Niall Ferguson Critical Essays

Introduction

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Niall Ferguson 1967-

English historian.

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.