- The War of the World: Twentieth-Century Conflict and the Descent of the West
- Penguin Press, 880 pp.
Rethinking Twentieth-Century History
Niall Ferguson is hot—about as hot as a historian can get. Just 42 this year, he teaches at Harvard and has fellowships at Jesus College, Oxford, and the Hoover Institution at Stanford. As migrant work goes, Ferguson’s gig has to be one of the best.
A specialist in financial and economic history, his past books have addressed the British and American empires (which led other historians to call him an apologist for imperialism), the House of Rothschild, and several books on World War One. He is also fond of positing alternative histories as an analytical method—to show that what actually happened might not have been inevitable. Ferguson edited a collection of essays on such scenarios called Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals.
His work has earned him the reputation of a controversial revisionist who likes to challenge the orthodoxies of history. He is often praised by American conservatives like Condoleeza Rice (whose boss must have loved Ferguson’s declaration that the U.S. must face up to its imperial responsibilities and occupy Iraq for 40 years, though W certainly can’t get caught saying such a thing himself these days). Surprisingly for an economics specialist, Ferguson has argued that money does not “make the world go round,” but favors the theory that human actions guide history by many other motivations as well; that great forces don’t drive history but individuals do—an old-fashioned historical notion.
In his most famous book, The Pity of War, Ferguson suggested Germany was not an all-out aggressor in World War I, but was forced into war by thoughtless British diplomacy, and it would have been better for all concerned if Britain had stayed out of the war and allowed Germany to win over France and Russia.
Ferguson’s latest book has gotten him TV appearances on the public television shows The Charlie Rose Show and Foreign Exchange hosted by Fareed Zakaria, as well as National Public Radio. He narrates a BBC Channel 4 miniseries tied to the new book, and there are video and audio clips of all these appearances on his eponymous Web site. He’s even said to have provided an inspiration for the mercenary “villain” of the new movie “The History Boys”—Irwin, the young teacher hired to prepare the students for the Oxford entrance exam—and that’s clearly Ferguson’s Pity of War being quoted in Irwin’s praise of alternate, “creative” interpretations of Germany’s behavior and motivations in World War I.
There’s nothing quite so obviously controversial in his new book, though he continues to challenge specific assumptions (and quietly grant some of them their validity in the end), and one may note subtle restatements of some of the positions that got him in hot water with his colleagues in the past.
Ferguson set out to do the next logical book after his studies of World War I—an analysis of the Second World War—but, as he explains in the lengthy introduction, he came to appreciate “just how un-illuminating it would be to write yet another book focused on the now familiar collisions of armies, navies and air forces. Was there, I began to ask myself, really such a thing as the Second World War?”
He began to think “the war” was more a collection of multiple regional conflicts, whose origins and conclusions stretched beyond the usually accepted boundaries of 1939-1945—the war against China began in 1937, even 1931; and the one against the British, Dutch, and French empires ended in 1942. Civil wars occurred before, during, and after the official time window in China, Spain, the Balkans, the Ukraine, Poland, India, Indo-China, and Korea. The two superpowers who remained standing after Japan’s surrender continued to carry on wars “by proxy.”
Ferguson suggests that, rather than two world wars, it might be instructive to think of the unprecedented periods of twentieth century violence as one long, ongoing war—“the fifty-year war of the world”—that stretched from Japan’s invasion of Russia in 1904 to the uneasy settlement of the Korean War in 1953. This was followed by the “Third World’s War,” which is ongoing.
In his long and sharply analytical introduction (it’s 38 pages) Ferguson rejects some standard assumptions about the causes of the Second World War (economic depressions, class conflict, political ideologies; which explanations he calls “necessary but not sufficient”), and offers what he sees as the three main factors:
- ethnic conflict
- economic volatility
- the decline of empires
Specifically, wars tended to ignite along the peripheries of deteriorating empires, such as Central and Eastern Europe, Manchuria, and Korea (Ferguson calls the Baltic, Balkans, and Black Sea a “fault line between the tectonic plates of four great empires”); when there is particular economic volatility (note that fortunes may be going up as well as down); and where there has been considerable ethnic mixing.
A sharp rise in assimilation, currently one of the golden aims of democracy-loving Westerners because mixing of the races supposedly leads to greater understanding and peace, “may actually be the prelude to ethnic conflict,” he writes. For example, intermarriage of Jews with non-Jews was 1 in 3 in Central and Eastern Europe in the 1920s (and as high as 1 in 2 in some cities). In Germany, Jewish intermarriage rose from 2 percent in 1902 to 28 percent in 1933. (Only the city of Trieste had a higher rate in Europe.)
One other underlying theme of this book is that the twentieth century was not the “American Century,” in the sense that the United States or the West as a whole came to be the leader of the world through the era, but that in fact they were in decline almost from the start. “In 1900 the West really did rule the world,” he writes, but Asian societies modernized themselves or were modernized by European rule, so that “it seems justifiable to interpret the twentieth century not as the triumph but the descent of the West, with the Second World War as the decisive turning point.”
