Niall Ferguson

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Ulrich Wengenroth (review date June 1996)

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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. 19). This policy “would probably have necessitated some political shift to the Right” (p. 19) that, however, in the eyes of Ferguson would have been much more beneficial to Germany than the “inflationary consensus” between big business, labor, and government. The main argument, therefore, is counterfactual: Germany would have been better off with a firm conservative, if necessarily authoritarian, government overcoming the “defects of the Reich’s fiscal and monetary institutions” (p. 27) and being less impressed by revolutionary movements, labor unrest, and reparations demands. Moreover, a thus revitalized bourgeois society would have been less prone to fall victim to the Nazi movement in the early thirties. The inflation here is portrayed as the linchpin of German disaster that could have been averted by sober conservative politics. Even if the path of fiscal and monetary virtue had already been left during the last two decades of the Empire, driving the “fiscally deadlocked” Reich into war (p. 446), there was still the opportunity in 1920 and 1921 to break the vicious circle of inflationary policy and achieve a bona fide stabilization of the economy and the political institutions of the Weimar Republic instead of the “illusory” (p. 450) stabilization of 1924 that already carried the seed of the 1930 to 1933 collapse of parliamentary democracy.

If few students of the German inflation will question Ferguson’s assertion that it was “theoretically” feasible to bring it to a halt in 1920 and 1921, there are yet not many who believe that it was politically feasible. The unlikely inflationary coalition was not brought together by sympathy after all. Ferguson argues that it was political weakness rather than a rational calculation of risks on the side of the German bourgeoisie that kept consecutive governments and most of the business elites from enforcing an orthodox monetary and fiscal policy. In view of an increasing number of right-wing assaults on the state and its representatives the fear of a revolution from the Left seemed overblown. On the other side a monetarily sound Reich would have been in a much stronger position vis-à-vis reparation demands, since “a more sincere attempt to pay the sums due might well have been a better way of demonstrating the impossibility of the task”...

(This entire section contains 785 words.)

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(p. 315).

Since Ferguson produces no substantial new evidence on the various cabinets’ policies, his retrospective risk assessment for a conservative scenario is very much open to debate—even if one follows his assumption that a deflationary policy would have been in the best interest of all parties. Given the usual academic caveats, Ferguson remains evasive about what actually constituted the underlying political “weakness” of the bourgeoisie that frequently boils down to a simple lack of courage. At one point it is argued that it was the lack of central power of the Reich that had already prevented the Empire to turn a larger proportion of its GNP into military power (p. 446). It will not be of everybody’s political taste that overcoming this “weakness” should be appreciated in retrospect, as many will find it difficult to accommodate to the view that in any sense “the years 1919–23 witnessed … a political crisis every bit as big as the deflationary crisis ten years later” (p. 450) that led to Hitler’s seizure of power. The book conveys its own strong and explicit political taste how to interpret known facts. It will largely be a question of taste then whether one likes it or not.

Ben Lieberman (review date Fall 1996)

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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 serves as a useful model for analysis of the relationships between different levels of government.

In a useful discussion of Hamburg’s bourgeoisie and business élites, Ferguson argues that “the revolution of 1918–1919 had its ideological roots in Hamburg in a revitalized bourgeois liberalism” (195). But far from providing an entirely positive reassessment of Hamburg’s bourgeoisie, the author also charges that Hamburg’s business élite favored a policy of currency depreciation that not only failed to advance revision of reparations but also accelerated inflation and created a crisis of bourgeois culture. Hamburg shipbuilders did not favor fiscal retrenchment, which, Ferguson argues, might have advanced monetary stabilization.

Despite skillfully steering a course through the historiography of the German inflation, Ferguson is not entirely convincing in positioning his study as a challenge to “arguments in defence of the inflation,” for many historians, including Larry Jones and Robert Moeller, have attributed dire consequences to the German inflation (17). Ferguson seems to overstate his case when he argues for the “comparable severity” of the inflationary crisis with the deflationary crisis of the late Weimar Republic (394).

Though firmly grounded in extensive research on Hamburg’s business élite, the author devotes little attention to the policies of Hamburg. Ferguson’s skepticism about the rationale for public spending by local authorities may reflect the views of the bankers, such as Max Warburg, who are featured prominently in his study.

Moving between the world of Hamburg’s upper bourgeoisie and the German central government, Paper & Iron provides a valuable reassessment of long-term inflationary pressures in German history. The book contains useful figures, but the high cost of $69.95 suggests that the price of paper may slow future discussion of the German inflation.

J. Adam Tooze (review date October 1996)

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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 resistance of German interest groups.

Thus Ferguson shares the basic premise of historians such as Gerald Feldman, who see Germany’s inflation as symptomatic of profound political and social tensions. However, despite starting from this common analytical premise, Ferguson’s book in fact mounts a frontal assault on the prevailing revisionist consensus among historians of German inflation. Since the late 1960s Keynesian economic historians have downplayed the economic and social costs of the inflation. Furthermore, it has come to be accepted that the inflationary printing of money was the only option open to a German government under pressure both from revolutionary forces at home and exorbitant reparation demands. Ferguson, by contrast, seeks to revive the more critical view of contemporary analysts who saw the hyperinflation as a disaster which fundamentally undermined the stability of the Weimar Republic.

The vehicle for Ferguson’s counter-revisionism is a study of the political and business activities of the Hamburg commercial and banking elite. This in itself constitutes a challenge to the existing historiography, which has hitherto focused on heavy industry, organized labour and agrarian interests. Ferguson’s study exposes the key role that Hamburg’s business elite played in shaping the diplomacy and economic policies of the fledgling Weimar Republic. His study of Hamburg’s shipbuilders, shipping lines and banks adds further evidence to a mounting body of recent research which stresses the long-term damage done by the inflation to the balance sheets of German business. Furthermore, as Ferguson shows, the inflation backfired as a strategy to force a revision of Germany’s reparations burden. Hamburg bankers such as Max Warburg and Carl Melchior—encouraged by John Maynard Keynes—hoped that the depreciation of the German currency and the consequent dumping of German exports would force the Allies to reduce their demands. In fact, as Ferguson shows, spiralling inflation sucked imports into Germany, providing welcome relief for the Allied economies. Finally, Ferguson challenges the idea that inflation was the price which had to be paid for the stabilization of the Weimar Republic. He contends that even in a hotbed of working-class militancy such as Hamburg, the real threat was not Bolshevik insurrection, but the upsurge in nationalist agitation. The inflation may have helped to pacify the organized working class. However, it also destroyed the flourishing social, cultural and political milieu of the Hamburg bourgeoisie and unleashed the hell-hounds of the anti-Semitic far right.

However, Ferguson is not content merely to revise the balance sheet of the inflation. He seeks to demonstrate that the slide into hyperinflation could have been avoided. In the first six months of 1920 Weimar’s political elite, according to Ferguson’s analysis, squandered an opportunity to halt the downward slide of the German currency by failing to implement a determined tax reform and to curb public expenditure ruthlessly. Ferguson does not shrink from the conclusion that such a programme of retrenchment would have required the backing of military force. However, he contends that only such a reactionary turn could have saved Weimar from the disastrous escalation of inflation and the disruption of bourgeois society which opened the path for National Socialism.

Ultimately, many readers will find Ferguson’s exercise in counterfactual history both unconvincing and distasteful. Nevertheless, what Paper and Iron has to say about the ‘real’ history of the Hamburg business community in the era of German inflation will remain of considerable interest.

David Caute (review date 26 April 1997)

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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.

There’s something rather Fiftyish about these repeated assaults on the ‘iron law’ dogmatists and ‘teleologists’—I recall being brainwashed along these lines in the History Sixth as the necessary prelude to hunting Mau Mau (teleologists to a man). Ferguson cannot resist coming up with his own law, likely to be less durable than Ohm’s:

All we can say for sure is that [the world] is condemned to increasing disorder by entropy … The fact of human consciousness … only adds to the impression of chaos.

(‘Chaotic’ and ‘randomness’ are in-words snatched from physics and biology.)

Most of the ‘virtuals’ which follow amount to more or less traditional history with a larger than usual load of ‘would have’s’ and ‘but if’s’. ‘Virtual history’ probably cannot be written by professional historians, only by novelists, poets and playwrights, the unashamed prostitutes of the imagination. Inviting an academic historian to write a real ‘virtual’ is like asking a Salvation Army girl to saunter up and down Curzon Street in a mini (though Ferguson himself clearly knows the pavement).

The enemy of ‘virtual history’ is not various forms of ‘determinism’, whether religious, idealist or Marxist, but the sheer, arbitrary implausibility of changing some ‘facts’ while leaving others intact. Andrew Roberts begins ‘Hitler’s England: What if Germany had invaded Britain in May 1940?’ with a number of ‘if’s’ about appeasement and rearmament fairly standard in orthodox histories. Even Hitler was a bit of a ‘virtual’: ‘If France had marched into the Rhineland,’ he declared, ‘we would have had to withdraw with our tails between our legs.’ Would the conquered British have collaborated, would they have behaved no better and no worse than other defeated people? Roberts speculates, but his speculations remain anchored to the professional historian’s caution. ‘Churchill would probably have met his end in the more prosaic Neasden’ (rather than the Whitehall bunker), writes Roberts. Maybe!—but what we want to read in a true ‘virtual’ is next day’s report in the Times. Roberts picks Harrogate for Vichy (probably), Lloyd George for Pétain (possibly) and sends Halifax to accompany the King and Queen to Canada (probably)—but what we want is a description of Lloyd George’s first Cabinet meeting in Harrogate. However, we can certainly discard all probably’s and possibly’s about Göring’s disposal of our art treasures.

Jonathan Haslam’s ‘What if the Cold War had been avoided?’ poses three subordinate questions, the first of which, ‘What if the USA had not possessed the atomic bomb?’ leads one to ask, ‘What if Stalin had dropped dead at a Kremlin banquet?’—or anything you can think of. The point here is that ‘virtual history’ does not succeed when it proceeds by a timid and cautious set of ‘if’s’ within an arbitrarily retained framework of confirmed historical reality.

Mark Almond’s ‘1989 Without Gorbachev: What if Communism had not collapsed?’ does not, as its title promises, discard Gorbachev at all. If Almond’s scenario boldly began with the Politburo rejecting Gorby as too risky, too young and too frisky in 1985, preferring yet another half-dead octogenarian General Secretary, then the ‘virtual’ could really get going. As it is, Almond runs through his version of the fatal ‘mistakes’ made by Gorbachev, the KGB and the klugen Köpfen, or ‘smart brains’: these include perestroika, the belief that international détente would strengthen the USSR, and other follies of the ‘Louis XVI of Soviet Communism’. (This strikes me as a cynical analysis, and one which disregards the Soviet intelligentsia’s thirst for freedom.) But such verdicts, whatever view one takes, belong perfectly well to orthodox history. ‘He got it wrong’ has always been standard stuff, perfectly straight and not the least bit gay.

Rock bottom is Diane Kunz’s ‘What if John F. Kennedy had lived?’ (He did, so this must mean ‘lived longer’.) Kunz’s essay turns out to be little more than orthodox Camelot-bashing. JFK was bad on civil rights, bad on Vietnam, and if he had not been assassinated he would have gone on being bad. ‘Kennedy would never have put his future on the line for civil rights as Johnson did.’ Would Niall Ferguson please note, as editor, that even his favourite target, E. H. Carr, would not have ventured so far into iron determinism?

The main interest in this volume lies in Ferguson’s introduction and endpiece. Here, clearly, is the brilliant and erudite young thug that the Oxford history school traditionally adores. Ferguson’s sustained attack on E. H. Carr’s What is History? is a red herring as far as ‘virtual history’ is concerned, and the contemptuous dismissal of Sartre and Althusser—both of whom considered rather seriously why Marx was in trouble—is claptrap. To call E. P. Thompson ‘just reheated Hegel’ is just silly. I am not convinced that Carr was, properly speaking, a ‘determinist’ and Ferguson’s much used term ‘teleological’ seems well removed from Carr’s cautious, High Table, Anglo-Marxism. If ‘teleology’ means ‘the explanation of phenomena by the purpose they serve rather than by postulated causes,’ then Carr was definitely a ‘postulated causes’ man, with a lively interest in Lenin’s early death as a recent example of Cleopatra’s nose.

Ferguson is at his most persuasive in his argument that the best case for ‘virtual history’ and the ‘counterfactual’ lies in its exploration of consciousness and in its grasp of our ‘certain’ past as other people’s uncertain future—we constantly pose counterfactuals in our own daily lives: ‘What if I had observed the speed limit or refused that last drink?’ As Ferguson notes in an interesting passage about narrative time, and about ends and beginnings, literature can play history backwards through consciousness. Obviously history and literature are currently on courses of convergence.

In his final contribution Ferguson gallantly hurls himself at virtual history with a surreal narrative of events since 1646. ‘As we approach the 300th anniversary of the accession of James III in September 1701 …’ Later the French Revolutions of 1789 and 1830 don’t take place. Marx emerges as a ‘millenarian Jewish prophet’ who spent most of his life in prison. Germany wins the Great War in 1915. Britain having stayed on the sidelines, the Bolshevik Revolution is merely a might-have-been (a religious zealot called Ulyanov is executed in 1917 as a German agent), the Germans invade England on 30 May 1940, Stalin is an apocalyptic priest of Georgian origin, who crowns himself Tsar Joseph I, and the Confederation of American States—despite their ‘Prime Ministers’ Roosevelt and Kennedy—do not obtain independence from Britain until the 1990s, by which time the West has collapsed.

I hope this is a fair summary, and all I ask is why so many real persons appear in Ferguson’s narrative when, quite obviously, their parents might never have met (especially Hitler’s, please); why Ferguson adheres to the Christian calendar when, as is well known, the Ayatollah Khomeini’s legions imposed the Islamic version on the Great Satan in the years 1983–1987; and why so many recognisable areas of geography carry their real names when, again obviously, the total absence of rainfall from 1800 to 1903 extinguished the human race and allowed space invaders to turn the Oxford History Faculty into the Martian Museum of Magical Realism.

Conrad Russell (review date 6 June 1997)

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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. Diane Kunz’s splendid debunking essay on JFK is a good case in point. So is Alvin Jackson’s bleak essay assuming Asquith had succeeded in granting Home Rule to Ireland in 1912. This shows with painful clarity that the British are not the problem in Northern Ireland.

The counter-factual hypothesis is the nearest historians can manage to a controlled experiment of the sort that scientists carry out. But it is not, all the same, a proper scientific experiment: the rerun without the variable has no existence outside the historian’s mind. Yet counterfactual hypotheses are implicit in the notion of causation. We all do it and, if we did not, our public would do it for themselves. So we might as well do it properly.

Yet we cannot be sure of anything we learn from it. “If not A, then not B” may be clear enough, but “if not A, then C” can never be more than conjecture. For example, John Adamson is clearly right that, if Charles I had defeated the Scots in 1639, his regime might have survived. Yet it does not follow in deterministic style that this would have been the result. From Edward I onwards, England had been able to defeat Scotland, but not to hold it down. To do that, it has needed a co-operative Scottish regime. To achieve such a regime, even after victory in 1639, Charles would have had to concede a degree of Scottish authority. Yet it was precisely because he could not concede that autonomy that he was forced to fight in the first place. So might victory have left him trundling along the same dead-end road on which he began?

Adamson’s hypothesis leads Jonathan Clark and Niall Ferguson into tantalising further hypotheses. The over-rigorous doctrine of unitary parliamentary sovereignty made a mess of England’s attempt to merge into a British multiple kingdom. This wrecked English relations with America and Ireland, and it now threatens relations with Scotland. The disappearance of parliaments might have led to the growth of a more pluralistic Habsburg view of sovereignty. What would this have done to our relations with America, Ireland and Scotland?

The idea of British failure to enter the first world war is clearly plausible, especially if we add in Sir Edward Grey’s decision, in the first week of August 1914, to give up smoking. It is equally plausible to imagine Hitler winning the second world war. If, for example, we had not invented during the winter of 1938–39 a new alloy (and a new furnace to make it) which hardened the propeller casing of the Spitfire, and made it 50mph faster than the Messerschmitt, instead of 50mph slower, it is surely likely that Hitler would have won.

It is when the authors consider the consequence of victory for Hitler that the main weakness of the collection appears. That is the automatic assumption of primacy for politics over economics. It is a refreshing fault, yet fault it is. Victory would have exposed Hitler to the risks of what Paul Kennedy calls “imperial overstretch”. If Hitler had exported to the east anything like the number of Germans contemplated, he would surely have subjected Germany to the same denuding of population as affected 17th-century Castile. Might victory for Hitler have been as disastrous for Hitler as it would certainly have been for us?

The Economist (review date 14 November 1998)

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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 militarised society in Europe, was losing the arms race before 1914, and went to war out of fear of increasing weakness rather than any confidence in its growing strength. Britain entered the conflict, ostensibly in defence of Belgian neutrality (which it was quite prepared to violate itself), actually in the mistaken belief that its empire would not survive the defeat of France. Yet a swift German victory could have been more like a re-run of the Franco-Prussian war, saving millions of lives and sparing Europe the experience of the Third Reich. In the event, the central powers—though at an enormous economic and demographic disadvantage—fought a prolonged war much more effectively than the Entente, until the failure of Ludendorff’s offensive in the spring of 1918, when the morale of German troops finally broke. But, contrary to legend, it was not all suffering in the trenches: the conflict could be sustained for so long because many soldiers also relished killing, and surrenders were rare because prisoners had reason to fear being finished off. The struggle became, in every sense, a descent into barbarism. No valid achievement of any kind was secured by the war, at the cost of nine million lives.

These are tonic conclusions, calculated to affront many a piety. Mr Ferguson argues trenchantly and marshals evidence fluently, on a wide front: economic comparison, diplomatic analysis, military commentary and cultural reflection. With all its other merits, The Pity of War is also a work of grace and feeling. But perhaps inevitably, given the scale of its ambition, its success as an overall construction is uneven. Its core thesis, reversing traditional verdicts on the role of London and Berlin in the conflict, is plainly cogent: smooth execution of the Schlieffen plan would certainly have been preferable for Europe to the ruinous Allied peace of 1919 (even if a rapid German victory over France would have been more punitive than in 1871). As Mr Ferguson points out, the conflict ensured that Britain would lose its empire anyway. But these claims also suggest the limitation of his book—it is heavily concentrated on the Anglo-German relationship. France and Russia are by comparison neglected, not to speak of Austro-Hungary and Italy. One consequence is that the fate of the eastern front is never brought into adequate focus. The puzzle of why the central powers did not benefit more in the West from victory in the East is not really addressed, leaving the reasons for the sudden German break-down a few months later unresolved.

The main shortcoming of The Pity of War, however, is that it confuses the contingency of origins and outcomes. Rightly insisting that the first world war would have had a swifter and better ending if Britain had not intervened, Mr Ferguson wrongly contends that the war was thereby also avoidable. Concentrating on episodic diplomatic mismanagement before 1914—of which there was plenty—he fails to register the systemic nature of rivalry between the great powers, which compelled them to compete in the medium of territory and violence. In this system, a disequilibrium of the kind represented by the rise of Germany—by far the most dynamic industrial power in Europe, yet with an imperial pittance compared with England, France or Russia—could only end in war. The zero-sum logic of Weltpolitik, for even such a critical spirit as Max Weber, was taken for granted by all sides. Mr Ferguson suggests that with a little more luck and intelligence, hostilities could have been averted and the European powers settled down into a state of safe, contained tension like the cold war. But for that the warning of Hiroshima was lacking. Looking east at the time, Europe’s strategists saw only Tsushima, the overnight destruction of Russia’s fleet by the Japanese navy in 1905. No rulers or their military staffs imagined the Somme.

Natasha Fairweather (review date 20 November 1998)

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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 produce a book that aims to be all things to all readers.

The World’s Banker is an extremely detailed economic history for those who are interested in the role that financiers played in developing the industrial economies of the 19th century. It is a financial history revealing how deals were constructed in the emerging international bond and bullion markets, and how banking adapted to the needs of the industrial age. It is a diplomatic history demonstrating how the extraordinarily well-connected Rothschilds were able to operate as an informal channel of communication between world leaders in times of crisis as well as peace. It is a formidable work of scholarship, with 200 pages of footnotes and a 30-page bibliography. But it is also a family biography aimed at the general reader. Timed to coincide with the bicentenary of the founding of the London branch of the Rothschild bank, the book is undoubtedly a seminal work. But even a Rothschild, one suspects, will have difficulty getting to the end of it.

The family as we know it began with Mayer Amschel, a trader in antiques who lived in Frankfurt’s squalid Jewish ghetto in the second half of the 18th century. Mayer was a man of Old Testament vigour. He coined the family name, most probably from a red shield that hung above his front door, and went on to construct the pillars of a business that would sustain the house of Rothschild over two centuries. Starting with almost nothing, it was Mayer’s ability to buy and sell rare old coins that brought him into the orbit of the immeasurably wealthy Prince William of Hesse-Kassel, an enthusiastic collector. Extending credit to his clients was a natural extension of trading and soon Mayer was an embryonic banker. He did well and any profits made, including his young wife’s substantial dowry, were ploughed back into the business. When he died, aged almost 70, he had fathered 19 children, although only 10 survived. He left his five sons a substantial fortune, but their greatest inheritance was his way of doing business.

On his death bed in 1812, Mayer urged his sons to abide by the principles of family unity and always work together. Only male members of the family were to be allowed into the business; female Rothschilds and their spouses could have no part of it. All Rothschilds were to remain true to the principles of the Jewish faith and be diligent and honourable. And the importance of disseminating reliable information quickly within the family while maintaining secrecy outside it was stressed. “Keep your brothers together,” Mayer exhorted his eldest son, Anselm, “and you will become the richest people in Germany.” In fact, the five Rothschild boys of the second generation were to become collectively the richest men in the world.

Ferguson demonstrates how the key to the success of the family was the geographical range they were able to cover. This enabled them to profit vastly from international business where they had almost no competition, and to weather political storms in different regions of their empire. Each of the boys had their own territorial base in Frankfurt, Vienna, Paris, Naples and London. And just as this wide geographical spread was the key to their 19th-century success, so the failure to establish a proper presence in the United States before the turn of the century was the reason for the weakness of the house in the first half of the 20th century.

Through their networks of government loans, the family established the international bond market. Their system of helping their fraternal branches to absorb losses during times of crisis foreshadowed the way that central banks this century would co-operate. The Rothschilds were quick to understand the potential of the railways. They pioneered investments into mining metals, gems and fuel. And this century they swiftly recognised the possibilities offered by European economic integration.

Although the Rothschilds have made a point of marrying within the Jewish community, and as often as not within the family, they have tended to be assimilationists rather than Zionists. They have done much to break down the social barriers erected against Jews. They struggled throughout the 19th century for Jewish emancipation, buying the freedom of the entire Frankfurt community in 1811 and lobbying to remove discriminatory legislation from the statute books. Rothschilds were the first Jews to be ennobled both on the Continent and in Britain. The family battered at the gates of parliaments, universities and innumerable offices which had formerly been closed to Jews.

If Ferguson’s sober and balanced history seems a little thin on characterisation and anecdote, you can turn to Frederic Morton’s recently reissued Portrait of a Dynasty, which updates his best-seller of the 1960s. Morton was initially seduced by the glamour of the family as he queued in an opulent Rothschild palace in Vienna for the exit visa that would take his Jewish family away from Nazi Germany. Subsequent proximity to the family has only brightened their lustre in his eyes.

In a book that is more fable than facts, Morton races the reader through his erratic but readable version of the Rothschild history. Breathless in style, liberally dashed with foreign words and generalisations, he treats the family like the cast of a romantic novel. Yet it is here, rather than in Ferguson’s book, that the reader discovers—in the news about the suicide in 1996 of Amschel—that along with the money and privileges of being a Rothschild come expectations which are sometimes more than a Rothschild can bear.

Aviezer Tucker (review date 1999)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6737

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.


  1. 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.

