, sapped by a generation of further research, they fall down, another historian rejects some bricks, makes a few new ones and erects an edifice with a different design, but on an equally sandy soil.
Perhaps this is not a particular weakness of historians. The conceptual eccentricities of Plato or Marx, to name only two, suggest that the weakness of the human being on conceptual questions is a general one. Perhaps the peculiarity of historians is not our conceptual weakness but the intractability of our factual bricks which forces us, more than most disciplines, to try and face up to our weakness.
It is that task to which Niall Ferguson and his contributors have made a very interesting contribution [in Virtual History]. The “virtual history” of the title is counterfactual history. It asks: “What if?” What if, for example, Hitler had won the second world war, or Kennedy had not been assassinated? It is part of the intellectual toughness of this collection that the answer is sometimes that not very much would have been different....
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The Economist (review date 14 November 1998)
SOURCE: “Avoiding Hitler,” in The Economist, November 14, 1998, p. 5.
[In the following review, the critic discusses Ferguson's historical argument in The Pity of War.]
For Europe at least, the first world war was by many accounts the defining event of this century. But the very magnitude of the catastrophe it represented for liberal civilisation has tended to paralyse historical imagination, fixing the study of it in patriotic apology or moral lament—still two of the dominant modes of writing about the Great War. At one massive stroke, Niall Ferguson has transformed this dismal intellectual landscape, a kind of Flanders of the mind. The Pity of War for the first time brings the carnage of 1914–18 into sharp, unmystified focus. This is analytical history at its mordant best. Rather than offering yet another narrative, Mr. Ferguson poses a series of stark questions about the conflict. Why did hostilities break out? Were they inevitable? Which side fought best? How did soldiers experience the front? Why did the central powers lose? What were the consequences of the war for Europe? He returns iconoclastic answers to nearly all of them.
First and foremost, The Pity of War demolishes standard British cant about the war. Mr Ferguson shows that, contrary to legend, Imperial Germany was not the most...
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SOURCE: “A Gilded Brand,” in New Statesman, November 20, 1998, pp. 46-7.
[In the following review, Fairweather offers a positive assessment of The World's Banker.]
Superlatives attach themselves to the Rothschild family like burrs. They are the greatest, richest, most enduringly successful banking dynasty the world has ever seen. From their five European power bases, the family was able to influence world politics, during the 19th century in particular, to a degree unrivalled since David was king of the Jews. Their palaces, gardens, art and antique collections, vineyards and stud farms are the stuff of legends. And the family name, gilded with as much mythology as history, is one of the most alluring brands around. It is only fitting, then, that the first authorised history of the Rothschilds, written by Niall Ferguson, a prolific and indefatigable young Oxford don, should be superlatively weighty.
With the co-operation of most leading members of the family today, Ferguson has been granted unprecedented access to all Rothschild archives predating 1915 (more recent files remain closed to preserve client confidentiality). And, with the help of a small army of research assistants, archivists and staff at the banks, he has trawled through a mountain of ledgers and statistics, as well as an astonishing 20,000 letters, many of which were written in a crude code or dialect of Hebrew, to...
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SOURCE: “Historiographical Counterfactuals and Historical Contingency,” in History and Theory, Vol. 38, No. 2, 1999, pp. 264-76.
[In the following review, Tucker examines the methodology and merits of “alternative history” and offers an analysis of Virtual History.]
“Alternative history” is an established genre of literature that is sometimes classified as science fiction. Hundreds of books explore what would have happened had, for example, Hitler never been born, or won the war. Recently, grassroots non-academic interest in this genre has surged. A yearly “Sidewise Award” is given for the best alternative history book and short story. An internet site, “Uchrania: The Alternative History List,” is devoted to a comprehensive annotated bibliography of works of alternative history in all genres in all languages. Thus far, most academic historians have pretended to ignore this genre. Virtual History is significant in contributing to breaking the academic taboo on explicit discussions of historiographical counterfactuals.1 Still, what are historiographical counterfactuals good for, beyond an entertaining exercise of our imaginative faculties? A closely related question is: which criteria are relevant for evaluating the quality of historiographical counterfactuals?
In literature, the genre of alternative history has been used for a wide spectrum of purposes. P. K. Dick used an alternative world, in which the Axis Powers won the Second World War and divided the USA between Germany and Japan, in order to explore the nature of human decency (associated with the Americanophile Japanese occupation in San Francisco) and fanatic totalitarianism (associated with the German occupation of the East coast). Dick used this alternative historical reality to emphasize through his protagonists the banality of good and the chaotic nature of human life, dominated by greater unfathomable forces symbolized by the I-Ching.2 Michael Morecook constructed alternative radical political utopias by introducing alternative revisions of history at the turn of the twentieth century to create histories in which imperialism, racism, and European domination were successfully challenged by indigenous Asian or African radical political forces. Morecook then followed the development of these utopias as they turned into distopias. The purpose of Morecook’s alternative historiographies is the examination of radical political utopias from the perspective of a well-wishing, naive, fin-de-siècle British romantic officer turned pilot of airships.3 Robert Harris imagined how Europe would have been during the 1960s had the Nazis won the War, emptied it of its Jews, enslaved the Slavs, and settled Germans in an ethnically-cleansed Eastern Europe. He speculated that the Nazi regime would have moderated by the 1960s, and attempted a detente with the United States. Against this fascinating background, Harris developed a detective plot: a murder investigation leads a Berlin police detective to discover an elaborate conspiracy by the Nazi regime to hide the existence of the Holocaust by silencing its functionaries who participated in the Wansee Conference that plotted the “Final Solution.”4 Some of the appeal of Harris’s bestseller, as well as many other novels and short stories that describe a world where the Nazis won the war, may be ascribed to an aesthetic fascination with apocalyptic landscapes, with consistent realistic depictions of a horrendous alternative universe, like a Bosch painting. The theme of a Europe/world dominated by Germans by reversing the results of one of the World Wars is perhaps the most popular among writers in the genre of alternative history, followed by a victory of the Confederacy in the American Civil War. A German imperial- or Nazi-dominated world opens endless opportunities for all the literary tropes with the exception of comedy.
