The Long View: The Pity of War

Niall Ferguson's book on the Great War was written 16 years ago, but his style fits in well today. There is a constellation of quant bloggers that center around Steve Sailer who use a similar style of analysis to Ferguson, heavy on economics and demographics, and looking for direct causal mechanisms that drive behavior. Ferguson used this method to analyze what might have been in 1914 if key decision makers had chosen otherwise in the run-up to war.

While John was also interested in alternative history, his take was that not every possibility can be actualized in history. Not all things are possible at all times. Especially not at certain times.


The Pity of War
by Niall Ferguson
Basic Books, 1998
562 Pages, $30.00 (US)
ISBN: 0-465-05711-X

Niall Ferguson ends this book with the assessment that the First World War was "nothing less than the greatest *error* of modern history." This is not the emotional flourish that it might have been had it come from another historian. Ferguson is an Oxford don whose specialty is financial history, but who has also given considerable thought to the use of alternative historical scenarios as tools of analysis. (He is the author of "Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals.") When Ferguson says the Great War was an error, he means it literally. Certain men made identifiable decisions that resulted in outcomes that were less than optimal. Those decisions were mistakes, because they produced a history that was identifiably worse than other, speculative histories that did not happen.

Rather than provide a narrative of the war, Ferguson attempts to answer 10 questions, including such items as: Was the war inevitable? Why did Britain's leaders decide to intervene when war broke out on the Continent? Why did the military superiority of the German Army fail to deliver victory on the Western Front? Why did men keep fighting? Why did they stop fighting? The gist of Ferguson's conclusions, if I understand them correctly, is that, while some major European war was likely in the first two decades of the 20th century, the war that actually occurred was neither inevitable nor particularly likely. Additionally, Ferguson suggests the best outcome for that period of history would have been the establishment of German hegemony in Europe. While this could not have been done without some disruption and perhaps bloodshed, the result would not have been so different from the European Union of today. I found myself wondering how Ferguson failed to cite the witticism that the constitution of the EU is essentially that of the German Empire without the Kaiser.

Whatever you may think of Ferguson's analysis (and some of it, as we will see, is problematical at best), nonetheless "The Pity of War" contains several fascinating special studies. These try to give about equal weight to English and German sources. (Ferguson reminds us more than once that he himself is a Scot: the first illustration in the book is of his grandfather in the uniform of the Seaforth Highlanders.) There is a long section on the large body of fiction and nonfiction of the late 19th and early 20th centuries that dealt with the "coming war." This literature includes the famous "invasion novels" that described a war between England and Germany, though in fact scenarios like this were a fairly late addition to the genre: earlier works assumed a war between England and France or Russia. Regarding the literature of the postwar period, Ferguson concludes, correctly, that there was much less "disenchantment" and alienation among the literary veterans than is commonly thought. When he tackles the issue of why men continued to fight even in the dismal conditions of the trenches, he feels forced to the conclusion that, at some level, they continued to fight because they enjoyed it. While this topic occasions some Freudian blather about the "death instinct," it seems to me that a more fruitful line of speculation might begin from the fact the memoirs he cites make the war sound like an extreme team-sport.

Something else that "The Pity of War" has is statistics. Lots of them. Some of the raw figures were rather shocking. I had always thought of war as an economic stimulus, but I learned that the national economic product of Great Britain fell by 10% during the war, that of Germany by a quarter. Russia's economy was stimulated for the first two years, until the country began to fall apart. Ferguson's numbers, and not just the ones dealing with finance, do not always seem to be entirely relevant to the point he is trying to make. (He also tends to switch from figures for Great Britain to figures for the whole British Empire and back again in a confusing fashion.) Still, anyone interested in a detailed economic and demographic profile of the major combatants will find this book a valuable resource.

Interesting though they are, these special studies are deployed in support of what is not just a thesis about the origins of the First World War, but what in effect is a theory of history. Ferguson apparently does not like "deep causes." No historical trends and movements of history for him. Apparently, even notions like exhaustion and despair are too metaphysical. The only kind of historical causation he seems altogether willing to credit requires specific people making an explicit decision on a particular occasion. (It helps if the relevant discussions are minuted and the minutes are time-stamped.) The outcome of such a decision will never be "inevitable," because "other choices were possible." This goes beyond the documentary approach to research. What we are dealing with here is the "Stupid Man Theory of History."

One stupid man was General Erich Ludendorff, who was in effect the military dictator of Germany in the final stages of the war. According to Ferguson, the Germans did not seek an armistice in the fall of 1918 because they were starving from the blockade; Ferguson seeks to prove statistically that man can live on potatoes alone. Germany's Austro-Hungarian allies were suing for terms? So what? Incredibly, he also dismisses the effect of the British Summer Offensive and the fact that large number of German soldiers had been surrendering since August. Hadn't the Germans in fact succeeded in reestablishing their line?