  2. Philip K. Dick, The Man in the High Castle (London, 1965).

  3. Michael Morecook, A Nomad of the Time Streams: A Scientific Romance (London, 1993).

  4. Robert Harris, Fatherland (London, 1992).

  5. Yitzhak Laor, The People, Food for Kings (Tel Aviv, 1993) [in Hebrew].

  6. 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.

  7. For a defense of modal realism, see David Lewis, Counterfactuals (Oxford, 1973).

  8. Gregory Benford, Timescape [1980] (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.

  9. Maurice Mandelbaum, The Anatomy of Historical Knowledge (Baltimore, 1977), 105–108ff.

  10. Hawthorn, Plausible Worlds, 39–80.

  11. 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.

  12. Ibid, 102.

  13. Ibid.

  14. Aviezer Tucker, “J. S. Mill’s Philosophy of the History of Science,” Explorations in Knowledge 13, no. 2 (1996), 21–31.

  15. Elster, Logic and Society.

  16. 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.

  17. 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.

  18. George Reisch, “Scientism without Tears: A Reply to Roth and Ryckman,” History and Theory 34 (1995), 45–58.

  19. Michael Shermer, “Exorcising Laplace’s Demon: Chaos and Antichaos, History and Metahistory,” History and Theory 34 (1995), 70–71.

  20. Isaac Asimov, “Spell My Name with an S” [1958], in The Complete Short Stories (London, 1994), I, 397–414.

  21. John Jakes, Black in Time (New York, 1970).

  22. 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.

  23. 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.

  24. On page 363 in this article there is an inconsistency concerning the year of Litvinov’s commission. First it is 1943 and then 1944.

  25. 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.

  26. 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.

Fritz Stern (review date 8 February 1999)

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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 possessed abundant talent; and they created an empire that outlasted his. They were exalted and excoriated; they were (and they have remained for two centuries) a presence in the Western imagination.

Balzac, Heine, Disraeli, and many others wrote about the Rothschilds, en clair or in disguised form. Pamphleteers sought to unmask them, and historians and biographers tried to grasp parts of the story. Niall Ferguson, a young scholar at Oxford, is the first historian to be given full access to the archives of the London branch of the house of Rothschild. He was offered a treasure trove—and he has had the discipline and the intelligence to place this gold in its historical setting. Ferguson’s book has an understandable English slant, the more so as the London archives supply so much of the novel material; letters from Nathan Rothschild were largely destroyed, but the Rothschilds were inveterate correspondents, and the London archive remained a great depository. Ferguson has also found Rothschild material elsewhere, including in the newly opened Russian archives, with papers that the Nazis had seized in Vienna and Paris and the Russians then captured in their drive to Berlin.

Ferguson has read so widely that he can credibly reconstruct the world in which the Rothschilds operated—in this volume, until about 1848. It is an unfortunate oddity that his American publisher has divided his book into two volumes, this being the first, while his English publisher has issued the complete work as The World’s Banker, carrying the story to 1915. Ferguson has drawn also on many of the great writers of the time to give us a sense of the great Rothschild drama, and he supplements their evidence with well-chosen illustrations. He writes impeccably, and with empathy. (He describes himself as an atheist of Calvinist background; and Max Weber and Herbert Lüthy have taught us that Calvinists have a special dispensation for success in capitalist enterprise.) This is a major achievement of historical scholarship and historical imagination. Ferguson’s work reaffirms one’s faith in the possibility of great historical writing.

Ferguson aims “to supplant Rothschild mythology with historical reality, in so far as that can be ‘reconstructed’ from surviving documentary evidence.” The past is often more dramatic and always more complicated than the myths suggest. Such is the case with the Rothschild empire. Mayer Amschel began his business in 1765 and amassed a fortune despite and because of the revolutionary upheavals that beset Europe at the time. In 1810, two years before his death, he announced the creation of a new partnership, M. A. Rothschild and Sons, involving at first only three of them, the youngest son, James, to become a partner only upon his maturity, and Nathan, already established in London, to enter later as well.

Nathan, who was born in 1777, is the principal figure in Ferguson’s book, the pillar of the Rothschild empire: “the commanding general,” as his brothers called him after the father’s death. He began as a textile merchant and occasional smuggler in Manchester, who bested his competitors by offering lower prices, and by settling for a lower profit margin but a higher volume of business. In the beginning, the Rothschild fortune depended on unremitting attention to every opportunity, however small; the great coups came later. Ferguson speaks of Nathan’s “burning aggression and cool calculation.” If ever there was such a thing as “economic man,” I think it must have been he. In 1810, Nathan moved to London and began his spectacular career as a banker. Meanwhile the brothers diversified geographically: Salomon to Vienna, Carl to Naples, and James to Paris, where after Nathan’s death in 1836 he became the most notoriously powerful Rothschild.

The five brothers were bound in filial loyalty to their father’s injunction, and to subsequent contracts, that they operate as partners, each with a specific share in the family fortune. Their rise to preeminence as bankers depended on honoring his demand for fraternal “concord,” though these ties were often strained and frayed. All of the brothers were sharp, even brutal with each other, and with their nephews as well; but at critical moments they always heeded Mayer Amschel’s injunction (which included the most absolute exclusion of all Rothschild daughters and in-laws from every aspect of the business). The Rothschilds were famously overbearing in their dealings with the rest of the world, in accordance with Mayer Amschel’s Machiavellian dictum: “If you can’t make yourself loved, make yourself feared.”

The Rothschilds were renowned for their intelligence, in every sense of the word. They built their own private network of communication, carrier pigeons and all, famously swifter than that of any government or rival. They received reliable news before all others, and when they shared their information with men in power, they exacted reciprocal favors. To their favorites in power, they extended all kinds of benefits; in harsher times, their favors might have been called bribes. They were routinely granted exceptional advantages, just as the Rothschilds expected similar service from their agents. The house treasured inside information—hence the almost obsessive concern with speed and confidentiality. Many of the letters cited by Ferguson were written in Judendeutsch, or German in Hebrew characters. Ferguson had them transcribed for the first time, “making available … a ‘virgin’ historical source of the very first importance.”

Ferguson rightly concentrates on the fundament of the house, that is, on business; and he does so expertly and in great detail. He depicts Nathan’s rise from “rags to riches,” from the start in Manchester to the triumph in London in 1825, when he enabled the Bank of England to meet its cash obligations. The strength of the house, demonstrated over and over again, was the bond among the five branches: Ferguson sees them as the first “multinational,” as the dominant traders in the bond and bullion markets, as bankers to Europe’s leading governments (extending their reach even to the Holy See, for which in the 1830s they arranged a £400,000 loan).

The Rothschilds lived by dealing in public finance, by placing and speculating in government securities—hence they were tied to the political vagaries of a Europe that thought itself forever on the brink of war and revolution. I once wrote of great bankers that they were diplomats in mufti, but the Rothschilds had a preeminent (if unofficial) position in European diplomacy. Ferguson takes us through the whole gamut of international crises with which they had to contend, principally between 1815 and 1848. Often the Rothschilds served opposing sides: during the wars against Napoleon they made a huge fortune transferring funds to Britain’s continental allies while dealing with Napoleon’s minions as well. Later they became known as the bankers of the Holy Alliance, the conservative powers, especially Austria and Russia, that sought to throttle liberal stirrings that they feared might undermine the Peace of Vienna. Salomon was exceptionally close to Metternich and his counselor, Friedrich von Gentz. James was of necessity close to the restored Bourbons, and in the revolution of 1830 swiftly switched to the “bourgeois” king Louis Philippe; in fact, the juste milieu of the Orleanist Dynasty was most congenial to him. Nathan forged close ties to Tory governments, but gradually grew more Whiggish, as the Whigs gained in power and supported the emancipation of the Jews.

According to Ferguson, the Rothschilds came to favor constitutional regimes as being the most reliable masters of public debt. They were pacifically inclined: wars brought confusion and decline to the market. James in particular had a horror of war as likely to engender domestic upheaval; he had learned the French lesson about the connection between war and revolution. The Industrial Revolution, on the other hand, offered them new entrepreneurial opportunities. As capitalist bankers they were involved, on shifting sides, in the Spanish civil wars of the 1820s; they also acquired a controlling interest in Spain’s quicksilver mine. An interest in Portuguese finance led to involvement in Brazil, and later in Latin and Central America generally. They discovered what all empire-builders discover: one venture leads to another, and expansion is ineluctable. To New York, though, they sent August Belmont, an agent who proved unreliable. “The United States,” writes Ferguson, “despite its huge potential and allure, was a challenge to which the Rothschilds never quite rose.”

In the 1830s, the continental Rothschilds began to take part in Europe’s greatest transformative enterprise: railroad building. A decade later, they “had firmly established themselves as the preeminent financiers of continental railway construction.” It began as a hesitant leap into a hugely expensive, gigantic business. James’s often critical friend Heine thought the new mode of transportation as important as the discovery of America or the printing press.

Salomon’s Nordbahn from Vienna to Bohemia, and James’s participation in building the Paris-Brussels line, were early highlights of Rothschild involvement in industrial capitalism. London contributed much of the capital, while continental governments (unlike the British in railroad building) contributed vital funds and guarantees. In June 1846, amidst huge fanfare, James celebrated the opening of his line. A month later, however, a terrible accident occurred on the same line, involving many fatalities, and the press lashed out against the Rothschilds, accusing them of being more concerned with profits than safety. The public storm against the callousness of capitalism anticipated Ibsen’s play The Pillars of Society. The Rothschilds were pilloried as greedy Jews.

Ferguson understands that the story of the Rothschilds is a central part of the history of European Jewry, but he has to deal with the latter in disparate parts. For the first generation of Rothschilds, Jewishness was a given, a divinely decreed element of their being, as natural as the air one breathes. They had contempt for those around them who converted to Christianity, such as, for example, members of the distinguished Mendelssohn family of Berlin bankers. They shunned such converts in their dealings, though James treasured his friendship with Heine, who had converted in 1825.

The family had begun life under all kinds of social, political, and economic disabilities, but the Austrian emperor ennobled them in 1817 and in time the family came to collect, and occasionally solicit, all manner of honors, medals, and offices. They intervened on behalf of oppressed “co-religionists,” and they assumed that their own success could pave the way for other Jews. While they observed the practices of the faith differently, they all followed the imperatives of charity. In the beginning, they supported organizations that helped sick or needy Jews. Ferguson’s next volume will tell, presumably, of the immense philanthropic enterprise of the Rothschilds in Palestine and later in Israel, as well as in many non-Jewish causes. Rothschilds detested schnorrers; they managed their largesse with autocratic punctiliousness.

Jewishness bolstered the family’s preference, almost its prescription, for endogamy, which after all preserved both the faith and the family capital. To serve God and Mammon simultaneously has long been a pleasing illusion for the rich. The family intermarried at the beginning and continued to do so selectively. (The same names reappear in different generations, and Ferguson’s genealogical table is a great help.) The most illustrious examples were James, who married his much younger niece Betty, and Nathan’s son Lionel, who married Carl’s daughter Charlotte. Arranged marriages were the custom of the day—and were, of course, prescribed for royalty. In Ferguson’s view, the arranged Rothschild marriages were relatively harmonious. Endogamy certainly heightened the sense of solidarity.

Endogamy also reinforced an extraordinary misogyny in the family. Rothschild women were formally excluded from any participation in the family business, and they had no voice or share in it. (Neither did any non-Rothschild husband.) Wives were meant to facilitate the social rise of the family, but some of them were outstanding in their own right. The mother of them all, Gutle—Heine compared her to Napoleon’s mother—stayed in the original if enlarged abode in Frankfurt; the others presided over ever more spectacular domains. Betty and Charlotte were the most gifted Rothschild women of their generation. Ferguson cites a new study that argues that Rothschild women in general were superior beings as compared to their male relatives. Capital can be gender-restricted, but not talent.

The Rothschild tradition was much harder on women than the prevailing custom of the time. The women had their social obligations and their privileges: celebrated friends of the family. Rossini and Chopin among them, served as music tutors to some of them. But Ferguson rightly dwells on the first instance of double disobedience: three years after Nathan’s death in 1836, his daughter Hannah Mayer followed the command of her heart and not of her family, and married a gentile, Henry Fitzroy, and converted to Christianity. She became an outcast, a non-person, an object of malice. Her misfortunes, and they were severe, were regarded as just punishment for her apostasy, just as the family’s success bespoke God’s blessing: He, after all, was a silent partner in the great enterprise.

The Rothschild triumph epitomized the astounding progress in the condition of the Jews in nineteenth-century Europe, a social leap of perhaps unprecedented magnitude. Their success was intertwined with spectacular social ambition and ostentation, though it began in a modest liberation. In 1811, Mayer Amschel’s oldest son Amschel bought a house in a Frankfurt suburb, and later added a garden; the French occupation had lifted the ban on Jews owning real estate. Ferguson captures the joy that Amschel felt at being in the garden, even sleeping in it—in the open at last—and he rightly sees this pleasure as the beginning of the Rothschild passion for horticulture.

The path from modest pleasure to pomposity and glitter is splendidly caught in these pages. The Rothschilds became great collectors of mansions and chateaux, fabulously and extravagantly decorated, including the great picture galleries of Rembrandts and Titians; the objets d’art (which their agents were also expected to supply) were bought for status and investment, as cheaply as possible. They wined and dined their newly-found equals, royalty itself. In the 1970s, when I was allowed a private visit to the fabled Ferrières chateau near Paris, I discovered three volumes of livres de chasse, the first beginning with what must have been Baron James’s first great hunt, with Napoleon III as the guest of honor—and the rest of the cabinet in attendance. Ferguson is right: they were more like royalty than aristocracy. They knew their worth, and also that it was unprecedented. Nathan died the richest man in England; Ferguson suggests, by plausible extrapolation and argument, that in his time he was richer than Bill Gates is in ours—and, I would add, far more interesting and appealing.

With such wealth and such power, it is no wonder the Rothschilds seemed to exemplify the popular view that Jewry and capitalism were synonymous, that Jews embodied capitalist virtues and vices more powerfully than other people. This certainly was also the view of the two preeminent converted Jews, Heine and Marx. Not surprisingly, then, the Rothschilds became the favorite target of anti-Semites. We do not have a balance sheet of the advantages and the disadvantages to Jewish life of the Rothschild presence in the world. But their help to Jewry, politically and philanthropically, was enormous, and it was destined to grow after 1848. Of course, they were a gift to anti-Semites: how better to demonstrate the golden power that ruled and robbed the world? But one could argue that they were more a convenience to the anti-Semites than a necessity, for the prejudiced would have pointed to instances of Jewish power in modernity everywhere. As Richard Hofstadter pointed out long ago, paranoids love “facts” that sustain their fantasies.

The house of Rothschild was not only about money. It was and is about life and mind, about politics and art: this is a novelist’s world. Thus Ferguson rightly sets out to reconnect what historians’ excessive specializations have torn apart: economic, diplomatic, political, and cultural history. Admittedly he has chosen a subject that invites efforts at histoire totale, an altogether rare scholarly genre, of which David Landes’s Bankers and Pashas: International Finance and Economic Imperialism in Egypt, which appeared in 1958, was a pathbreaking example. (Landes was a mentor to this book.) And the Rothschilds had the inestimable gift of recognizing and cultivating early the most talented people in all realms. As intuitive talent scouts, the London Rothschilds bet on Disraeli and on Churchill before others had done so. Their choice of Niall Ferguson for an “authorized” yet independent historian shows that their knack still serves them well.

Anecdotes about the family abound, and Ferguson tells some. I will add another. In her old age—she died in 1849, at the age of 96—Gutle consulted the greatest medical authority, complaining that “I don’t feel well.” The doctor found no malady, but her complaints persisted, and he finally exclaimed, “Madame, I can’t make you any younger.” This was the Rothschild reply: “I didn’t call you for that. I called you to make me older.” By deepening our knowledge of the family, Ferguson’s splendid book extends the family’s remarkable life, which in any case has continued to flourish in the lives of illustrious descendants of both genders and in many fields.

Arthur Hertzberg (review date 21 February 1999)

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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 next generation.

The Rothschilds were different. They persisted as a major economic force well into the 20th century, and they remained, in the mythology of both admirers and detractors, the archetypal and hereditary leaders of the Jewish people. Even today, while they are no longer the richest financiers in the world or the dominant force in the affairs of the Jewish community, a special cachet still adheres to the family. Jacob, the present Lord Rothschild, is a familiar and active figure in the organized Jewish community in England, and his French counterparts, the several contemporary Barons de Rothschild, remain prominent in all the major endeavors of the French Jewish community.

What makes the Rothschilds unique? The essence of the answer is that as a family, the Rothschilds negotiated their transition into the modern era on their own terms. The vast majority of successful Jews in Europe and America paid for their success by assimilating, by playing down their otherness. In the middle of the 19th century, the slogan of the assimilating bourgeoisie in France was faites vous oublier—make yourself inconspicuous so that you will be forgotten.

The Rothschilds refused to pay for their success by assimilating. The founder of the family fortune, Amschel Rothschild, sent four of his five sons from their native Frankfurt to the major centers of Europe not to pretend to be Englishmen or Frenchmen or Austrians or Italians but to represent the family’s business interests. Amschel knew that the part of the family that would remain in Frankfurt could not pretend as many Jews did at the time that they were Germans clinging to some vague form of Judaism called “the Mosaic persuasion.”

The Rothschilds forced society to yield. When anti-Semites, of the right and the left, denounced them as masters of a Jewish cabal to dominate the world, the family responded by continuing to go about the business of making money, and helping Jews in trouble or in need. Amschel and his children and most of his grandchildren thought of themselves as descendants of the ancient line of Jewish parnassim, lay leaders of the Jews who were responsible for the welfare of their brethren. It was their task, and duty, to protect them from their enemies. But the Rothschilds considered themselves much grander; they were perhaps the descendants, if not literally then in spirit, of the Exilarchs, who led the Babylonian Jewish community 1,000 years before; and of such medieval figures as Don Isaac Abarbanel, treasurer of the kingdom of Portugal in the 1480s and tax farmer of Ferdinand and Isabella later that decade and who led the Jews into exile when they were expelled from Spain in 1492.

Throughout the ages, the Jewish parnas had often lived in splendor, and they even reveled in the fact that they outdid many of their highborn Christian contemporaries in the opulence of their lives. The Rothschilds certainly took great pleasure in the homes they acquired, but they clung to their task as parnassim to break down barriers against Jews. In England in the mid-19th century, Baron Lionel Rothschild fought an unrelenting battle for many years to be elected and re-elected to a seat in Parliament from London but would refuse each time to take the oath of office “on the true faith of the Christian.” He took his seat only when Parliament relented and allowed him to swear on a Hebrew Bible. In France, the aristocratic Jockey Club kept blackballing Rothschilds from membership in the club until the Rothschilds had become much too prominent, and their horses had won too many races, so the silly exclusion had to stop.

The Rothschilds have survived because they have always had a constituency, and they do to this day: the Jewish community. Other remarkable families that came out of the ghettos at the end of the 18th century did not survive, because, by assimilating into the majority, they lost their own constituency. They no longer derived any special energy from their connection to their ancient community; all they had on their side was whatever goodwill they could garner from the majority. At their most fortunate, they secured their personal safety in the centuries that followed by vanishing from the Jewish communities; at their unhappiest, they wound up as victims of pogroms and the Holocaust, which persecuted people of Jewish origin almost as vehemently as it murdered affirming Jews.

These reflections are evoked by Niall Ferguson’s The House of Rothschild, the first part of an account of the Rothschilds that has already appeared in England. (The other half is to be published in the United States this fall.) Ferguson had unparalleled access to the business archives of N. M. Rothschild and Co., the firm founded in London by Nathan Meyer Rothschild in the early years of the 19th century.

This family, one generation out from the ghetto in Frankfurt, had indeed become one of the most powerful and richest families and factors controlling the economy of Europe. Ferguson answers the anti-Semites who kept attacking the Rothschilds with a series of questions: So what? Why are Jews to be barred from the opportunities that the new age of the Industrial Revolution made possible? If there was a new international market in government bonds, why are the Rothschilds blamed for being particularly adept in playing that game?

But the Rothschilds did more than simply make money. They legitimized money in a way that it had never before been thought to be legitimate. The feudal system of earlier centuries had been based on the notion that robber barons with the strength to conquer lands and to keep them for their descendants were to be respected, for land was then held to be the ultimate value. The Rothschilds were the preeminent representatives of the idea that the ultimate source of power was neither the control of land nor of armies. It was not even in gold. Power in the emerging modern economy was in paper, in debt instruments and shares of stock, all of which could easily be traded across international frontiers. It was possible, the Rothschilds insisted, to claim the rights of nobility without having to pretend that one’s ancestors had been generals or feudal landowners. The Rothschilds gave birth to a new, modern order of nobility, the princes of the marketplace.

Ferguson’s first volume on the Rothschilds is a tour de force by a brilliant and industrious young scholar. He has gone beyond the archives to read widely in the public press, which commented on every move the Rothschilds made. Ferguson is essentially an economic historian, but he has great understanding for the characters who appear in his pages. The individual vignettes are vivid and compelling. On beginning this book, the reader might expect an unrelieved, and even dreary account, of a hugely successful economic, enterprise. One will find, instead, a many-faceted account of the first 50 years, the founding time, of the Rothschilds as a fabled, even mythic, power in the modern age.

Robert S. Boynton (essay date 12 April 1999)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5245

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 began by describing the suffering that British soldiers endured in the battles of Verdun, Passchendaele, and the Somme, in which twenty thousand men died in a single day. In commemoration of a conflict that inspired a great body of eloquent antiwar literature, he read a poem written in 1916 by a Scottish platoon commander to a dead soldier’s family: “So you were David’s father, / And he was your only son, / And the new-cut peats are rotting / And the work is left undone.”

Then Ferguson abruptly changed course. The war, he said, was more than a tragedy; it was “the greatest error of modern history”—an error for which Britain was heavily to blame. Rather than joining the Allied war effort, he said, Britain should have maintained its neutrality and allowed the Germans to win a limited Continental war against the French and the Russians. In that event, he postulated, Germany, whose war aims in 1914 were relatively modest, would have respected the territorial integrity of Belgium, France, and Holland and settled for a German-led European federation. Had Britain “stood aside,” he continued, it is likely that the century would have been spared the Bolshevik Revolution, the Second World War, and perhaps even the Holocaust. He concluded, “With the Kaiser triumphant, Adolf Hitler could have eked out his life as a mediocre postcard painter, and Lenin could have carried on his splenetic scribbling in Zurich, forever waiting for capitalism to collapse.”

The import of the speech was stunning. That Ferguson was assigning Britain the role of villain in a story in which it had always viewed itself as the savior of Europe was heretical. That Britain was somehow accountable for the century’s subsequent catastrophes was unthinkable.

The Pity of War, published in the United States last month, couldn’t be more timely in a world that is witnessing the birth of a German-dominated European Union and, simultaneously, a massive military attempt by great powers to keep hostilities in the Balkans from spreading beyond local boundaries. Ferguson, in more than five hundred pages, offers a prodigiously researched argument that subverts the conventional wisdom about the origins of the First World War. According to standard accounts, the conflict became inevitable when nationalist rivalries in Europe were exacerbated by Germany’s reckless militarism. Britain entered the war for the noble purpose of protecting Belgian neutrality. And the war ended, after four years of horrific battles waged by honorable but reluctant soldiers, only after the intervention of American forces in 1918.

Ferguson turns this story on its head. He argues that Britain’s ambiguous and vacillating policy toward Europe had encouraged German aggression, and that it was Britain’s decision to intervene that transformed the war into a worldwide conflict. In other words, the war was not inevitable. While Britain floundered, trying to present a unified front, the Germans seized the advantage, because, Ferguson declares, they “did not care about losing ‘face’; they cared about losing the arms race.” When Britain finally intervened, after Germany invaded neutral Belgium, it was motivated, Ferguson says, more by domestic considerations, by the need to maintain a fragile government coalition, than by high-minded principles. Germany ultimately lost the war, Ferguson writes, not because of the Allies’ military superiority—on the contrary he says, Germany had a far more efficient army—but because of a “crisis in German morale,” brought on, perhaps, by the soldiers’ knowledge that the German High Command was exploring the possibility of armistice. “The key to the allies’ victory was not an improvement in their ability to kill the enemy,” Ferguson argues, “but rather a sudden increase in the willingness of German soldiers to surrender.”

