More is the Pity
Years ago I did a brief review of Niall Ferguson’s book The Pity of War for the Amazon website.1 I have decided to put it up here. This version is an expanded version of the original with references.
Well, well another revisionist, Sour grapes analysis of the First World War. Basically the thesis is simple Evil British Ministers committed a War crime by intervening when Germany invaded neutral Belgium. This war crime of defending a Neutral was massively compounded when the Allied powers committed the even worst crime of winning!
Thus those British politicians are responsible for Adolf Hitler, the Second World War, the Holocaust, the Russian Revolution, the crimes of Stalin etc. Of course these British politicians forced the German people to vote for Hitler and further forced Hitler to commit a vast array of crimes. Niall Ferguson basically portrays the British Ministers who decided to intervene in August of 1914 as the only free agents. For in Niall’s position is that only this made it a World War because otherwise Germany would have won and from a British point of view that would not have been a problem. To call this perverse is an underestimate. It is wilfully stupid. But then in Mr. Ferguson’s view the only truly guilty party are the British Ministers who perversely entered the war and thus destroyed the holy and sacred British Empire that Mr. Ferguson worships with groveling ecstasy. They alone are truly guilty of depriving the German Empire of its “rightful” victory.2
But should we not expand the number of the guilty? The people of Belgium are guilty of the war crime of resisting an unprovoked German invasion. The French of winning the first battle of the Marne. The crimes the author Niall Ferguson imposes are truly breath taking. That the Kaiser was an innocent despite his absurd, provocative behaviour is one such myth the author endorses. The Author shows no real awareness of the extensive literature on Imperial Germany revealing its anachronistic social structure and the destructive effects on external policy of its loonytoons ruler, except to dismiss it with a wave of his hand. The evidence that Kaiser Wilhelm II was a loose cannon and an all-round disaster in foreign policy is quite convincing, so is his antipathy against England. The idea that this sort of ruler was not a threat is actually quite funny.3
Also loony is the Mr. Ferguson’s willingness to sacrifice France, Belgium, Russia etc., to Imperial Germany and his childlike belief that Germany would be kind to those criminal enough to oppose German ambitions. His spectacular misuse of the book German War Aims in World War One is extraordinary. In fact Niall tries to finesse around the abundant evidence of extreme German war aims by arguing that Germany’s aims would have been “moderate” if Germany had achieved quick victory. Niall seriously argues that Germany’s aims only got extreme as the war dragged on. This is a wilful distortion; even before the Battle of the Marne many in Germany were demanding huge pie in the sky war aims and there can be little doubt that an overwhelming swift victory over France would have fuelled such desires and the German imposed peace would have been draconian and severe. At a minimum there would have been for example the demilitarisation of France and the, at least, economic annexation of Belgium.4 I hasten to point out that it had been a set policy lasting centuries that the domination of the low countries, especially Belgium by one of the major continental powers was totally unacceptable to Britain and such domination was a direct threat to Britain. Mr. Ferguson seriously proposes that German domination would not have been a threat to Britain. That is utter nonsense.