The reason for the collapse was that Ludendorff, in a fit of panic that Ferguson renders inexplicable, offered his resignation to the Kaiser in August. It was rejected, but the German government began seeking an armistice. Long before the official announcement of negotiations in October, the German armies lost interest in fighting. Some surrendered, some just went home. There was "another choice" that Ludendorff should have made, according to Ferguson. The Germans had more than enough material and manpower to conduct an orderly retreat from Belgium, the violation of whose sovereignty was the nominal reason for British belligerency. Then they could have established impregnable defenses on their own borders and offered to negotiate a peace on the basis of the status quo ante in the West.

There is a sense, I suppose, in which such a course of action would have been possible. It would also have been possible for pigs to fly in those days by loading them into the muzzles of Big Berthas. That opportunity was missed, too.

The stupidest man who ever lived, it seems, was the British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey. Ferguson considers him culpable for seriously misleading the semi-pacifist Liberal Cabinet about his secret diplomacy to aid the French in the event of a German invasion. Ferguson notes that plans to deploy the fleet in a blockade of Germany and to send a six-division expeditionary force to France were based on no more than a wink and a handshake. Another "choice" was that the Cabinet could have ignored the advice they were getting from the only military experts with any knowledge of the matter. They might have adopted a different plan, or even resigned. Ferguson acknowledges that the Tories, who had been gaining on the Liberals in by-elections for some time, would certainly have sought to aid France, but he points out that a new government would have taken a least a week or two to form. An extra week would have been more than enough time for the Germans to take Paris.

Of course, it is not altogether certain that taking Paris would have ended the war. The French government itself had decamped to Bordeaux as the Germans approached. Ferguson notes that the famous Schlieffen Plan was flawed in that the Germans did not actually have enough men to carry it out. If, through French miscalculation, the plan had succeeded anyway, could the Germans have held such a large chunk of territory? Assuming the French did not surrender, the Allies would still have had unimpeded access to the French ports on the Atlantic and Mediterranean. The war in the West might have been a war of maneuver. Well, maybe we should work on one counterfactual at a time.

The chief single target of Ferguson's revisionism is Fritz Fischer, who himself propounded a form of revisionism by arguing in "Griff nach der Weltmacht" (1962) that German war aims in 1914 were as expansive as the war aims of 1939. The belief that the Germans were seeking to dominate Europe, and particularly that they planned to seize ports in Belgium and northern France that would make England indefensible, was the chief rationale given by Grey and colleagues for bringing Britain into the war. The tendency among historians in the years following the war was to distribute blame more equally, or even to place the chief blame on Britain for turning what would have been a replay of the Franco-Prussian War into a World War. (This is, essentially, Ferguson's position.) Fischer pointed out that the stated war aims of the German government (and of influential individuals) were in fact quite as scary as the English alleged, and that the Germans started to formulate them as early as September of 1914.

The Fischer thesis is the orthodoxy these days, so perhaps the time has come to consider it critically again. Ferguson points out that there is no official documentation from before the war setting out the exorbitant demands that the Germans began to make once the fighting started. In any case, these demands tended to expand as the war progressed, suggesting they were caused by the war rather then the other way around. It is true, Ferguson tells us, that the general plan for the war that the Germans used had been doctrine for a decade. The German strategists are even on record as saying "the sooner, the better." However, Ferguson finds this quite understandable. The Germans were correct when they complained they were being encircled by a system of hostile alliances. By 1914, they had no significant friends left in the world but crumbly old Franz Josef. They were especially afraid of the strategic situation that would obtain in1916, when the Russians were scheduled to finish their system of military railways in Poland. This would have turned the Franco-Russian alliance (the French were actually paying for the tracks) into a lethal menace. Thus, while the General Staff might have been unwise to choose their time in 1914, they were not irrational. Their behavior makes even more sense when we recall that the British never explicitly said that they would intervene in Europe in the event of a violation of Belgian neutrality.

I am sorry, this just will not wash. Not every country gets encircled by its neighbors. Neither was Germany perceived as a threat only in the years immediately preceding the war. Ferguson, noting that Britain had composed its colonial differences with France and Russia by the first years of the 20th century, makes the bizarre assessment that no similar accommodation was made with Germany because the British did not see Germany as a menace. A far more likely explanation was that London realized that France and Russia did not pose fundamental problems. They could threaten the British Empire. Germany alone could threaten Britain.

It is true that an amazing amount of grief would have been avoided if, by 1920 say, Europe had become a jellyfish-polity like today's European Union. It would have been even better if Europe had done so when Kant was writing of a Universal Republic in the eighteenth century. The fact is, though, that not every goal is possible to a civilization in every period, even when the goal can be clearly imagined. This very good book shows, despite itself, what I take to be the real value of counterfactuals: there is much less contingency in history than we imagine.

For an Alternative History essay on the consequences of a German victory in World War I, please click here.

Copyright © 1999 by John J. Reilly

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