Niall Ferguson Almost Gets It Right

February 3, 2014 § 4 Comments

Niall Ferguson likes attention.  There’s no other way to explain his public pronouncements.  Like when he predicted there’d be blood on the streets of major Western cities in response to the 2008 global economic meltdown.  Or when he said John Maynard Keynes was a bad economist because he was gay.  Or when he attacked Gandhi in his Civilization: The West and the Rest.  Then there’s that book in general, with its incredibly lame attempt to be hip, as Ferguson talked about the West developing “killer apps” that allowed it to dominate the rest of the world. This idea was so bad it detracted from what was actually a decent argument.  Ugh.  So when I saw that Ferguson had opined to the BBB’s History magazine that Britain should never have entered the First World War in 1914, I was already in mid-eye roll when I realised that Ferguson was actually onto something here.

The BBC article is behind a paywall, but when Ferguson speaks, the media listens and The Guardian published a quick account.  Basically, Ferguson says that Britain made “the biggest error in modern history” by entering the war in 1914.  He says that Britain could’ve let the Germans, French, and Russians slug it out on the continent, and then dealt with a victorious Germany at a later date, on its own terms.  He also notes that had Germany defeated the Russians and French, it would have had the same problems Napoléon had a century earlier, in terms of governing an unruly empire and being behind a British sea blockage.  In 1914, Britain was simply not ready for war, especially a land war.

And then he looks at the long-term cost for Britain of the war.  It nearly bankrupted the nation, Britain was saddled with debt after 1918.  It ultimately cost the British their empire and their status as a major world power (as it also did to France).

There is something to be said for his argument here, but, as usual with a polemicist, he overshoots his mark, taking a claim that might actually be something and then wrapping it up with ridiculousness, like what he did with the unfortunate Civilization.  At its core, the Great War was calamitous for Britain, there’s no two ways about that. But Ferguson doesn’t take into account the human cost of the war.  An entire generation of young men was destroyed by the war.  The costs of that lost generation are immense, in terms of politics, economy, and culture.  It also meant a decline in birth rates, so the lost generation had a long-term effect of Britain.

Ferguson does talk about the cost of the war economically, the massive debt the country accumulated, and the fact that this ended up costing Britain its empire.  This is where I think Ferguson gets his hackles up, given that he’s the last great defender of the force of civilisation that the British Empire was.

As historians, we are supposed to enjoy the benefit of hindsight, to be able to see the bigger picture that, say, Sir Herbert Asquith, the British Prime Minister in 1914, could not.  But we still need to take into account the view from White Hall in August 1914.  From Asquith’s point-of-view, Britain was bound by treaty to protect its Allies.  Britain was also militarily prepared for war (a point Ferguson dismisses), even if it was the wrong kind of war it anticipated.

Recently, I read a review of three books on the start of the First World War in the Times Literary Supplement.  There will be a lot of that this year, since its the centenary of the start of the war.  One of the books was written by a journalist, and one with a particular axe to grind, and was full of broad, sweeping statements about the war, the British generals, and politicians.  The reviewer took issue with this approach as being ahistorical and anti-intellectual.  And while I wouldn’t go that far with Ferguson’s argument, it’s on that route.  At least at this point.  I hope a book will emerge from this thought, as it would certainly be worth the read.

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§ 4 Responses to Niall Ferguson Almost Gets It Right

  • Brian Bixby says:

    There’s a variation on this argument, that the U.S. should have stayed out of the war, since so long as it was neutral, it would be the arbitrator of the peace that followed. I’m not so convinced, myself.

    • The American one, at least, makes more sense. US wasn’t bound up in continental politics and treaties. And was making mad stacks of cash. But, as in WWII, the US had a president that wanted to fight. US involvement in WWI also wasn’t as crucial as in WWII. I’m still taken aback when I’m teaching US History and the First World War is listed as 1917-18, or when I see what we in Canada call a cenotaph to the war.

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