The estimates of the number of books written about World War I are in the hundreds of thousands. By my estimate, Yale University Library holds 34,000 titles published before 1977 and more than 5,000 since. (The second category is on its computer, which counts up to 5,000 only.) The bibliography of Niall Ferguson’s The Pity of War lists about a thousand titles. But the author, no shrinking violet, advertises his book with the subtitle Explaining World War I.
Well, Ferguson has not so much set out to explain the war as to show why he thinks it was unavoidable and–more sensationally–why he thinks England is to blame for its not having remained a “little war” and how most of the things we know about it are actually myths. Without this war, with all its deaths and devastations, he tells us, Europe would be exactly where it is now, more than eighty years late: working toward union, with Germany as the leading power.
Ferguson is a new kind of academic, a man for our times. Not for him endless, virtually paragraph-less pages of in-depth analyses weighing pros and cons. His text (462 pages) is broken up by hundreds of quotes, soundbites really, from everyone from Hitler to an English gardener, all leading to conclusions (he says), controversial enough to be the delight of any television interviewer. But it feels like a book targeted at the uninformed and uncritical reader. Some of the conclusions seem to be reached with amazing speed: A German industrialist making an important deal in England proves to him that German industrialists did not want war, and that in turn is enough to have him write, “The Marxist interpretation of the war’s origins (i.e., capitalist competition) can therefore be consigned to the rubbish bin of history.” He sets up straw men–for instance, “the myth that it was the press that kept the war going on and on.” To illustrate this myth he uses an Austrian playwright, Karl Kraus, who argued that the increase in newspaper sales in the war years proved that only “the black-and-white international” (the press) profited from the war; Ferguson provides two pages of statistics demonstrating this. Then he knocks his straw man down by noting that after 1916 sales diminished, and that the closer one came to the front line, the less attention was paid to newspaper stories. Yet there seems no need for statistics in order to accept that once the frontline froze, extra-edition news would become rarer and newsstand sales would fall. As for the “cricket match approach” to the fighting taken by many newspapers, the casualty lists would soon enough prove otherwise.
F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote a beautiful passage in which he explained as well as anyone the war’s acceptance: that it was built on the love affair of the citizens of the warring nations with their pasts, their rulers, their flag, their national anthem, their parades, their postcard pictures on the mantelpiece of the King and Queen or the President or the Kaiser. My critique of Ferguson’s two main theses can run deeper and more proximately. His first thesis is that England caused the war to expand by intervening and made it into a disaster, and the second is that the reason given for England’s intervention, i.e., the violation of Belgian neutrality, was a hypocritical fraud. When he writes, “The victorious Germans [would have] created a version of the European Union, eight decades ahead of schedule,” he ignores the fatal emotional charge acquired by words such as “war” and “ally.” Before 1914, war was “politics by other means”; thereafter it was for both sides a Manichean battle between Good and Evil. Even if Germany had set out to have a “little war,” the idea that conflict in the heart of Europe could have remained tightly circumscribed is fantastic. The same is true for the various scenarios Ferguson sketches for ending it, such as his suggestion that in 1918 the German general Erich Ludendorff should have sought peace negotiations on the basis of “relinquishing Belgium.”