Yitzhak Laor wrote an alternative history novel that Israeli critics hailed as one of the best in the Hebrew language, offering a penetrating insight into the Israeli experience and character by posing a counterfactual in which an army major named Kishon (a parody on the name of the famous author of feuilletons) dies during his siesta under a eucalyptus tree, thereby causing a chain of events in the desert supply camp he commands that prevents the outbreak of the 1967 Six Days War.5
All these uses of the genre of alternative history are legitimate and fascinating. They are also distant from the kind of issues that concern historians, social scientists, and philosophers of historiography and the social sciences in the normal course of their scholarly work. This is not to say that history and social science eschew counterfactuals entirely. Historians and social scientists use counterfactuals regularly though implicitly when they assign necessary causes, and sometimes in assigning degrees of importance to causes. The assignment of necessary causes assumes that had the causes not occurred, neither would the effects. One possible way to support assigning degrees of importance to causes is by posing counterfactuals that isolate the effects of each cause separately, and then comparing them with the actual historical result. The greater the difference, the more important the cause. Still, the vast literature on this topic indicates that though historians assign causes very often, only rarely do they claim to have discovered the necessary causes of an event. Though the use of counterfactuals is one of the ways by which historians may support assigning degrees of significance to causes, the use of comparison situations and criteria of relevance is more common. More ambitious neo-positivist attempts to explicate causation and natural laws by using counterfactuals have failed.6
In the introduction to the book under review [Virtual History], Niall Ferguson suggests that historical counterfactuals are useful in refuting what he calls “historical determinism.” Ferguson rejects as “too elastic” (53) the standard use of “determinism” as the metaphysical doctrine that holds that all events have causes without which they would not have occurred. The “anti-determinism” Ferguson upholds does not relate to the indeterminism of quantum physics, where either all the causes are known but more than one kind of outcome can follow, or events have no apparent causes. Much like Popper’s use of “historicism,” Ferguson uses “historical determinism” as a conceptual blanket that covers several otherwise independent historiographical doctrines and methods of which he disapproves:
1. Teleological schemes of history as leading necessarily to certain ends according to a plan.
2. Scientistic theories about history that claim to have discovered linear and deterministic laws of historical development.
3. Historiographical theories that privilege certain large impersonal factors as determining all other historical processes (such as Braudel’s emphasis on geographical factors, or Marx’s on the relations of production, or game theory’s on rationality).
4. “Narrative determinism,” the literary interpretation of history as a text implies in Ferguson’s opinion its predictability, as the end of a trope narrative, such as a comedy or tragedy, is predictable.
Ferguson conflates these four types of doctrines, theories, and methods under the title “historical determinism.” The first doctrine is metaphysical: it claims that history (past and present) is predetermined. This metaphysical doctrine does not imply that predetermined history is knowable, though the monotheistic religions and some substantive philosophers of history like Vico, Hegel, and Marx claimed indeed that the predetermined course of universal history is knowable at least in its broad outlines through faith or through their various methods. Unless the advocates of a teleological plan of history set a precise date in the near future for the end of the world, there is nothing that historians or social scientists can do to refute their metaphysics. Any historical development can be incorporated into a loose teleological plan of history. For example, some rabbis have been able to integrate the Holocaust into their teleological historical scheme, holding that God’s exact plans are beyond our grasp though each step brings us nearer to the coming of the Messiah; the Holocaust was followed by the establishment of the state of Israel, a step in the correct messianic direction. Similarly, orthodox Marxists are able to integrate the fall of the Soviet Empire into their teleological scheme, claiming that we are still witnessing only the early stages of global capitalism, and the revolution is yet to come. Counterfactuals may participate in casting doubt on this metaphysical doctrine only on its own metaphysical level; this requires adherence to modal realism which holds that numerous possible worlds or histories exist,7 in which some of them do not fulfill any particular teleological scheme of history. Though this metaphysical approach is developed masterfully in Gregory Benford’s excellent novel Timescape,8 historians do not care for it, and the contributors to Virtual History do not address it.
The second and third meanings of Ferguson’s “historical determinism” are types of historiographical theories. It is hardly necessary in this day and age to flog again the dead horse of scientistic linear theories of historiography, nor is it clear how counterfactuals can do a better job of refuting these theories than plain historical facts. Historiographical theories that privilege certain factors do not necessarily deny the historical significance of factors that are not represented in their theories. They must claim merely that some variables tend to be more independent than others in history. Mandelbaum noted that a deterministic science is possible only in relatively closed systems. Unlike astronomical systems, for example, historical processes are not sufficiently isolated for deterministic description. Factors external to processes studied by historians may intervene and affect the outcome. These historical accidents do not imply metaphysical indeterminism, merely the intersection of two or more causal chains, each of which may be deterministic. Accident is relative to a system, not indeterminist.9 It would take fairly extreme and self-destructive Marxist or Braudelian historians to claim that their historiographical theory is sufficiently comprehensive to account for the whole of history. Quite the reverse: faithful Marxist and Braudelian historians would rely on coincidental intervening variables and auxiliary theories to explain away the obvious deviation of history from what their favored theory would lead us to expect.
Though historiographical and social theories that privilege certain independent variables often outline a more or less linear relation between independent and dependent variables (in the sense that had their relations been modeled on a graph between two axes, known as Cartesian space, that graph would have been approximately a straight line), they are not necessarily so. For example, a theory may claim that history is dominated by the interactions between great heroes; a revised Marxism may claim that the history of class struggle is determined by the effects of chaotic processes of technological innovation. Historiographical counterfactuals as such are not a challenge to privileging theories as such, though particular counterfactuals may cast doubt on particular theories. For example, Hawthorn was successful in questioning Braudel’s favoring of the long durée by demonstrating the role of political agency in the etiology of demographic events such as the Black Plague and the pre-modern French birth rate.10
Finally, if historians choose to present their conclusions in a narrative form, it does not imply what Ferguson calls “narrative determinism.” Their study of the events usually precedes their choice of narrative trope. If a historian presents, say, the history of Czechoslovakia as tragic, the historian does not predetermine this history, but merely represents the information gathered from the primary sources in a trope that seems fitting. The historiographical use of what Danto called “narrative sentences” does not precede the historical events but conceptualizes and follows after them. Most significantly, Ferguson ignores a basic rule of literary criticism: a predictable narrative is bad literature.
In a recent very useful article, Yemima Ben-Menahem has suggested understanding historical necessity and contingency in terms of degrees of sensitivity to initial conditions. Ben-Menahem claims that “historical necessity” describes circumstances in which several independent causal chains may lead to a certain type of result. In this respect, whether or not specific initial conditions cause a chain of events that lead to a certain result, that type of result will come about by a different chain of events. There can be degrees of necessity according to how sensitive the type of result is to initial conditions. For example, human death is necessary within certain time limits because some chain of events will bring it about irrespective of any particular initial conditions. When events are extremely sensitive to initial conditions, they are contingent. The degree of their contingency is measured by their sensitivity to initial conditions. The most contingent events are chaotic. Chaotic events may be governed by deterministic laws, but their complexity usually prohibits prediction. Chaos theory describes stochastic behavior in deterministic systems that are sensitive to minor changes in initial conditions.11
If we accept Ben-Menahem’s understanding of historical contingency, the study of historiographical counterfactuals may be useful in ascertaining how contingent historical events were. If there is a sufficiently large number of such studies, it may become possible to make some tentative generalizations about contingency in history. Ferguson approaches this conclusion as well, recognizing that counterfactuals are important for understanding the significance of complexity and chaos theory for historiography; chaos theory reconciles causation with contingency by linking causally unpredictable outcomes to initial conditions (76–79). Still, Ferguson does not express interest in less extreme cases of historical contingency. I think that this is the one undeniable significance of discussing historiographical counterfactuals for historians.
