World War I was the defining event of the twentieth century. The period 1914-1918 stands as one of the watersheds of history; it reshaped the world made by the French Revolution and brought to an end one hundred years of unparalleled peace, prosperity, and political progress in Europe. The Great War’s immediate impact was profound— ten million lives lost and an economic cost almost incalculable. Its effects were far-reaching. Four empires—the Russian, German, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman Turkish—were defeated and destroyed. The victorious British and French empires survived, but in an enfeebled state. The Great War gave birth to the Soviet Union and laid the foundation for German National Socialism; World War II was its bastard offspring.
Niall Ferguson’s The Pity of War: Explaining World War I is a stimulating work of revisionist scholarship. This young historian, hitherto the author of studies of German business and the House of Rothschild, dares to challenge much of the conventional wisdom that has grown up around our understanding of World War I. His aims being analytical rather than narrative, he has not written a chronological account of the Great War. Instead, he organizes his book as a series of questions, exploring aspects of the conflict’s origins, conduct, and conclusion.
Ferguson attacks his subject with a passion. Though a product of the era of television and rock and roll, Ferguson grew up in a world that reverberated with echoes of World War I. The school he attended as a boy was dedicated as a war memorial. Every day he passed a granite slab which bore the names of former pupils who had died in the conflict. Official commemorations were reinforced by more direct connections at home. Ferguson’s grandfather had fought in the war, serving in a Scottish regiment. Ferguson is careful to point out that during the war, the Scots suffered disproportionately high casualties. The old man was a living link to an epochal experience. As he grew up, Ferguson was exposed in school to the writings of Great War poets and memorialists like Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. This reading made a lasting impression upon Ferguson. Indeed, the title of his book comes from a line of Wilfred Owen’s poetry. These writers told a tale of waste, describing the self-sacrificial heroism of a generation, expended in pointless offensives which achieved nothing but devastating casualty lists. The best, the brightest, disappeared, and with them the hope of the future. Victory, in such books, brought only debilitation, and the inevitable, ironic sequel of World War II. By Ferguson’s youth, the vision adumbrated by these writers, of a war in which helpless, trapped men were driven to slaughter by the authority of old men and meretricious notions of honor, had hardened into an orthodoxy. The Great War was seen as a searing tragedy, which tore down a comfortable edifice of traditional verities and ushered in the complexities, confusions, and horrors of modernity. The continuing preoccupation of novelists, playwrights, and filmmakers with the divide separating the world of 1914 from the present is testimony to the continuing power of the myth of the “lost generation.”
Ferguson casts the cool eye of a skeptic over the traditional narratives of the Great War. He accepts that the war was a disaster; his dismay over the havoc it wrought fuels the fury of his analysis. What he emphatically rejects is the implicit fatalism and passivity he sees in customary accounts of the war. The war is usually regarded as an inevitability, both in the works of historians who detail the pernicious effects of a European arms race, divisive alliance systems, and nationalist tensions, and in the writings of novelists and memoirists, who see it as the price of human folly, or perhaps as the act of an angry God. Ferguson argues that the war was none of these things. For Ferguson, the Great War was something worse than a tragedy; it was a mistake.
Ferguson takes aim at a number of shibboleths about World War I. He questions the common assumption, often found in textbooks, that the war was precipitated by a combination of militarism, imperialism, and secret diplomacy. He points out that, in the years leading up to 1914, militarism was in retreat rather than flourishing. The international peace movement was increasingly vocal and influential. Big business, even arms manufacturers, the so-called merchants of death, opposed war as a threat to commerce. Germany, purportedly the most militaristic of the European states, was actually spending a smaller percentage of its gross national product on its armed forces than were its rivals France and Russia. At the same time, imperial disputes between the great powers were being resolved, not exacerbated, by diplomacy. Relations between Great Britain and Germany were thought to be improving in 1914. The British government did not conclude a formal accord with Germany, as it had with other powers, because Germany was not believed to pose a serious threat to the interests of Britain’s empire.
Ferguson also challenges the folk memory that the people of Europe greeted the war with enthusiasm. Cheering crowds did send the troops off, but these were largely middle class and soon...
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