Having offered these intriguing theses, Ferguson neglects them somewhat in a retelling of the standard story of the Second World War, though there are inevitably some interesting assertions, fascinating details, and ironies to be savored along the way. The forest of his general argument—however unique or useful it may be (or not; the non-specialist cannot know for certain)—gets rather lost in the trees, save for intermittent nods to economic measures and developments, and analysis of ethnic trends.
As for the decline of the West, most readers, myself included, might agree that it’s happening—or has happened—but I don’t see the argument made very strongly in this book, or that it was clearly in progress between 1900 and say, 1970. One has to wonder how much the star scholar who jets between Oxford, Harvard, and Stanford believes it himself: in his late October appearance on Foreign Exchange, Ferguson says the U.S. may retain its comparatively powerful position by doing what it has always done—being “smarter” than everyone else, technologically and otherwise.
Interestingly, the subtitle of the Penguin Books version of War of the World published in Britain was not “Twentieth Century Conflict and the Descent of the West,” but “History’s Age of Hatred, 1914-1989.” The U.S. edition appears to keep the British spellings of familiar words in the body text, and I do not know whether any editing or revising was done . . . but I doubt there was any.
There are inarguably fine trees in this forest, though. Other academics and specialists may not find much that is new here, perhaps, but for the armchair historian, this is the kind of book one likes to read every five to ten years because it wonderfully refreshes one’s knowledge about much of the past century. It is, not surprisingly, an immensely well-researched book (51 pages of end notes in perhaps 8-point type; another 47 pages of sources and bibliography), but a remarkably cosmopolitan one as well: there are references to Musil, Hasek, Kipling, de Maupassant, Grass, Bulgakov’s The White Guard, and Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March.
High points in Ferguson’s narrative and analysis include the Western armies’ fairly lax and even immoral behavior in killing prisoners of war and civilians in both world wars; the evident fact (though not evident to Western dupes like George Bernard Shaw, who gets a fierce tongue-lashing from Ferguson) that the Soviet Union between the wars was basically a slave economy, which met its bogus economic goals—when it did—on the backs of millions of political and ethnic prisoners; and perhaps the greatest counterfactual of the book: questioning whether defeat of Germany and Japan was inevitable.
On that last point, the answer seems clear to Ferguson, though he takes an informative 20 pages of analysis that includes a discussion of the Allies’ moral lapses, comparison of relative manpower, the importance of supplies, and the undertraining and ineffectiveness of American soldiers (“The ‘greatest generation’ may have been greater than other American generations; they were far from being the greatest warriors of World War II”), before he renders it.
There are plenty of details that may surprise. The Passover blood libel against Jews, so prominent in Eastern European and later Nazi iconography, seems to have originated in twelfth century England. “Russian” pogroms in Odessa throughout the nineteenth century were actually the handiwork of Greeks. The “inevitability” of World War I, according to twenty-twenty hindsight, really seems to have been something of a bolt from the blue, if we judge by the behavior of the financial markets in 1914 and 1915.
While noting the obvious racism of many Americans toward their Asian opponents, Ferguson reminds us that the Japanese were brutal to yellow prisoners as well as whites: the details of the Rape of Nanking and many other massacres are recounted, and he notes that a majority of prisoners who died on the Bataan Death March were Filippinos.
Perhaps not so surprisingly, Ferguson argues that Chamberlain’s government had other choices besides “fight, appease, or flee,” and that “pre-emption” might have done wonders against Hitler: “Almost any outcome, even war itself, would have been preferable to what happened,” and “Britain would have been better off financially, as well as militarily, if there had been a war in 1938.”
Ferguson delights in ironies, which he flourishes like a magician his rabbits. A lengthy quotation from the speech of a new officeholder in 1933, about unscrupulous “money changers,” calling for increased militarization, and urging broader executive powers to “meet the crisis” turns out to be from FDR’s inaugural address. Himmler is exasperated that, after all the indoctrination about the Aryan master race, too many of his SS men were attracted to the “wrong” kind of women such as “a small eastern Jew, a small Mongolian. . . .” The notion of what would forever after be known as “blitzkrieg” originated in Britain, with Captain Basil Liddell Hart, whose ideas were not very influential in Britain, but eagerly taken up by the Germans. Stalin, one of the most paranoid and untrusting characters in history, put his trust in one man—“the most unscrupulous liar in history”—and was genuinely stunned when Hitler turned around and invaded Russia.
In the course of swallowing much of Europe and then starting to lose battles, the “pure-bred” Aryan armies became “Hitler’s Melting Pot” of ethnically diverse soldiery. For example, “In February 1943 the first of three divisions was formed of Bosnian and Albanian Muslims, who wore fezes decorated with SS runes and were led in their prayers by regimental imams notionally under the supervision of the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem”(!)
An analysis of the U.S. corporations’ swift and massive switch to war production, festooned with economic statistics that are Ferguson’s specialty, concludes: “It was strange indeed that the recovery of the American economy [from the Great Depression] should owe so much to the business of flattening other peoples’ cities.”