Ben-Menahem speculates that “where large ensembles of systems are concerned, we might find a large degree of overall necessity due to the law of large numbers, but low degree of necessity at the level of individual events. Evidently, one has to consider many more possibilities than the simple paradigmatic ones.”12 Specifically, in relation to historical events, she does not commit herself: “The sensitivity of historical events to initial conditions may or may not be as radical as that of chaotic phenomena, but it can certainly be very significant. …”13
The evaluation of the degree of contingency of historical events—how complex and chaotic historical processes are—is a controversial issue. The intuitive evaluation of the complexity and contingency of a system may lead easily to mistakes. For example, John Stuart Mill proposed a theory of the history of science according to which the pace of development of the sciences is commensurable with the degree of complexity of their subject matter. Mill thought that since cosmology is the simplest system, Newtonian physics was the first deterministic science. The weather system and the system of tides appeared to Mill more complex and therefore they were the subjects of statistical sciences that account only for the “larger causes” but not for the “perturbations.” Since human nature and society were the most complex in Mill’s opinion, he predicted that sociology would be the last science.14 Oddly enough, though Mill spent most of his life in the British Isles, he grossly underestimated the complexity of the weather. Edward Lorenz developed chaos theory in the early 1960s as an attempt to model meteorology mathematically.
If Mill is right, historiography should prove to be an even more chaotic science than meteorology. Still, there have been radical disagreements both on how contingent or chaotic history is and on which historical subsystems are more contingent than others. The old arguments about the significance of the individual or the leader in history foreshadowed the current argument about contingency and chaos in history because in the former the issue revolved around how linear the effect is of some individuals in history.
Jon Elster has suggested that a theoretical background participates in the construction of historiographical counterfactuals both by connecting the hypothetical antecedent with the consequent, and by deciding on the legitimacy of the antecedent in the given historical context in the first place.15 Every counterfactual has a ceteris paribus clause: the historian assumes that the historical reality remained constant, except for the examined factor. For example, we may ask what the effect would have been of the death of Hitler in the First World War, assuming that the historical context of the First World War remained the same. Then we would need to study the early stages of the formation of the Nazi party and use a theoretical background to deduce who would have led the party in Hitler’s absence, and how different its electoral attraction, policies, and so on would have been. But Elster noted that not all counterfactual antecedents are consistent with the ceteris paribus historical context; in those cases the counterfactual is meaningless, filtered out by a theory. For example, if a historian asks what the effects would have been of a Nazi racial ideology that assumed that the Jews are the superior race, our background theories would tell us that to have a history where the Nazis liked Jews is inconsistent with most of the other relevant historical conditions in Germany, so the counterfactual is internally inconsistent (unlike, say, a history where Hitler died before he became politically active).
Elster thought that this dual role of theoretical background in constructing counterfactuals leads to an epistemic zero sum game: the better our theoretical background, the greater support we have for connecting counterfactual antecedent with consequent, but there will be fewer counterfactuals consistent with the ceteris paribus conditions. Correct though Elster probably is about most cases, there is one group of antecedents that seem to defy this epistemic zero sum game: contingent factors, especially chaotic ones. Tiny counterfactual variations in actual history, such as Hitler’s death in World War I, are not inconsistent with their contemporary historical context according to any social theory, but still would have had enormous effects on history. Thus, it seems that historical counterfactuals whose antecedents are contingent are privileged in being able both to be backed by a strong theoretical background and still be consistent with their ceteris paribus conditions. But then the theoretical background would also have to assist in identifying which counterfactuals are contingent by examining whether other chains of events would not have led to a result similar to the actual one. The extent and location of contingency in history are theoretically contested. For example, Marxists and Braudelians are generally hostile to historical contingency, upholding, for example, the insignificance of individuals. Others, like Hegel, thought that the influence of certain individuals in history is nonlinear. Other disputes revolve around which parts of society are more chaotic than others. Braudelians hold that political history (“history of events,” in their terminology) is chaotic while “history of the environment” is not. This is as hotly debated an issue as has appeared in the pages of History and Theory.16
The participants in the History and Theory debate about chaos in history had to admit that they do not really know how chaotic history is and where exactly chaos reigns, though they had strong intuitions. Reisch wrote:
Of course I cannot demonstrate that history is chaotic in the same way that we decided our input-output machine was. … The subjects of histories do not constitute isolated systems, and even if they did their histories are not repeatable. But I will stand by the claim [that history is chaotic] nonetheless, for I am only applying a technical term to highlight what is an obvious feature of history. … 17
Reisch acknowledged that non-chaotic social and economic forces help forge history, though individuals may render the result chaotic. Still, he provided no empirical evidence for evaluating which historical processes are chaotic.
McCloskey also acknowledged that it is impossible to know whether many systems are linear or not. Still McCloskey thought that history may well be chaotic and suggested a few anecdotal examples from the history of the American Civil War. But though it seems likely that the exact course of the American Civil War depended at least partially on chaotic conditions, McCloskey did not prove that something similar would not have been brought about by slightly different initial conditions.
Roth and Ryckman questioned the plausibility of Reisch and McCloskey’s premise that history is chaotic. Believers in chaotic history must assume counterfactual situations in which the initial conditions were slightly different but the outcome was radically other. In Roth and Ryckman’s opinion, since it is impossible to know which causes were necessary for particular historical events such as the Great Depression or the Civil War, it is impossible to substantiate counterfactuals. They argue that since there is no concrete proof that history is chaotic, and since there are no quantifiable chaotic models of history that use chaotic mathematical calculations, chaos is just a scientistic analogy or metaphor of little value.
In his reply to Roth and Ryckman, Reisch conceded that indeed he cannot rerun history to examine empirically how sensitive it is to initial conditions. Though there are no precise quantifiable non-linear historiographical models as in the natural sciences, Reisch believed that if such models were knowable, they would be chaotic. A completely linear history would be inconsistent with too many anecdotes. The open question is how much of history is nonlinear, where and when?18
Shermer attempted to satisfy the requirement for concrete examples of chaos in history, claiming that historians have been discussing contingency and necessity for centuries, though their use of these terms was ambiguous (as is Shermer’s which confuses them at times with planned versus unforeseen from the perspective of historical agents). He claimed that:
There is here a rich matrix of interactions between early pervasive contingencies and later local necessities, varying over time, in what I shall call the model of contingent-necessity which states that in the development of any historical sequence the role of contingencies in the construction of necessities is accentuated in the early stages and attenuated in the later. … a historical sequence is what the historian says it is.19
Shermer improved on his predecessors by suggesting where and when history is likely to be chaotic, rather than just making a sweeping generalization. Shermer’s examples of chaotic elements in history include inventions, discoveries, ideas, and paradigm shifts. The sensitivity of historical sequences to leaders and exceptional people is dependent on the stability of the social circumstances. “The straw that broke the camel’s back” is in the nature of earthquakes, avalanches, economic depressions, ecological disasters, and possibly wars, revolutions, paradigm shifts, and so on. Shermer analyzed concretely cases of mass hysteria such as witch hunting, “repressed memory syndrome,” and “alien abduction” as chaotic.
