The War of the World by Niall Ferguson

Learned armies clash by night
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He dates the effective beginning of the long global war to Japan's defeat of Russia in 1904, and its end, with deliberate vagueness, to some time recently. The suggestive date of 1989 does not, as he points out, quite work as the required point of closure, because history emphatically did not end then, but desperately continues even though the number and severity of conflicts around the world has - despite appearances - declined over the last two decades. One possible end date is, Ferguson suggests, the freezing of hostilities in Korea in 1953. Another and more telling date is 1978, when China took the first steps in the economic upsurge which will make it, sometime this century, the world's leading power. This date is intriguing because of the speaking symmetry it makes with Japan's triumph in 1904: what the world's war did, we thus see, was to end the dominance of Western empires, and pave the way for the East.

Among Ferguson's prodigious talents as an historian is the supple ease with which he marshals and deploys vast materials, among them technical economic data which would be indigestible in lesser hands. He writes beautifully, with the narrative instincts of a novelist, and with the latter's eye for the illuminating moment, the revealing detail, the glance from an oblique angle that shows more than a direct look can. His book, despite its bulk and weight, is in consequence unputdownable.

The fact that there is much that is controversial in it only adds to the book's interest. History is an essentially contestable subject; nowhere does the fur fly more energetically than between historians struggling over the same terrain, like learned armies (to adapt Matthew Arnold) clashing by night. One shudders to think what infinities of disagreement fellow-professionals can manufacture over Ferguson's pages, driven by the ressentiment that telegenic rivals are apt to prompt among scholars.

But there is indeed a lot to question in Ferguson's account. Leave aside the over-arching thesis about the war of the world as a bonfire of decaying empires, for this is certainly one plausible way among others of reconfiguring events. There are dozens of more particular debates to have with Ferguson. Here are two examples.

The first concerns the outbreak of hostilities in August 1914. In Ferguson's view they came as a shock to the world. This controverts the orthodoxy that Europe had for years been sliding ineluctably towards war as its peoples watched, half in dread and half in exhilaration, as if bored by decades of peace and prosperity. The evidence for Ferguson's revisionary thesis is the unpreparedness of bankers and stock markets, which he details in plausible depth: not even the Rothschilds expected the conflagration, despite having one of the biggest and best-connected banking networks in Europe.

But then Ferguson shows that ruling and military elites were far from as unwitting or unprepared as the financiers. The British declaration of war made Kaiser Wilhelm II rant in his diary that it proved true his belief that Edward VII (who died in 1910) had for many years been planning the encirclement of Germany. His military commanders, like those of the other major European powers, had for just as many years been convinced that the longer peace continued, the better their rivals would be armed - and that the sooner a war started, the better for themselves. It is indeed impossible to think that reflective contemporary minds, especially military ones, could not foresee that the arms race which had started before the turn of the century had a catastrophic inevitability about it; for what else could be the outcome - to choose a single example - of German efforts, begun in the 1890s, to attain comparability with the might of Britain's Royal Navy?

The second example is Ferguson's account of the area bombing campaigns of the Second World War. Quite properly conceding that the deliberate and systematic massacre bombing of civilian populations was an horrendous act, he says of the detachment permitted by bombing, "Herein lay the practical difference between incinerating women and children from thousands of feet in the air and herding them into gas chambers," he nevertheless defends it on two grounds: a moral one, which is that the Allied bomber crews were seeking to defeat a wicked aggressor, whereas the Nazis were committing genocide; and an economic one, that the bombing limited German war production.

He is quite right about the moral difference between the Allies and the Nazis. But in the words of Bishop Bell of Chichester, uttered in condemnation of area bombing (as opposed to tactical bombing of legitimate industrial and military targets), "We are fighting a barbaric enemy; why are we behaving like barbarians ourselves?"

In a beautiful illustration of the way statistics can mislead, Ferguson offers a graph showing the rise and fall of German armament production against a graph of tonnages of Allied bombs dropped. The graph shows a steep increase in the latter being followed by a decline in the former. What the graph does not show is that the massive increase in bombing weight in question, which occurred between the spring and autumn of 1944, was the result of tactical bombing associated with the D-Day landings and the ensuing battles. RAF Bomber Command was then under Eisenhower's direct control and he used it, very effectively, to attack German ground forces and their supply lines, giving Germany's cities a respite. Moreover, if Ferguson were right about the link between area bombing and production, the graph should show an increase in German output accordingly. Thus the graph comprehensively misrepresents the facts, and yet is Ferguson's chief evidence for his claim.

But the book's big picture - its interpretation of the 20th century as a vast continuous struggle in which the white man's empires exploded against each other, handing the world on to a different future - is compelling. Interestingly, Ferguson ends on an optimistic note. The figures speak of diminishing numbers of open conflicts, increasing numbers of democracies, an ever more integrated and developed global economy. Ferguson allows these things to make him hopeful: as always, events will be the judge. While we wait on those events we can enjoy Ferguson's fascinating and extremely readable account of what has been hurrying us towards them.