The Pity of War is an attempt to demystify the war by examining it in purely rational terms. Eschewing the dramatic narrative form, Ferguson presents a series of crisply written analytical essays that address key questions: Why did Germany’s leaders decide to gamble on war in the first place? If the goal of war is to kill, then how effectively was it done? If soldiers were miserable, why did so few surrender or desert? If British intervention was inevitable, why did the Cabinet of Prime Minister Edward Grey nearly opt for neutrality? And who won the peace—or, in Ferguson’s economically driven terms, who “ended up paying for the war?” His answer to this last question is that, contrary to the popular belief, promulgated by Keynes, the economic consequences of the Versailles Treaty were not that severe for the Germans, particularly since they managed to avoid paying all but a fraction of the war reparations.

In what is perhaps the book’s most disturbing chapter, Ferguson asserts that the soldiers on both sides continued to fight for as long as they did because many of them actually enjoyed killing—whether for reasons of revenge or of sheer sport. He contends that the true tragedy of the war was its transformation of initially decent soldiers into morally hollow, indiscriminate killers. Julian Grenfell, the “archetypal upper-class cavalry chap” and a poet, wrote in his war diary how “exciting” it was when, one day, he crept into no man’s land and caught an incautious German soldier “laughing and talking.” He went on, “I saw his teeth glisten against my foresight, and I pulled the trigger very steady. He just gave a grunt and crumpled up.”

Probably no war, before or since, has inspired such an enormous literary response, from the poetry of Rupert Brooke, Wilfred Owen, and Siegfried Sassoon and the novels of Ford Madox Ford, Hemingway, Remarque, and Faulkner to popular historical accounts by everyone from Churchill and Lloyd George to Barbara Tuchman and A.J.P. Taylor. The war’s commentators have viewed it as a watershed that brought the nineteenth century to a close and gave birth to the technologically sophisticated barbarism of the modern era. Among Ferguson’s targets is the sentiment, expressed by many of these authors, that the conflict was akin to a “natural catastrophe,” an event that was beyond anyone’s control. This view, he charges, only echoes the irresponsible position taken by Grey’s Cabinet, which held that the war was “the result of such vast historical forces that no human agency could have prevented it.”

An economic historian by training, Ferguson buttresses his arguments with statistical charts that compare such data as the combatants’ war expenditures, rates of recruitment, inflation rates, and national debts. Many of his findings lend chilling precision to Bertrand Russell’s definition of war as “maximum slaughter at minimum expense.” For example, according to Ferguson’s calculations, the Germans were the more efficient killers. He writes, “Whereas it cost the Entente Powers $36,485.48 to kill a serviceman fighting for the Central Powers, it cost the Central Powers just $11,344.77 to kill a serviceman fighting for the Entente.”

Even more than his quantitative methods, Ferguson’s philosophical approach to the practice of history has created controversy. For him, writing history is not merely a way to recover the past but an invitation to speculate about what might—or should—have happened but didn’t. In 1997, he edited a collection of essays entitled Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals, in which various historians pondered what today’s world might look like if events had taken a different turn at crucial historical moments. (“What if Germany had invaded Britain in May 1940?” “What if there had been no American Revolution?”) With The Pity of War Ferguson confirms his place as the dean of Britain’s “What if?” historians.

Ferguson justifies this approach as a “necessary antidote” to the covert determinism he finds in the works of most other historians. To him, the worst of these culprits are the Marxists, who in his view treat history as the story of preordained “winners” and “losers.” (In turn, E. H. Carr, the Marxist scholar and the author of “What Is History?,” dismisses Ferguson’s brand of history as a “parlor game.”) Ferguson’s wrath is not limited to Marxists; it extends to any method that approaches history as a “story” with a beginning, a middle, and an end—a fixed narrative that relegates contingency and alternative outcomes to the realm of science fiction and fantasy. In Virtual History, Ferguson explains that by examining the options that were available at critical junctures the historian is able to “recapture the uncertainty of decision-makers in the past, to whom the future was merely a set of possibilities.” By weighing alternative outcomes, the historian can gain a deeper understanding of why events turned out the way they did. “To understand how it actually was,” Ferguson writes, “we therefore need to understand how it actually wasn’t—but how, to contemporaries, it might have been.”

Such a cerebral, anti-narrative approach might be expected to distance the reader from the grim human realities of the conflict, but The Pity of War had the opposite effect on me. While following the twists and turns of Ferguson’s richly detailed, relentlessly contrarian arguments—and there are literally hundreds of them in the text—I found myself caught up in the suspense of the war, at times even wondering how it would end. As Ferguson led me down the myriad roads not taken, I was “virtually” transformed into a decision-maker in those years—so much so that the question “What if?” became more compelling than “What happened?”

Ferguson’s methods have their flaws. He is so interested in spinning clever scenarios about how events should have gone that when it comes to the more mundane business of explaining how, for example, the Allies eventually managed to win he falls short. And his ultimate virtual scenario—that we’d all be better off if Germany had won a limited war—seems, at best, far-fetched. As one of the book’s fiercest critics, Lord Noël Annan, succinctly put it to me, “If we had stood aside, the result would have been a Europe dominated by German militarism, not by some nice democratic power.” It is unsurprising that Ferguson has been accused of being pro-German, but he would argue that his position is merely more objective than traditional accounts. In the book, he concedes that an American diplomat who observed during the war that “the Germans want somebody to rob—to pay their great military bills” was probably right. Still, he believes that, as he said to me, “a unified Germany would have been much less prone to Nazi ideology, because Wilhelmine Germany was one of the most philo-Semitic states in the world.” Lurking between the lines of The Pity of War is a grand counterfactual vision that smacks of nostalgia for a lost Britain. Although Ferguson never says so explicitly, his book can be read as the dream of a young conservative who wants to put Britain back in the center of a world in which its empire still exists and its friendly, pre-1914 relationship with Germany endures.

If Niall Ferguson were a wild-eyed radical, his argument would sting less, but The Pity of War is a critique from the heart of the British intellectual establishment. Although Ferguson is just thirty-four years old, he has been a don—first at Cambridge and now at Oxford—for a decade, and he has already written more books and papers than many in his field have in a lifetime. Since 1995, when Cambridge University Press released Paper and Iron, a well-regarded study of German hyperinflation during the nineteen-twenties, Ferguson has published, in addition to The Pity of War, a widely praised thirteen-hundred-page biography of the Rothschild family, The World’s Banker. Writing in The New Republic, the historian Fritz Stern said that the book “reaffirms one’s faith in the possibility of great historical writing.” (In the United States, the biography is being published in two parts, the second of which will appear in November.) Ferguson belongs to a small contingent of opinioneering British intellectuals known in the press as Dial-a-Dons, and over the past few years he has turned out hundreds of reviews and commentaries for newspapers and journals. Lately, Ferguson has become a forceful critic of New Labour. He is especially harsh on Tony Blair’s proposal for Scottish autonomy within a rebranded “cool Britannia”; in his view, “Scotland has benefitted hugely from the union, almost more than England has.”

Last fall, Ferguson made a publishing deal, with Penguin, that is unprecedented for a historian. The terms call for him to receive an advance of six hundred thousand pounds (or nearly a million dollars) for three books: The Pity of War, a history of the decline of European monarchy, and a study of the role of sexuality in ethnic conflict in Eastern Europe in the first half of the twentieth century. Ferguson made the deal himself, after firing his (second) literary agent, and Penguin seems thrilled with the coup. “Niall’s wish to become quite famous is a fantastic boon to his publisher,” Simon Winder, the firm’s editorial director, remarked to me. Ferguson describes his windfall in broader terms. “It’s good news that history is box office,” he told the Guardian.

But in a country that maintains more than sixty thousand memorials to the First World War—there are more than twenty-two hundred in London alone—The Pity of War was received, in many quarters, as blasphemy. Veterans’ groups have denied that soldiers killed their prisoners—yet another of the book’s controversial arguments—or enjoyed killing, and have questioned Ferguson’s sources and his motives.

Many of the negative reviews have focussed on Ferguson’s desire to attack every accepted interpretation of the war. “There is something of the clever-silly about his over-determined contrarianism,” the political historian R. W. Johnson wrote in The London Review of Books. In The Times Literary Supplement, Sir Michael Howard denounced Ferguson for overstepping his bounds. “Historians are judges, not advocates or juries,” Howard wrote. “Our function can only be to discover what happened and try to explain why.”

In general, however, The Pity of War has been well received. The British political journal Prospect recently called Ferguson the brightest of the generation of young, post-Cold War British “pop” historians—Orlando Figes and Mark Mazower are two others—who have “embarked on an intrepid endeavor: to fire the historical imagination of their contemporaries—both in Britain and abroad—to seize the Zeit by its Geist.” And, in an unsigned piece, a reviewer for The Economist wrote, “At one massive stroke, Niall Ferguson has transformed this dismal intellectual landscape, a kind of Flanders of the mind, [by bringing] the carnage of 1914–1918 into sharp, unmystified focus.”

In “What Is History?” E. H. Carr offers this advice: “Before you study the history, study the historian.” Recently, I took the Underground into London’s financial district and walked over to the Bank of England, on Threadneedle Street, where Ferguson has a fellowship to study the history of British bond rates. After being checked in by a pair of guards wearing top hats and tails, I was met by a slender young man in a stylish green corduroy suit and a starched pink shirt, whose boyish good looks the British press has likened to Tom Cruise’s.

“Welcome to the building from which Britain once ran the world,” Ferguson said, greeting me with a broad smile and a bone-crunching handshake. He led me on a tour through the long marble halls and elegant courtyards of Sir John Soane’s Neoclassical masterpiece, pointing out the bank’s small war memorial on one side of the lobby. Confident and warm in manner, he seemed at once eager to demonstrate a degree of Scottish reserve and to subvert it with joking, offhand remarks.

When we arrived at Ferguson’s office, he directed me to a chair beneath a blackboard that was covered with incomprehensible mathematical hieroglyphics. He handed me an article he had written entitled “Political Economy of the International Bond Market from the Age of Reason to the Present with Special Reference to the Period from 1850 to 1914.” With a grin, he explained, “This is me wearing my academic hat. Look at these graphs, and you’ll see that I’m really nothing but a train-spotter at heart.”

In fact, government bonds hold the key to Ferguson’s view of history. As he wrote in his Rothschild biography, they are the crucial historical indices, the “daily opinion poll of confidence in a given regime.” Bond rates offer the historian clues to how people have actually experienced their times. “What historians need to realize,” Ferguson told me, “is that the thing people are really interested in is the short-term, day-to-day changes in politics and the economy. Even in the nineteenth century, people were only dimly aware that there was this big industrialization going on around them. What they really cared about was right in front of them: ‘What will the price of French bonds be tomorrow? Should I buy or sell? Will the government survive this vote or will it fail?’”

When I asked Ferguson why he wrote The Pity of War, he told me about his grandfather. In 1914, at the age of sixteen, John Gilmour Ferguson tried to join the Army, only to be dragged home by his mother. The day he turned seventeen, he signed up with the Scottish Seaforth Highlanders. The Germans called the Highland troops, who were used as advance shock troops, devils in skirts; the Scots’ high mortality rate—twenty-six per cent as opposed to eleven per cent for other British soldiers—indicates that the nickname was well earned. Young John Ferguson survived with only a gunshot wound to one shoulder, but his lungs were permanently scarred by mustard gas. Niall Ferguson remembers that, as a child, he would sit on his grandfather’s knee while the old man huffed and wheezed.

Ferguson grew up in a family with a strong scientific bent: his father is a doctor, his mother a physicist, and his sister a biologist. He attended the Glasgow Academy, a no-nonsense grammar school, where the city’s middle-class sons prepared for careers in law or medicine. The school was also a war memorial: each morning the students passed by a granite slab inscribed with the names of the three hundred and twenty-seven alumni who had died in the First World War. Inside, a memorial honor roll bore the words “Say not that the brave die.” Ferguson remembers being upset by the phrase. “I’d pass by this shrine every day and wonder what it meant,” he told me. “Was the war a foolish disaster or a noble achievement? In the morning, we’d read Wilfred Owen’s poetry about the tragedy of war, and in the afternoon we’d go to the playground to march around in uniform, drilled by Army regulars. I thought this was absurd.” He chose to write his first school paper, at the age of twelve, on “trench warfare.” As a teenager, he became transfixed by A.J.P. Taylor’s televised lectures on European history. Taylor’s study of the First World War was the first adult history book he read.

Ferguson won a scholarship to study history at Magdalen College, Oxford. “He was very much a Scot on the make,” his Penguin editor, Simon Winder, recalls. “Niall was a witty, belligerent bloke who seemed to have come from an entirely different planet.” At Magdalen, Ferguson became acutely aware of class hypocrisies. “I was surrounded by insufferable Etonians with fake Cockney accents who imagined themselves to be working-class heroes in solidarity with the striking miners,” he told me. “It wasn’t long before it became clear that the really funny and interesting people on campus were Thatcherites.” He joined the Oxford Union, where William Hague (now the Conservative Party leader) had presided, and where Andrew Sullivan was now in charge. Ferguson and Sullivan, who went on to be the editor of The New Republic, became best friends. “Niall and I were Thatcherites when it was distinctly unfashionable,” Sullivan recalls. “We loved her iconoclasm and the passionate attachment to institutions which she combined with a deep desire to rattle them.”

Ferguson calls this his “punk Tory” period—a phase when he and Sullivan listened to the Sex Pistols and vied to see who could most effectively rankle the left-liberal majority. He treasures an invitation he received from friends at Balliol in the early eighties, to a cocktail party to celebrate the deployment of U.S. cruise and Pershing missiles in Europe. The invitations were illustrated with champagne bottles emitting mushroom clouds. The conservative Cambridge historian John Adamson remembers dining with Ferguson the night Thatcher resigned. “We both sensed it was the end of an era,” Adamson said. “After dinner, we consumed a monumental amount of whiskey in his rooms while blasting the last scene of ‘Götterdämmerung,’ where Brünnhilde throws herself on the funeral pyre and the whole world comes to an end.”

After taking a First in history, Ferguson was accepted into the postgraduate program. He chose as his mentor the historian Norman Stone, who was a fellow-Scot, a Glasgow Academy alumnus, a much reviled Thatcherite, and—like one of Stone’s heroes, A.J.P. Taylor—a media don. “Old A.J.P. was the grandfather of us all,” Stone told me. “When academic history was getting more élitist and narrow, he popularized it in a way no one else could.” Indeed, in the long line of British historians, it is Taylor, with his iconoclastic sensibility, fondness for the spotlight, and journalistic facility, whom Ferguson most resembles.

Ferguson improved his German by meeting with Stone at an Oxford pub at eleven in the morning to read Nietzsche over pints of Guinness. He wanted to write his thesis on the Viennese satirist Karl Kraus, but Stone urged him to choose a more quantitative, analytical topic. As an undergraduate, Ferguson had studied medieval financial history with the eminent economist Gerald Harris; while his peers were reading Aristotle, Hobbes, and Rousseau, Ferguson was poring over Marx, Keynes, and Adam Smith. “Harris made me realize that understanding finance and tax systems really mattered for a historian,” Ferguson said. “He taught me that history had to be difficult to be good.”

After Oxford, Ferguson spent a year and a half in Hamburg, in the Warburg archives, studying the hyperinflation that crippled Germany in the early nineteen-twenties. The book that emerged from his dissertation, Paper and Iron, was his first foray into counterfactual thinking. In it, he postulated what Weimar Germany would have looked like if it had been run according to Thatcherite economics. He argued that the hyperinflation that destroyed Weimar’s rich bourgeois culture could have been avoided by a combination of deflationary economic policies and authoritarian political measures.

Along with a small German fellowship, Ferguson supported his Hamburg research by writing for London’s Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph. One afternoon, the Telegraph’s foreign editor informed him that its Bonn office had closed and that Ferguson was now the paper’s sole German correspondent. “Every day,” he says, “I’d run out of the archive at four-thirty, when it closed, and make frantic phone calls to find out what had happened. And then I’d write it up while I was standing in the phone booth and call it in.”

Ferguson says that it was his experience as a journalist that taught him to write quickly and concisely, and he prides himself on his ability to write on any subject. He’s as comfortable with issuing polemics against the European monetary union as he is with dashing off life-style columns on Internet fatigue or on his children’s favorite toys. Journalism also provides him with the opportunity to remind the British establishment that, while he is solidly in it, he will never be entirely of it. Readers who learned of the birth of his first child in his column in the conservative Telegraph were no doubt surprised when he announced, several months later, his marriage to the child’s mother. In the years before he had tenure, Ferguson juggled several pseudonyms to protect his academic reputation. When one Daily Mail editor insisted that an author’s photograph be run alongside Ferguson’s column, he put on a pair of thick glasses to disguise himself.

“The English are absolutely dazzled by productivity, particularly at Oxbridge, where there is almost a perverse esteem for those who eschew the vulgarity of print,” John Adamson told me. The fact that Ferguson wrote The Pity of War in just five months and completed the massive Rothschild biography in five years—while maintaining a full teaching load—has caused a good deal of consternation among even his most prolific peers. A number of dons I talked to dismissed his weighty tomes as “coffee-table books” or “mere journalism.” But much of the enmity is directed at Ferguson’s habit of employing well-paid research assistants—a practice that is commonplace among American professors but still relatively rare among their British counterparts.

In 1990, Ferguson’s research skills were tested when he was asked by the publisher George Weidenfeld to write the authorized biography of the Rothschild family. Although he was the first scholar to be given unrestricted access to the personal and professional records of Europe’s most powerful banking dynasty, there was a catch: much of the material was in Judendeutsch, an archaic form of German written in Hebrew script, which the Rothschilds used to encode their missives. Instead of adding years to the project by deciphering the Hebrew lettering, Ferguson enlisted a Rothschild employee to read the documents into a tape recorder. He then listened to the tapes, so that he could swiftly identify exactly which sections he needed for his book.

When Ferguson returned from Germany, in 1989, to teach at Cambridge, he was the object of undergraduate fascination. His frequent absences from campus and his stylish wardrobe led to a rumor that he was an agent with MI5. “Niall kept the different parts of his life separated as carefully as Maoist terrorists guard their cells,” one former colleague says. Ferguson was a charismatic teacher. One student recalls seeing a cadre of women and gay men swoon in the first few rows of a lecture hall as Ferguson launched a course on Weimar Germany with a multimedia assortment of Kurt Weill songs and Georg Grosz paintings.

Ferguson elected to teach at the famously reactionary college of Peterhouse, where he was taken up by the arch-conservative historian Maurice Cowling. “The whole of my life has been dedicated to sneering at liberal high-mindedness, and Niall has none of it,” Cowling told me. “He is a demotic conservative who takes the world as he finds it. He hasn’t got a burning desire to make the world better than it is, nor—unlike Marxist historians—does he condemn it.”

Ferguson returned to Oxford in 1992 and took up a lectureship at Jesus College. On a cold, foggy morning, I took a train from Paddington Station to Oxford. A cabdriver dropped me at the college, where, on the third floor of an Elizabethan building, Ferguson has a spacious suite. A faded Oriental rug covers floorboards worn down by four centuries of pacing dons. Ferguson is currently on a year’s sabbatical, and he divides his days between Oxford, the Bank of England, and Windsor Castle, where he is doing research for his book about the European monarchy, entitled “Twilight of the Crowns.” When he’s working in London, he sleeps in a flat he has in Soho; when he’s working in Oxford, he heads home to a seventeenth-century farmhouse, ten miles out of town, which he shares with his wife, the journalist Susan Douglas, and their two children. After lunch at a French bistro, we climbed into Ferguson’s rattling Land Rover, drove into the countryside, and, finally, turned onto a muddy road leading to the farmhouse, a large stone building that appeared so ancient it might have grown out of the verdant earth surrounding it.

In the company of two black Labrador retrievers, two cats, a flock of ducks, and stables full of horses, I felt as though I’d been whisked into a James Herriot novel. After stoking the fire in the dining room, Ferguson introduced me to his wife, who was seven months pregnant; in a black cocktail dress, black stockings, and black suède pumps, she looked dressed for an evening in a Soho club. Douglas, who was once described by the Telegraph as “the living embodiment of Eighties Executive Media Woman,” is clearly a formidable asset to Ferguson’s donnish ambitions.

Ferguson and Douglas met in 1987, when she was his editor at the Daily Mail; he spent the next five years working up the courage to ask her for a date. Douglas has held top editorial positions at the Sunday Times and the Sunday Express, and currently works as a consultant; until several months ago, she was flying to New York once a week to help Bob Guccione, Jr., launch his new magazine, Gear. There has been gossip that the extraordinary attention paid to The Pity of War was due to her media connections, although Ferguson has had nearly as much journalistic experience as she has. “You mean Dr. and Mrs. Glamour?” one Fleet Street veteran said when I mentioned the couple.

Over dinner, I asked Douglas and Ferguson how they were able to get so much twentieth-century work done in their seventeenth-century setting. After outlining complex arrangements with nannies, caretakers, and research assistants, Ferguson told me how his research on the Rothschilds had influenced his vision of the intellectual’s vocation. “I was extremely impressed by their single-minded work ethic,” he said, lifting his wineglass for emphasis. “Nathan Rothschild has this wonderful line: ‘I don’t play cards, I don’t go to the theatre: all I do is business.’ Studying the Rothschilds made me realize, Why be a passive, unworldly academic author who expects to be able to sit all day in an ivory tower writing great works that no one will read? After all, history is a business, too.”

Benjamin Schwartz (review date May 1999)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4703

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 to indisputable. The second is highly defensible. But the third evades the difficult and tragic aspects of Britain’s experience in the Great War.

In 1929 Virginia Woolf described an Oxbridge luncheon party at which, despite notable food and scintillating conversation, she was overcome by a sense of something missing.

But what was lacking, what was different, I asked myself, listening to the talk. And to answer that question I had to think myself out of the room, back into the past, before the war indeed, and to set before my eyes the model of another luncheon party held in rooms not very far distant from these: but different. Everything was different.

“The Great War,” used interchangeably with “the First World War” (so named in 1918 by a sardonic English journalist, who knew it would not be the last such conflict), engendered in Britain a sense of loss that endures to this day: it remains the great divide in Britons’ sense of their history. Along with the battles of Mons, Loos, the Somme, Ypres, and Passchendaele, and the writings of Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves, and Edmund Blunden, the statistics are probably known to every sixth-former in the United Kingdom: the 60 percent casualty rate that tore apart the British Expeditionary Force (probably the best army Britain ever fielded) in the first three months of the war, the 60,000 casualties on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, the 723,000 British dead by the end of the war (twice as many as in the Second World War).

Although evocative and heartbreaking, this litany doesn’t tell the full story. The war poets’ perspective, for example, was hardly representative. (As the historian Correlli Barnett has argued, much of their revulsion was provoked by the squalor of daily life in the trenches, conditions that the common British soldier from the slums of Leeds, Liverpool, or London would not have found particularly noteworthy.) Nor were the death and mutilation spread evenly through British society. Although the majority of the British dead came from the working class, officers, drawn mostly from the upper classes, paid a disproportionately high price: for mobilized men overall the death rate was about 12 percent, but for graduates of Oxford and members of the peerage it was 19 percent, and for graduates of the fifty-three boarding schools where statistics are available it was 20 percent. Not since the Wars of the Roses had the aristocracy suffered such losses. The tiny, intimate world of the British elite—members of which composed Woolf’s social and intellectual circle, and largely determined how future readers would think about the war—truly lost a generation, and, not surprisingly, it assumed that the country as a whole was similarly devastated.

Britain’s horrendous losses were not extraordinary. Germany, Russia, Austria-Hungary, France, and Turkey each lost far more lives. Moreover, as dreadful as was Britain’s experience, “the disturbing paradox” of the Great War was, according to the historian J. M. Winter, that it was at once “an event of unparalleled carnage and suffering and the occasion of a significant improvement in the life expectancy of the civilian population, and especially of the worst-off sections of British society.” Thanks to unprecedented government interference in the wartime economy, wages among the poorest groups in Britain rose significantly, and wealth was effectively redistributed. And because of the economic, social, and political forces the war produced, the kind of poverty endemic in pre-1914 Britain—which gave British males almost the same life expectancy as that which Ecuadorians had in the early 1960s—never recurred.

