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Niall Ferguson, Basic Books 608pgs, 2000 (English)

Pity of War: Explaining World War I
Pity of War: Explaining World War I


From the editors at Barnes and Noble

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 threat.

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:

  1. Was the war inevitable, whether because of militarism, imperialism, secret diplomacy or the arms race (Chapters 1-4)?

  2. Why did Germany's leaders gamble on war in 1914 (Chapter 5)?

  3. Why did Britain's leaders decide to intervene when war broke out on the Continent (Chapter 6)?

  4. Was the war, as is often asserted, really greeted with popular enthusiasm (Chapter 7)?

  5. Did propaganda, and especially the press, keep the war going, as Karl Kraus believed (Chapter 8)?

  6. 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)?

  7. 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)?

  8. Why did men keep fighting when, as the war poets tell us, conditions on the battlefield were so wretched (Chapter 12)?

  9. Why did men stop fighting (Chapter 13)?

  10. Who won the peace -- to be precise, who ended up paying for the war (Chapter 14)?

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 1914-1918.

—Greg Sewell

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