The Greatest Error of the Twentieth Century

A Review
Published: 2000-01-01

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The Pity of War, Niall Ferguson, New York: Basic Books, 1999

Anyone whose study of history has ever gone beyond a school textbook or The History Channel will know that the normal discussion of wars and other upheavals are wide open among historians. It is routine when studying wars and revolutions to look to the underlying causes, and these rarely involve personalities. At the same time, no historian discussing, say, the Punic Wars or the French Revolution, would be concerned with the defining the "right" or the "wrong" side in these cataclysm, and they would look upon attempts to assign "blame" as frankly grotesque. The aim of historical study, after all, is understanding, not scoring points.

It is noteworthy that 20th Century war and revolutions are rarely yet discussed with the normal dispassion that one has a right to expect from historians. On the contrary: there are certain stock interpretations, and one either accedes to these under pain of censure or, in Europe, under pain of imprisonment. But there has been a gradual shift with regard to at least some events in 20th Century European history, and it is into this category that Niall Ferguson's recent Pity of War clearly falls.

The Pity of War is an attempt to reevaluate Britain's role in the First World War. Niall Ferguson, a youthful Fellow at Oxford, argues mainly that the destruction of that war, which claimed the lives of some nine million men, could well have been avoided.

Reading this book one is reminded just how far Revisionism has come in eighty years. When Historical Revisionism began, it represented an unorthodox and unconventional attempt to reassess the causes of the First World War, which had just concluded. In those days, the main issue was the question of the "sole guilt" of Germany, and consequently, of the inevitability of England's (and later, America's) participation. The first champions of Revisionism, including Sidney Fay, Harry Elmer Barnes, and others, argued against the tide that the Germans were not solely responsible for the conflict. Soon after, men like Arthur Ponsonby exposed the various propaganda frauds that had been leveled against the Germans: the hacked-off hands of Belgian babies, the notorious "corpse factory" and similar propaganda lies, which had also been invoked as providing the "moral necessity" of "fighting the Hun".

But Ferguson dispenses with all of these matters in just a handful of pages in his introduction. First, he does not even bother to engage in the usual self-justifying rhetoric for slaughter which was the common coin of Allied authors in the 1920's and 1930's, and present even today in popular treatments. Second, he tends to view the war on the continent as a separate fight from the one that ensued once Britain decided to send its expeditionary force to France in August, 1914. By his reckoning, the war between Germany and Austria on one side and Russia and France on the other was one thing: it was only through the decision of the British that a local war became a world war.

Much of Ferguson's analysis has to do with the decision that brought England into the war. He argues, for example, that Britain went to war because it misread German intentions: they saw Kaiser Wilhelm as another Napoleon, not understanding that Germany's main interests had always been focused on Eastern, rather than Western, Europe. He further argues that the proponents of sending an English army to France — which was the trigger that made a wider war inevitable — were a minority, and that it was only because of the lack of conviction of the rest of the cabinet ministers and party leaders that the fateful decision was made. Somewhat surprisingly, Ferguson argues that war with Germany was not even in England's economic interests, since a German overseas presence would only have worked to France's detriment, not Britain's.

The book also discusses a number of other generally held ideas about the war in a manner that is sharply analytical but well written and clear. Ferguson points out that there was in fact a lack of popular enthusiasm, although he later points out that propaganda played a huge role in popular perceptions of the war. Perhaps most significantly, he takes the position that this propaganda was largely spontaneous from all quarters of society: it was not the result of any centrally directed campaign of official falsehood.

On the subject of the relative strengths of the combatants, he argues that the armies of the Central Powers, particularly Germany, were much more efficient in killing or wounding the enemy than vice versa, by a rather high percentage (as Ferguson calculates it) of 35%. Thus the Anglo-French strategy of attrition, as in the battles of the Somme and elsewhere, was bound to fail. There is also an interesting but not altogether convincing section which discusses why the armies fought. Ferguson's conclusion is that the soldiers fought without much coercion, and rather enjoyed the experience, but has some difficulty squaring that notion with the conduct of the Germans, who, once it was clear that the war could no longer be won in August 1918, began to stop fighting in droves, although the German Army as a whole maintained cohesion to the end.