Yet if Britain’s experience in the Great War was more complex than the popular mythology would have it, that experience was nevertheless just as crippling as Ferguson maintains—albeit as much for subjective and psychological reasons as for objective ones. The war is Britain’s national trauma, and British and Commonwealth historians compulsively revisit it in the way that American historians revisit the Civil War. The results have been glorious. Few other areas of British historical scholarship have inspired works of such range and quality. Ferguson, like most of his fellows, writes with verve and flair, with a sharp eye for detail and a blind eye to narrow specialization.

A number of military historians have searingly elucidated the awful conditions and calculus of combat. Other scholars have inventively fused economic, military, and diplomatic history. And still others—Winter, Barnett, Modris Eksteins, and Trevor Wilson, for instance—have synthesized such seemingly unrelated fields as education, industry, and literature, or demography and military tactics, or economics and art, or sociology and politics, to produce breathtakingly broad histories. Perhaps the most successful of these, Wilson’s aptly titled The Myriad Faces of War (1986), embraces in its densely packed pages nearly the totality of the experience of the British state and people during the Great War, and is perhaps the closest thing to a complete historical synthesis ever written of any war. Ferguson, too, takes a broad approach, and his book—which has aroused enormous controversy in Britain since its publication there last year—seems to me an implicit response to Wilson’s, for their basic arguments are diametrically opposed. To appreciate the nature of their differences, though, an American has to know something about the essential divide between contemporary British historians and British readers in how they think about the war.

“Futile” is the word that best describes the judgment presented to the British public regarding the First World War. From the war memoirs of the 1920s and 1930s to A.J.P. Taylor’s illustrated history of the war (almost certainly the most popular chronicle of the conflict) to the recent novels of Pat Barker and Sebastian Faulks (and from the 1929 play Journey’s End to the 1963 play Oh! What a Lovely War to the 1981 movie Gallipoli), the Great War has been portrayed as a meaningless and unnecessary slaughter, led by stupid generals and feckless politicians. Reviewing a war memoir in 1920, one critic plaintively sought some purpose behind the conflict: “Nowhere will you find a period or a sentence of which you could say, ‘There! that is what we fought for!’ The Cause finds no expression.” But in fact since the late 1960s (when, not coincidentally, official records concerning the war were first made available to scholars) most British historians, echoing the explanations and justifications of British military and civilian leaders during the conflict, have discerned “the Cause”: Britain fought to forestall a German bid for the mastery of Europe—an essential threat to Britain’s national security and political independence. This view has largely failed to penetrate the popular mind, however, probably because the disillusionment of anti-war memoirs is so deeply embedded in the British psyche, and because the British public remains so overwhelmed by the price the war exacted. (Thus, for instance, as long ago as 1964 the BBC showed a lengthy documentary that basically argued that although terrible, the Great War was a “necessary war.” Britons’ response to the twenty-six episodes of battlescape, however, was to describe the war using the very terms—“needless slaughter,” “dreadful waste”—the documentary had attempted to refute.) Oddly, then, Ferguson has self-consciously written an iconoclastic book that attempts to tear down the prevailing scholarly view, but in the public’s understanding he batters down a door already open.

Wilson stated his position clearly at the outset of his book: “Britain’s involvement in the Great War was not some deplorable accident. Nor was it a malevolent deed clandestinely accomplished by home-grown plutocrats and diplomats.” “The conflict,” he explained, “was about preserving Britain as a major, and even as an independent, power.” In opposition, Ferguson opens The Pity of War by declaring,

The fundamental question this book seeks to answer … is … what were all these deaths … really worth? … To be precise: Was Britain truly confronted by such a threat to her security in 1914 that it was necessary to send millions of raw recruits across the Channel … ? What exactly was it that the German government sought to achieve?

To Ferguson, the answer is obvious: Britain’s intervention in 1914 was “nothing less than the greatest error of modern history,” because Germany in fact did not pose an essential threat to British interests. So Ferguson indicts London, because “it was the British government which ultimately decided to turn the continental war into a world war, a conflict which lasted twice as long [as] and cost many more lives” than it would have if only Britain had not stepped in the way.

At one level this is a difficult argument to make. Consensus among historians is rare, especially regarding the origins of the First World War, the search for which has swelled into one of the largest investigations into any historical subject. Nevertheless, historians do now generally agree that, as Ferguson acknowledges, Germany “forced the continental war of 1914 upon an unwilling France (and a not so unwilling Russia).” The notion, advanced by the German historian Fritz Fischer and some of his protégés, that there wasn’t much difference between the war aims of Wilhelmine and of Nazi Germany remains controversial. It’s clear, however, that at least after the war began, German plans effectively called for (along with the subjugation of much of Eastern Europe and Russia) the permanent subjugation of France, the transformation of Belgium into a “vassal state,” and the German navy’s taking of French and Belgian Channel ports to use as bases—actions that would certainly threaten Britain’s naval security, as Ferguson readily concedes.

The questions historians now debate are Why did Germany essentially force a war in 1914? and Why did it pursue such ambitious war aims? Some, including Ferguson, point to Berlin’s deep-seated anxiety about Russia’s rapid industrialization and growing military power, and thus see German actions as an attempt to pre-empt Germany’s strategic deterioration relative to Russia. They further point to the belief, shared by many Germans, that the balance among the great powers of Europe—the crux of the diplomacy of the past two centuries—was giving way to one among “world powers.” In this emerging pattern only the British Empire, Russia, and the United States had the natural resources, population, and industrial capacity for an assured position in the front rank. For this reason, so the argument goes. Berlin pursued a comparable concentration of power through the destruction of its European rivals’ independence and through arrangements that would guarantee to German industry a continental market and a raw-materials base. In short, the goal was, in the words of the historian Imanuel Geiss, whom Ferguson quotes approvingly, “German leadership over a united Europe in order to brave the coming giant economic and political power blocs.”

From this tenable if disputable assessment of German ambitions Ferguson builds his case that British policy was terribly, tragically misguided. Ferguson’s interpretation of that policy, however, is usually simplistic and often clumsy. Central to his argument is the assertion that the causes to which other historians have ascribed the Anglo-German antagonism in the years leading up to the war—imperial and economic rivalry and Germany’s naval buildup—did not menace the British. But this refutes an argument that historians don’t make. In fact the British were often untroubled by German imperial expansion, since, as Winston Churchill argued in 1912, “we should be rather glad to see what is now concentrated [in the middle of Europe] dissipated [overseas].” London’s anxiety about German imperial policy arose not because that policy posed a direct and unambiguous threat to Britain’s colonial interests but because of the shrill and aggressive tone in which it was expressed. In its foreign policy Germany seemed, if not a definite menace, something resembling an increasingly powerful, at times sullen, at times boastful teenager; even the German chancellor, Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg, described his country’s international behavior as “strident, pushing, elbowing, overbearing.” This restlessness was bound to make the British nervous, especially since it was exasperatingly unclear just what would assuage an increasingly petulant Berlin.

No such mystery surrounded Germany’s naval expansion. Germany’s naval rivalry with Britain demonstrated the fundamental incompatibility of the two countries’ interests and aims. By 1910 Germany’s was the largest navy in the world after Britain’s, and it was built as an offensive force with solely Britain in mind as its opponent. A rising world power, Germany understandably didn’t wish to have its expanding overseas trade dependent on the good will of Britain, which by an accident of geography commanded the maritime approaches to Germany. For Britain’s part, its foreign policy had long included the axiom that national security depended on its command of the English Channel and the North Sea. In other words, what one power wanted, the other would never voluntarily concede. So although by 1912 the British felt sure that they had, at least in the near term, won the naval race, they had come to believe, as the diplomat Sir Eyre Crowe put it, that “the building of the German fleet is but one of the symptoms of the disease. It is the political ambitions of the German Government and nation which are the source of the mischief.”

This conclusion was hardly unreasonable from London’s point of view. Although at first Britain saw a German “threat” in the narrow terms of a naval rivalry, that rivalry provoked British statesmen and military planners to pay closer attention to the geopolitical consequences of Germany’s booming population and industry and its military power. London feared that were Germany to dominate France, through either political intimidation or military conquest, the resulting increase in its economic strength would permit it to out-build the British navy. And a greatly enlarged German navy, with access both to the North Sea and to French ports, could strangle Britain.

Citing the pace of Russian industrialization and strategic railway construction and the size of Russia’s army (while neglecting to emphasize how ill-trained that mass of peasant conscripts was), Ferguson asserts that although Britain looked at the Kaiser and saw a latter-day Napoleon, pre-war Germany in fact felt threatened by the czarist colossus and believed that its own relative advantage in Europe was slipping away. Had Britain not suffered from a “Napoleon neurosis” but instead understood the true balance of power on the Continent, Ferguson argues (echoing the complaints of Germany’s pre-war statesmen), it would have realized that German ambitions in 1914 were preventive rather than offensive, and didn’t call for a British response. This position has some merit. Britain began to focus on the problem of the balance of power when France and Russia were at their weakest, and London was slow to recognize Russia’s surprisingly rapid recovery from the disaster of the Russo-Japanese War. Berlin was more perceptive, and certainly there is considerable evidence that German doubt and pessimism about the future gave rise to the Germans’ appetite for expansion and subjugation. To this day historians are debating whether, as Crowe framed the issue, Berlin was “definitely aiming at a general political hegemony …, threatening the independence of her neighbors and ultimately the existence of England,” or whether Berlin’s designs were “no more than the expression of a vague, confused and unpractical statesmanship not realising its own drift.”

But to Britain, as Crowe argued, the question of German intentions was far less important than the reality of German capabilities. Unlike Ferguson, who too crudely uses total numbers of soldiers as an index of the military balance. British statesmen rightly regarded the German army as the most technologically advanced and tactically innovative in Europe (a judgment that was to prove accurate during the war). However legitimate Berlin’s anxiety about the long-term rise of Russian power, London couldn’t ignore the fact that Russia’s ally, France, would almost certainly be overrun in the event of a Continental war. For sound geopolitical reasons Britain’s concern was with Germany’s threat to France and Belgium rather than with a potential Russian threat to eastern Prussia. Germany, after all, was only one of three new great powers to embark on expansionist policies in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: the obvious difference for British calculations was that the other two—Japan and the United States—were a safe distance away. In this regard, the real “historic disaster” that turned the war of 1914 into a world war wasn’t British intervention, as Ferguson claims, but Germany’s war plans, which were plainly to crush France. Had the Germans in 1914, rather than invading Belgium and attempting to annihilate France, simply defended their impregnable frontier with France while moving east against Russia, they would have dispatched their Russian nemesis without provoking war with Britain. No British government would have wished to go—or, given public opinion, could have gone—to war with the Central Powers to maintain some distant and obscure borders in Eastern Europe.

Finally, however much Germany may have “acted out of a sense of weakness” in 1914, as Ferguson maintains, British fears of German power on the Continent and what that implied for Britain’s security seem justified in hindsight, given that—again, as Ferguson acknowledges—without Britain’s intervention France would have fallen in 1914, and that even with the British aiding Russia in the most strenuous military exertion in their history, Germany managed in 1916–1917 to defeat Russia decisively and to impose a draconian peace on it.

At several points Ferguson strongly suggests that Britain’s decision to intervene wasn’t merely misguided but, in fact, irrational and somewhat sinister. He claims that since Britain’s most formidable imperial rivals were France and Russia (rather than Germany), London sought the “appeasement” (Ferguson’s mischievous use of a loaded term) of those powers. The resulting ententes with the French and the Russians took on a life of their own. He thus argues that the British “were exaggerating—if not fabricating—a [German] threat in order to justify the military commitment to France they favoured. … Precisely because they wished to align Britain with France and Russia, it was necessary to impute grandiose plans for European domination to the Germans.” But although it’s true that the entente with Paris was reached to settle the powers’ imperial differences, it was within a year transformed and deepened, thanks to Germany’s antagonistic behavior, into a defensive partnership based on shared fear of German ambitions. As for the entente with Russia, contrary to Ferguson’s assertion, London’s anxiety to help restore Russia as a counterweight to Germany and to form a “triple entente” with Paris and St. Petersburg to contain Berlin clearly played a central role in its creation. The First Sea Lord, Sir John Fisher, perfectly encapsulated British priorities when he maintained that Germany was a far greater danger to the British than their traditional imperial rival, Russia, because the former “threatens not an outlying possession but our vitals.” Since Ferguson takes for granted that without British military intervention on the Continent, Germany would have beaten France and Russia, his argument rests on his conviction that the peace Germany would have imposed on Europe was one with which “Britain, with her maritime empire intact, could … have lived.” To support this proposition, Ferguson asserts that the Europe that would have emerged from a German victory would have been quite benign, “not wholly unlike the European Union we know today”—in which, after all, he reminds us, Germany’s is the dominant economy. Having built this case, Ferguson concludes that “it would have been infinitely preferable if Germany could have achieved its hegemonic position on the continent without two world wars.”

Such counterfactual arguments, by definition, can’t be proved or refuted, but Ferguson’s depend on some dubious assumptions and comparisons. The first difficulty is that Germany’s aim, after the war began, to control the Belgian coast and possibly the French Channel ports as well was one that, by Ferguson’s own admission, “no British government could have tolerated.” Ferguson states, however, that had Britain not intervened, Germany would have honored its pledge to London—offered on the eve of war, when the British were wavering about whether to step in—to guarantee French and Belgian territorial integrity in return for Britain’s neutrality.

This argument hinges on Ferguson’s assertion that “it would have been foolish [of Germany] to have reneged on such a bargain.” But why would it have been foolish? Ferguson acknowledges that what he terms the “limited” price Germany would have exacted even under these circumstances would have included crippling the French military capacity, thus making France “economically dependent” on Germany; constructing an economic bloc in Northern and Central Europe under “Germany’s economic dominance”; and effectively eliminating Russia as a counterweight to Germany. In other words, Germany, vastly stronger militarily and economically, would have been in a position at any point in the future to go back on its bargain, especially because the injured party—Britain—would no longer have allies to help it put muscle behind its protestations. Since Britain’s inaction would have allowed Germany to strengthen its capabilities enormously. London would have taken a gigantic gamble based on nothing more substantial than German good will. In short, even had the European settlement that Germany would have imposed been one that (to use Ferguson’s judgments) Britain could have “lived” with, the British would henceforth have been powerless to prevent it from being transformed into one that could not be “tolerated.”

Furthermore, Ferguson exaggerates the power Britain gained from its empire. He breezily suggests that German hegemony on the Continent wouldn’t have mattered to Britain, given its “overseas power,” but he fails to define the extent of that power and what, precisely, it afforded Britain. And even if Britain did benefit from its imperial position, after the gains from the empire were balanced against the costs of sustaining it, the British almost certainly benefited more from economic relations with the Continent. This was particularly true for Britain’s dynamic financial and commercial sectors, the central elements of its economic power. These relations would obviously have been jeopardized by German domination of Europe, especially since one of Germany’s primary motives for establishing a Continental preponderance was to challenge Britain economically. Moreover, even those British statesmen who were most devoted to the empire, such as the ultra-imperialists Sir Alfred Milner and Leo Amery, argued vigorously that German hegemony had to be prevented, since, they held, once dominant on the Continent, Germany would resume its fleet expansion with greater devotion and resources than before, shattering British naval mastery, the sine qua non of Britain’s imperial system.

Finally, in arguing that no vital British interests were at stake in preventing German hegemony on the Continent in 1914, since, after all, German hegemony doesn’t menace Britain now, Ferguson fundamentally misunderstands which power is actually preponderant in Europe today. Although Germany’s is the strongest European economy, the United States is indisputably Europe’s military and political leader—and in crucial ways it has sheared Germany of military and political power. By providing for Germany’s security and by enmeshing its military and foreign policies in a U.S.-dominated alliance, the United States contained its erstwhile enemy, thus enabling the Western Europeans to cooperate politically and economically. Whether German hegemony in Europe would in fact have been inimical to Britain (or any more inimical than U.S. hegemony) may be an open question, but Ferguson is wrong to equate the position of a Germany victorious in the Great War with that of Germany today.

In many ways, then, Ferguson’s is a weak argument. Although he is a talented writer and a versatile scholar, he nevertheless constructs his case not from evidence but from the wish that Britain had stayed out of the colossal slaughter of the Great War and so averted that conflict’s consequences—from the Russian civil war, which may have claimed nearly as many lives as the Great War that spawned it, to the regimes of Hitler and Stalin, to the reduction of Britain and even Europe to minor forces in world affairs—none of which British statesmen could have foreseen in 1914. If only “a minority of generals, diplomats and politicians” had not misapprehended German intentions and British interests, this “disaster” would have been avoided. Ferguson’s impassioned and distorted argument, born of his great sense of regret over Britain’s agony, is vivid testimony to the persistence of the pain of the Great War among the British people. In this way his book, while often unconvincing, is an important cultural document. But in making so stark a case with so simple a solution, Ferguson misses the tough and painful questions his subject raises. Even though much of his argument is highly disputable, his “fundamental question”—Was it worth it?—resonates. To Ferguson, the answer is blessedly simple—Since there was really nothing at stake, of course not. But this position (similar to that of such figures as Bertrand Russell, Ramsay MacDonald, and John Morley, who in 1914 opposed Britain’s entry into the war) really evades rather than confronts the question.

There was in fact a great deal at stake for Britain in the Great War. Even assuming a benevolent German order on the Continent, the result of Germany’s victory would have been that British independence as a great power would have been greatly diminished. This may seem like an abstraction. But those British generals, diplomats, and politicians who soberly committed their country to war in 1914 were hardly brimming with optimism—as Sir Edward Grey’s oft-quoted lament, delivered on the eve of war, attests: “The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.” They knew, however, that few responsible statesmen would voluntarily place their country at the will of another in a world in which Thucydides’ hard law, “The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must,” has always obtained.

But to say that Britain fought the war so as not to be dependent on the sufferance of Germany doesn’t settle matters, because the price Britain was compelled to pay to preserve its national independence was truly awful. Whether that price was too high is a question more complex and therefore more compelling than Ferguson allows, and it has haunted the British mind for the past eighty years. But the question of whether submission might be preferable to waging war simply did not occur to the men who ruled Britain (or France or Germany or Russia) in 1914. As the cliché goes, the Great War ushered in the modern world. And in the world that began with four years of slaughter on the Western Front and continued with the terror bombings of the Second World War and the prospect of nuclear oblivion, that question will never again go unasked.

Andrew J. Bacevich (review date Summer 1999)

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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 somehow qualifies as tragedy, its origins, conduct, and outcome the product of vast and uncontrollable forces. He argues instead for seeing it as a series of monumental blunders resulting from the recklessness, stupidity, and cowardice of specific individuals.

Ferguson’s self-consciously revisionist book, which stirred a great deal of controversy when it was published in Britain last year, covers a wide range of topics. Revisiting familiar terrain, the author examines the war’s origins and probes the failure of the Schlieffen Plan, on which Germany’s hopes for quick victory in 1914 hinged. But he also ventures onto less traveled ground, addressing matters such as propaganda, the will of men to fight, and the complexities of surrender under the horrific conditions of the trenches.

Addressing these topics, Ferguson employs an idiosyncratic methodology. Memoirs, official reports, battlefield testimonials, and eyewitness journalism provide the very stuff of history for the typical specialist in military affairs. These Ferguson disdains as self-serving or biased, useful only to erect straw men for subsequent demolition. In place of such traditional sources, he offers data. Indeed, his achievement in amassing and analyzing data is nothing short of phenomenal. This hefty volume contains nary a map, yet it is festooned with dozens of graphs and tables, quantifying everything from “Total military personnel as a percentage of population for the five great powers, 1890–1913/14” to “British and German food consumption as a percentage of peacetime consumption, 1917–1918.” In essence, Ferguson views World War I through the lens of political economy.

Applied to issues of grand strategy or the macroeconomics of war management, the technique yields important insights. Ferguson effectively argues, for example, that British and German strategic interests were by no means incompatible before the outbreak of hostilities. He skewers Sir Edward Grey, Britain’s Germanophobic foreign secretary, who, partly for the sake of domestic politics, insisted on dispatching the British Expeditionary Force to France in 1914—an action that condemned his countrymen to a needless war and ultimately cost them their empire. Similarly, the author makes a compelling case that, despite their efforts to subject Germany to a Carthaginian peace, the supposed victors ended up bearing the brunt of the war’s costs.

In a demonstration of statistical precision that is, depending on one’s point of view, either awe inspiring or slightly loony, he calculates that killing an enemy soldier cost $36,485.48 for the armies of the Triple Entente, but only $11,344.77 for the Central Powers. The gap between these two figures, according to Ferguson, holds enormous importance. Indeed, “the greatest of all paradoxes of the First World War is that, despite being disastrously disadvantaged in economic terms, the Central Powers were far more successful in inflicting death on their enemies.” He cites this gap (correctly) as evidence of the superior fighting power, soldier for soldier, of the German army. Further, he uses it to suggest that the Allied strategy of attrition was an abject failure. Indeed, he concludes that the Allies never really defeated the German army in the field.

With data so boldly auguring victory, what went wrong for Germany? Ferguson differs with interwar proponents of the notorious “stab in the back” theory only in the culprit he holds responsible. Rather than traitorous politicians, he fingers General Erich Ludendorff, whose famous loss of nerve after Germany’s failed spring 1918 offensive set events in motion that culminated in an armistice by November. When Ludendorff’s confidence in eventual victory faltered, according to Ferguson, the morale of the troops under his command collapsed. Recalculating the costs of fighting on, German soldiers decided that the cause was no longer worth risking their lives. In ever-increasing numbers, they began throwing down their arms. The outcome of the war, according to Ferguson, thus reflected the common soldier’s willingness to surrender, not the German army’s capacity to kill. “It was Ludendorff who delivered the fateful stab,” he writes, “and it was in the German front, not the back.”

But in dealing with these inherently unquantifiable matters, Ferguson’s certitude is misplaced. His explanation—the outcome of a great armed struggle not simply determined but effectively reversed by the momentary lapse of a single individual—is too pat. War, as Clausewitz wrote, lies in the realm of chance, its conduct shrouded by fog and complicated by pervasive friction, a contest pitting governments and armies and peoples against one another, with the verdict determined as much by moral factors as by material ones. To pretend that a single factor explains the outcome of any conflict is as misleading as to imagine that, having cast the die for war, we can control its course. That was true during 1914–18 and it remains true in 1999, as the surprises and miscalculations of NATO’s war against Yugoslavia attest. The closer Ferguson ventures to the Western Front—that is, to the real war—the less persuasive he becomes.

To reaffirm that war is slippery and elusive is not to suggest that soldiers, statesmen, and scholars should abandon their efforts to understand its nature. But we should be wary of reductive explanations that can foster dangerous illusions. Imaginatively conceived and well worth reading, The Pity of War makes an important contribution to the vast literature of World War I. But, inevitably, it does not provide the last word on this particular war, much less war in general.

Charles S. Maier (review date 28 June 1999)

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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 Ulster)—but without having had to suffer the century’s intervening ideological orgies, its economic wastage of inflation and depression, its totalitarian experiments, its rap sheet of mass murder.

In a provocative interrogation of traditional views, Niall Ferguson argues that none of these interim self-inflicted catastrophes was necessary. Hence his title, borrowed from one of those affecting lyrics with which literate British youth came to terms with their massive slaughter. The real pity of the war was its avoidability. And it was not merely avoidable, according to Ferguson: Britain, he maintains, should never have entered the war even after it started on the continent. Had Britain remained neutral, the Germans could have forced a negotiated settlement, if not an outright victory; and this would have been followed, or so he speculates, by a benevolent unification of the continent. This is the most contentious assertion in a book that seems to advance one after another.

