One aspect of this book which has attracted a great deal of attention is its apparent novelty. Much has been made by reviewers of its gleeful rejection of received wisdom, as well as the confidence and vigour with which the historian who wrote it, Niall Ferguson, puts forward his controversial case. Ferguson, though now a respected and well-known figure within the academic community with several tenured professorships to his name, was only in his early thirties when the book was first published. His energy both in composition and argument was startling to many at that time. The arguments contained within this book are still hardly accepted by the mainstream; and they do not constitute a widely adopted interpretation – even now – of the course of the First World War and its causes. With the centenary of the First World War beginning last year, and a tranche of new work on the subject finding publication, it is perhaps pertinent to review this particularly fascinating book about how, more than one hundred years ago, the civilised world went to war and promptly set about tearing itself apart.
This book is not ordinary or conventional in essence, and Ferguson, perhaps true to type, even eschews the traditional narrative framework which has proven the standard for works of this genre – such is his desire to challenge the conventional ways of doing things in both form and argument. Instead of a simple narrative of how events unfolded either in the period preceding the First World War or during its course, Ferguson elects instead to compose a selection of razor-sharp essays, each a display of precision and craftsmanship.
The prose is polished and on occasion truly artful. It is difficult to remember another passage of historical writing which was as fascinatingly involving as Ferguson’s chapter on public opinion during the war; and it is similarly tough to recall a more harrowing piece of history than the chapter he devotes to the practice – common, it seems, to both sides in the First World War – of killing prisoners, sometimes in the most brutal and sadistic of fashions. The arbiter of a historian’s prose style appears to be Edward Gibbon, and his own methods – strong, witty pen-portraits, powerful and swift judgements, and a style so elegant as to appear almost ornamental without becoming oppressive – are not directly copied here. Some historical writers attempt to lift as much from Gibbon as they can. Ferguson simply does not have time for such ostentation.
That is not to say, though, that the book is not well-written, nor to suggest that it is not elegant in construction and compelling in contention. Its literary merits can be discovered in powerful phrasing of the sort which would make many a writer – and not just of history – deeply envious. Who, in their heart of hearts, can truly claim not to wish to have written something as majestic as the lines with which Ferguson closes his book?
The title of this book, then, is at once a sincere allusion to Wilfred Owen’s twice-used phrase and an echo of the understated idiom of the ordinary private soldier in the trenches. The First World War was at once piteous, in the poet’s sense, and ‘a pity’. It is something worse than a tragedy, which is something we are taught by the theatre to regard as ultimately unavoidable. It was nothing less than the greatest error of modern history.
Among modern historical writers tackling this era, perhaps only Christopher Clark can match such literary flair. His book The Sleepwalkers, itself a modern classic, concludes with one of the prettiest sentences printed about the origins of the First World War: ‘In this sense, the protagonists of 1914 were sleepwalkers, watchful but unseeing, haunted by dreams, yet blind to the reality of the horror they were about to bring into the world.’
Yet Clark’s own parting shot, while a thing of beauty, does not pack the same intellectual heft into as few words. Ferguson manages to cement his case – and its controversial challenge to the reader – while ending stylishly and with appropriate poignancy. Clark does not attempt the former; his closing remarks – and the entire book itself – have been labelled ‘a resigned shrug of the shoulders’ by Sean McMeekin, another historian concerned with this period. That remark is largely unfair, of course, yet there are elements of truth contained within. Compared with Ferguson’s dignified yet angry final judgement, Clark’s seems decidedly ponderous.
It is easy, when one has read his book, to see what has so animated Ferguson to write with such controlled fury. Among the most controversial of its essays are the first few, in which the author argues that the First World War need not have taken its eventual form. That much ought not to arouse a great deal of disagreement; after all, every historian acknowledges the mutability of events, the malleability of causes, the fact that things could have played out differently – perhaps radically so. Yet Ferguson’s suggestion that it was the British entry into the war which caused its eventual shape led to an awful amount of criticism at the time of first publication, which has – in one form or other – persisted until this very day.
Some suggest that his writing is in some way disrespectful to those who fought and died; it does seem, at least with a cursory look at this thesis, that Ferguson intends to traduce the oft-repeated effusion that they did so for democracy, or freedom, or for generations yet unborn. Such a suggestion, however, can be dismissed by a simple glance at his Introduction. In it, Ferguson acknowledges the wartime service, and the attendant sacrifice, of his two grandfathers, both of whom saw action in the First World War. This book, as evidenced particularly in the description of John Gilmour Ferguson, who first attempted to enlist at the age of only sixteen, is not callous; it does not seek to deprecate the struggles of previous generations. Instead, it is motivated by a passionate humanity, one that deplores the perceived waste of a war which cost millions of lives and is now popularly seen to have accomplished nothing, saved nothing, and left no source of virtue unviolated.