In science fiction, the evaluation of the degree of contingency in history has been related to attempts to change or “engineer” history. Asimov invented the ultimate chaotic narrative in which the replacement of a single letter in the forename of a scientist prevents nuclear war.20 Jakes imagined a future world where time travel is used by opposing groups of radical African-Americans and white supremacists to attempt to change history through assassinations, respectively, to create African domination, or to maintain slavery.21 The radical African-Americans attempt to assassinate the prophet Muhammad before he developed Islam, to prevent the defeat of the African Ashanti Empire by a Muslim army. They also attempt to assassinate Booker T. Washington before he advocated the concept of “separate but equal.” The white supremacists attempt to assassinate Benjamin Franklin to prevent the development of the abolitionist movement; and Abraham Lincoln before he declared the emancipation of the slaves. Jakes recognized only a single chaotic element in history that can be manipulated by a determined team of time travelers: individual leaders. Jakes assumed that the disappearance of a leader eliminates the movement he leads. For example, once the radical African-Americans succeed in killing Muhammad, the narrative proceeds to an America that was discovered and settled by the Ashanti who then imported European slaves. As an ironic twist of narrative, this is not bad, but historiographically it is hardly convincing. At least sometimes, leaders may be replaceable.
In my opinion, evaluating how contingent, complex, and chaotic history is can only be done empirically: it is the work of historians and social scientists. There is no philosophical superhighway to bypass the careful historiographical study of concrete historical processes and events. Instead of speculation, the only way to examine the contingency of history is to study it empirically, and attempt with the help of theoretically based counterfactuals to find out how sensitive particular historical outcomes were to initial conditions. I think that evaluating how contingent history is, and in which parts or aspects, are some of the most seminal questions that face the historiographical profession. Some counterfactuals may be obvious, if the facts are undisputed, and the theoretical background is trivial or even implicit. Then, the theories involved may even be local and probabilistic. Historians may disagree on the degree of contingency of other events, either because they assume different theories used to warrant certain counterfactuals,22 or because they examine alternative causal chains different from the one that actually took place, so the necessity that some discover in several alternative causal chains may elude other researchers who have not noticed it. At least in the second case, agreement may follow close empirical examination.23
The bivalent choice between chaos and linearity is false because between these two poles there can be various levels of contingency. The absence of mathematically precise historiographical models of chaos does not exclude the possibility of discussing historical chaos because there are hardly any alternative mathematically precise linear models of history either, though obviously there are useful “linear” theoretical models that are employed by historians and social scientists. If we accept that there are theories in the social sciences and historiography (and geology and biology) without quantification, there can be chaos there as well. The philosophical evaluation of the quality of historiographical counterfactuals should also be empirical. Instead of commencing with some metaphysical criteria for evaluating the justification of counterfactuals, philosophers of historiography should examine how historians actually attempt to justify counterfactuals, and then and only then criticize and evaluate.
From this perspective of looking for empirical studies of historical contingency, the eight historical counterfactual studies that compose Ferguson’s anthology have varying levels of significance. The most interesting studies demonstrate where, when, and how history was necessary or contingent. Other studies are no better or worse than conventional historiography, while still others are irrelevant for the kind of problems in which historians and philosophers of history are interested.
Alvin Jackson argues convincingly that had the political constellation in Westminster been slightly different in 1912, the Irish Home Rule Bill would have passed and the subsequent history of Ireland would have been different. Diane Kunz makes a strong argument for necessity by examining how different US history would have been had John F. Kennedy not been murdered. Her conclusion is that the circumstantial constraints that forced Lyndon B. Johnson to maintain and escalate the war in Vietnam would have forced Kennedy to do the same. She further claims that Kennedy would not have pushed the liberal agenda of civil rights and welfare beyond L.B.J., and most probably the support of the rich kid from Harvard for these issues would have been more lukewarm than that of the poor man from Texas. Andrew Roberts denies any chaotic element in the process that led to the outbreak of World War II. Though it is easy to analyze in hindsight what the democratic countries could have done better to curb Nazi expansionism, at the time these reasons were unknown, and there is no nonlinear gap in the causal chains that led to appeasement. Roberts notes, as many historians have before, that had Hitler not decided to avoid obliterating the British expedition force in France before it was evacuated from Dunkirk, the British Isles would have been left with little ground defense and the Germans could have attempted to launch an invasion of England almost immediately. It is difficult to assess the results of such an invasion because the German fleet would have had to control the channel for about twelve hours facing the Royal Navy and the possible use of huge amounts of mustard gas by the RAF against the invading force. Still, this was Germany’s greatest chance to win the war in Europe, and it missed it due to a chaotic decision of a single person. In another study, Jonathan Haslam examines several possible causes of the Cold War, and proves, using counterfactuals, that none of them was necessary because other causes were sufficient.24
Other counterfactual studies in this anthology have doubtful relevance for the discussion of historical contingency. Michael Burleigh attempts to sketch how Nazi Europe would have looked, drawing on the plans in the Nazi archives. There is nothing very contingent or historiographically unusual here (though the article does evoke our fascination with horror). John Adamson demonstrates in his contribution that had Charles I had better intelligence about the actual strength of the Scottish Covenanter army, he could have decided to fight and defeat it. Adamson further speculates that a Scottish defeat would have prevented the Puritan Revolution. The first conclusion appears more convincing than the second. Would not the deep rifts within English society have caused something similar to the Puritan Revolution, even had the Scots been defeated?
Jonathan Clark suggests that had there been no Glorious Revolution, America would have remained part of the British Empire. Mark Almond holds that had the Russian nomenklatura elite headed by Gorbachev not conceptualized the crisis of Communism as it did, their empire would not have collapsed. Here changes in the initial conditions (the Glorious Revolution; the worldview of the Russian Communist elite) are of sufficient magnitude to exclude a contingent interpretation. Further, they are inconsistent with their ceteris paribus conditions: for England to have no Glorious Revolution or something very similar, it would have had to be a different country. Almond’s claim that had the nomenklatura had different beliefs it would have behaved differently and Communism would have survived is logically equivalent to saying that the Soviet Empire collapsed rather than was destroyed by external factors.25 For the nomenklatura to view the world differently, late Communism would have had to be completely different, so Almond’s counterfactual is also inconsistent with its context.