Ferguson also endorses the findings of recent investigations that have renewed all aspects of the history of World War I: the analyses of origins informed by the methods of political science, the rethinking of actual combat influenced by John Keegan, the proliferating fashionable studies of commemoration, literature, and living conditions, these latter often based on pioneering work done by social investigators of the time and then buried in the superb monographs published by the Carnegie Endowment. Ferguson has organized his reassessment not chronologically but thematically, around irreverent answers to self-imposed questions. Was war inevitable? Did Britain have to fight? Which side fought more efficiently in terms of manpower and financial outlay? His brio is reminiscent of A.J.P. Taylor’s combination of unsentimental argument, confident prose, and occasionally self-contradictory conclusions.

Start, as Ferguson does, with the perennial question of responsibility. He believes that British choices were irrelevant to origins but decisive for outcomes. Like most historians of the last fifty years, Ferguson indicts Berlin’s policy-makers for transforming a Balkan conflict into World War I, as the German authorities refused to restrain their Austrian allies from declaring war on Serbia despite mounting evidence that Russia, and thereafter France and probably Great Britain, would feel compelled to respond with force. After half a century of controversy over war guilt, scholarly opinion seems to have settled into a rough consensus on Austrian shortsightedness—though Serb policies in the 1990s may prompt some more sympathy for Vienna’s concerns—and German irresponsibility. Most historians do not endorse the primary role that George Kennan assigned to Russian ambition and French encouragement; but many have also backed away from the claims of German scholars of the 1960s, often on the Left, who claimed that their country’s military and industrial elites were overwhelmingly responsible owing to their expansionist ambitions.

Was Britain so irrelevant? Woody Allen’s Zelig, curiously enough, put the alternative view most succinctly: World War I took place because Britain owned the world and Germany wanted it. This cogent summary accurately captures the anxious supremacy of the maritime hegemon and the wannabe truculence of the continental power. Still, as Ferguson rightly explains, Anglo-German rivalry did not have to end in war. The two powers had many areas of common interest. The Germans were not particularly more militarist than their rivals; most European powers spent roughly the same amount on their armed forces in peace- time—3 to 5 percent of GNP, roughly comparable to what the NATO allies have sustained for almost half a century without war or social upheaval or the “imperial overstretch” that other historians have found economically disabling.

Ferguson’s appeal to numbers is admirable, but it is not always convincing. In an age of universal conscription (except in Britain until 1916), ready reserves, and pittances for soldiers, the raising of force levels did not have to take a huge bite out of GNP. Once war was underway, the ratio was different: the major belligerents devoted probably 30 to 50 percent of their national income to World War I. (Ferguson’s claim of 70 percent seems implausibly high.) The destabilizing effect of an arms race, as he emphasizes, was the conviction of each side that it was becoming more vulnerable and would soon sacrifice any credible defensive capacity. The Germans were obsessed by Russian rail and military modernization, the British and the Russians were preoccupied by German economic and military networking in the Balkans and Near East, the French were taken up with their larger neighbor’s manpower and industrial potential. When all sides feel that time is playing against them, every crisis can tempt to preemption, as it certainly did for the Germans. And if this is the case, then the momentum of an arms buildup is not negligible.

There is room to argue about whether the Anglo-German rivalry was really so stable, given the frequency of crises in which both countries had laboriously to patch together some precarious settlement. Still, as Ferguson states, both sides soon understood that the German naval challenge would not strategically alter Britain’s maritime supremacy, much as the Soviet Union later understood, at least by the early 1980s, that it could not durably change the missile balance. Mounting Russo-German distrust brought the greater peril of general war. Their mutual fear had to involve France and Austria-Hungary, each incapable of defeating their major foe on their own initiative but able to drag their more powerful ally into a war. In line with recent analysis of strategic dilemmas, Ferguson stresses that the German General Staff accepted the fatal calculus that the crisis triggered by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand might offer the last occasion on which they could confront the Russians, and perforce their French allies, before the massive Eastern power had overtaken them technologically. Shared dynastic sentiment was not enough to overcome strategic apprehension. As for London’s reaction, even those German civilian policy-makers who were despondent about likely British intervention accepted the military’s reckoning that British intervention would not make a significant difference before the continental campaign was concluded. In 1917, German policy-makers made the same short-sighted calculation about the Americans.

Ferguson’s review of these events is brisk but relatively familiar. Is he correct that Britain could have, and should have, stayed neutral? True, the German invasion of Belgium on August 4, 1914 provided a way to rally an otherwise divided governing Liberal Party. Even had this moral issue not arisen, however, the cabinet would finally have had to seek a non-party endorsement for war on the basis of the entangling weight of cumulative military agreements with France. Where Ferguson strives for originality is with his cold-blooded calculation that his country’s effort was not worth the cost.

Granted, the Kaiser’s Germany was not Hitler’s Germany; but still it may be doubted that Moltke’s victory in 1914 or Ludendorff’s victory in 1918 would have assured an easy transition to a benevolent common market. Yet the issue for Britain, and for every belligerent, in the summer of 1914 was not whether the Germans would have rearranged European institutions in a far-sighted or narrowly ambitious manner. It was axiomatic to statesmen that no single nation must dominate the continent. As for the past two centuries or more, the issue was the balance of power.

For Wilfred Owen, “the pity of war” had another sense. It referred to imposed but shared sacrifice. World War I was fought with a pervasive consciousness of iron inevitability. The statesmen who accepted war later said that they could not resist it, whether Foreign Minister Grey (“No human individual could have prevented it”) or Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg (“How did it happen? If only I knew … I didn’t want it”), nor could they extricate their countries from it. The young men whom they sent to fight were trapped for years in a narrow combat zone, mourning friends and becoming familiar with the spectacle of violent death that caught up with over nine million of their fraternity. Two years ago, when I visited Ypres, that corner of Belgium held by the British for four years against German attacks, and the site of their own stubbornly sacrificial Passchendaele counter-offensive in the autumn of 1917, visitors were still signing the memorial book at the Church of St. George, paying homage to their grandfathers—as Ferguson does to his grandfather, who survived wounds and gas—visiting the neatly tended mass cemeteries, retrieving memories that they never had directly, and trying to endow a conflict that seems so disproportionately senseless with some redemptive purpose. Ferguson implies that such a purpose cannot be found. …

For [John] Keegan [in The First World War], the war is an “ultimate mystery.” For Ferguson, it is a continuing question. Keegan emphasizes how the war bonded soldiers on the same side into “the closest brotherhood” and “life-and-death blood ties.” Ferguson emphasizes how much these comrades enjoyed killing those on the other side. So which Virgil should we trust in this Hell? Rather than stress the psychic distress or the occasional mutinies, which many recent writers have elevated into the normative experience of the conflict, Ferguson justifiably emphasizes the fact that soldiers continued to fight and to endure unbearable conditions for a long time (though most men were exposed to truly awful combat for limited periods). I am not sure that he is correct that they generally craved the “rush” of throwing grenades, twisting bayonets, and taking revenge, as such occasional berserkers as Siegfried Sassoon, Julian Grenfell, and Ernst Jünger testify. And I am skeptical that they were responding to a Freudian death instinct, as Ferguson suggests in an uncharacteristic collapse of empiricism, rather than just succumbing to the trivialization of life. His collation of narratives that record the deliberate killing of prisoners is impressive; but so, too, is the fact that a massive nine million POWs did manage to surrender and to make it into their wretched pens.

For all of us who have never fought in war, it remains truly awesome that soldiers could remain targets for so long under such unspeakable conditions—dragging artillery up the craggy peaks of the Dolomites, or immured in the soggy mud of France or Flanders, or baking under a desert sun. The British and the French and the German forces kept armies of millions intact and effective with no more than a few hundred men actually shot for cowardice and desertion; and the figures were comparable for the other combatants (though we have only the record of formal trials and not of junior officers enforcing discipline without trials). Even the large-scale French mutinies of April 1917 were quelled with only a few dozen executions. Compare these numbers with those in Hitler’s army, which seems to have executed about 20,000 or more of its own soldiers for growing discouraged at their long-range prospects.

Fronts finally broke, whether Russian and Italian or eventually Austrian and German; but until these mass retreats or routs, which signaled the end (save in the case of Italy, which regrouped), the troops remained stolid. Even the polyglot Habsburg army did not crumble until the German bid for an armistice announced that the end was imminent. Men did not think much of the propaganda that they were fed, but they knew that the enemy had been ordered to kill them and they had to fight back. They did not want to seem cowards to their mates, and their junior officers, that most vital link in leadership, suffered proportionally greater losses and proved their mettle. Keegan’s book makes this bonding comprehensible.

We know, too, that for all the ghastliness of trench warfare, the improvised network saved lives and provided relative security. The chronology of French casualties month by month demonstrates that by far the greatest losses took place before the trenches were built. The trenches were rat-infested and muddy, and they could be overrun, but they offered day-to-day protection. Far better to be in a trench than ordered over the top, except for those terrible hours or even days when artillery shells found their range and dismembered those caught under the explosions, the hot shards, and the suffocating earth.

Ultimately, as Ferguson explains, there was a fearful rationality about contesting the war on the Western front. Where else could the war have been won? German victory on the Eastern front in late 1917 did not let Germany win the war in the West. It is doubtful that Lloyd George’s preferred end runs, any more than Churchill’s later “soft underbelly,” would have accelerated the end or vastly economized the costs. This does not mean that pointless offensives were required. The logic of attrition, which let Douglas Haig decide to send wave after wave of soldiers to be mowed down at the Somme or, fifteen months later, shot in the muck of Passchendaele, was bloody wastage. Both offensives were planned with the objective of decisive territorial gains, then finally justified by the calculation that they cost the enemy more soldiers.

Until the home society rebelled, however, there would always be more young men. Year by year they would turn eighteen; a famous cartoon from the humorous front newspaper, the “Wipers (Ypres) Times,” shows bearded old British soldiers in the trenches saying that the war babies would be arriving soon. Keegan is justifiably bitter with Haig, and with Lloyd George for not resisting his general’s meatgrinder logic. The British could have held steady, as the French did after April 1917, and awaited the Americans—to whom Keegan gives higher marks for their early performance than many other historians, and who in any case could, by the summer of 1918, draw on greater experience and fresh masses of men.

Ferguson emphasizes that the balance of economic resources and manpower always favored the Entente. According to the numbers, Germany and Austria-Hungary could not have won. Still, as he recognizes, and as he might have emphasized more, victory in modern war is decided by a political decision. The power that gets discouraged—its domestic front breaking in revolution, its generals panicking, its electorate concluding that the costs are too high—will lose, and it can be the side with the greater resources. Recall only the Vietnam War.

In most modern conflicts before and after World War II, political demoralization has led to the end, though in the case of Germany in World War I it was the generals’ funk that precipitated the political collapse at home. A political collapse is no less a defeat than a loss on the battlefield, for (as Clausewitz famously stated) the former remains the stake of combat. Coming to terms, moreover, is often an assertion of rationality, not a stab in the back. Only in World War II did the war end by force before regimes gave way: the German and Japanese populations remained loyal until the end—a particular irony in that only in World War II did civilian populations suffer so directly.

As a historian who debuted with a dissertation on the German inflation and its impact in Hamburg in particular, Ferguson is sophisticated about issues of war finance. He can draw on a great deal of useful revision to demonstrate that the Germans were not so fiscally frivolous during the war as previously believed. The problem of war finance is one of transferring massive purchasing power and economic resources from individuals and firms to the state—that is, increasing military spending from perhaps 4 to 5 percent to about 50 percent of GNP. In World War I, no society financed more than a quarter of this transfer by overt taxation; the rest had to be achieved by borrowing or the indirect levy of inflation on incomes and bank accounts. Following recent scholarship, Ferguson stresses that Britain and Germany had comparable tax yields. The subsequent German hyperinflation was a consequence more of defeat and political upheaval than flawed war financing alone.

Far more problematic, I believe, is Ferguson’s argument that Germany was more efficient because the Reich dispatched its foe at less monetary outlay per corpse than its adversaries. It is hardly clear that this particular economy really demonstrates higher performance, since capital was less of a constraint for the Allies. (Americans fought both wars with material largesse, and rightly so.) Indeed, the sums seem to demonstrate primarily that defense was cheaper in dollar terms per man than attack. And unless the cost of taking prisoners is also included, the comparison proves little.

Most unsettlingly, Ferguson asks whether the war effort had any historical sense. Would it not have been better for the Allies to lose? Had Britain not intervened, had there been a stalemate in the West or even a German hegemony, the twentieth century would have avoided the turmoil in Germany that produced Hitler and the disorganization in Russia that entrenched Lenin: no Third Reich, no Auschwitz, no Gulag, no Cold War. One could ask the same question about American intervention: if Wilson had stayed out, might there not have been a negotiated settlement in 1917 that also assured more stability in the long run?

We should not fault the scenario simply because it is counterfactual. Some historians claim that they can explain only what occurred, and not the many outcomes that never materialized. To explain what occurred, however, they must constantly show why plausible alternatives remained excluded; otherwise they write only a teleology of events. Non-existent outcomes should hum about historians’ ears like twangling instruments about Caliban’s. Still, counterfactual analysis as a historical tool must presuppose the protagonists’ limits of knowledge and their sense of logic. If it merely points out ironic outcomes, it remains no more than a parlor game.

Grey, and even Bethmann Hollweg, understood that a major war would endanger what their generation prized as civilization. But even they could not foresee the Third Reich and the Gulag. As of 1914, there was reason to believe that a Germany that dominated Europe by force of arms might behave in the sometimes brutal way that many European states behaved where they did dominate by arms, in their colonial domains. It was not Dichter und Denker who would govern Belgium; and it was not operetta composers who so copiously shot Serbian defenders in 1915, any more than contemporary Belgrade intellectuals have sliced the throats of Muslims in the same Bosnian province where World War I was provoked. When societies go to war, their sense of shared humanity shrinks drastically.

On those occasions when I have been in Britain on Armistice Day, I have always bought a red crepe-paper poppy. Making my living, as I do in part, from recalling old veterans’ sacrifices in the classroom, it seems the least that I can do. Ferguson deserves to be proud, too, even if his grandfather’s tenacious combat may, in some way the old man could never have conceived or intended, have made Hitler’s terrible policies more likely. Historians must keep counterfactuals constantly in mind, but as Geoffrey Hawthorn has demonstrated, some counterfactuals are more “warranted” than others. Ferguson’s thought-experiments are warranted for reflecting on the irony of unintended consequences, but not to persuade us that the statesmen of 1914 should have acquiesced in German demands.

And yet his provocative and tough-minded analysis renews our thinking about this formative episode of the twentieth century. Another real “pity of war,” and the abiding lesson of this stimulating book, is that rational choices can produce absolutely catastrophic outcomes. For that sobering demonstration, I am grateful to Ferguson as well as to his grandfather.

David Gress (review date 12 July 1999)

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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 optimism that characterized the pre-1914 era. Only now, at the end of the 1990s, have international trade and exchange reached the same volume, relative to the GDPs of the great powers, as in 1914. Only now, it appears, is the long deviation finally over.

If, however, the benefits of free trade and self-confident democratic liberalism were as obvious as all that, the great deviation and its trigger, the war of 1914, become almost impossible to explain rationally. They appear either as the violent eruption of repressed barbarism predicted by 19th-century thinkers such as Jacob Burckhardt and Friedrich Nietzsche or, to the religion-minded, as the tragic penalty stemming from the insouciant confidence of those who thought that democracy, prosperity, and free trade were so obviously right that nothing could disturb their onward march.

Although the major questions raised by the war—what caused it, why it lasted so long, how it affected and was affected by culture, economics, and ideology—have been debated since the war itself, clear answers have tended to drown in the clamor of conflicting interpretations. Now, the two brilliant, wholly different, and therefore marvelously complementary volumes by John Keegan and Niall Ferguson present the full record with a comprehensive clarity that will not soon be superseded. These two books [The First World War and The Pity of War] will henceforth be the indispensable sources for anyone who wants to begin to understand what the great deviation was and why it occurred. …

Ferguson, an economic historian whose grandfathers fought in the war, revises a number of received opinions—for example, the notion that Germany was starved into defeat by the British blockade, or that the peace of Versailles was vindictive and therefore to be blamed for German revanchism and the rise of Hitler. Germany in the 1920s was strategically and economically better off than in 1914, largely thanks to the collapse of Russia, which had not yet reemerged as the Communist superpower. It was the German hyperinflation of 1920–23, not the Versailles Treaty, that paved the way for Hitler, and, as Ferguson has argued convincingly in other works, hyperinflation was in no way a necessary consequence of the war.

Before 1914, liberal thinkers such as Norman Angell argued that war between industrial powers made no sense and that the only rational way to seek power was by trade and economic growth. Angell was right, but he underestimated the power of fear, nationalism, and the alliance commitments that drove Germany to support Austria-Hungary against Serbia and Russia to threaten Germany in response. “The banks could not stop a war,” writes Ferguson, “but war could stop the banks.” Economic interests trump political passions only when economics has itself become the political passion. That was not the case in 1914; whether it is the case now, time will tell.

Anyway, once the war got started the economic-interest calculus changed. As a journalist wrote in 1917, “Since nations counted money no more than pebbles on a beach, and all would probably repudiate in one form or another at the end of the war, there seemed no reason for stopping, especially as so many people were growing rich by the war; the ladies liked being without their husbands, and all dreaded the settlement afterwards.” Ferguson endorses this judgment and its corollary, that the only way to end the war, once it started, was by defeating the main forces of the enemy. And that is what happened.

Victory came at a tremendous cost. One of Ferguson’s more interesting innovations is to calculate the cost per death inflicted for the various belligerent states. He shows that the Central Powers killed more cheaply than the Entente. (The figures are $36,485 for every dead German or ally versus only $11,345 for the Central Powers to kill a soldier of the Entente.) Therefore, though the Central Powers were out-numbered, it took a long time to defeat them.

Ferguson’s volume is a genuine mine of information, joining informative charts and tables to fluent analysis. But it is not problem-free. Ferguson is close to the John Charmley school of younger British historians who see the 20th century as a long and avoidable chronicle of British imperial decline. If only Britain had stayed out of the European wars of 1914 and 1939, this school argues, Britain would not have suffered a terminal loss of world power. A German victory in World War I, likely if Britain had stayed out, would not have been so bad: It would merely have produced, 80 years earlier, the German-dominated European Union of today. There would have been no Hitler, no second war, no Soviet power in Central Europe, a lot more prosperity and, yes, democracy, and a lot more people living their natural span.

This kind of counter-factual history, a speciality of Ferguson’s, is often challenging and helpful; the Charmleyites may well be right that a more multipolar world, in which Britain still held a global position and American hegemony were balanced by others, might be preferable to what we have. But to equate the militant and proud imperial Germany of 1914, stretching from Strasbourg to Königsberg, to the flaccid and effete rump Germany of 1999 is to ignore what is decisive in history. It is not clear to this reader, at least, that German hegemony in 1914 would really have been as benign as the waning German economic hegemony of today.

Leonard W. Boasberg (review date 9 August 1999)

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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 imagine, would rather go to a dance or a pub or a movie than go over the top with a 50–50 chance of being killed or wounded.

The contention that men fought because they liked it is one of many provocative propositions that Ferguson, a young Scottish scholar, a fellow of Jesus College, Oxford, offers in The Pity of War, a valuable survey of “the war to end all wars.”

One of Ferguson’s most controversial contentions has to do with Britain’s role in the origins of the war. Ferguson disputes the conventional explanation that the growing power of Germany confronted Britain with such a threat to her security that she had to go to war. On the contrary, he argues, the British government terribly exaggerated the supposed megalomaniac ambitions of Germany. True, the kaiser was given to occasional outbursts of bluster, but in fact his influence on German policy was limited. The British navy dominated the sea, and the possibility of making an agreement with Germany to halt or at least slow the increasingly costly naval race had surfaced on a number of occasions.

Ferguson insists that, before war broke out, Germany’s continental ambitions were fairly modest. He concedes that it was the German general staff that was determined to go to war, but, he argues, it was decisions made in London that turned the continental war into a world war. Britain, though allied with France, was under no obligation to come to its rescue, Ferguson contends.

Ferguson, an economic historian and a Tory, assumes some familiarity with the battles and leaders, military and political, of the war—a few more dates and identifications here and there would have been helpful to the general reader. Nevertheless, The Pity of War is an enormously researched, lucidly written and provocative challenge to other interpretations of World War I.

Hans Koning (review date 9-16 August 1999)

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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 an English gardener, all leading to conclusions (he says), controversial enough to be the delight of any television interviewer. But it feels like a book targeted at the uninformed and uncritical reader. Some of the conclusions seem to be reached with amazing speed: A German industrialist making an important deal in England proves to him that German industrialists did not want war, and that in turn is enough to have him write, “The Marxist interpretation of the war’s origins (i.e., capitalist competition) can therefore be consigned to the rubbish bin of history.” He sets up straw men—for instance, “the myth that it was the press that kept the war going on and on.” To illustrate this myth he uses an Austrian playwright, Karl Kraus, who argued that the increase in newspaper sales in the war years proved that only “the black-and-white international” (the press) profited from the war; Ferguson provides two pages of statistics demonstrating this. Then he knocks his straw man down by noting that after 1916 sales diminished, and that the closer one came to the front line, the less attention was paid to newspaper stories. Yet there seems no need for statistics in order to accept that once the frontline froze, extra-edition news would become rarer and newsstand sales would fall. As for the “cricket match approach” to the fighting taken by many newspapers, the casualty lists would soon enough prove otherwise.

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote a beautiful passage in which he explained as well as anyone the war’s acceptance: that it was built on the love affair of the citizens of the warring nations with their pasts, their rulers, their flag, their national anthem, their parades, their postcard pictures on the mantelpiece of the King and Queen or the President or the Kaiser. My critique of Ferguson’s two main theses can run deeper and more proximately. His first thesis is that England caused the war to expand by intervening and made it into a disaster, and the second is that the reason given for England’s intervention, i.e., the violation of Belgian neutrality, was a hypocritical fraud. When he writes, “The victorious Germans [would have] created a version of the European Union, eight decades ahead of schedule,” he ignores the fatal emotional charge acquired by words such as “war” and “ally.” Before 1914, war was “politics by other means”; thereafter it was for both sides a Manichean battle between Good and Evil. Even if Germany had set out to have a “little war,” the idea that conflict in the heart of Europe could have remained tightly circumscribed is fantastic. The same is true for the various scenarios Ferguson sketches for ending it, such as his suggestion that in 1918 the German general Erich Ludendorff should have sought peace negotiations on the basis of “relinquishing Belgium.”

By 1914 the concept of warfare, in Europe as in the United States, was still quite positive, perhaps more positive than it had been since the heyday of the Roman Empire. Jules Verne, the nineteenth-century futuristic writer, predicting a warless age ahead, has a twentieth-century man say, “Our bellicose notions are fading away, and with them our honorable ideas.” Lack of fear and a peculiar idea of manly honor meant to prove that the ruling classes and the white race in general were willing to pay the price for ruling the world. A handful of officers commanding native troops could keep vast colonial possessions in bondage because they were ready to kill and, supposedly, also ready to die. In the 1910 Encyclopaedia Britannica a British officer wrote in the entry for “Egypt” that the Egyptian peasant would make an admirable soldier “if only he wished to kill someone!” As for the United States, although it had no military caste, its values of true manliness weren’t much different, and a successful general always had (and still has) a shortcut to the presidency.

When Bernard Shaw called the British Army outdoor relief for the aristocracy, he was really writing about eighteenth-century armies, when, briefly, warfare was a game for gentlemen. The war Bismarck fought with France in 1870–71 still had something of that spirit. France had to pay a huge indemnification and lost two provinces, but it remained a major power whose foreign policies actually dominated those of Germany thereafter. Germany had defeated France but had not destroyed it.

While Ferguson presupposes that Germany’s war with France and Russia would have remained just that, leaving 1914 Europe basically intact, if England hadn’t turned it into a global conflict, in fact the German war policy asked for the Vernichtung of France as a player in Europe (Vernichtung has the stem nichts, which means “nothing”). Germany didn’t set out with something akin to today’s concept of “limited conflict”—what on earth could it have gained by that? In 1870–71 it had gone as far as a “little war” could take it.