A further source of attack by some is the suggestion that this book – or at least the first part of it (I doubt that some of these critics have managed to read the whole thing) – is secretly a eulogy for empire, especially the British kind, something which was weakened immeasurably by the ravages of continental war. This view is not groundless – and indeed one can learn from Adam Tooze’s superb book The Deluge: The Great War and the Remaking of Global Order how the United States of America saw the war, in which the Old World gladly tore itself apart, as the moment to begin a half-century’s work towards financial and military supremacy. But Ferguson himself must be defended from charges of writing history based entirely upon imperial nostalgia. While some of his later output shows a tendency towards a more positive view of empire as a political phenomenon, this does not imply an all-permeating love of that particular form of government; and even if it did, one must add – just to be certain of seeing off particularly strident critics – there is no evidence in the text itself that any political urge of this kind was the animating force of this book. (Finally, it must further be contended that writing works of history which argue that empire had positive elements is not the same as supporting imperialism in itself.)
Rather, there seems to be a genuine desire at the heart of the book to address the wrongful perceptions of the public, to shake up debate and the process of historical enquiry, and to educate – and even to entertain – the lay reader. Within pages preconceptions are falling like flies: Germany was not more militarist than France; in fact it was less so. Germany – even Prussia, once seen as an autocratic state entirely controlled by the military – gave a higher proportion of the population the vote than Britain (never mind that the Kaiser had vast and largely unimpeded power of the sort his British cousin could only dream of). And aside from all of that, there is a core of original and interesting ideas at the heart of this work; this is something to be encouraged in any case, and especially if these ideas are expressed as compellingly as they are in this particular volume.
Throat-clearing aside, there is a place for nuance in the analysis of this work. Such nuance is provided by other critics, especially those who make use of Ferguson’s trademark device: the counterfactual. The counterfactual Ferguson provides in the first case is a perspective into how the world could have ended up had Britain not intervened in the preliminary stages of the war. Had there been no British declaration of war, it is suggested, there would have been no Expeditionary Force; no victory would have arrived on the banks of the River Marne, for example, to save the French capital; the German Schlieffen Plan would have come off; and the war would have been over, won by the Germans, in no time at all.
Obviously there are multiple strands to this argument, and therefore the issues one could take with its formation and its eventual conclusions are various. Even if one accepts, for example, that Britain would have remained entirely neutral after the Cabinet vote on the 4th of August (which the war party won and which, according to Ferguson, gave H. H. Asquith and Sir Edward Grey the mandate they required to send Britain into the war) there are still many assumptions to be made. Ferguson’s argument requires British politicians, having not entered the war in the first place, not to have been disturbed by the rapid rate of the forecast German successes. It also requires them not to have been drawn into the conflict at a later date, perhaps by the German atrocities – later exaggerated but certainly present at the time – in the advance through and occupation of Belgium. Finally, it would necessitate British policymakers – so caught up, according to many historians, with the balance of power in Europe – simply to stand aside and to allow the creation of a German hegemony on the continent. Even were it not the case that the defence of Belgium commanded British action, and even if popular support for that proposition did not exist, it is hard to imagine anyone influential in government circles contemplating German domination of the continent with the sort of languid detachment so present in historical caricature of the aristocrats who, like Grey himself and his predecessor Lord Lansdowne, still ran much of British political life at the time.
Furthermore, there is a great deal of historical evidence which suggests, for instance, that the much vaunted Shlieffen Plan was not the masterstroke it is popularly held to be. Margaret MacMillan suggests that despite the seemingly endless tinkering both of Schleiffen himself and his successor Helmuth von Moltke (the rather unfortunate nephew of the great Field Marshal), the proposed strategy itself remained imperfect and likely to fail. Much has been made of the rigidity of war-plans of the era; indeed, A. J. P. Taylor wrote of the ‘war by timetable’, a historical contention which had the helpful side-effect of exonerating many from blame (and discussion of the war’s origins has too frequently descended into a blame game of sorts).
There is some evidence for this: Sean McMeekin, in his book July 1914: Countdown to War, writes of von Moltke literally bursting into tears when being questioned as to whether the plan could be altered in order only to attack Russia during the pre-war July Crisis. But the notion that the German army, even in possession of some decidedly clever tactics, such as the deployment of reserves in the front lines in order to lengthen the ‘right hook’ intended to take Paris, could be counted upon to win the war in 40 days is one which deserves some scepticism. It must be remembered that the monumental flanking attack would probably have fallen short even without the intervention of the British Expeditionary Force, stymied as it was by the need to fight its way through Belgium and take some of that nation’s heavily defended fortresses, such as Liège. The likely delay would have held up the planned German victory considerably; and this, of course, would have offered ample opportunity for British involvement, even if it had been postponed at the beginning of August. One cannot lose sight of the fact that while the Liberals could feasibly have supported an anti-war majority during the tense Cabinet discussions of the July Crisis, both the Conservative opposition and the press were firmly in favour of war. This influence cannot be overlooked, and the possibility of eventual British entry cannot be entirely ruled out.