Along with the interesting details, one appreciates Ferguson’s occasional flashes of dry humor. He notes that the United Kingdom is still widely referred to as “England . . . [t]o the chagrin of Scotsmen and Welshmen afflicted with inferiority complexes.”
“As so often in the twentieth century, what was at stake rather eluded British politicians,” Ferguson asserts of their response to strategic developments in 1914.
Though he is careful to try to maintain moral distinctions between, say, the carpet bombing of Dresden and Tokyo versus the Nazi concentration camps, perhaps in response to critics who called his earlier books apologias for imperialism, Ferguson is very hard on what he sees as the Allies’ moral lapses. The Axis were defeated “only by the application of immense and contrary force” that “in turn required terrible moral compromises on the part of the Western powers.” This was no simple war of evil versus good, but “a war of evil against lesser evil.”
Somewhat surprisingly, Ferguson does not take a hard position on one of the favorite debates of students of the war: were the atomic bombings necessary? Since he believes there is little question that “the majority of those forces mobilized for the final defence of mainland Japan would have gone down fighting rather than surrender in the absence of an imperial command to do so,” one might think his position an easy one to guess; but there’s no examination of Hirohito’s potential motives and choices in this book, only a recital of all the reasons the Allies would have inevitably wanted to use the Bomb.
The historian cannot avoid the question “what is the difference between Auschwitz and Hiroshima?”, Ferguson writes, though the answer is fairly simple and obvious: the “final solution” was an end in itself, while carpet bombings and Little Boy/Fat Man were means to an end; or rather, ends, since Churchill was sharp enough to realize that Britain needed to prevent a Soviet threat from replacing the German one. In this he and FDR failed, perhaps inevitably. As Ferguson notes, the “principal beneficiary” of the Allied victory “was the totalitarian regime with which the Western democracies had joined forces in the summer of 1941, Stalin’s Soviet Union. . . . The wartime alliance with Stalin, for all its inevitability and strategic rationality, was nevertheless an authentically Faustian pact. . . .”
So the reader may be left asking what, indeed, is the difference between the Allies and the Axis for the millions who died in battle, under bombs, and at the hands of death squads and famine, or in the Soviet gulags and the multiple Chinese revolutions before and after Mao came to power?
One of the central theses of Ferguson’s book—ethnic conflict—returns with a vengeance in the concluding pages. He shows how “retributive ethnic cleansing, which the Allied leaders formally sanctioned at the Potsdam Conference,” was a feature of the concluding months and aftermath of the war. Soviet soldiers raped an estimated 2 million German women, including nuns and pregnant and post-partum women. About 7 million Germans were expelled or deported from Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary, Romania, and Yugoslavia. If those are added to the 5.6 million who had already escaped westward to avoid the Red Army, a total in the neighborhood of 13 million were displaced, and perhaps 2 million died.
Between 1944 and 1948, another 31 million inhabitants of Central and Eastern Europe were displaced—“one of the largest and most brutal mass movements of population in all history.” (And yet, one wonders, why has there been ethnic violence in some places—the Balkans, Chechnya—and not others, such as the Baltics, the Czech Republic, Romania, Hungary?)
After declaring that “the victory of 1945 was a tainted victory—if indeed it was a victory at all,” and that “the underlying war between West and East no more ended in 1945 than it had begun in 1939,” Ferguson goes on to a lengthy and useful analysis of why so much ethnic violence never broke out into another “world war.” And though his epilogue suggests there are “grounds for cautious optimism,” there are also disturbing signs that the “New World Disorder” may be breaking down: China’s increasing investment in the U.S., the Near East exporting the prophet and people across the globe (including those who are not among the 50,000 illegal immigrants turned away from Europe each year), the stark differences in fertility rates between West and East.
One place where War of the World pulls up short is with its maps. There are 15 pages of them up front—impressively detailed and informative in their own right—but nobody apparently compared the text against them. Whenever Ferguson gets to the point of describing a specific battle and landmarks, more often than not they are not readily apparent in the maps. For example, the Nazi drive through the Low Countries by way of Liège, Namur, and the Ardennes, though discussed by Ferguson, cannot be easily located on any of the maps in this book; I pulled out my atlas to find out where we were.
Other historians have criticized Ferguson for doing less and less original research with each succeeding book, and one occasionally notices an incomplete thread. Though there are plenty of startling numbers for the slain in pogroms large and small, huge refugee displacements, and war casualties, a discussion of the Nazi program to kidnap Aryan-looking children from captured territories to be raised properly in the Reich left this reader wondering “how many?”
Ferguson is a fine and engaging writer, though one notices a tendency to go for “cliffhanger” situations and provocative questions at the conclusion of various chapters, some of whose answers turn out to be obvious or not so terribly shocking a few pages later. It would seem he is happily headed toward a lucrative career as a popularizer in his field—a Carl Sagan or Lewis Thomas of history, if you will—rather than a thinker who does the hard slogging through the beanfields of original research. That will probably continue to annoy his colleagues, and invite their resentment (not to mention envy), but it’s a boon to the broader readership who will undoubtedly enjoy his work for many years to come.