Although the Kaiser’s serious, formalistic Germany was different in style from Hitler’s and lacked a genocidal racial program, it had aims (and contempt for the Slavs) that came painfully close to the Führer’s. A 1914 report to the German Imperial Chancellery included a map of the future eastern frontier in which a strip of land isolated a rump Poland (possibly to be ceded to Austria-Hungary). That strip was to be “cleared” by deporting part of the Polish population and all of its Jews. Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg noted that “the German people, the greatest colonizing people in the world … must be given wider frontiers within which it can live a full life.” (Germany did not get the chance to act on that policy, not then. But in 1939 it did, temporarily. Hitler’s satrap in Poland, Hans Frank, announced that for the first time in modern history, a war victory could be ausgenützt—used up—to the last drop, and that Poland would be reduced to nothing. Later the Czechs were told they might be moved to the Arctic Circle after the German victory; the Dutch were earmarked to populate settlements in Russia.)

The rulers of 1914 Germany were determined to make their country not just a world power but the world power. A popular slogan was, Am deutschen Wesen wird die Welt genesen, “German-ness will cure the world.” Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg’s “September Programme” of 1914 specified annexations of French, Belgian and possibly Russian territory, the founding of a Central European customs union and the creation of Baltic states under German control. Germany was to acquire new territory in Africa, where its colonial possessions were to be consolidated in one Central African area from coast to coast. Other German documents specified control of the Russian and Dutch railways. France would have to pay such a vast sum that it would forever be off the map as a European force. There was to be an effort to break up the British and Russian empires through fomenting Muslim revolution.

It is hardly politically correct to generalize about a nation, but centuries of a common history may put a stamp on a society that makes it hard for other societies to comprehend. I dare suggest that German aggressiveness was based not only on an overconfidence but also paradoxically on a lack of confidence. What to make otherwise of a report by Gustav Krupp, the arms manufacturer, written for his government in the fall of 1914? (The great industrialists of Germany did indeed play a large role in defining war aims.) Krupp wrote that German domination of Belgium must continue and extend to the north coast of France. He said, “Here we should be lying at the very marrow of England’s world power, a position—perhaps the only one—which would bring us England’s lasting friendship [emphasis added]. For only if we are able to hurt England badly at any moment will she really leave us unmolested, perhaps even become a ‘friend,’ in so far as England is capable of friendship at all.”

We can but hope that present-day Europe will not evolve like a 1914 continent in which Germany had won the war. Germany went through a unique Götterdämmerung trauma in World War II, which perhaps has enabled it to be the leading power on the continent without in the process Germanizing it and destroying its essence. Nothing but that trauma could have achieved that transformation. I for one am not too sanguine about the future prospects—and neither, I may add, is former chancellor Helmut Kohl, who has repeatedly warned that Germany’s total integration is “a matter of life and death” for the twenty-first century. Ferguson’s thesis that a German victory in a “little war” in 1914 would have been the better thing more than eighty years ago, and that England’s prevention of this was a pity (the Pity in the title of his book), is dead wrong.

Germany’s war aims in 1914 have been well documented by a German historian, Fritz Fischer, who in 1961 published a book about them, Griff nach der Weltmacht (“Grab for World Power”). An abridged version was published in English under the calm title Germany’s Aims in the First World War. The book caused an outcry in West Germany, but its scholarship and documentation left little room for factual criticism. Fischer’s book stands in direct contradiction to Ferguson’s ideas, and it is necessary to see how Ferguson deals with this. (The importance of Fischer’s book made avoidance of it unthinkable.)

“There is a fundamental flaw in Fischer’s reasoning,” Ferguson writes,

which too many historians have let pass. It is the assumption that Germany’s aims as stated after the war had begun were the same as German aims beforehand. … If this were true, then the argument that war was avoidable would collapse. … But the inescapable fact is that no evidence has ever been found by Fischer and his pupils that these objectives existed before Britain’s entry into the war.

That’s it, the basic justification for this 462-page text.

But it would surely have been amazing had any official plan such as the September Programme not been kept a complete secret in peacetime, when its publication would have spurred France, England and Russia into unheard-of efforts to manufacture more arms and train more soldiers. Even its publication after the war would have been a blow to Germany’s bargaining position at Versailles.

It also seems unacceptable to assume that on August 1, 1914, Germany held the limited war aims Ferguson ascribes to it but that five weeks later, and, moreover, right after the German march on Paris had been stopped in the Battle of the Marne, Bethmann-Hollweg would come up with a completely new, closely reasoned plan enlarging those aims to the nth degree.

Ferguson’s book presents another accusation, only slightly less startling and controversial than blaming England for turning a little war with a good ending into a huge war with a bad ending. He informs his readers that if Germany had not violated Belgium’s neutrality, Britain would have done so. “This puts the British government’s much-vaunted moral superiority in fighting ‘for Belgian neutrality’ in another light,” he writes.

England was certainly not just fighting for “Belgian neutrality” when it declared war. The main reason England entered the war was to guarantee that the Belgian coast would not be held in potentially hostile hands.

What evidence does Ferguson cite to assume that if Germany had not broken that treaty, England would have? He quotes a document issued after a British strategy meeting held in December 1912, which stated, “In order to bring the greatest possible pressure upon Germany, it is essential that the Netherlands and Belgium should either be entirely friendly to this country, in which case we should limit their overseas trade, or that they should be entirely hostile, in which case we should extend the blockade to their ports.” And from this Ferguson extrapolates, “In other words: if Germany had not violated Belgian neutrality in 1914, Britain would have.”

But are these really “other words” for what the 1912 meeting stated? The Netherlands remained neutral throughout the war; in March 1915 Britain set up a system under which ships’ cargoes to the Netherlands (and Denmark and Norway) were inspected by the navy for “contraband,” i.e., food and cotton for Germany. A year later the Netherlands Overseas Trust—a corporation of shippers that sent advance information on cargoes to the British Contraband Committee—was formed; this greatly speeded up the inspections. Through most of the war Dutch shipping between Rotterdam and German ports continued freely. The discussions of the legal limits to a blockade are really not comparable to the occupation and ravaging of Belgium, if that is what Ferguson’s proof is about.

Throughout his book Ferguson uses the word “Germanophobic” in referring to Sir Edward Grey and others in Britain who mistrusted the Germans. When Ferguson himself quotes the 1906 Chancellor Prince Bernhard von Bülow as “effectively postponing the idea of a preventive war until ‘a cause arose which would inspire the German people’” and calls this a sign of the Prince’s nonmilitarism; or when he writes that under restricted U-boat warfare, ships were sunk without warning only “if they were believed to be carrying war supplies to Britain”; or when he mysteriously states that the coveted “blightly wounds” (light wounds that were nevertheless serious enough to require hospitalization in England) proved not that British soldiers liked to get away from the frontline but that they had a Freudian affinity to “murder and death,” I am tempted to label him a Germanophile and an Anglophobe. Not that I share his obvious opinion that such adjectives contribute much to a discussion. But I certainly belong to the generation that had every reason to regret that Neville Chamberlain wasn’t more of a Germanophobe.

The Germany of 1914 was as determined as the Germany of 1933 to become the world power. The idea that Europe is now where it would have been in 1914 after a German victory over France and Russia is not the subject for an academic quarrel but a disastrous misreading of history. It relativizes and then obliterates the glory of the twentieth century: that in the end, and at staggering cost, the Good Guys carried the day.

Paul Kennedy (review date 12 August 1999)

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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. Industrialized labor, trade unions, and socialist parties gained in power, while the landed interest declined. The social and political position of women was transformed in various aspects, despite predictable resistance. The war produced a cultural crisis, in the arts, in ideas, religion, literature, and life styles. It also exacerbated ethnic and religious hatreds, in Ireland, the Balkans, and Armenia, that scar the European landscape today. The Great War is therefore not some distant problem about dead white males on and off the battlefields. Its origins, course, and consequences are central to an understanding of the twentieth century. Any high school, college, or university that does not accord importance to teaching its meanings is shortchanging the present generation of students and discrediting itself.

It is thus not surprising that monographs continue to appear on every aspect of the Great War—its memorialization, its effects on gender, its cultural and psychological dimensions, its varied faces of battle, its economic repercussions—as do the occasional general and synthetic works. Obviously, the sheer number and variety of the specialized works makes the composition of any synthesis so much more challenging. But, thank heaven, there are always a few bold souls in every decade willing to accept that challenge, venturing where the more prudent among us dare not go.

The first of the two general treatments considered here, John Keegan’s The First World War, shows both the merits and the perils of a single-volume synthesis. Keegan is probably the best-known military historian in the Western world today and his remarkable book The Face of Battle is an international classic, sometimes emulated but never equaled. He has always been a graceful prose stylist. Both his military expertise—he taught for many years at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst—and his gifts of expression are greatly in evidence here. …

Overall, the war at sea gets much less coverage than that on land, and the war in the air even less [in Keegan's The First World War.] The Middle East campaigns are briefly discussed. There is little or nothing on the home front, on war propaganda, on the role of women and labor, or on the critically important mobilization of the war economies. The conclusion, if that is the right term to describe Keegan’s reflections on the tragedy and folly of war, is scanty in the extreme. One gets the feeling that the author’s heart was not fully into this undertaking once he moved away from the topics he knows best, the killing fields of the Western and Eastern fronts.

In that respect, the second work under review, Niall Ferguson’s The Pity of War, could not be more different. He has strong messages to advance and a wide range of subjects. His book has caused great controversy in Britain itself, where its author is variously described as the most brilliant young historian of his generation or as a gadfly or a political ideologue. His book is weighty, learned, accompanied by thousands of footnotes and a truly daunting bibliography of secondary works; and it is also reinforced by archival sources from the Public Record Office, London, to the Bundesarchiv in Koblenz. It is possibly the most important book to appear in years both on the origins of the First World War (with six chapters and 173 pages), and on the nature and impacts of that conflict (eight chapters and 259 pages).

It should be made clear immediately that The Pity of War is not an attempt at a complete, detached synthesis, and for two reasons. The first is structural. This book really is a series of linked, analytical essays, each of which attempts to answer one of the ten “big” questions that Ferguson poses at the outset, such as: Was the war inevitable? Why did Britain intervene? Why did men keep on fighting for so long, and then cease fighting in 1918 so quickly? The second reason is that, among its many bold arguments, The Pity of War has put forward a really distinctive and deliberate claim—that as a “world” war this struggle both was unnecessary and was chiefly the fault of the British—which of course has caused so much of the fuss in Ferguson’s own country.

There is much to admire in The Pity of War. To begin with, it is the best effort this reviewer has seen to integrate economics into those well-known debates about the World War’s origins and aims that are so often the preserve of military and diplomatic historians. Ferguson’s earlier works, on banking and business in Hamburg and on the House of Rothschild, are vast and rather sophisticated exercises in economic history, which stand him in equally good stead here.1 The author is very good on Europe’s pre-war economy and especially on the heated discussion during the pre-war years of the Polish banker Ivan Bloch’s hypothesis that a Great Power war would most likely never occur because of the horrendous damage it would inflict upon Europe’s populations and economies. Ferguson is excellent on the vital topic of the mobilization of resources, with comparisons of Allied incompetence and the rather better German record for most of the war. And his book includes a very interesting argument about paying for the war and the question of reparations. “The real problem with the peace,” he writes,“was not that it was too harsh, but that the Allies failed to enforce it: not so much‘won’t pay’ as ‘can’t collect.’” Here, as elsewhere, his text is opinionated and radical, and many economic historians will be uneasy at his iconoclasm. But if they wish to challenge Ferguson’s views, they will have to battle him, archive by archive and footnote by footnote. He certainly knows how to stir the pot.

Other aspects of this book are also impressive. There are some truly insightful remarks about the literature of war and its many varieties, comical, celebratory, fascistic, horrific, tortured, bitter—as scholars, poets, and simple folks across Europe sought to convey the impossible to their readers. He draws on the work of such writers as Robert Graves, Wilfred Owen, and Henri Barbusse. The memorials of war (which Keegan also nicely features), its art and music, are all mentioned in Ferguson’s text, and he gives a fine account of wartime public opinion and of the evolution of propaganda, especially on the home fronts; in this respect Ferguson is more skeptical than Keegan about the images of Europe’s populations going joyfully to war in 1914 and has some nice counter-examples of the then resistance. The very detailed and provoking analysis of pre-war Anglo-German diplomacy and politics certainly entitles this study to a place among the basic works on that classic topic “The Origins of the First World War.”

Then there is Ferguson’s remarkable Chapter Twelve, entitled “The Death Instinct: Why Men Fought,” in which he addresses a topic which most of us find incomprehensible: since human beings usually don’t want to die at an early age and since their being ordered over a trench top to advance upon enemy machine guns almost certainly meant that they would die, why did men keep obeying orders to attack, day after day, campaign after campaign? When Haig preordained that bombardments would cease ten minutes before the British attack on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, veterans of Gallipoli quailed in their shoes because they knew from that past experience that the enemy would have the chance to come up from the bunkers, man their machine guns, and slaughter the advancing troops, that is, themselves. Nonetheless, they too went “over the top” when the orders came.

Ferguson discusses various explanations ranging from the “stick” of military discipline (particularly ferocious in the British army) when applied against cowardice and desertion to the “carrots” of patriotism and esprit de corps; but he ultimately settles on the much more disturbing conclusion that Freud may have been right in his “Thoughts for the Times on War and Death” that men unconsciously enjoy aggression and killing, were actually thrilled by battle, driven by vengeance, and even careless about losing their lives. Such a hypothesis can never be proven but there is an impressive marshaling of evidence to suggest that many combatants thought that way.

In view of these obvious intellectual strengths, why has The Pity of War caused such a fuss? The answer lies in the three linked arguments at the center of the Ferguson thesis: that it was chiefly Britain’s leaders who were to blame for making the July 1914 crisis into a world war, for the latter was not inevitable; that Imperial Germany was not the threat to Britain and her Empire that Hitler was to be (and that, in fact, if the British had not so ruinously expended the resources of Western civilization in their efforts to destroy the Kaiser’s Germany, Hitler would have “eked out his life as a mediocre postcard painter … )”; and that, given German dominance of Europe and its institutions today, it was simply not worthwhile to waste men and treasure. Or, to use Ferguson’s words,

Had Britain stood aside—even for a matter of weeks—continental Europe could therefore have been transformed into something not wholly unlike the European Union we know today—but without the massive contraction in British overseas power entailed by the fighting of two world wars.

Here, then was the “pity” of war, in all the possible meanings of the word; and because the ghastly tragedy of 1914–1918 was avoidable, it deserves to be labeled as “nothing less than the greatest error of modern history.”

All this, as Wilhelm II used to say, is “strong tobacco,” and it’s therefore not surprising that a cottage industry has grown up in the British press seeking to explain Niall Ferguson and where he comes from. He appears on television, writes Op-Eds on current affairs, has a successful and influential spouse, commutes to Jesus College from his Oxfordshire farm, and commands vast advances for his future books. All this, plus the fact that he has written so much so quickly, has provoked many murmurings amid the dreaming spires. He is likened to that original tele-don and intellectual gadfly A.J.P. Taylor, whom he deeply admires, and to his unorthodox and controversial doctoral adviser, Norman Stone. As if this were not enough, Ferguson is also the editor of another book, Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals,2 in which he and fellow historians speculate on how the world might be different had nine momentous events been different. What would have happened, for example, if George III had averted the American Revolution, or Hitler conquered Britain and Russia, or JFK not been assassinated? These counterfactual essays are fun. We all play such games, but the reader is never sure how seriously such arguments are being advanced. Much the same has been said about The Pity of War.

A different interpretation of what Ferguson is up to is altogether more political and ideological. Some critics have described him as one of the intellectual “sherpas” of the new Toryism in Britain—pro-Thatcherite, jealous to preserve England’s independence, wary of today’s Europe (and the US), unhappy at the loss of Empire, and deeply aware that it was the two great European wars fought in this century that emasculated British power.

Ferguson’s political message, if that is the right term, seems more nuanced and less pointed than those of Maurice Cowling and John Charmley—especially the latter’s claim that Churchill was a fool to fight on after 1940–1941—but there are similarities of tone and especially style that make such associations seem plausible. In any case, the powerful reactions to Ferguson’s thesis—like the angry Tory reactions to the euro or to Scottish devolution—offer an interesting insight into the uncertainties of the English people, especially the traditionalists, as they nervously await the next century.

Yet it is unnecessary to speculate on Ferguson’s political intentions in order to call into question the chief arguments of The Pity of War. The author can be challenged on more appropriate grounds, namely, on his interpretation of the historical evidence, especially that relating to pre-war British and German policies. Put bluntly, the Ferguson thesis is not borne out by the full array of historical facts, for there are many weighty arguments against those deployed in this clever, revisionist work.

Since the central part of that thesis concentrates on how best we are now to understand British and German policies between around 1900 and 1920, a counterargument should also concentrate on that subject.3 Take, for example, Ferguson’s strictures against the British government in power just before the outbreak of war, especially the Liberal prime minister Herbert Asquith and the foreign secretary Sir Edward Grey, for their confused policies toward Europe and for not making their position clear to the continental powers and to their own people. This is not a new criticism—both the left and the right in Britain attacked Grey on these grounds in the 1920s, although obviously for opposite reasons. The left felt London should have warned Paris and St. Petersburg that it would never let itself get dragged into a European conflict, while the right claimed that, if Britain had clearly warned Germany that it would definitely intervene, Berlin would have been deterred from its aggressions. Either way, it seems, Sir Edward Grey was blamed.

But the plain fact was that Britain’s ambivalence about European intervention was directly related to, and greatly influenced by—perhaps one might even say determined by—the fractured state of British politics at the time. Having lost its large majority in the House of Commons during the critical elections of 1910, Asquith’s Liberal Party had much less of a free hand and it depended upon brokering deals with the antimilitarist Labour MPs and with Redmond’s Irish Party to get controversial legislation passed. Above all, Asquith and Grey were conscious that a majority of Liberal MPs, and many Cabinet members, were opposed to anything like a fixed military alliance with France; hence the secret and tortuous entente diplomacy, leaning toward France but never wishing openly to declare an alliance.

On the other hand, the government could also not state that it would wash its hands of any continental quarrel, regardless of its cause, for that would provoke the resignation of the powerful “Liberal Imperialist” wing of the party—including Grey, Haldane, Churchill, and Asquith himself—who would then ally with the nationalist Tories and forge a distinctly more assertive strategy against Germany and with France. All Liberals remembered that their disastrous split over Gladstone’s Home Rule for Ireland scheme in 1886 had put them into the political wilderness for nearly twenty years, and none wished to repeat that mistake. Better, then, to fudge the issue and hope that a casus belli simply would never arise.

Moreover, there was a certain Bismarckian cunning to not letting the European powers know whether and under what conditions Britain would intervene in a continental struggle between Austro-German and Franco-Russian alliance blocs. During the 1880s, the Iron Chancellor had refused to say whether he would come down on the side of the Habsburg Empire should Russia invade the Balkans or Constantinople, thereby deterring Russia from taking such aggressive actions and Austria-Hungary from assuming it had automatic German support. Grey’s diplomacy before 1914 was not dissimilar: by refusing to give France absolute guarantees of British backing, he hoped to restrain Paris and St. Petersburg from aggressively provoking Germany; but by also cautioning the Germans not to presume that the British Empire would stand aside, the Foreign Office hoped to deter any German strike westward should a crisis occur and to ensure a diplomatic solution instead. Eighty-five years later, this does not appear a totally stupid policy.

But perhaps the most doubtful part of Ferguson’s argument is his contention that Wilhelmine Germany, even if permitted to conquer and dominate all of West-Central Europe, would not have been a great threat to the future of the British Empire. It is true that the nature and purposes of Wilhelmine imperialism have been interpreted in various ways, so that some historians see Berlin’s policies before 1914 as being more blundering, haphazard, and defensive than they were aggressive and purposeful; and no one is saying that the Kaiser’s Germany came close to the sheer evil megalomania of Hitler’s Reich. But there is a vast amount of evidence, much of it collected by Fritz Fischer in his 1961 book Germany’s Aims in the First World War4 and later by Fischer’s students, that Wilhelmine Germany contained powerful groups that were expansionist and felt hemmed in by their existing boundaries and frustrated by their inability to create vast spheres of influence as the British, Russians, French, and Americans had done. Such powerful Germans, including both industrialists and Junkers from eastern Germany, were conscious of their expanding population and booming economy, and wanted to see a change in the existing territorial and political status quo both inside and outside Europe. Ferguson is entitled to say that the Second Reich also contained more moderate elements, a contention he amply details; but his suggestion that the Prussianized, antiliberal, militarized Germany of pre-1914 was more or less the equivalent of Helmut Kohl’s polity in the 1990s defies belief and has understandably caused his critics to wonder if he is exaggerating simply for effect’s sake.

By the same token, and returning to the British side of the story, how could any government in London, whether Liberal or Conservative, be sure that a Germany dominating Europe could be trusted? How could Britain feel secure when the last time such a circumstance had occurred, a century earlier, had also been the era of the nation’s greatest peril? Perhaps contemporaries were somewhat off the mark when they equated Wilhelm II with Napoleon, but the volatility and assertiveness of German policies and the noisy chauvinism of its more militant newspapers, pressure groups, and politicians clamoring for their “rightful” place in the sun were highly disturbing to Britons, including many who deeply regretted the passing of the traditional Anglo-Prussian friendship of the nineteenth century.

Above all, of course, there was the ever-growing, powerful, efficient German navy being built just two hundred miles across the North Sea, and this by a country that also possessed the most effective army in Europe. Not to have been concerned that a Germany triumphant on land would then switch even more of its resources to fleet-building, as Admiral Tirpitz urged, would have been folly. As Grey long-windedly told the Dominion prime ministers in 1912,

if a European conflict, not of our making, arose, in which it was quite clear that the struggle was one for supremacy in Europe, … then … our concern in seeing that there did not arise a supremacy in Europe which entailed a combination that would deprive us of the command of the sea would be such that we might have to take part in that European war. That is why the naval position underlies our European policy. … 5

These are hardly fears that should be dismissed, or relativized, as easily as Ferguson does; indeed, they are the sort of apprehensions—about the purposes and final aims of a rising, anti-status quo power, be it Athens or Philip II’s Spain—that almost always causes neighbors to take diplomatic and military precautions to protect themselves. Assuredly, some future revisionist historians will tell us that Soviet aims during the cold war were never as ambitious and awful as the West feared; but it does not follow from that argument that the democracies were inherently wrong to set up NATO, contest Soviet penetration in various parts of the world, and take a tough position during crises over Cuba, Berlin, and other hot spots.

The First World War was a catastrophe of unbelievable horror, suffering, and destruction, and it is reasonable to believe that if the leaders of Europe had anticipated even a part of its costs and consequences they would have striven with all their power to avoid it. None of them went to war to achieve what ultimately happened—shattered empires, crushed regimes, millions of deaths, ruined economies, landscapes blasted beyond recognition, and political and social convulsions. All of this so scarred and troubled later democratic leaders that, ironically, they went to extreme lengths in the 1930s to avoid another conflagration even in the face of Hitler’s increasingly open aggressions. After 1945, by contrast, different conclusions were drawn about the principles of intervention and non-intervention in Europe’s affairs. We are all wiser after the event.

But however much we may regret the disasters and holocausts that flowed from Europe’s decision to go to battle in 1914, it is far-fetched—and surely unhistorical—to place the chief responsibility for the First World War upon the British Liberal Cabinet and to argue that had Britain stood aside that tortured continent would resemble something like the European Union today. These and other sweeping assertions certainly make for a lively debate, and Niall Ferguson can confidently claim to have inherited Taylor’s mantle.6 Yet, after all his evidence has been considered, Ferguson’s speculations about the likely limitations of German policies in this period remain “nonproven” while much of the historical evidence about British decision-making points in the opposite direction to that he describes. Our author has tilted, ambitiously and deliberately, at many a windmill in this latest oeuvre and done historical scholarship a service in asking and then trying to answer his ten awkward questions; but, as with Don Quixote, when ambitions outreach performance even the boldest knight errant cannot avoid coming a cropper from time to time.


