New York: Basic Books, 1999
Niall Ferguson is a Scottish-born economic historian who is currently the Laurence Tisch Professor of History at Harvard University, and he has written numerous books on European imperialism and twentieth century warfare. The Pity of War delineates what Ferguson describes as ten “myths” about the First World War, and the author attempted to disprove these statements largely through the use of economic data. In addition, Ferguson made use of counterfactual history throughout the text, suggesting a number of possible continental futures had the European powers chosen paths different from those that led to the outbreak of war in 1914.
The book is organized in thematic fashion, with most of the chapters dedicated to one of Ferguson’s particular war “myths.” The author provided a wealth of footnotes for his sources, which tended more toward the secondary than the primary, and drew most heavily from English and German writers. There is an impressive 24-page bibliography for further reading, and the book contains quite a few charts and tables, as well as previously-unpublished photographs from soldiers who participated in the First World War.
The first historiographical debate Ferguson took on in The Pity of War is the idea that the First World War erupted due to a European cult of militarism in the decades prior to 1914. This view was popularized by American President Woodrow Wilson, and was often a component of anti-German propaganda, especially those works that focused on the prominence of Prussian military leadership in the German government. While acknowledging the widespread presence in Europe of militarist literature in the decades leading up to the war, Ferguson argued that political and electoral trends in Europe instead suggest that anti-militarism was a more prominent feature of European politics:
Militarism, then, was far from being the dominant force in European politics on the eve of the Great War. On the contrary: it was in political decline, and not the least as a direct result of democratization… overtly anti-militarist socialist parties were in the electoral ascendant in most of the future combatant countries.
Left: German Kaiser Wilhelm II
The author next confronted the idea that European imperialism was a contributory factor in the outbreak of hostilities in 1914. This view can be most prominently found in Vladimir Lenin’s 1916 Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism, and Ferguson wasted little time dismissing European imperialism as a significant cause of warfare. Instead, argued, the author, European bankers and industrialists feared the eruption of war on the European continent, as war “threatened to bankrupt most if not all of the major acceptance houses engaged in financing international trade.” Ferguson argued that Britain, as the preeminent imperial power, instead often appeased imperial rivals such as France, Russia, and the United States, and Germany’s position as a minor imperial player posed little threat to the British Empire.
Much of the blame for the eruption of the First World War, argued Ferguson, should be laid at the feet of British politicians. He noted that British military planners as early as 1905 made preparations for naval and military support for France in the event of a Franco-German war. He also cited 1912 British diplomatic documents that Belgian neutrality would have been disregarded by the British in the event of a continental war, and argued that “if Germany had not violated Belgian neutrality in 1914, Britain would have.” Moreover, argued Ferguson, the uncertainty about the British position on the possibility of a continental war (especially what the author termed as Sir Edward Grey’s “Germanophobia and zeal for the Entente with France” that was in opposition with Liberals in Parliament) should be considered a primary cause of the First World War. The Germans, Ferguson maintained, felt compelled to engage in a pre-emptive strike as a result of the lack of clear British intentions in the months leading up to the war. On a related note, Ferguson dismissed the idea of the arms race as a primary cause of war, arguing that Britain and the Allies had a decisive edge in naval and land forces prior to the war, and that it was the fact that Germany had lost the arms race that caused German leaders to fear encirclement by stronger European powers.
Ferguson dismissed the long held idea that the outbreak of war in 1914 was greeted by widespread public enthusiasm, arguing that there is a “growing body of evidence which qualifies, if it does not wholly refute, the thesis of mass bellicosity.” He noted that many German leaders, including Helmuth von Moltke and Kaiser Wilhelm II, were quite pessimistic about Germany’s chances during the war. Moreover, antiwar protesters such as philosopher Bertrand Russell were subject to arrest and incarceration for publishing and orating against the war, leading Ferguson to deduce that wartime prosecution of antiwar activists is evidence of a larger movement against the war.
Left: British economist John Maynard Keynes
Ferguson seemed to express an intense dislike for John Maynard Keynes, whose 1919 Economic Consequences of the Peace blasted the Treaty of Versailles. In particular, the author felt a need to include salacious anecdotes on the sexual identity of Keynes, arguing that after the outbreak of war the noted economist’s “sex life went into decline, perhaps because the boys he liked to pick up in London all joined up.” Ferguson even went so far as to speculate that Keynes’s anti-reparations position at Versailles was due to a homosexual attraction to German negotiator Carl Melchior. The unusual personal vitriol toward Keynes detracts from Ferguson’s analysis of Economic Consequences of the Peace and other postwar writings of Keynes, and suggests that the author’s avowed neo-conservative views cloud his ability to dissect the writings of the liberal economic icon in an objective fashion.
Ferguson’s economic analysis of German reparations and their effects on the postwar German economy leaves much to be desired. He argued that German payments made between 1920 and 1923 ranged from four to seven percent of total German national income in the period, and that this figure was comparable to French reparations after the Franco-Prussian War. Ferguson conveniently glossed over the fact that these payments represented roughly one-third of all Reich expenditures during this period, arguing that the Germans should have raised taxes in order to finance the reparations debt. This simplistic argument ignores the fact that postwar Germany sat precipitously between the diametrically opposed political poles of communism and fascism in the 1920s, and that a German government that sought to pass off the war reparations on an already-beleaguered German population would be committing political suicide. Ferguson also pays little attention to the fact that the postwar German Reichstag was a brand new experiment in democracy and federal government, and his suggestion that reparations were simply a matter of passing the proper legislation is a naïve exercise in counterfactual speculation that overlooks the fragility of Weimar democracy.
The Pity of War is a useful text for non-specialist scholars looking for historiographical background on the causes of the First World War, as Ferguson frequently referenced historical debates in his analysis. Historians of the war, however, will find little in the way of novel approaches to these debates, and Ferguson often comes across in this text as a writer more interested in pushing political agendas than in furthering historical analysis.