The Greatest Error of Modern History

R.W. Johnson

  • The Pity of War by Niall Ferguson
    Allen Lane, 512 pp, £16.99, November 1998, ISBN 0 7139 9246 8

Both The Pity of War and the reception it has enjoyed illustrate aspects of British culture about which one can only feel ambivalent. Anyone who has been a victim, let alone a perpetrator, of the Oxbridge system will recognise Niall Ferguson’s book for what it is: an extended and argumentative tutorial from a self-consciously clever, confrontational young don, determined to stand everything on its head and argue with vehemence against whatever he sees as the conventional wisdom – or, worse still, the fashion – of the time. The idea is to teach the young to think and argue, and the real past masters at it (Harry Weldon was always held up as an example to me) were those who first argued undergraduates out of their received opinions, then turned around after a time and argued them out of their new-found radicalism, leaving them mystified as to what they believed and suspended in a free-floating state of cleverness.

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[*] The First World War by John Keegan (Hutchinson, 500 pp., £25, 5 October 1998, 0 009 180178 8).
The Imperial War Museum Book of 1918 by Malcolm Brown (Sidgwick, 392 pp., £25, 23 October 1998, 0 283 06307 6).
The Oxford Illustrated History of the First World War by Hew Strachan (Oxford, 356 pp., £25, 5 November 1998, 0 19 820614 3).