When historical counterfactuals are stretched across too many causal links, they become too difficult to substantiate. If history displays some characteristics of chaotic systems, the longer a counterfactual is stretched, the more assumptions must be added, and it becomes impossible to substantiate. It is one thing to examine whether the fall of the Stuarts was chaotic. It is quite another to attempt to outline the next 300 hundred years of Stuart rule. Attempting to extrapolate historiographical counterfactuals across many links on intertwining causal chains resembles attempting to predict the weather exactly one year from today. Ferguson appears to develop some kind of personal utopia by combining most of the counterfactuals in this anthology into a single narrative: the British Empire, preferably including North America, under the absolute rule of the Stuarts, and a continental Europe incorporated into a German Empire that created, as Ferguson puts it, “a European Union.” Ferguson bemoans the loss of British world domination following the two World Wars, the ascendancy of the USA, and the economic dominance of Germany in Europe. A neutral but strong Britain ruling its Empire and forsaking Europe to the Prussians would have been more to his liking. It is tempting to challenge this eccentric utopia: it is unlikely that a British absolute monarchy would have been conducive to the kind of economic, social, political, scientific, and cultural achievements that we associate with the extraordinary success of Britain and its former colonies. It is inconceivable that Europe under the Kaiser, Krupps, economic corporatism, Prussian junkers, and the imperial officers’ corps would have resembled anything like the current European Community, but rather would have been an authoritarian, semi-feudal, antimodern, and antiliberal sort of miserable place. It is unlikely that after consolidating its power in Europe, the Prussian militaristic Empire would not set its goals on the next military prize, the British Empire, and start a naval build-up. Generally, it appears that Ferguson’s day-to-day analysis of the decisions of the European political elites and their logical possibilities precludes him from considering the deeper social, ideological, and economic interests of the historical agents that make events more necessary and less contingent. Undoubtedly, had Ferguson been in Asquith’s government he would have delayed sending the British expeditionary force to France, and would have allowed the latter to fall. But the historical reality is that most members of the Whig government and all the Tories sensed compelling reasons to go to war over Belgium and France. In the name of anti-presentism, Ferguson constructs decontextualized historical agents, isolated from larger cultural and economic contexts that precluded the kind of decision-making he would have undertaken. Ferguson suggests that had the dissenting ministers in Asquith’s government brought down his liberal government, by the time a new government had been established the defeat of France would have been a fait accompli and there would have been no reason for Britain to continue fighting alone. Yet, as he himself notes, the dissenting ministers consented to postpone their public resignation to prevent sending a message of disunity to Germany that would have facilitated the occupation of Belgium. Accordingly, Churchill communicated with the opposition Conservatives precisely to prevent such a possibility. It is likely that had the liberal government fallen, the British intervention in the War would not have been affected.
My own strong intuition is that history is composed of processes of varying levels of contingency and necessity. In other words, neither Marx nor Ferguson and Clark’s revisionism are absolutely right. The interesting question, though, is the extent and location of contingency and chaos in history. The only way to approach an answer to this question is empirically, by having more studies of virtual history as “calculations about the relative probability of plausible outcomes in a chaotic world” (85). The repercussions on our understanding of history and society cannot be overestimated.26
Since Pascal, Cleopatra’s nose has become the paradigmatic example of historical chaos. Monica’s dress may be a paradigmatic case of the difficulties in assessing the degree of contingency in history. On the face of it, it may appear that the events surrounding the definite proof of the president’s mishap were contingent. But it may also be argued that Clinton’s troubles were necessary: perhaps his politically self-destructive approach to the opposite sex would have landed him in trouble irrespective of the sensitive initial conditions that together with deterministic laws initiated a chain of events that left their mark on US presidential history.
Exceptions to the rule followed Fogel’s use of counterfactuals in cliometrics to support his thesis about the limited influence of railways on US history; see, for example, Jon Elster, Logic and Society: Contradictions and Possible Worlds (Chichester, 1978), 175–221. In the social sciences, with the notable exception of Weber, counterfactuals have been ignored as well. An exception is Counterfactual Thought Experiments in World Politics: Logical, Methodological, and Psychological Perspectives, ed. Philip E. Tetlock and Aaron Belkin (Princeton, 1996). I found this anthology disappointing because though the authors discuss at length concepts such as theory, cause, and explanation, they largely ignore the great advances in our understanding of these concepts that have been made since the late 1960s in the philosophy of science. At most, they refer to the outdated accounts of Hempel from the 1940s and Goodman from the 1950s. This ignorance of the relevant philosophical literature cost these articles much of what could have been their methodological rigor, sophistication, and relevance. In philosophy, especially in philosophical logic, debates about the correct understanding and formal representation of counterfactuals are common; see, for example, Igal Kvart, A Theory of Counterfactuals (Indianapolis, 1986). These debates in philosophical logic are not directly relevant for evaluating historical counterfactuals.
Philip K. Dick, The Man in the High Castle (London, 1965).
Michael Morecook, A Nomad of the Time Streams: A Scientific Romance (London, 1993).
Robert Harris, Fatherland (London, 1992).
Yitzhak Laor, The People, Food for Kings (Tel Aviv, 1993) [in Hebrew].
Morton White, Foundations of Historical Knowledge (New York, 1965), chapters 4–5; William Dray, Perspectives on History (London, 1980), chapter 4; Michael Hammond, “Weighing Causes in Historical Explanation,” Theoria 43 (1977), 103–128.
Geoffrey Hawthorn, Plausible Worlds: Possibility and Understanding in History and the Social Sciences (Cambridge, Eng., 1991), also establishes the relation between counterfactuals and the assignment of necessary causes in three solid case studies, though the author seems to have attempted to prove much more in two semi-philosophical chapters that precede and succeed the case studies. These rather unclear and confused chapters are disappointing because Hawthorn cites there most of the recent updated relevant works in philosophy of science and epistemology that could have led him to far more interesting and clear conclusions. Had Hawthorn fully comprehended the works by van Fraassen and Quine that he cites, he could not have reiterated a hackneyed distinction between historiographical understanding and scientific knowledge in his conclusion, after reaffirming van Fraassen’s universal model of explanation and Quine’s equally universal underdetermination of theories. Cf. the justified criticism by Haskell Fain in his review of this book in History and Theory 32 (1993), 83–90.
For a defense of modal realism, see David Lewis, Counterfactuals (Oxford, 1973).
Gregory Benford, Timescape  (London, 1996). Benford imagines an alternative universe that split from ours during the 1960s when minor mistakes in the chemical industry created a chain of events that led to irreversible environmental disaster that threatened the survival of the human race. In that universe, on the brink of destruction, scientists discover a method for sending messages to the past, using particles faster than light. A young scientist in the 1960s deciphers the messages and prevents the chain of events that led to the environmental disaster. But then, instead of preventing the alternative universe, he causes the splitting of the universes. Though the universe with the environmental disaster continues on its destructive course, the messages it sends to the past cannot reach the universe where the disaster was averted because it is no longer the past of the first universe. The reader is thus left comparing three universes, our own, and the two universes that split from us during the 1960s. David Lewis would approve.
Maurice Mandelbaum, The Anatomy of Historical Knowledge (Baltimore, 1977), 105–108ff.
Hawthorn, Plausible Worlds, 39–80.
Yemima Ben-Menahem, “Historical Contingency,” Ratio 10 (1997), 99–107. The weakest part of Ben-Menahem’s explication of contingency is the absence of an explication of how different though similar results of different causal chains can be classified as of the same type. Such an explication is likely to be context- dependent.
Aviezer Tucker, “J. S. Mill’s Philosophy of the History of Science,” Explorations in Knowledge 13, no. 2 (1996), 21–31.
Elster, Logic and Society.
