The Blood of Europe
There are always two versions of
what happens in a war: the official version,
released during the conflict and sanctioned by the
men running the show; and the historical version,
written with some detachment by observers and
scholars who have the benefit of hindsight. For
students of the Vietnam war, this second, more
reliable history was written at the same time as
the official version by critical journalists
living through the battles.
The popular story of the First
World War, however, was mostly written after WWII,
against the backdrop of undeniable German evil and
in the depths of the ideological muddle of the
cold war. The story was straightforward: German
aggression caused the war, but Gerry was no match
for the superior spirit and logistics of the
Allied forces, who willing suffered incomparable
horrors of inhumanity while smashing the German
With the fresh eyes of a young
scholar and the preternatural skill of a gifted
thinker, Niall Ferguson, who last year published
the critically acclaimed The House of
Rothschild, reassesses all of these
assumptions and arrives at conclusions as to the
war's causes, execution, and outcome that are at
once radically new and convincingly modest.
Ferguson approaches his monumental
task by asking ten fundamental questions, which he
lays out plainly in the introduction:
Was the war inevitable,
whether because of militarism, imperialism,
secret diplomacy or the arms race (Chapters
Why did Germany's leaders
gamble on war in 1914 (Chapter 5)?
Why did Britain's leaders
decide to intervene when war broke out on the
Continent (Chapter 6)?
Was the war, as is often
asserted, really greeted with popular
enthusiasm (Chapter 7)?
Did propaganda, and especially
the press, keep the war going, as Karl Kraus
believed (Chapter 8)?
Why did the huge economic
superiority of the British Empire not suffice
to inflict defeat on the Central Powers more
quickly and without American intervention
(Chapters 9 and 11)?
Why did the military
superiority of the German army fail to deliver
victory over the British and French armies on
the Western Front, as it delivered victory
over Serbia, Rumania and Russia (Chapter 10)?
Why did men keep fighting
when, as the war poets tell us, conditions on
the battlefield were so wretched (Chapter 12)?
Why did men stop fighting
Who won the peace -- to be
precise, who ended up paying for the war
Since I have set Ferguson up as a
contrarian, I should warn readers of this review
against assuming obvious, contrarian answers to
those questions. His analysis is thoughtful and
his deductions soundly defended and rigorously
footnoted: World War I was not inevitable, as
history has told us; Britain, not Germany, was
responsible for making it a world war; Britain
prolonged the war through financial mismanagement,
and Germany did its part in the stalemate by
misusing its military superiority; the U.S.
involvement decided not just the fate of the war
but reorganized global power.
Ferguson knows he's on uncharted
intellectual ground, so to keep the reader on
course he leaves a constant trail of supporting
notes and references, each drawn from a broad
social and military analysis that spans from
economics to popular culture. The notes and
bibliography combine to fill almost 80 pages.
The Pity of War is not a
chronology of the events of World War I. Those
details are scarcely in dispute and Ferguson wants
to illuminate history, not regurgitate it.
Instead, The Pity of War explains the First
World War to a new world, one stripped of cold war
and anti-German orthodoxies that for decades
clouded our understanding of the events of