Also the author ignores the overwhelming evidence of antipathy and hatred in Germany, particularly in the Navy and the Kaiser's court for Britain and of the desire for a show down with Britain. The author's blasé belief that Germany was no naval threat to Britain is absurd. The Navy was built, deliberately and consciously to compete with Britain and the British competed back. Does the author seriously believe that a Germany dominating the continent would not have accelerated its naval competition with Britain? Further Niall seriously argues that since in 1914 Britain had clearly won the Naval building battle, at least for the time being, that Germany was no longer a threat. Stuff and nonsense. The Germans still wanted to compete with Britain and Niall ignores the fact that in order to compete successfully with Germany in the naval race Britain had to withdraw significant naval forces from the West Atlantic and the Far East leaving those areas to the Americans and the Japanese. Thus the German attempt to out build the Royal Navy resulted in the diminution of British power undermining the British Empire Niall is so fond of.5
The Author is very willing to sacrifice the Continent to preserve the Empire. He seems to have no problem with the Empire existing on German sufferance; neither does he explain why a Germany dominant on the continent would not endeavour to out build the Royal Navy. Only this time there would be no formidable French fleet to back up the Royal Navy. I frankly doubt that the Empire would have long survived a Europe dominated by Germany. Certainly the Self-governing Dominions would have been lost in short order. Besides British policy for centuries had been to oppose the domination of continental Europe by a single power. To the British the preservation of a balance of power in Europe was absolutely sacrosanct. So that by definition Germany dominating the continent would be, correctly, perceived as a mortal threat to Britain.6
No World War One would not have delayed the rise of the USA and probably the decline of the Empire, despite Niall’s witless and ahistorical nostalgia for Empire. But a continent dominated by one power would have accelerated it. If it was unacceptable for France to dominate Europe in 1805 why was it acceptable for Germany to dominate it in 1914? Niall does not explain why. And his idea that such German domination, won by the point of the sword, would have been like today's common market is not simply wildly wrong, has indicated by copious evidence, but wilfully stupid. But then so long has those inferior continental landlubbers get it in neck who cares right? It is obvious that Niall has a great contempt for Continental Europe. He has this vision of Britain, pristine and alone in splendid isolation. Held in especial contempt by Niall are those evil French and Russians! All in all this book is basically one long hysterical screed against the twentieth Century, British decline and those evil peoples of the continent. I am amazed it is taken seriously.7
Of course the many, many pages of facts and graphs etc., all help to impress the impressionable and it is certainly interesting to read the evidence that overall the Allied war making effort was markedly less effective than the Central Powers. But then Niall treats this like some new revelation when it is widely known.
Particularly funny is the section describing the German collapse in 1918. Niall incredibly claims that the German army was not actually defeated. Well after catastrophic defeats, Turkey, Bulgaria and Austro-Hungary had collapsed by November 11, 1918 and by mid-October before the mutinies and Revolution happened in Germany Ludendorff and Hindenburg were trying to get the civilians in the German government to get an armistice because bluntly they were defeated and comprehensive total defeat merely a matter of time. The fact is in the period from mid-July to mid November 1918 the German army on the western front was defeated and defeated enough for even before the home front collapse to want an armistice.8
Also hilarious is how Niall Ferguson ignores a mountain of evidence indicating that the allied blockade of 1914-1918 was indeed an important force in damaging the German economy and significantly impacting on the population. Niall’s hand waving away of the evidence is ludicrous.9
Mr. Ferguson’s position seems to be that given the horrible cost of the war the allied victory was not worth it and that it would have been better to let Germany win. Of course this is quite one sided. Mr. Ferguson doesn’t seem to have any problem with Germany winning, even if cost Germany at lot. Only the allies winning cost too much. Germany winning is simply not a problem. But then Mr. Ferguson entertains childish and naïve notions about how harmless a German dominated continent would have been. But then since in his view it involves those wicked continentals that is all right. After all only they would suffer and they aren’t superior British people. (snark) And of course the Germans, (A Mr. Ferguson delusion.), would allow that paragon of absolute virtue to continue to exist; the British Empire, which Mr. Ferguson worships devoutly so it is all right.
As said above one of the most annoying features in the writings of Niall Ferguson is his childlike and quite infantile nostalgia for the British Empire. Niall seems to be almost totally unaware of the more critical historiography of empire, instead he engages in what can only be described as mawkish nostalgia.
Despite the fact that the book is loaded with all sorts of interesting factual tidbits the book’s over all interpretation is simply absurd. But then Niall Ferguson’s witless nostalgia and desire that the twentieth century had never happened and that it remain 1897 forever is what helped to produce this mess of a book.
1. Amazon Here.
2. Ferguson, Niall, The Pity of War, New Edition, New York, 2000. For Niall Ferguson’s worship of Empire see Empire, Basic Books, New York, 2004.
3. For example see Craig, Gordon A., Germany: 1866 – 1945, pp. 38-60, and Rohl, John C. G., The Kaiser and his Court, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1995, pp. 150-161.
4. Fischer, Fritz, Germany’s Aims in the First World War, W. W. Norton & Co., New York, 1967, pp. 95-119.
5. See Massie, Robert K., Dreadnought, Ballantine Books, New York, 1992.
6. See Kennedy, Paul, The Rise and Fall of Great Powers, Vintage, New York, 1989, pp. 115-140, 249-255.
8. Fuller, J. F. C., The Decisive Battles of the Western World, v. 2, Edited by Terraine, John, Paladin, London, 1970, pp. 365-396. See also Hart, B. H. Liddell, A History of the First World War, pp. 362-383, 415-458.