Moreover, even if one accepts Ferguson’s interpretation of how the war in the West would have gone, and despite what seems to have been a reasonably easy German victory over Russia in actuality, it is vital to remember the fragility of history. Even that which appears now in the full light of the past to have been inevitable could have ended up decidedly differently. Ferguson’s first chapters say nothing if they do not impart this valuable message. Why not, therefore, treat his own projection of how it may have happened with similar open-minded scepticism? After all, such a stance could serve to evidence the possibilities contained within his thesis better than a complete and narrow acceptance of each of its terms.
A particularly fascinating chapter of The Pity of War deals with the domestic aspect of the First World War; but the topics to hand are not the fairly well-trodden routes of suppliers and suppers, famine and fashion, during an era of shortage. Instead Ferguson examines propaganda on the home front, and he does so extensively through the medium of journalism and popular opinion.
While the two books are not entirely contemporaneous in setting, there is also a pleasing element within Clark’s The Sleepwalkers which devotes some ink into the chronicling of journalism in the period preparatory to war; Margaret MacMillan’s work The War That Ended Peace covers some of the same ground. From those books one discovers that the main focus of pre-war governments seemed to be navigating the dual streams of emerging public opinion and the necessities of national propaganda, which can be observed, in fairly crude terms, through newspaper articles essentially dictated by one government figure or other. These ‘inspired’ articles were often seen by ambassadors as representing the true opinions of the nations where they found themselves posted; many a press clipping fattened diplomatic pouches during the catastrophic July Crisis of 1914. Such political manoeuvring with the use of newspapers was not new; indeed, one learns from Andrew Robert’s excellent biography that Napoleon used exactly the same trick with Le Moniteur at the beginning of the 19th century – it should be noted, however, that he did so with markedly less subtlety.
In wartime, it seems, the task of those in charge of government manipulation of the press was less diffuse. All they needed to do was to animate those at home in order for them to win the war. Of course, this was easier said than done, and Ferguson provides some interesting snippets of information as to how modern propaganda machinery began to mobilise: the Germans opened a military press office, for example, and the British government churned out pot-boiler pro-war pamphlets by the dozen. Another particularly interesting revelation which this book provides makes the job described above seem decidedly more difficult; outside of certain sections of society – often limited to the patriotic and chauvinistic middle classes – many Europeans had no sincere desire to fight at all.
This revelation is accompanied with interesting data from sources as obscure as surveys of the crowds which gathered outside Europe’s palaces in the immediate aftermath of the outbreak of war; the stock markets in each major capital, all of which took a dive; and the rates of unemployment, which rose and then fell after war was declared. Men without work joined up, therefore lessening the problem of joblessness but helping to create a myth of mass volunteer armies going willingly to war.
When men were at war, however, keeping there was a little easier than prompting them to join up. Despite occasional French mutiny – there was a particularly consequential series of them in 1917 – and the German mutinies which precipitated the fall of the Empire and the eventual Armistice, there were no serious attempts to halt the war simply by a mass refusal to fight. Nothing happened which could remotely be considered on the same scale as that which was envisioned by Jacques Jaurès and the other pre-war socialists of the Second International.
One of the most riveting sections of the book deals with how, despite the sheer volume of miserabilist war poetry attesting to the contrary, there seems to have been very little true discontent in the trenches. (In this case, as Ferguson notes with some acuity, ‘war poetry’ normally means anti-war poetry.)
Some of the reasons put forward to explain this somewhat counter-intuitive discovery are practical ones: for many on the front lines, the quality of life represented an improvement on their pre-war situation; though they faced death daily, it seems they were better rewarded than they had been at home for their labour. Others found coping methods – alcohol and prostitution played their part – while yet others actually enjoyed the war.
This latter observation is perhaps the most shocking suggestion contained within the book – even more so than the blueprint for what Ferguson terms ‘The Kaiser’s European Union’, which he suggests could have arisen in the aftermath of a swift, crushing German victory in 1914. More than anything else, the First World War represents an emotional focal point not because it was a waste but because it is seen to exemplify self-sacrifice, honour, stoicism, and all the other bygone values the world seeks to impose upon the ethical turbulence of the past.
