THE PITY OF WAR by Niall Ferguson


Explaining World War I
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As the 20th century draws to a close, Ferguson (Modem History/Oxford Univ.; The House of Rothschild, 1998) renders a brilliant reassessment of one of the century’s most far-reaching and tragic wars, the First World War. Ferguson unpacks the terror and tragedy of the war while demolishing widely held beliefs about it. One of these was that the war was an inevitable result of regnant imperialism and militarism: Ferguson argues trenchantly that the trend in Europe in 1914 was away from militarism and that German feelings of growing military weakness started the war. Ferguson also contends that equivocal British policies in Europe and failure to maintain a credible army to back up its continental commitments, among other factors, led Britain needlessly to transform a continental conflict into a world war. Ferguson also establishes that until the collapse of the German leadership’s morale in late 1918, Germany was actually winning the war by any important measure—though vastly economically inferior to Britain, Germany had defeated three of the Entente powers and came close to defeating France, Britain, and Italy. Moreover, Ferguson contends, because of the tactical excellence of its armies, Germany was far more efficient then the Entente powers at inflicting casualties on its enemies until the very end of its failed 1918 offensive. The author also attacks the common view that the masses greeted the war enthusiastically in 1914. He scrutinizes in depth the propaganda war, the often draconian suppression of dissent in the belligerent countries, the soldiers’ diverse and often banal motives for fighting, and shifting combatant attitudes toward surrender, which, he asserts, was a risky act, since both sides routinely killed surrendering men. Changing attitudes toward surrender may have contributed to the final collapse of German form. In the end, Ferguson concludes, WWI was not unavoidable, but “the greatest error of modern history.” Moving, penetrating, eye-opening, and lucidly reasoned. An important work of historical analysis. (16 pages b&w photos) (Author tour; radio satellite tour)

Pub Date: April 1st, 1999
ISBN: 0-465-05711-X
Page count: 564pp
Publisher: Basic
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1st, 1999


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