  1. Niall Ferguson, Paper and Iron: Hamburg Business and German Politics in the Era of Inflation, 1897–1927 (Cambridge University Press, 1995); The World’s Banker: The History of the House of Rothschild (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1998).

  2. London: Trans-Atlantic, 1998.

  3. A point of disclosure here. My own study, The Rise of the Anglo-German Antagonism, 1860–1914 (London: George Allen & Unwin), published in 1980, goes over much of the evidence used by Dr. Ferguson in the first half of his book and reaches rather different conclusions. The Pity of War uses Antagonism and makes fair reference to it, I think, though without drawing the reader’s attention directly to these large differences. Perhaps this is just as well.

  4. Norton, 1967 (originally published in Germany as Griff nach der Weltmacht in 1961).

  5. Quoted in Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of British Naval Mastery (Scribner, 1976), p. 231.

  6. One thinks especially of the controversy aroused by the publication of Taylor’s The Origins of the Second World War (1961; Atheneum, 1983), which so offended traditionalists by arguing that Hitler had not wanted a European war in 1939 and that the British and French appeasers were chiefly responsible for that conflict coming about.

Donald Kagan (essay date October 1999)

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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 assumptions of inevitable progress based on reason, science and technology, individual freedom, democracy, and free enterprise gave way to cynicism, nihilism, dictatorship, statism, and class warfare.

As it is widely agreed that World War I was the mother not only of World War II but of most of the horrors of the rest of our century, it is no surprise that historians have sought ever since to learn the lessons of this fearful catastrophe, and especially of its causes. Niall Ferguson’s The Pity of War is a most interesting contribution to the discussion. A fellow of Jesus College, Oxford, Ferguson, who is in his mid-thirties, has already written a weighty volume in his special field of economic history as well as an even longer but more popular work on the House of Rothschild. These, together with his many contributions to the press and his appearances on radio and television, have earned him a reputation (in the words of a New York Times profile) as “the most talked-about British historian of his generation.”

The Pity of War will enhance that reputation. A very ambitious book, grounded in a full grasp of the vast scholarship on the subject, it offers many bright ideas and valuable information, and sheds much light on a number of central topics. Among these, the most important concern the two linked questions of how World War I came about and how and whether it might have been averted. But before turning to them I want to look briefly at Ferguson’s discussion of two other topics: why the war went on as long as it did, and how and why it ended.

In so doing, I am following Ferguson’s own style and method in this book. Instead of presenting a narrative account of his subject, allowing interpretation to emerge from the march of events, in the manner of most historians over the centuries, he prefers an approach shaped more by the social sciences: identifying particular questions that have provoked argument over the years and setting out to answer them as directly and fully as possible. This method has both advantages and disadvantages. The gains are in focus and intensity; the losses are in context and perspective.

Why, then, did the war last so long? Was it because of popular enthusiasm at home, as is widely believed? Although granting that many people were indeed excited by the clash of arms, at least at first, Ferguson answers in the negative. Well, then, “did propaganda, and especially the press, keep the war going”? On balance, again, the answer is no. Instead, we must look to the battlefield itself and ask a different sort of question: “Why did men keep fighting when, as the war poets tell us, conditions … were so wretched?”

To this question Ferguson gives a complicated reply. Discounting the significance of military discipline and/or coercion, and discounting as well the belief of soldiers on both sides in the rightness of their country’s cause, he dwells instead on an insight of Freud’s: that war “strips us of the later accretions of civilization and lays bare the primal man in each of us.” “The crucial point,” Ferguson writes, “is that men fought because they did not mind fighting. … For most soldiers, to kill and risk being killed was much less intolerable than we today generally assume.”

A similar point about men at war was made long ago by Thucydides, and there is surely something to it. But as a generalization it is much too broad. All soldiers, presumably, have the same innate instincts, but some armies fight long and hard while others yield quickly. The real question is, why did the Allied soldiers on the Western front not yield to superior German force?

Here we come upon one of the serious limitations of this book—namely, that for the most part it is yet another study of the Great War from the British perspective, with considerable attention to the German enemy and some to the French ally but with little to the Austrians or Russians and with almost nothing being said about the Balkans or about the fighting outside Europe. The plain fact is that, in the trenches on the Western Front, which is where the British fought and where Ferguson’s main interest lies, the war imposed special conditions. In that constrained context, the prospects of desertion were almost nil, and mutinies could be readily suppressed. In short, it was very hard for those men not to keep fighting.

But there is another “important cement” of soldierly motivation that Ferguson mentions only in passing—namely, “comradeship at the level of the unit.” Modern studies indicate that this bond is, in fact, decisive for cohesion and military effectiveness. It clearly operated at a very high level in the trenches of France, though Ferguson does not investigate how or why, let alone how similar bonds worked or failed to work in the armies on other, less stable fronts.

Turning from the realm of human motivation to that of large institutional forces, Ferguson asks another and more illuminating question about the war’s longevity: why was the enormous economic superiority of the British empire unable to bring about a swifter victory, thus avoiding the need for American intervention? Because, his answer runs, the Allies waged war inefficiently. The British sent too many skilled workers to be killed in the fighting, thus robbing domestic industry of crucial manpower, while British labor unions forced higher wages for factory work than was justified by productivity, and strikes imposed devastating losses in work days. He contrasts this with the economic situation in Germany, where, though food and money shortages were unpleasant facts of life, the war continued to be conducted with relative efficiency.

This is the sort of issue on which Ferguson’s expertise in economics serves him well—as it does again (to digress for a moment) on the issue of the war’s aftermath.

Ever since the signing of the Versailles treaty, a confluence of opinion has managed to convince almost everybody that the terms imposed on the defeated Germany were unjust, punitive to the point of being “Punic” and hence a major cause of the rise of Hitler and the failure of peace. As against this, Ferguson summarizes and fortifies the work of a number of historians in the last two decades who argue entirely to the contrary.

The peace terms, he shows, “were not unprecedented in their harshness,” and the reparations payments assigned to Germany were far from intolerable. In fact, “the Germans received at least as much in the form of loans from abroad that were never repaid as they themselves paid in reparations,” and during the Depression in the early 1930’s they “were more successful than any other country in defaulting on their debts, including the reparations demanded from them by the Allies.” In sum, the problem with Versailles in the economic sphere was not that it was too harsh but that “the Allies failed to enforce it.”

But to return to the war and its duration: if the German economy behaved tolerably well, and if, as Ferguson also argues, the German army was clearly the superior fighting force, killing and putting out of action many more men than it lost, why did the Allies prevail?

Of one thing he is quite sure: “It was not the Allied tactical superiority which ended the war”—not improvements in battlefield techniques, not the introduction of the tank or its combination with airplanes and infantry, and not the arrival of American troops. Rather, “it was a crisis of German morale. … It was those Germans who elected to surrender—or to desert, shirk, or strike—who ended the war.” And why did German morale crack? Not because of the failure of the famed Michael offensive launched in March 1918, or the devastating German rout at Amiens on August 8, which represented “the greatest defeat the German army had suffered since the beginning of the war.” No, what made Amiens “truly black was the German High Command’s [i.e., General Ludendorff’s] admission of defeat,” an overreaction by an exhausted and sick man who wrongly “jumped to the conclusion that the army would collapse” if the fighting continued.

Hitler himself would later claim that the German army was not defeated in battle but stabbed in the back by subversive forces within Germany society. Ferguson’s belief is that the “fateful stab” was delivered by General Ludendorff, and it was a stab “in the German front, not the back.” But this fanciful interpretation misreads the military situation at the time, and it is not supported by evidence about the German commander’s mental or psychological condition.

The Michael offensive employed new tactics that had been carefully worked out in four years of trench warfare. It relied upon the use of specially selected men whose job was swiftly to bypass strong enemy positions and penetrate deep into Allied territory, inflicting heavy casualties and forcing retreat. The trouble was that, after a while, these attacks themselves ground to a halt, chewing up great numbers of soldiers, among them the best in the German army.

As if that were not bad enough, the Michael offensive left the Germans with no reserves either to resume the offensive or to sustain the “elastic” defense that had been developed by the German army. On the Allied side, in the meantime, the torrent of American soldiers arriving in 1918 provided a seemingly endless stream of reserves and permitted Ferdinand Foch, the new Allied supreme commander, to launch a series of attacks in different sectors, compelling the Germans to retreat or collapse. Nor was the Western the only front affected. By 1918, Allied forces in the Balkans were strong enough to attack Germany’s ally Bulgaria, thus forcing another ally, Turkey, to surrender and pressing on the Austrian frontier.

It was the collapse in the Balkans that finally caused the Germans to seek an armistice, but it was the failure of the German spring offensive, improved Allied tactics and equipment, and the arrival of the Americans that defeated the Germans on the battlefield. Any decisive stab, in back or front, was delivered neither (as Hitler would have it) by socialists, Jews, and traitors nor (as Ferguson would have it) by Ludendorff and the high command, but by the Allied armies. The boldest, healthiest, and strongest German commander imaginable would have sought a negotiated peace in the summer of 1918.

This brings us around to the really big issue, which is not how long the war lasted or how and why it ended but how it broke out in the first place. A fierce historical debate has raged around this question, to which Ferguson now adds his own very controversial reply.

Within years of the signing of the Versailles treaty, which placed full responsibility for the war and the damage it caused on the Central Powers, Germany’s new Weimar republic had launched a well-organized and largely covert effort to discredit Versailles altogether. The foreign office even established an entire subsection, the Kriegsschuldreferat, dedicated to disproving German accountability for the war.

This campaign fell on receptive ears in both England and the United States, where, for their own reasons, liberals had been complaining bitterly that the treaty betrayed the idealistic aims and principles professed by wartime Western leaders. Others, especially in Britain, went further: to those who had opposed entry into the war in the first place, the real causes of the conflict and the terrible destruction it engendered were to be sought in Western imperialism and militarism, in the Western alliance system and the habits of secret diplomacy, and in the greed of munitions makers (“merchants of death”) and bankers.

All of these views were adopted by revisionist historians in the interwar years. Their writings powerfully shaped educated opinion, strengthening the tendency toward appeasement in Great Britain and toward isolationism in the U.S. Not until the 1960’s, in the work of the German scholar Fritz Fischer and his followers (building on the magisterial work two decades earlier of the Italian historian Luigi Albertini) was this revisionist interpretation shaken and, finally, overthrown.

The consensus today is that the deeper causes of the war are to be seen in Germany’s ambitions to become the dominant force on the European continent and a world power equal to or greater than Britain. Hence the German decision to build a battleship navy strong enough at the very least to make the British stand aside while this vast change in the international balance of power was taking place. Instead, of course, the alarmed British undertook an expensive (and unwelcome) naval race in order to maintain their superiority at sea, and abandoned their cherished stance of “splendid isolation” to forge an alliance with Japan and a “Triple Entente” with France and Russia. In turn, this new international configuration caused Germany to fear that it was being “encircled” by jealous and hostile forces, leading to a new arms race and to the final crisis of July 1914.

Ferguson is fully aware of the latest historiographical developments. Along with most historians today, he rejects arguments for Germany’s innocence or, at most, co-equal responsibility for the outbreak of war in 1914. But he departs from the consensus in his explanation of why the Germans acted as they did in 1914. “The German decision to risk a European war in 1914 was not based on hubris,” he writes; “there was no bid for world power. Rather, Germany’s leaders acted out of a sense of weakness.” In short, Ferguson believes, the Germans launched a preventive war, chiefly out of fear of an attack by Russia a few years into the future.

There is, however, no reason to credit this version of events. As D.C.B. Lieven, a leading historian of imperial Russia, has put it, Russia in those years “was a territorially satiated power,” and the Russian government faced serious internal troubles that threatened to bring disaster in case of war. Besides, if Russia were to attack Germany, “the self-regulating mechanisms of the balance of power would turn against her.” An unprovoked Russian aggression on Germany, that is, would have destroyed the Triple Entente, without which the Russians could not hope to win such a war.

All this was clear to the Germans. Their fear, which assuredly existed, arose from a different quarter: the prospect of a more powerful Russia, joining forces with France and possibly Britain, in a war provoked by Germany. The German determination to move up in the world by force and the threat of force—the “hubris” dismissed by Ferguson—is taken very seriously by most historians. There is a mountain of evidence to support it, not only in the record of German actions but in the myriad statements of German government and military leaders in and out of office, businessmen, industrialists, bankers, and publicists, as well as astute observers in other countries.

Here, from the turn of the century, is one such observer, not a suspicious Englishman, Frenchman, or Russian but the shrewd and experienced ambassador to Berlin of Germany’s chief ally, Austria-Hungary:

The leading German statesmen, and above all Kaiser Wilhelm, have looked into the distant future and are striving to make Germany’s already swiftly-growing position as a world power into a dominating one, reckoning hereby upon becoming the genial successor to England in this respect. … Germany is already preparing with speed and vigor for her self-appointed future mission. In this connection I may permit myself to refer to the constant concern for the growth of German naval forces.

To Ferguson, none of these “flights of fancy” (his term) should be taken at face value. The only real issue was the more modest one of a Mitteleuropa dominated by German power—and, he asks in all seriousness, would that have been so bad? Suppose Germany’s “first strike” in 1914 had been unopposed, and had indeed succeeded in establishing “German hegemony in Europe.” The results, Ferguson writes, would have been “a German-dominated European customs union” little different from the one developing peacefully in Europe today. For all the bluster about an empire of the German nation and of the German will to power—“not the way,” he cheerfully admits, “German politicians talk today”—the fact remains that “Germany’s European power was not one with which Britain, with her maritime empire, could not have lived.” But instead, heedlessly disregarding the promises of moderation made by Berlin at the height of the crisis in July 1914 (when the Germans were desperately trying to keep the British neutral), Britain plunged into war.

In the concluding section of this book, entitled “What If?,” Ferguson expands on the blessings that would have flowed if Britain had stood aside—even for a matter of weeks—from war. Not only would continental Europe have been transformed into something not wholly unlike the European Union we know today, but Britain itself would never have suffered the massive contraction in overseas power entailed by the fighting of not one but two world wars and by the loss of its financial prominence. Perhaps, too, the complete collapse of Russia into the horrors of civil war and Bolshevism might have been averted. There would have been no Hitler, no Lenin, no Holocaust, no Gulag.

No wonder, then, that Ferguson evaluates Britain’s decision to resist in 1914 as “nothing less than the greatest error of modern history.” The only trouble is that to accept his interpretation requires that we ignore everything we know to the contrary, and that is a very great deal. It has been painstakingly documented by Fritz Fischer and others, and it was epitomized in the “September program” drawn up by the German chancellor, Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg, a month after war began in August 1914. In brief, Germany’s aim was to conquer and dominate the European continent from the English Channel to the Ukraine, to exploit its economic resources, and use it as a base for a world empire.

According to the detailed plans of the September program, for example, “France must be so weakened that it cannot rise again as a great power. Russia must be pushed back from the German frontier as far as possible, and its rule over the non-Russian peoples must be broken.” A preferential trade treaty would make France “our export land,” and the French would be required to pay an indemnity that would make it impossible for them to manufacture armaments for at least twenty years. Belgium would lose Liège, Verviers, and probably Antwerp, and would become a vassal state. Holland would be ostensibly independent, “but essentially subject to us.” Luxembourg would be incorporated directly into the German empire. Apart from these territorial provisions, but by no means less important, was the aim of establishing “mutual customs agreements” that would guarantee German economic domination of Europe.

Plans for the East were not yet formulated in such detail, but the ideas already being entertained by Bethmann-Hollweg and others led naturally to the settlement imposed on the new Bolshevik government of Russia by the treaty of Brest-Litovsk in 1918. This deprived Russia of Poland, Finland, the Baltic states, Ukraine, and parts of the Caucasus.

Would the Germans have changed any of these plans in order to keep promises made to Britain in July 1914? Hardly likely. And we must remember that Bethmann-Hollweg was a moderate in the context of Wilhelmine Germany, and that his program fell short of the wishes not only of right-wing extremists, both civilian and military, but also of most intellectuals and political centrists. Had Britain been deterred by German promises, it would have ended up facing a Europe dominated by a single power far stronger and more dangerous than the Spain of Philip II or the France of Louis XIV, or even of Napoleon.

This power would have the greatest army the world had ever seen, unprecedented economic resources with which to build up its already formidable navy, and reserves of men the British could not hope to match. Not only would the new Germany have the capacity to exclude British trade from the continent, doing fearful damage to the British economy, it could even, if necessary, invade and subjugate the British Isles. A British leader willing to run the risk of such an eventuality would have been reckless beyond reason.

Niall Ferguson’s taste for “counterfactual” history, exemplified to such striking if misguided effect in the book’s concluding section, is one of the truly refreshing features of The Pity of War. A dozen years ago, in The Fall of the Athenian Empire, I defended my own practice of “comparing what took place with what might have happened had individuals or people taken different actions.” “There is no way,” I then asserted, “that the historian can judge that one action or policy was wise or foolish without saying, or implying, that it was better or worse than some other that might have been employed, which is, after all, ‘counterfactual history.’” I still hold these views, and yet I admit that there are real dangers in the practice.

One danger is that the path actually taken is known, warts and all, with all its negative consequences exposed, while the untaken path tends to be imagined in terms of an unlikely perfection of success and with no consideration of unpleasant outcomes. And that can happen even when the analysis is well founded. When it is not, the risk of counterfactual hypotheses going badly astray is only compounded. Ferguson’s speculations fail on both counts.

If the Germans had, as he argues, no “Napoleonic” plan for European conquest, and no designs against Britain, why, one wants to ask, did they launch a great naval race that lasted to the eve of the war? Why, in 1914, did they adopt the Schlieffen plan for a two-front war that would first defeat France and then assault Russia with full force, sticking to this plan in spite of the obvious risk that it would bring Britain into the war? Ferguson does not raise, let alone answer, these questions, leading a reader to the wholly implausible conclusion that the Germans must have been foolish or stupid. Nor does he ask why British leaders, for their part, so misjudged Germany’s moderate (to him) intentions. They, too, must have been foolish or stupid. Only Ferguson, in retrospect, has seen the situation clearly.

But let us suppose that contemporaries had it right about the menace from Germany. Perhaps Wilhelmine Germany was not just another European nation seeking to maintain its national interest or even to advance that interest by tolerable means. Perhaps it was a fundamentally dissatisfied power, eager to disrupt the status quo and to achieve expansionist goals, by war if necessary. If so, a different set of counterfactual speculations might be called for by the historian.

“What if,” for example, the British had faced the fact of Germany’s ambition and the threat it posed more squarely than they did? What if they had recognized that the only way to deter Germany, or defeat it quickly if deterrence failed, was not only to make firm alliances with France and Russia but to take the difficult and unwelcome step of instituting military conscription, which would have provided an army and reserves of such a size as to have made the Schlieffen plan a clear impossibility? Such an action might have averted the war and all its dreadful consequences more surely than standing aside in the hope that Germany would behave well. But it would also have required expense, sacrifice, and above all the facing of unpleasant reality.

Democratic, commercial nations, like Britain then and the United States today, typically resist the facing of reality for as long as they can—until, at last, they are driven to fight wars they have failed to deter and find it costly and difficult to win. Then, if they survive, they can count on revisionist historians to explain how they need never have fought at all, if only they had been more tolerant and understanding.

John Shaw (review date October-December 1999)

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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 be hard to put down. And weighing as much as a couple of laptops the book is a hefty piece of hand luggage.

Nevertheless, a long journey—say the Sydney to London haul—is an ideal opportunity to start the marathon read, sometimes as gripping as Gresham and always fascinating about the world’s most famous money movers and shakers.

The Rothschilds were Napoleon’s bankers and almost two centuries later Margaret Thatcher’s principal advisers in the multi-billion privatisations of British utilities in the 1980s.

The dynasty was begun in 1744 by Mayer Amschel Rothschild, a coin dealer in the grim ghetto of Frankfurt, the most anti-Semitic city in Europe.

In 1799 he sent the third of his five sons, Nathan, to Manchester to trade in cloth. He prospered there—sometimes smuggling cargoes between warring countries—for a decade, then moved into banking in London to found N. M. Rothschild & Sons, now celebrating the 200th anniversary of his arrival in Britain.

The rise and rise of generations of Rothschilds took them into the House of Lords and into the French establishment.

They acquired great art collections, classic vineyards (Mouton and Lafite), Derby winners—and their own mythology.

The extended family—diversifying in London, Paris, Vienna, Naples and Frankfurt—dominated finance in the 19th century. They loaned the British government the money to buy a share in the Suez Canal and financed railways and mining in Europe, America and Asia.

They shrewdly declined to underwrite the Titanic, claiming it seemed “too big to float.”

Nathan and his brother James were in 1820–60 the richest men in the world. From 1815 to 1914 “Rothschild was easily the biggest bank in the world,” as author Ferguson demonstrates.

The Rothschilds were the first finance multi-national. They were pioneers in bonds, bullion, merchant banking, venture capital, commodities and foreign exchange dealing and arbitrage. They also provided personal banking for crowned heads and the seriously rich.

In more recent times the new men at New Court, the London headquarters, bought early into such modern money-spinners as Club Med and British breakfast TV.

Historian Niall Ferguson, a star of both Oxford and Cambridge, was given the first full access to the multi-lingual Rothschild archives to write this monumental history.

His five years of work on 20,000 family documents in 20 collections take the saga up to 1915 in great detail. Then there are two short chapters, which give a “sketch” of Rothschild activities over the past 80 years.

Ferguson, perhaps exhausted by his archaeology in the archives, says he has left much detail of the dynasty and its dealings in this century to some future historian. Meanwhile, Ferguson has given that scholar a model that will be hard to match.

Soon there will be a different sort of book about banking—Nick Leeson’s promised, post-prison account of his 1994 breaking of the Baring bank, a house as old as Rothschilds. The wreckage of Baring is now part of the Dutch bank ING.

Rothschilds prospers still—from London to Sydney—seemingly commercially immortal. Their recipe is here in detail sufficient to satisfy any due diligence test.

Brian Bond (review date November 1999)

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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 compartments. Ferguson’s belief in German military superiority will not entirely convince more specialist students of the subject. He appears to endorse the post-1918 ‘stab in the back myth’ by arguing that her army was not defeated on the Western Front, since the Allied armies did not march into Berlin. He is not impressed by notions or a steep ‘learning curve’ in the Entente armies; contends forcefully with a plethora of casualty statistics that the strategy of attrition failed; and sees willingness to surrender as the key to explaining why the war ended in 1918. Despite the book’s title, and a poignant quotation from Wilfred Owen on the dust jacket, Ferguson’s theme is the error rather than the pity of war—in its inception, conduct, termination and consequences. Indeed, for this reviewer, the most impressive section, in a splendidly documented and illustrated study, was the debunking of the ‘Owen myth’ which exaggerates and misrepresents the pervasiveness and coherence of ‘anti-war’ sentiments in poetry, fiction, film and art. The author’s intense interest in ‘counter-factuals’ provides the study with much of its zest and originality, but also poses problems for less imaginative historians. This applies especially to the main contention; namely that Britain need not and should not have entered the war in August 1914, thereby converting a European conflict into a protracted global struggle. Had Britain remained neutral, even briefly, Ferguson allows that Germany would probably have won, but this would not necessarily have been a bad thing and was certainly preferable to the catastrophic consequences, for nearly all participants, over the next thirty years. Such speculation takes us beyond the historian’s remit and is regrettable in this instance because it obscures or evades the political and cultural context in which Asquith and his colleagues made their agonizing decision to go to war.

Frederic Morton (review date 21 November 1999)

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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 palace. Remarkably, they kept spicing their salons with the tang of Jew Street. They’d stroll into the royal enclosure trading Yiddish jokes. Often as not the claret, pheasant and caviar their butlers served were kosher. Their coronets could out-glisten crowns yet sprouted quite shamelessly from yarmulkes.

It is precisely the dash with which they flaunted their duality that keeps much of their glamour up to date. Each Rothschild’s splendor, however baroque, touches a very modern nerve; it appeals to the democratic-meritocratic obsession with Making It Out of Nowhere. A “Rothschild” is the raw outsider who attains the super-silky inside. What’s more, he keeps his core intact through all the rigors of the metamorphosis. We know that John D. Rockefeller, unstained by his provenance, had a lot more money at the end than he had at the start. But the Rothschild rise to billionairedom transcends the quantitative. It reaches into the extremes of quality.