The fact that many soldiers cheered when they killed or maimed their enemies, laughed when unarmed prisoners were disposed of with the utmost savagery, volunteered for dangerous missions with – in the words of Siegfried Sassoon – ‘the intention of trying to kill someone’ strikes at the very heart of every piety associated with that most terrible of conflicts. Yet it must be faced up to, and the historical record is richer, more real – if not happier – for its inclusion. Such stories, no matter how unpleasant, need to be told. Ferguson is just the man for the job.
Returning to criticism this book and its author have received, it is evident almost immediately that some dispense with nuance entirely and criticise Ferguson personally. As a prolific journalist and commentator – one who is, according to a small New York Times biography printed under one of his articles, ‘known for his provocative, contrarian views’ – such criticism cannot be entirely alien or unexpected. Nonetheless, the character of some of the attacks directed against Ferguson have been particularly vitriolic in nature.
The London Review of Books published a particularly stinging review of his work Civilisation: The West and the Rest by Pankaj Mishra, which began with a comparison drawn between Ferguson and Tom Buchanan, the boorish, over-privileged, under-educated cad from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Such a comment seemed overdrawn and hardly apposite at the time, but the timbre of that particular instance of opprobrium has been replicated by very many indeed. The suggestion that this work in particular was animated by pro-imperial nostalgia has been dealt with, but innuendo of an unbecoming sort continues to be written about the author.
Ferguson’s career in newsprint has served as a source of much reproval. His contrary style and intellectual panache served as the model for Irwin, a precocious and inspiring teacher in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys. The character has a fascinating cleverness, a probing intellect which does not allow the cherished orthodoxies of his pupils to rest easy. This element of his portrayal is a positive one; there are, however, less pleasant aspects of the character. Beneath the surface cleverness is a vacuum of sorts. The answers he provides and questions he answers are more provocative than stimulating, his observations more shallow than insightful. Irwin represents, it seems, a simulacrum of intelligence. The final nail in this particular coffin is the admission, weakly delivered, that he never actually got into Oxford; ‘I wasn’t clever enough’, he confesses sheepishly. This portrayal is not intended as a compliment, and Ferguson himself has acknowledged this. ‘Ouch’ indeed.
Hector, a teacher in that play who is both paedophilic and shambolic yet somehow admirable, dismisses a particularly facetious comment by one of his students with the following statement of distaste: ‘It’s … flip. It’s … glib. It’s journalism.’ The latter adjective apparently embodies the former two in this case. Journalistic writing is, it has been said, seen by many academics as disposable and shoddily-sourced. While that perception is one which holds less water after one has spent any time in a newsroom, it is a widespread view. Some in academia – and other fields too, it must be remembered – take a less than complimentary view of the trade. Ferguson’s prolific career in journalism, which first began in earnest in the course of his Ph.D. research in Germany in the late 1980s, has surely engendered the occasional jealous stare across the Senior Common Room. His book sales, as well as the carefully-made and high-paying contracts which preceded them, must inspire similar professional envy.
A New Yorker profile of the historian as a young man, however, is full of praise. Perhaps there is a cross-cultural element at work, too. As Ferguson himself writes of The History Boys when it had its Broadway run, ‘An Atlantic crossing had turned Bennett on his head. Far from seeing Irwin as the villain, my friend saw him as the hero.’ The same could be said of the man on whom his character was modelled.
Robert Boynton writes that
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.
One cannot but feel that some of the stridency in criticism comes more from jealously and personal dislike than solid historical scholarship. Perhaps many opponents of Ferguson cannot see past what the political commentator Janan Ganesh calls ‘the sheer iridescent glare of success’.
In summation, then, it can be seen that this book is not a succession of controversial points thrown together for the sake of being contrary; nor is it a cynical bid for status and fame, as some have suggested. Furthermore, the book is not a hymnal dedicated to the lost empire of 1914, and it does not seek to propose a version of what might have been with the protection of empire in mind. There are no rose tinted spectacles here, especially not in the particularly affecting chapters on prisoner-taking and the ways in which human lives were seen as just another input in the gargantuan cost-benefit analysis upon which hung the fate of nations.
This book is not an easy read, but this has little to do with the prose, which sparkles and remains controlled throughout, or the erudition on show, which illuminates rather than obfuscates proceedings. Instead, it might be difficult to absorb simply because it is so convincing. With many a bookshelf groaning under the weight of volumes tackling the issues raised in this book, it may seem simply too good to be true that this reasonably slender tome – written with an uncommon verve – could hold the answers it purports to do so. It may not manage that ambitious undertaking entirely, yet it remains a valuable addition to the historical literature which surrounds the First World War, and perhaps even to literature itself.