George Reisch, “Chaos, History, and Narrative,” History and Theory 30 (1991), 1–20 and Donald N. McCloskey, “History, Differential Equations, and the Problem of Narration,” History and Theory 30 (1991), 21–36 supposed that history is largely chaotic. Paul A. Roth and Thomas A. Ryckman, “Chaos, Clio, and Scientistic Illusions of Understanding,” History and Theory 34 (1995), 30–44 responded, denying the relevance of chaos theory to historiography. Rejoinders by Reisch and Michael Shermer followed in the same issue.
Reisch, “Chaos, History, and Narrative,” 9. Reisch then discussed an alleged correspondence between chaotic subject matters and narrative explanation as an alternative to Hempel’s covering-law model of explanation. Since the bivalent choice between narrative and covering law is obsolete (there are many models of explanation that are debated in contemporary philosophy of science, and the covering-law model was falsified a generation ago), this discussion fails to become relevant for contemporary discussions of explanation.
George Reisch, “Scientism without Tears: A Reply to Roth and Ryckman,” History and Theory 34 (1995), 45–58.
Michael Shermer, “Exorcising Laplace’s Demon: Chaos and Antichaos, History and Metahistory,” History and Theory 34 (1995), 70–71.
Isaac Asimov, “Spell My Name with an S” , in The Complete Short Stories (London, 1994), I, 397–414.
John Jakes, Black in Time (New York, 1970).
Historiography is notoriously fragmented theoretically: Aviezer Tucker, “A Theory of Historiography as a Pre-Science,” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 24 (1993), 633–667.
I have argued elsewhere that the present institutional arrangements of historiographical research are a hindrance for such research: Aviezer Tucker, “Scientific Historiography Revisited: An Essay in the Metaphysics and Epistemology of History,” Dialogue: Canadian Philosophical Quarterly 37 (1998), 235–270.
On page 363 in this article there is an inconsistency concerning the year of Litvinov’s commission. First it is 1943 and then 1944.
Almond’s factual assumption may be disputed as well: he assumes that the nomenklatura had an interest in maintaining political power and their empire. The prevailing sentiment in Eastern Europe now, when the results of the collapse of political Communism are apparent, is that the nomenklatura stole the state and gained rather than lost from the collapse of political communism.
Oddly enough, despite Ferguson’s anti-Marxist Tory rhetoric, he does not mention the obvious relation between Marx’s linear theory of economic development and central planning on the one hand, and Hayek’s chaotic theory of economic development and a free enterprise system on the other.
SOURCE: “Family Values,” in The New Republic, February 8, 1999, pp. 34-7.
[In the following review, Stern offers a positive evaluation of the first volume of The House of Rothschild.]
The house of Rothschild had many mansions, but it was one house—and this gave it unique power and allure. The dynasty began toward the end of the eighteenth century in the dank Judengasse of Frankfurt, where Mayer Amschel Rothschild and his wife Gutle Schnapper begat nineteen children, of whom ten lived, five sons and five daughters. The founder, as he came to be called, began humbly, burdened by all manner of disabilities leveled against the Jews, as a dealer in antiquities and coins, and as a creditor to a neighboring spendthrift duke. But his greatest investments were his five sons, the oldest of whom he retained in Frankfurt, the four others dispatched to major cities in Europe. Together they built a partnership in international finance that was destined to become the greatest private financial combine that the world had known.
Their fortune became legendary, their power real and also mythical—not unlike the contemporary legend of Napoleon, the parvenu genius who crowned himself emperor and embodied what was his greatest promise: “careers open to talent.” The Rothschild dynasty began its rise in the revolutionary years of Napoleon’s reign. Like him, they were ruthlessly ambitious, and...
(The entire section is 3102 words.)
SOURCE: “All in the Family,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, February 21, 1999, p. 5.
[In the following review, Hertzberg offers praise for the first volume of The House of Rothschild.]
Some years ago, a British journalist surveyed the descendants of the Jews who had been granted hereditary peerages since the middle of the 19th century. He found that the overwhelming majority of these titles belonged to grand-children and great-grandchildren who had converted to Christianity. The Rothschilds were the important and striking exception. To be sure, a number had left the faith. Many of the women had married Gentiles, and they had followed their husbands into the church; some of the men had married out without asking their wives to convert to Judaism. But the mainstream of the Rothschilds has insisted, generation after generation, on remaining Jewish. Very often it was an act of defiance, and always it was an act of pride.
The Rothschilds were not the only powerful Jewish financiers to appear on the international scene during the last two centuries. The Bleichroders were dominant in Prussia, and in America, Jacob Schiff was as wealthy and as powerful as John Pierpont Morgan. The next generation of Bletchroders, however, did not play a central role in their national economy, nor did they remain in the Jewish community, and the influence of the Schiff family did not last much beyond the...
(The entire section is 1393 words.)
SOURCE: “Thinking the Unthinkable,” in The New Yorker, April 12, 1999, pp. 43-6, 48-50.
[In the following essay, Boynton analyzes the critical reaction to The Pity of War and provides an overview of Ferguson's academic career and historical writings.]
In 1918, on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, the “war to end all wars” came to an end. Every November since 1919, the people of Great Britain have observed two minutes of silence to mark the moment when the guns on the Western Front fell quiet. For the eightieth anniversary of the Armistice, last year, the Royal Family, political leaders, and the Bishop of London gathered on Remembrance Day at the Cenotaph in Whitehall to honor the British soldiers who perished in the conflict.
That week, some of Britain’s most distinguished historians and elder statesmen assembled at the Royal Geographic Society, in London, to hear a lecture by the young historian Niall Ferguson, whose book about the conflict, The Pity of War, had just been published to considerable attention. Ferguson, in an impeccably tailored suit, looked more like a rising young banker in the City than like an Oxford don who had established his academic credentials, a few years earlier, with a densely analytical study of hyperinflation in Weimar Germany. Speaking in the clipped cadences and rolling “r”s of his native Glasgow, he...
(The entire section is 5245 words.)
SOURCE: “Was the Great War Necessary?,” in Atlantic Monthly, Vol. 283, No. 5, May, 1999, pp. 118-20, 122-8.
[In the following review, Schwartz provides an extended analysis of The Pity of War, citing weaknesses in Ferguson's “impassioned and distorted argument.”]
Americans scarcely marked the eightieth Armistice Day, this past November 11. But standing with stricken faces before the Cenotaph at Whitehall and the Ossuaire at Verdun, and tolling bells in the gloomy villages of Lancashire and the Pas-de-Calais, the British and the French, our erstwhile co-belligerents, mourned as if freshly wounded. For them the Great War is not yet merely history.
In this way, among others, the Oxford historian Niall Ferguson’s The Pity of War is a very British book. Although Ferguson is young, clever, and ironic, there is nothing cool or dispassionate about his view of the war. The underlying and animating emotion in his book is profound regret. “The First World War,” he states up front, “remains the worst thing the people of my country have ever had to endure.” Although his rich and provocative book argues many—too many—disparate points, its fundamental argument is that (a) the war was a uniquely terrible event for Britain, and therefore (b) Britain should never have fought it, since (c) the stakes involved were for the British not high. The first assertion is close...
(The entire section is 4703 words.)
SOURCE: A review of The Pity of War, in The Wilson Quarterly, Vol. 23, No. 3, Summer, 1999, pp. 131-3.
