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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

During and after the conflict, it was known as the Great War; many people firmly believed it would be the last of the wide-scale multinational armed conflicts. The treaties that ended it would surely secure a lasting peace. As the world soon learned, and as Niall Ferguson explores, the war would do anything but end all future wars. Ferguson guides the reader through the developments that caused the war and afterward prevented achieving effective long-term solutions to underlying problems. He also examines what popular “myths” that have since solidified, including those based in literary treatments.

Referring to numerous pre-war books, he notes that fiction writers and historians promoted the view that Germany was poised to invade England, and the “spy fever” that imagined German operatives had already penetrated military intelligence. However, he challenges the idea of Britain and Germany destined to be the two central enemies, and dismisses the idea of invasion as “fear mongering.”

[T]he idea of a German invasion of Britain, the most popular of all scenarios, was entirely divorced from strategic realities. . . . [O]nly a handful of prewar writers can be said to have forecast with any degree of accuracy what a war would be like.

Looking afresh at a war that had already been thoroughly analyzed, Ferguson brought the perspective of a specialist in the German economy. He reviewed each aspect of the standard explanations for the initial outbreak of war and for each country’s joining alliances and declaring war on others. The widespread understanding that German militarism was a key cause did not complete withstand his scrutiny; he terms this the “myth of militarism.” Ferguson’s research led him to conclude that the German industrialization in the early 20th century had already turned toward nonmilitary objectives. Those who favored war realized that the country was moving in the other direction, and chose to act before it did so any further.

The key to the arms race before 1914 is that one side lost it, or believed it was losing it. It was this belief which persuaded its leaders to gamble on war before they fell too far behind. . . . The paradox is that the power which found itself in the position of incipient defeat in the arms race was the power with the greatest reputation for excessive militarism–Germany.

In addition, the author challenges the ideas that Britain’s entry into the war was inevitable and that its participation shortened the conflict. Instead, he examines the political motivations behind Britain’s decision and suggests that the country’s participation may have geographically expanded and extended the length of the war.

Ferguson’s approach, though mainstream in most respects, is controversial in suggesting that German errors might have soon ended the war anyway. German troops had won victories on Eastern and Western fronts, but the troops were left so spread out they could not easily be remobilized.

Indeed, it is plausible to argue that the Germans lost the war precisely because they so nearly won it. . . . It was the unprecedented distance covered by the Germans in the spring of 1918 which left them open to the heaviest casualties since 1914.

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