A “Rothschild” exudes the magic of the pariah become peer, the nabob leapfrogging an arriviste’s embarrassments by making his origins an ornament of his myth. This is the ascendance of a Cinderella so redoubtably self-made that she created the fairy godmother as her own marketing subsidiary. We have here nothing less than the ultimate entrepreneurial fairy tale. And its protagonist does live happily ever after. After all, he is not any one mortal person but a clan, and a fecund one at that.

Small wonder the saga has been told in many books. By the time mine came out in 1962, it was the 31st to be published on the subject in America. Since then, at least a dozen more authors have fed, or tried to feed, off the world’s fascination with the dynasty. But no writer has entered the lists with Niall Ferguson’s advantage. Only he had access, apparently unrestricted, to the family archives (principally those of N. M. Rothschild & Sons, the London house). Bulging, if not bloated, with that privilege, the current tome is the second half of Ferguson’s chronicle, running to more than 600 pages and dealing with the family fortunes from 1849 to the present. The equally ample first volume covered the Rothschild story starting in 1798. This was the year when Mayer Amschel Rothschild began scattering his miraculous seed. From his cramped alley in Frankfurt’s Hebrew quarter, he dispatched one son each to London, Paris, Vienna and Naples. Every one of the striplings, barely into their 20s, was a wizard of finance. Like their eldest brother who stayed in Frankfurt, each proved a virtuoso banker of bonds. Each recruited the government of his country as a client. Thus the brothers became the creditors and sometimes even the confreres, intimates and confidants of the crucial statesmen of the time. Each prospered monumentally into the richest businessman of his adoptive land.

Ferguson’s second volume concerns what happened after that first singular surge. Understandably, the sequel lacks some of the robust color of the first volume. The two world wars were even more cataclysmic than Bonaparte’s campaigns, but the family was less dramatically involved. Further, those five demonic siblings crashed history with a speed so hair-raising, with so awesome a poise, that they kept upstaging their descendants from their very tombs.

Of course, the Rothschild scions lived on a spectacular altitude of wealth and influence. Soon they developed eccentricities befitting great lords. Their names intertwined with others in high places; their actions frequently had historic resonance. On the whole, however, they conducted a summit-level holding operation leading to a partial, gradual, always sumptuous decline.

Ferguson relates all this in unprecedented detail. For the first time, we get the inside view of how these legends moved the financial universe and shook the social scene in the last 150 years. We become privy to letters, memos and notes that Rothschilds sent each other or their executives, agents and correspondents the world over. We eavesdrop on backstage whispers of history; from the German bank’s dealings with the Prussian power structure (it served as an unofficial conduit of information between Bismarck and Napoleon III) to the English branch’s role in Margaret Thatcher’s economic program (it coordinated the privatization of British Rail, Northern Island Electricity and no fewer than 12 regional electricity boards as well as 10 water authorities).

But as in the first volume, so in the second: The author’s access to the Rothschild archives is a privilege that again and again turns into the reader’s penalty. Ferguson quotes and cites, and cites and quotes, endlessly, excessively, promiscuously. It is understandable that when presented with the opportunity for such voluptuous source-digging, a writer would be tempted to indulge. Ferguson has gorged to the point of research-poisoning. The result is an unwieldy swamp of documentation, with nuggets mired in irrelevancies.

All too typical of Ferguson’s method is his handling of the battle between the French house and its rival, the Crédit Mobilier, in the middle of the 19th century. The contest played out in a Europe-wide arena: cunning twists and brute surprises galore, court intrigues and market ambushes. Beyond the theatricality of a giants’ duel loomed historical consequences. The Crédit Mobilier raised its capital publicly, as a joint-stock company. Rothschild Frères was a private bank. Rothschild won in the end. Yet the seriousness of its rival’s challenge prophesied the dominance of joint-stock banks that was to come. Ferguson relates the conflict in random fits and starts. He keeps coming down with archivitis. There are constant detours into unrelated Rothschild correspondence (an American agent of the family complaining at length about his homesickness); financial graphs (a minutely plotted curve of the profits of the Naples house); James de Rothschild’s grumblings about the untidy habits of his Austrian cousin. The significance of the episode blurs. The narrative momentum fails. You can’t see the forest for the twiglets.

As for Ferguson’s prose, it serves him best when it’s content to be serviceable. When it aspires to the literary, the strain shows. Example: Ferguson has Nathan Lord Rothschild observing “somewhat otiosely” that the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand was an example of Serbian brutality. Now, “otiose” happens to be a word whose meaning the formidable William F. Buckley Jr. once confessed kept escaping him. Does the rather plain context of Ferguson’s passage warrant ransacking the language for a term so arcane that it baffles a Buckley?

And there are disturbing factual inaccuracies that keep creeping into Ferguson’s text. Speaking of Franz Ferdinand, Ferguson describes him as hostile to any compromise in Austria’s Balkan frictions with Russia. Actually, the archduke was the chief dove in Austrian government circles. Speaking of Austria, Ferguson refers to Leopold Kuntschak as “a socialist leader” in that country. Actually, Kuntschak led the Christian Socialists, an opposing party.

But these and occasional other glitches seem trivial against the vast documentary expanse Ferguson has unfolded. Alas, it is a shapeless vista, jumbled in its ramifications, encyclopedically confused, lamentably undynamic. However, Ferguson’s pages, bringing to light so much hitherto hidden material, will no doubt be very useful for future writers touching on the subject. In essaying a biography, Ferguson has produced a valuable reference work. Its most precious feature is its index.

Charles Paul Freund (review date December 1999)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4060

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 rhetoric in deadly derby and cigar: “What if someone had listened to Winston Churchill and stood up to Adolf Hitler earlier?” he asked an audience of government employees. “How many people’s lives might have been saved, and how many American lives might have been saved?”

After the revisory, comes the accusatory. That’s how Pat Buchanan has saved the West from military destruction. He closed the western front of the Second World War, allowing Bolshevism and Nazism to lock in mortal battle in the bloody East instead. Hitler, asserted Buchanan in his controversial book, A Republic, Not an Empire, “was driven by a traditional German policy of Drang nach Osten, the drive to the East,” and “had not wanted war with the West.” It was only Britain’s misbegotten military assurances in the East that sealed the alternate fate of the West. “Had Britain and France not given the war guarantee to Poland,” Buchanan argued, “there might have been no Dunkirk, no blitz, no Vichy, no destruction of the Jewish population of Norway, Denmark, Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg, France or even Italy.”

What is all this? Since when does politics succumb to an act of the imagination, as it has done this year in Richmond? Since when does history—speculative history at that—breach the wall that in this nation has always separated it from a pragmatic politics defined by the pothole that needed filling or the entitlement that could be created? Since when has foreign policy been advanced—from the presidential stump, yet—in terms of past paradigms as opposed to present national interest? Since when, for that matter, has the historical conditional, which has never succeeded even in establishing its own professional legitimacy, mutated into revisionist rationalization and topical political accusation?

Looking backward politically has always been the role of losers: those sighing over a romantically remembered Lost Cause, or seething over a supposed Stab in the Back. Why are history’s seeming winners now engaging in repeated arguments over events that, the suffering and bloodshed they entailed notwithstanding, appear ultimately to have led them to prosperous triumph? After all, alternatives to what happened always include far worse possible scenarios. These are not arguments over expressing regret for outrageous historical injustices. What we have, at the center of our national discourse, is a recurring debate over the essence of our history. What’s this about?

Counterfactuals, allohistory, parahistorical conjecture, what if?. The bastard child of causal contemplation has gone by many names, as if it were trying to escape its reputation as an unworthy, unprofessional waste of time and instead start life over again in more respectable guise. It has never worked. British historian E. H. Carr, in his 1961 “What is History?” lectures, dismissed all “what if?” speculation as a “parlour game.” David Hackett Fischer cited “the fictional question” as a historian’s fallacy: “All historical ‘evidence’ for what might have happened if [John Wilkes] Booth had missed his mark is necessarily taken from the world in which he hit it,” Fischer wrote 30 years ago. “There is no way to escape this fundamental fact.” The German historian Karl Hampe once declared in the Teutonic absolute that “History knows no ‘if.’”

The objections to imagined historical alternatives seem impressive: What-ifs can never prove anything, can never be tested, can spin out into an infinite number of contradictory scenarios, etc. What then is the point of indulging in them? Worse for the counterfactual, if its critics were to decide tomorrow that History does indeed know an “if” or two, these same critics would certainly reject it anew on the grounds that it is impossibly reductionist. Is the course of Western history really to be balanced on the alternate possible shapes of Cleopatra’s nose? Can any kingdom ever have been lost merely for the want of a nail? Is this, as historian Niall Ferguson—a defender of counterfactuals—allows, not merely worrying over spilt milk, but worrying over the milk we might have spilled, but which is actually still safe in the bottle?

And yet the urge to imagine a history that is otherwise has proved persistent in the face of professional rejection, a rejection that has continued despite the hard-won acceptance of “cliometric” statistical what-ifs. In fact, we are obviously experiencing a major spike in such alternative-making: political, literary, and historical. Much of this activity is by writers of imaginative fiction, who kept the field vital during decades when it survived as pulp. Spurred, perhaps, by the 1992 crossover success of Robert Harris’ “Hitler Wins” bestseller, Fatherland, a steady stream of alternate history anthologies has come from such writer/editors as Mike Resnick and Gregory Benford (a REASON contributing editor). Author Harry Turtledove, a credentialed historian, is his own cottage industry of imagined historical alternatives (he is probably best-known for his “Lee Wins” novel, Guns of the South). Del Rey, a science fiction imprint of Random House, has recently established an entire “Alternate History” line of fiction.

Military historians, perhaps more sensitive to the role of the contingent in their field than are their universalist counterparts, have also been unusually busy of late spinning alternate outcomes. Kenneth Macksay has refought WWII from the German side in several works, while Peter G. Tsouras has rewritten both D-Day and Gettysburg, both for Greenhill Books, a British house that is devoting a line to such works. MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History devoted its 10th anniversary issue last year to what-ifs, which MHQ founding editor Robert Cowley later expanded into this year’s quite popular anthology, What If?: The World’s Foremost Military Historians Imagine What Might Have Been. It features such luminaries as James M. McPherson, Stephen E. Ambrose, William H. MacNeill, John Keegan, and others daring to dip their pens—and their reputations—in other timestreams.

But by far the most striking event of all is the appearance (at last) in the United States of Niall Ferguson’s Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals, a work that appeared in Britain two years ago. A collection of familiar and new what-if scenarios of uneven insight by a group of historians—What if Charles I had avoided civil war? What if Hitler had invaded England? What if JFK had lived? What if communism had not collapsed?—the book’s outstanding essay is Ferguson’s introduction, “Virtual History: Toward a ‘Chaotic’ Theory of the Past,” which Ferguson follows up with an afterword that attempts to apply his ideas to the book’s other speculations, treating them as if they were historical facts.

The literature of the counterfactual is vast, filled with often-heated debate on military, biographical, medical, meteorological, statistical, and philosophical grounds. Much of the work in favor of the counterfactual is defensive; the most impassioned such defense is certainly Alexander Demandt’s History That Never Happened, which first appeared in Germany in 1984, and which has never had an American trade edition. Ferguson, author of the bestselling The Pity of War, dispenses with the defensive (he does not mention Demandt). His is the most assured approach to the subject since Nietzsche declared “what if?” to be history’s “cardinal question.” In fact, Ferguson’s purpose is not merely to legitimize the counterfactual at all. It is finally to delegitimize the remnants of historical determinism and to establish a countervision of historical cause built on the developing concepts of chaos and complexity.

“Whether by posing implausible questions or by providing implausible answers,” writes Ferguson, “counterfactual history has tended to discredit itself.” Ferguson’s first goal is thus to rebuild it from its foundations.

Those foundations are known to almost everyone because, in fact, almost everyone indulges in counterfactual thinking about their own lives. When people consider how they embarked on their careers, how they came to meet their spouses, why they may be beset by debt or difficulty, how they wrecked their cars, or how they came to be presented with one opportunity or to have missed another, they are playing back autobiographical what-ifs. Far from indulging in a parlor game, most people are attempting to sort out the complexities of their lives and to come to grips with their own characters; to understand why what happened happened, and why what could have happened didn’t. If Karl Hampe were to have declared that “Life knows no ‘if,’” everyone would laugh at him because everyone is aware that his or her life has been a succession of such ifs, with lifelong consequences often stemming from the most trivial-seeming circumstances. People understand the role of contingency in their own histories.

Professional history writing, however, has balked at the contingent, and tried to replace it with something else. Ferguson runs through many of the main currents of historiography from its beginnings in search of this factor: the ancient concept of Fortune, the medieval role of God in history, Vico’s Renaissance ideas about providential order, the Enlightenment shift toward scientific determinism, the rise of German Idealism as voiced by Hegel, the materialism of Marx. For millennia, almost everyone who was to take up his pen in the service of History was to perceive it in terms of a great cycle, or as progress toward a great end, or to indulge in a teleological exercise of one sort or another. Time had a shape, whether arising from God or reflecting Nature. In such a system, there was hardly room for the individual’s free will. What, then, was the role of the contingent and the trivial?

But in 1830, Thomas Carlyle penned one of historiography’s most famous passages. The succession of events in the world “is not acted,” he wrote, “as it is in written History: actual events are nowise so simply related to each other as parent and offspring are; every single event in the world is the offspring not of one, but of all other events, prior or contemporaneous, and will in its turn combine with all others to give birth to new: it is an ever-living, ever-working Chaos of Being, wherein shape after shape bodies itself forth from innumerable elements.” It was, seemingly, an expulsion of science from history, because while “Narrative is linear, Action is solid. Alas for our ‘chains,’ or chainlets, of ‘causes and effects.’”

For the intelligentsia of the 19th century, the potential loss of historical shape translated into more than “secularization”; it meant meaningless anarchy. Ferguson identifies the cultural expression of history-as-anarchy as Dostoyevskian despair.

Numerous anti-determinist historians, among them G. M. Trevelyan and A.J.P. Taylor, were afterwards to enjoy distinguished careers. They attempted to accommodate the role of chance in the advance of history, and to argue that strict cause-and-effect extrapolation was, in Trevelyan’s words, “a misapplication of the analogy of physical science.” But the British school of historical idealism that arose in this century was as opposed to counterfactuals as the determinists.

Ferguson notes that the British anti-determinists were also historiography’s anti-socialists, and that the conflict between anti-determinists and Marxists at midcentury was an open one. “Unfortunately—from the point of view of the idealists—these were conflicts that the other side effectively won.” According to Ferguson, “the determinism of the nineteenth century was not, as might have been expected, discredited by the horrors perpetrated in its name after 1917. That Marxism was able to retain its credibility was due mainly to the widespread belief that National Socialism was its polar opposite, rather than merely a near relative which had substituted Volk for class.”

Historical teleology has since been challenged by a variety of approaches, many of them, like the Annales school of mentalities, devised in France. But Ferguson argues that the rescue of History has actually arrived from an unexpected quarter: from science and mathematics. The successful challenge to classical Laplacian determinism in science, he writes, has important implications for the understanding of what history is describing. Many historians, he believes, have been asking the wrong questions, based on an outmoded understanding of what science is. The rise of entropy, the recognition of unpredictability and randomness, and the fall of absolute time have profound implications for history. “Chance is first,” wrote C. S. Pierce in 1892, “Law is second, the tendency to take habits is third.” Moreover, scientists approach counterfactuals as a natural way to understand the processes they are studying. No scientist will ever state that “Science knows no ‘ifs.’”

History’s future lies at an intersection of science and art, one that has been explored by such novelists as the Viennese Robert Musil and Philip K. Dick. That intersection has blossomed into chaos theory, and it is where Ferguson seeks to place history, too. “The philosophical significance of chaos theory is that it reconciles the notions of causation and contingency.” As Ferguson sees it, “Chaos—stochastic behaviour in deterministic systems—means unpredictable outcomes even when successive events are causally linked.” That is more than history; it is, in the author’s word, “chaostory.”

Here are chaostory’s rules: “It is a logical necessity,” argues Ferguson, “when asking questions about causation to pose ‘but for’ questions, and to try to imagine what would have happened if a supposed cause had been absent,” based on probability. And it is a “historical necessity” to attach equal importance to the possibilities as contemporaries understood them before the fact, and less importance to those that contemporaries did not anticipate. “The search for universal laws is futile,” concludes Ferguson. “The most historians can do is to make tentative statements about causation with reference to plausible counterfactuals.”

Ferguson’s argument about historical conjecture helps put its political application—this year’s statements about Lee and Churchill, for example—into perspective, and that in turn reveals why the counterfactual is so important. When Clinton applies Churchillian fortitude to the situation in Kosovo, he is seeking not to open our understanding of the historical process, but to limit it. Because political counterfactuals like these imply a simple one-to-one causal relationship between a past situation and a contemporary one—a victorious Lee = slavery today; Hitler = Slobodan Milosevic—they become, paradoxically, what-ifs in the service of determinism. Political counterfactuals look backward from the present, not forward from the past. Though framed in terms of the contingent, these what-if questions are designed to have only a single answer. They are false counterfactuals, polemical devices intended not to open examination, but to close debate.

And they often succeed. Because the counterfactual has been disdained by the history establishment, political polemicists are able to use their counterfeit versions all the more effectively: There are few people prepared to dispute them. In the Lee case, for example, there was no notable objection on historical grounds (though admirers of Lee, black and white, did attempt to defend him on biographical grounds).

The Buchanan situation is even more instructive. Buchanan at least presented his argument—that Hitler did not seek war with the West—with his version of circumstances before the fact of war. His is not a tenable argument for several reasons. There is evidence, for example, that Hitler was all along thinking of a confrontation with the United States and was even preparing for it militarily. More important, Buchanan predicates his case on the grounds that Hitler was pursuing a rational military strategy. On the contrary, Hitler’s own military decisions indicate that he had no such strategy. If he had, he might have won his war. In 1940, he was in a position to knock Russia out of the war, or to gain control of the Middle East’s oil, or both. His failure to exploit his opportunities was not the result of error, but of the megalomania that shaped his orders. (A good counterfactual examination of Hitler’s situation can be found in Kenneth Macksey’s The Hitler Options.)

Yet much of the response to Buchanan’s thesis was actually ahistorical fantasy. It was repeatedly suggested that America’s moral duty was to confront evil and fight the perpetrators of genocide. In fact, the United States did not at first know that a Holocaust was occurring; when it did know, it did nothing directly about it (such as bombing the rail lines to Auschwitz). In the meantime, FDR’s State Department made sure that a minimum number of Europe’s desperate Jewish refugees entered the country.

As for Clinton’s Churchill impersonation, the claim that Serbia represented a Nazi-like threat is a trivialization of the 20th century.

These controversies are all lost opportunities, because even a cursory examination of their historical potential yields a richer understanding of the past and our complex relation to it. If we reframe any of these issues as true counterfactuals, some of those potentials appear. What if, for example, the Civil War had ended in some other way than it did. What would have been the effect on slavery?

The answer is that it depends on how the war would have ended. If the North had won a quick victory at First Bull Run, the only probable effect on slavery would have been to eliminate it from the new territories.

The North might well have won its quick war, but for a matter of inches; there is a brief scenario to the effect by Stephen W. Sears in the Cowley anthology. Both armies were green; it was a question of who would break first. Southern troops rallied around Gen. Thomas Jackson, who stood “like a stone wall” amid a hail of bullets. Had even one of those bullets hit Jackson, the rebels might have broken instead of the federals. As it was, the federals had somewhere to go: nearby Washington. The rebels didn’t; they could have been chased down, possibly turning the war into a skirmish. Emancipation was not yet on Lincoln’s agenda: Four of his Union states were slave states, and slavery continued in the federal capital. Emancipation would have had to come by another route.

If the war had ended with Union victory in 1862, after Antietam, slavery would have ended, but possibly not as it was eventually to end. Emancipation had been proclaimed by then, primarily in hopes of fomenting a slave uprising in the South, and of preventing British recognition of the Confederacy. The Emancipation Proclamation, when it was announced, included the resettlement of freedmen (either to Liberia or to Panama) and compensation to slave owners. Those were the terms of slavery’s 1862 end in the District of Columbia (though there was no serious effort at resettlement). When the Emancipation Proclamation became law the next January (freeing only the South’s slaves), the issues of resettlement and compensation had been dropped.

But what if Lee had won the war at any point after taking command? What of slavery then? There are many possible scenarios, one of them being the immediate start of an emancipatory process, if not outright emancipation. Why? The answer lies with the significance of Great Britain to the South’s economy: The South would not have survived without continued British trade in cotton. But Britain could not, for domestic political reasons, stand as the bulwark of the South’s slave-dependent economy. Indeed, Palmerston, the British prime minister, was already concerned about the issue in 1861, when he anticipated a Southern victory. If emancipation equaled survival, the Confederacy’s hand might have been forced. Many authors have argued such a scenario, among them Winston Churchill.

But Churchill went further. Writing in 1932, Churchill argued that an independent Confederacy would have necessarily changed the relationship of both the North and South to Great Britain, altered the balance of power in Europe, and prevented World War I. A victorious Lee, according to the Churchill counterfactual, would have ended slavery and, ultimately, spared the world two immense wars, Nazism, Soviet Communism, genocide, and 40 years of Cold War. Where’s that Lee mural?

Could Lee have won? That controversy continues today. Lee’s detractors argue that it was folly for him to take the war north; that he should have adopted a defensive strategy, forcing the more powerful Union to exhaust and demoralize itself with attempted invasion. (Edward H. Bonekemper’s How Robert E. Lee Lost the Civil War, out now, is the latest book to argue this case.) Yet Lee came close to wiping out the North’s advantages. A few minutes difference in the race to control Little Round Top and the world might well be a different place. A successful Pennsylvania campaign by Lee might have ruined Lincoln’s hopes of re-election.

The really haunting turn in the war, however, involves Lee’s Lost Order. Entering Maryland in 1862, Lee issued an order splitting his troops. A Confederate officer wrapped his cigars in a copy of the order, then lost them. In the most improbable event in American history, the order found its way into Union hands, precipitating Antietam.

What if that had not happened? What becomes of the Civil War when one subtracts from it its bloodiest day? Can chaostory accommodate such an equation?

For many, the possible answers are less alluring than is the mystery inherent in the event and its consequences. Carlyle was right: Every event in the world is the offspring of all other events. But there can be no total history. Some dimensions of history remain the province of art.

Ferguson’s definitional limits to the counterfactual may serve history well, but they appear to orphan counterfactual fiction. A word should be said in its favor, because as a literature of history’s unrealized potentials, it is an expression of the inherently possible.

It is ever more apparent that one of the reasons for the West’s immense success is that—unlike its predecessors and alternatives—it has accommodated chance and complexity, building them into its system. Our unending open carnival of expression and markets puts into play a panorama of concepts and things—vulgar, mediocre, sometimes sublime—that yields results that cannot be planned or predicted. Science writer James Burke calls it “the pinball effect”; REASON editor Virginia Postrel terms it “dynamism.” History may have surrendered its shape, but in doing so it also surrendered its limits.

That is the subject of counterfactual fiction, only directed at the past: history without bounds. It is a deeply popular genre, in that it willingly vulgarizes history’s actors, great and evil: Hitler as a demented American immigrant pulp artist in one story; Disraeli as a Victorian gossip columnist in another; the poet Byron as the King of Greece in a third. But this is less a trivialization of historical role and causation, and more a boisterous, unrestrained inquiry into them. Though the process may sometimes shrink a mythic past, the potential of the future expands.

“Footfalls echo in the memory,” wrote a wistful T. S. Eliot, “Down the passage we did not take / Toward the door we never opened / Into the rose garden.” But history’s imaginers—Philip K. Dick, L. Sprague DeCamp, and their successors—have gone roaring down that passage and ripped open the door. Out in that rose garden, they’ve staged an anything-can-happen party to which everyone’s invited. Bring your own History.


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