[In the following review, Bacevich concludes that The Pity of War is an “important contribution” to the study of World War I but finds Ferguson's analytical approach inadequate and reductive.]
Soldiers, statesmen, and scholars have long shared a common conceit: that, given sufficient effort and the right analytical tools, they might one day fully decipher the nature of war. As to where that understanding would lead, though, these groups part company. The soldiers and statesmen imagine bending war to their will and employing military power more effectively. The scholars, in contrast, dream that a full understanding would halt the military miscalculation, slaughter, and pointless destruction that have constituted so much of contemporary history. This impressively researched and highly original but uneven book falls squarely in the latter tradition.
The subject of The Pity of War is World War I, arguably the most pointless and destructive conflict in the bloody century now coming to a close. Rather than offer a grand narrative of the war, Niall Ferguson, who teaches modern history at Oxford University, takes aim at a series of myths that, in his view, have clouded our understanding of the so-called Great War. Above all, he intends to refute the view that the war...
(The entire section is 1105 words.)
SOURCE: “Slaughterhouse Jive,” in The New Republic, June 28, 1999, pp. 51-4.
[In the following excerpt, Maier examines Ferguson's historical arguments and unconventional conclusions in The Pity of War.]
The British have taken to most of their wars. Slow learners who are sometimes handicapped at first by their own dismissive prejudices about the enemy, they usually recoup their losses in the decisive final periods, in part because of stolid battlefield virtues, in part because they know how to sustain coalitions. And they write about their wars very well, whether as memoir, poetry, novel, or history. World War I remains perhaps the preeminent object of this continual memory work. Not without reason: it cost the British about three-quarters of a million dead, twice the toll of World War II.
For Europe as a whole, it was the seminal catastrophe of the twentieth century, interrupting the accumulation of wealth, the cosmopolitan interchange, and the gradual if irregular progress of liberalism during the previous hundred years. Had they avoided World War I (and World War II), Western societies would probably be at the same stage of development that they actually are today—largely democratic with a socially integrated white working class, shorn of colonies, partially united, modern and postmodern in sensibility, and still preoccupied with communal violence in the Balkans (or...
(The entire section is 3444 words.)
SOURCE: “The Second Fall,” in National Review, July 12, 1999, pp. 50-1.
[In the following excerpt, Gress offers a positive assessment of The Pity of War but notes shortcomings in Ferguson's counterfactual approach.]
The late political philosopher Sidney Hook, though a staunch atheist, referred to the outbreak of World War I as “the second fall of man.” The phrasing reflected the profound sense, held by nearly all true democrats who witnessed the effects of that war, that the conflict marked a vast, ominous, and tragic diversion of the course of human history. Before 1914, the liberal principles of free trade, expanding suffrage, and increasing prosperity seemed firmly anchored in not merely the official policies of the great powers, but the very identity and confidence of the peoples of Europe and North America. After 1918, by contrast, Europe sank into stagnation, protectionism, ferocious ideological conflicts, and ultimately a second great war, and the United States withdrew into an isolation that was not broken until Pearl Harbor.
Since the revolutions of 1989 that put an end to Communist power in Europe, historians have begun to speak of the period from 1914–1989 as a “short 20th century,” marked by hot or cold war between incompatible ideologies, and above all by a massive assault on liberal democracy, indeed on the entire spirit of liberty, progress, and...
(The entire section is 1102 words.)
SOURCE: “Scholar Challenges Theories on the Origins of World War I,” in Chicago Tribune Books, August 9, 1999, p. 3.
[In the following review, Boasberg offers a positive assessment of The Pity of War.]
World War I was a stupid war, stupidly fought. The carnage was horrendous. In the four years and three months that the war dragged on, from August 1914 to November 1918, the Allied Powers—France, Britain, the British Empire, Belgium, the United States (entering in 1917), Russia (leaving, defeated, in 1917), Italy, Romania, Serbia, Greece and Portugal—lost 5,421,000 killed in action, more than 7 million wounded. The Central Powers—Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria and Turkey—suffered 4,029,000 killed, more than 8 million wounded.
The war was fought, especially on the western front, mainly in the trenches. The commanders would send men “over the top” to be slaughtered en masse. Why did the men continue fighting? Patriotism? That had something to do with it. Loyalty to their comrades? That had much to do with it. And, of course, fear of being shot as a deserter (not many were), or of being killed while surrendering or even after, as many were on both sides.
Author Niall Ferguson offers another, provocative reason: “that men kept fighting because they wanted to.” No doubt some men, in the heat of battle, enjoyed killing the enemy, but most men, I...
(The entire section is 525 words.)
SOURCE: “Still Not Over Over There?,” in The Nation, August 9-16, 1999, pp. 34, 36-8.
[In the following review, Koning disputes Ferguson's historical arguments in The Pity of War.]
The estimates of the number of books written about World War I are in the hundreds of thousands. By my estimate, Yale University Library holds 34,000 titles published before 1977 and more than 5,000 since. (The second category is on its computer, which counts up to 5,000 only.) The bibliography of Niall Ferguson’s The Pity of War lists about a thousand titles. But the author, no shrinking violet, advertises his book with the subtitle Explaining World War I.
Well, Ferguson has not so much set out to explain the war as to show why he thinks it was unavoidable and—more sensationally—why he thinks England is to blame for its not having remained a “little war” and how most of the things we know about it are actually myths. Without this war, with all its deaths and devastations, he tells us, Europe would be exactly where it is now, more than eighty years late: working toward union, with Germany as the leading power.
Ferguson is a new kind of academic, a man for our times. Not for him endless, virtually paragraph-less pages of in-depth analyses weighing pros and cons. His text (462 pages) is broken up by hundreds of quotes, soundbites really, from everyone from Hitler to...
(The entire section is 2613 words.)
SOURCE: “In the Shadow of the Great War,” in The New York Review of Books, August 12, 1999, pp. 36-9.
[In the following excerpt, Kennedy examines Ferguson's controversial arguments and conclusions in The Pity of War.]
It is interesting but perhaps not surprising that, as this conflict-torn century nears its end, the shadows cast over it by the Great War of 1914–1918 seem in some ways longer, darker, and more daunting than ever before. For what that struggle meant and did changed the course of history more than any other in modern times, including its great successor war of 1939–1945. Consider only a few of the consequences of the Great War, offered here in no particular order. It brought the end of the Romanovs, the rise of the Bolsheviks, and the emergence of a Communist system that blighted so much of humanity for the rest of the century. The war also made possible the growth of Fascism and its peculiar German variant, anti-Semitic National Socialism. This ghastly and expensive struggle shattered a Eurocentric world order, shifted the financial center of gravity to New York, nurtured Japanese expansionism in East Asia, and, at the same time, stimulated anticolonial movements from West Africa to Indonesia.
The aerial bomber, the U-boat, and poison gas brought mechanization to the art of killing, making the latter less personal and yet also more far-reaching in its effects....
(The entire section is 4034 words.)