Another point that receives extraordinarily brief treatment is the issue of what would have happened in Europe if there had been no war, or if it had been settled quickly. In this respect, Ferguson does not really deal with the question of East Europe in any detail, except to quote the pipedream of a German about establishing German "colonies" in the East which would somehow retain their German identity in the midst of a Slavic sea. The fact that such a plan would be ineffective is surely indicated by the fact that the similarly insular Jewish communities of Eastern Europe had been gradually broken down in the course of the 19th Century by nothing more sinister than the overall administrative and bureaucratic organization of the area. There is no reason to believe that the German communities in the East would have stood for such breakdown without an appeal to political nationalism: it was after all the breakdown of the Jewish communities in the East that helped pave the way to Zionism.

Nor does Ferguson's analysis touch on the issues of economic backwardness in Eastern Europe, or even the issues of demography. It is a commonplace that the population of Eastern Europe increased by 60% between 1850-1914, and there seems to be some merit in seeing the growth of ethnic tensions and economic instability, including the rise of socialism and Bolshevism, as a direct response to these and other pressures. It is surprising that Ferguson has less to say on these issues, especially given his background as an economic historian, except to speak vaguely of how the Russian Revolution might have been averted, or that if Germany had won the first war the Holocaust might not have taken place.

In Ferguson's view, if Britain had decided to not intervene, the Germans would have been able to defeat the French and Russians, and then they could have, in Ferguson's words, "created a version of the European Union, eight decades ahead of schedule." And this is really the whole point of Ferguson's analysis, which is that Germany seemed bound to dominate the continent in any case, and therefore why did Britain have to bankrupt itself and the Empire the first time around? It is easy to see here a kind of Tory nostalgia for the good old days, when "Brittania Ruled the Waves". But if the eventual dominance of Germany on the continent was inevitable, why not the eventual decline of Britain? Ferguson does not really engage the subject.

There is much to praise in this book. The analyses of a number of very tricky issues is well organized, very well argued, and covers vast quantities of the secondary literature. On the other hand, it is the tendency to focus on Britain's stake in the war that ultimately lets the book down. True, if Britain had not taken part the war it probably would have been concluded much more rapidly and with a German victory. True also, in that case it would not have become a "world war". But there still would have been a war, and there still would have been a multitude of problems, particularly in Eastern Europe for which radical solutions had been suggested for decades. Indeed, Ferguson even provides a few hints of this: he describes, for example, how the Russian civil war that immediately followed the peace of Versailles was even more ferocious than the war just concluded, and he also points out that in spite of the casualty lists there was no problem replacing the workers who had died, which suggests overcrowding in the cohorts of young men.

In the last analysis, Ferguson's argument that Britain's involvement was a mistake simply underlines the fact that the world wars were not really English or American affairs at all, but had their roots in seemingly intractable problems in Eastern Europe. This further suggests that, while the Holocaust as we have come to use the term may not have been inevitable, the destruction of the distinctive Yiddish identity of East European Jews was; either through emigration and secularization in Israel, emigration and assimilation in the United States, assimilation and deracination through Soviet communism, or through mass murder by either German Nazis, East European fascists, or Soviet NKVD battalions. Indeed, perhaps that, all of it, is what the Holocaust really was.

Additional information about this document
Property Value
Author(s): Ernest Sommers
Title: The Greatest Error of the Twentieth Century, A Review
Sources: The Revisionist # 2, Jan. 2000, Codoh series
Published: 2000-01-01
First posted on CODOH: Sept. 15, 2000, 7 p.m.
Last revision:
Comments: Review of: "The Pity of War," by Niall Ferguson
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