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Inexplicable World War I

ISSUE:  Winter 2000
The Pity of War: Explaining World War I. By Niall Ferguson. Basic Books. $30.00.

In April 1999 The New Yorker published a profile of the British historian Niall Ferguson distinguished by the provocative contention that the Oxford don believed World War I to be his country’s fault. After reading The Pity of War in which this author was said to have set forth so astounding a hypothesis, I discovered that The New Yorker’s profiler, as well as other reviewers, had distorted its contents beyond recognition.

In fact, the almost 500 pages of text, more than 2200 footnotes, and 21 pages of bibliography in very small print encompass a wide ranging critique of conventional beliefs on causes, aspects of management, and consequences of a war that still marks, for most knowledgeable Europeans, the end of “the good old days.”

What tenets does Niall Ferguson seek to refute? One is the commonly perceived villainous role of German militarism, reminding us that in the election of 1912 half the German voters endorsed such anti-militarist parties as the Social Democrats and the Catholic Center. Next, he recalls that between 1870 and 1914 Britain’s relations with Germany were quite friendly because they lacked the imperial rivalries that put her at odds with France and Russia. That, in his view, also disqualifies imperialism as a cause of war. The author, furthermore, wonders whether the widely blamed arms race was not another figment of scholarly imaginations. German Conservatives, he reminds us, stubbornly opposed expanding the army to forestall its democratization. Two belligerents, Belgium and Britain, were eminently unready for war in 1914 since their parliaments, too, would not allocate the funds required to increase their forces. Cost, in fact, was an almost universal impediment to increases in armaments.

Only two out of 14 chapters refer to subjects that have triggered the sensationalist interpretations that first drew my attention to The Pity of War: In Chapter 3 Ferguson concludes that the “uncertainty of Britain’s position [in case of a war among Germany, France, and Russia] probably made a continental war more rather than less likely, by encouraging Germany to consider a pre-emptive strike” (pp. 80—81.Italics mine). This, to me, does not appear to indict Britain but more probably Germany.

While reconstructing the events immediately preceding the conflict, the author also insists on the rather bizarre contention that Britain need not have entered the war because a victorious Germany —assured of British neutrality—would have respected the territorial integrity of France, Belgium, and the Netherlands (pp.170—71).

“Explaining World War I”, however, does not stop there. Ferguson tackles other interpretations he considers less sound than commonly assumed. He challenges the view that everyone cheered the call to arms, pointing out that there was widespread opposition to the war in Britain and in Russia. Also in Germany, France, and Austria, government measures to deal with such opposition indicate at the very least that jubilation was far from unanimous. The author also cites examples of panic accompanying the outbreak of hostilities on the continent and in the British Isles among businessmen, on stock exchanges, and throughout areas immediately threatened by military action. Equally interesting in this context is his discovery that of the two-and-a-half million volunteers who donned the uniform—before Britain instituted a draft in 1916—few seemed to know what the fight was about.

When it comes to the conduct of the war, Ferguson further contends that the Allies were more profligate in the waste of lives and resources than the Germans who had less to begin with. “Indeed, the differentials [of] . . .the net body count make it quite hard to understand how Germany and her allies lost” the contest, especially since the Entente spent three times of what the Germans spent to kill an enemy (p.298).

And what about the soldiers themselves? Millions died, but the survivors, except the Russians, kept on fighting. Ferguson’s admittedly “not very palatable” explanation is that war may have been hell, but killing was fun, too. To support this notion, the Oxford sage invokes Sigmund Freud and—more startlingly—the artist and satirist Percy Wyndham Lewis, who declared as early as June 1914 that “killing somebody must be the greatest pleasure in existence” (p. 359). This may explain why survivors often viewed the war as the greatest adventure of their ordinary lives. Nor does Ferguson neglect more rational incentives to combativeness: brutal sanctions against conscientious objectors, deserters, and other “quitters.” Surrender was also risky, often the prelude to torture or execution. He also asks us to remember that the pursuit of Lewis’ “greatest pleasure” continued after 1918.German Free Corps volunteers fought Bolsheviks in the Baltic and Poles on the disputed new border between Germany and Poland, while Russians, so effectively opposed to international conflict, suddenly sprang to life in a bloody civil war that lasted until 1920.

Though a critic of his own country’s and Entente policies, the author saves some of his most telling blows for an attack on cherished German beliefs. The last narrative chapter of his book carefully explains how postwar German governments eluded payments of war debts and reparations imposed by the Treaty of Versailles. German whining regarding the latter burden, in particular, elicits no sympathy from Professor Ferguson. Indeed, he refuses to accept that much-abused settlement as a major cause of Germany’s subsequent tribulations, maintaining “that real problem with the peace was not that it was too harsh, but that the Allies failed to enforce it” (p.419). Hitler, according to the author, was not the product of the peace, but rather the result of a preventable inflation that bankrupted savers and investors who were the backbone constituencies of the political center. Their defection to Nazism was the major cause of Hitler’s rise.

Professor Ferguson concludes, therefore, that “neither militarism, imperialism, nor secret diplomacy made war inevitable” (p.442). A Germany unable to gain decisive ascendancy on land or sea started the war from a sense of weakness. Britain, suspicious of German ambitions it feared to be boundless, entered the fray, forgetting that a defeat of France and Russia was really in her interest. The Allies lost the war of attrition, but crucial German errors in strategy decided the conflict.

Does this explain World War I? Before answering this question one must consider some polemic distortions that weaken many of Ferguson’s well-documented challenges to conventional wisdom. To get to the heart of German militarism, one must review more than budgetary and personnel policies. Only in Germany did ambitious young careerists list on their visiting cards not only their degrees but also their rank as officers in the military reserve. Many Germans agreed with the eminent German historian Otto Hintze when he proudly asserted that it was “the strict military-monarchic discipline” that had shaped the political character of the German people.

The author also fails to emphasize that Britain’s imperial rivalry with France and Russia had led to peaceful compromises in 1905 and 1907.This point deserves consideration in view of the importance he ascribes to Britain’s vague military commitments to France, both on land and sea. These, by the way, invariably rested on the eventuality of a German attack on France, an accurate prediction of the immediate future.

Ferguson’s contention that Britain had nothing to fear from a German victory over France and Russia is likewise not persuasive, considering German aspirations of “financial and industrial freedom of movement in France,” and the consideration of “means and methods” to bring Holland “into closer relationship with the German empire” (p.171).

His narrow focus on 1914 also prevents the author from recalling that Britain’s effort to prevent Europe’s Atlantic coast from falling into the hands of a hostile power goes back to the early 18th century. It was no sudden midsummer madness gripping the British Foreign Office in 1914.

The speculation that “the victorious Germans might have created a version of the European union, eight decades ahead of schedule” constitutes the low point of The Pity of War (p.460). This preposterous assertion reminds this reviewer of a student who wanted him to sponsor a project designed to demonstrate that Heinrich Himmler’s Waffen SS was the precursor of NATO.In contrast to both world wars, no armies marched to effect a European community. Jean Monnet was an economic planner, not a Moltke or Schlieffen.

Finally, The Pity of War simply does not explain World War I because it deals only with very selective aspects. In its freewheeling course through a variety of serious issues it often casts penetrating light on matters that deserve the land of critical attention the author bestows on them, even if his conclusions are not always persuasive. They do not add up to “the war.” This is largely a book about the conflict between Britain and Germany, and, to a lesser degree, between France and Germany, with an occasional glance at Austria, Italy, and Russia, and eventually some rather astute observations about the course of American belligerence. Most of it, I repeat, is interesting and thought-provoking, but it reassesses only details. It cannot explain a war it does not cover.


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