SOURCE: “Lessons of the Great War,” in Commentary, Vol. 108, No. 3, October, 1999, pp. 48-52.
[In the following essay, Kagan responds to Ferguson's arguments in The Pity of War concerning the length and resolution of World War I and Ferguson's counterfactual assertions.]
In August 1914, the Central Powers—Germany, Austria-Hungary, and their lesser allies—went to war against Russia, France, Great Britain, and their lesser allies. The Great War, as contemporaries called it, World War I to those who lived through its horrible successor a few decades later, raged for more than four years, doing awful damage. Battle casualties alone mounted to 4 million dead and 8.3 million wounded among the Central Powers and 5.4 million dead and 7 million wounded among their opponents, while further millions of civilians died, either from the war itself or from causes arising out of it.
Among the casualties, too, were the German, Austro-Hungarian, Russian, and Turkish empires. America’s saving intervention in 1917 thrust the United States into European affairs with a vengeance, while the collapse of the Russian autocracy served as a prelude to the Bolshevik Revolution and the rise of a great Communist state. Disappointment, resentment, and economic dislocations caused by the war brought forms of fascism to Italy, Germany, and other countries. In many places, comfortable 19th-century...
(The entire section is 4222 words.)
SOURCE: “Five Arrows Make History,” in Europe Business Review, Vol. 2, No. 9, October-December, 1999, p. 40.
[In the following review, Shaw provides an overview of the Rothschild banking dynasty and offers a positive assessment of The World Banker.]
Many European and Australian bankers have recently been adding a bulky volume to their carry-on luggage.
The 1,300-page, ＄75 book is about banking, but unlike a Treasury report or a High Court judgment, it is readable enough to help pass the time on a long flight.
The World Banker by Niall Ferguson (published by Weidenfeld & Nicholson, London) is a revealing history of the business and the family of The House of Rothschild, the legendary bank with the five arrows logo.
At its prime a century ago, the great European dynasty owned the world’s biggest bank and was the world’s richest family, richer comparatively than even Bill Gates today.
The Rothschilds remain rich and influential but in a world of global, merging mega-banks their network does not compete on size.
The status of the corporate crest of five arrows—one for each of the family business branches—carries all the weight they need. In Australia they trade as Rothschild Australia Asset Management Ltd.
Weighing in at 2.5 kilos, the history of the House can hardly be said to...
(The entire section is 724 words.)
SOURCE: A review of The Pity of War, in The English Historical Review, Vol. 114, No. 459, November, 1999, p. 1360.
[In the following review, Bond offers a favorable assessment of The Pity of War, but finds Ferguson's counterfactual approach problematic.]
At the outset of his provocative and immensely readable study, The Pity of War, Niall Ferguson poses ten bold, revisionist questions. These include: was the war (of 1914–18) inevitable; why did Germany’s leaders gamble on war; why did Britain’s leaders decide to intervene on the Continent; why did not the huge economic superiority of the British Empire cause the defeat of the Central Powers without American intervention; why did not German military superiority secure victory on the Western Front; and why did soldiers keep fighting despite the hellish conditions—and why did they stop? In general Dr. Ferguson is more persuasive in dealing with economic and financial than military issues. He argues, for example, that the German war economy was more efficiently organized than the British. He also suggests that the British naval blockade was less effective than post-war propagandists asserted, but adds, curiously, that food shortages only affected unimportant groups (including women!) whose hardships presumably had no influence on the soldiers’ morale. This exemplifies a tendency to examine controversies in separate...
(The entire section is 514 words.)
SOURCE: “Dynasty,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, November 21, 1999, p. 4.
[In the following review, Morton praises the unprecedented inside perspective offered in the second volume of The House of Rothschild but complains of it's excessive detail and documentation.]
In the annals of both high finance at its most feral and of high society at its most opulent, no entry has quite the glow of “Rothschild.” “That family,” the editor of the French edition of Vogue once sighed, “is the true successor to the Bourbons.” In England, the Rothschilds probably matched the fortune, and certainly transcended the flair, of the Windsors. In Austria, they sported a magnificence competitive with the Hapsburgs’. They imprinted their escutcheon on the fastest thoroughbreds, the rarest orchids, the choicest wines, the biggest and toughest bond floatings.
Yet this array of superlatives still does not account for the special luster of their name. “Rothschild” is a spark uniquely ignited by the fusion of what were—until their advent—two bitter opposites: baron and Jew. What other family could produce the sight reported in Frankfurt during the 1820s—of Herr von Rothschild astride a white charger, black caftan flowing in the wind?
After the Napoleonic upheavals early in the 19th century, the Rothschilds leaped in one astounding generation from ghetto to...
(The entire section is 1425 words.)
SOURCE: “Split History,” in Reason, Vol. 31, No. 7, December, 1999, p. 50.
[In the following review of Virtual History, Freund examines the function and application of counterfactuals in contemporary political discourse and historical scholarship.]
After the historical, comes the conditional: That’s how Robert E. Lee lost a battle this year in Virginia, where things had otherwise gone so well for the general since the unpleasantness in Appomattox that he’d become a rare American example of honor traduced by fate, of the peculiar fulfillments of the tragic. Yet in June, just as officials in Richmond were placing a Lee mural as a tribute along a new James River walkway, Lee’s fate was recast. A single statement by Richmond City Councilman Sa’ad El-Amin ended a widening debate over the mural’s propriety, and resulted in what press accounts called the painting’s “instant removal.” “If Lee had won,” asserted El-Amin, “I’d still be a slave.”
After the conditional, comes the revisory. That’s how Bill Clinton prevented weltkrieg last spring. Clinton conjured Adolf Hitler from the grave, as presidents contemplating military action have done before. And then Clinton, to justify his own coming military actions, drove a rhetorical stake through Hitler’s black heart. Making his case for the NATO bombing of Serbian forces in Kosovo, Clinton decked his...
(The entire section is 4060 words.)
Berghahn, V. R. “The Pity of War.” New York Times Book Review (9 May 1999): 12.
A review of The Pity of War.
Clark, Christopher. “Could Weimar Have Been Saved?” Times Literary Supplement (13 October 1995): 10.
Clark offers a favorable assessment of Paper and Iron.
Fraser, Paul. “World War I: Pointless Disaster.” Alberta Report (30 August 1999): 42.
Offers tempered assessment of The Pity of War, citing weaknesses in Ferguson's contentions, but praises the volume as a “useful corrective.”
Howard, Michael. “Out of the Trenches.” Times Literary Supplement (13 November 1998): 3–4.
Howard offers an analysis of The Pity of War and Ferguson's counterfactual approach.
James, Harold. Review of Paper and Iron, by Niall Ferguson. Journal of Interdisciplinary History 28, No. 1 (Summer 1997): 127-9.
Offers a positive evaluation of Paper and Iron.
Jervis, Robert. Review of The Pity of War, by Niall Ferguson. Political Science Quarterly 114, No. 3 (Fall 1999): 503.
Offers a positive evaluation of The Pity of War.
Morrow, Lance. “The Legendary Rothschilds Established a Great Fortune....
(The entire section is 350 words.)