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.

All these traits are present in Ferguson’s work: indeed they pretty well define it. One can almost hear him grating his teeth in exasperation at any view he conceives to be fashionable and, sure enough, he is soon to be seen tearing into it. The trouble with this way of doing things is that each argument is treated as a separate target, and Ferguson hardly seems to notice, as he moves from one demolition job to another, that his own arguments often contradict each other. That said, his book is extremely clever, precisely because of its tendentious manner, the most interesting of the four books published last year to cash in on the 80th anniversary of 1918.[*]

The English are still more than half in love with the idea of the super-clever young Oxbridge don, so that any young Ferguson who appears on the scene will warrant a good deal of oohing and aahing, particularly if he is the very public recipient of large book advances. At the same time ‘we’ don’t like anyone who is ‘too clever by half’ – whence the snide tone of many of the reviews of The Pity of War. The fact that Ferguson appears to hold Thatcherite economic views – now de rigueur for young historical fogeys – is an extra provocation, though it also means that he has a good grip, for example, on the significance and working of the bond markets. The application of these insurgent attitudes and this sort of expertise to the subject of the First World War – the determining event of our century and the source of our sorrows – makes for a memorable collision.

Ferguson’s early attempts to show that the origins of the war did not lie in imperialist or economic rivalries between the great capitalist powers rely too much on the fact that virtually no banker or businessman wanted war. When the Rothschilds pleaded with the Times to tone down its rabid Germanophobia, both the foreign editor, Henry Wickham Steed, and the proprietor, Lord Northcliffe, denounced this ‘dirty German-Jewish international financial attempt to bully us into advocating neutrality’. Yet such unpleasantness hardly disposes of the possibility that there were immanent conflicts between the established economic power of Britain and the rising power of Germany. Ferguson’s response is to reason ingeniously that the imperial rivalry which really threatened British interests at every point was with Russia and that war with Russia (plus, perhaps, France) would have made more sense. In any case, Britain’s enormous financial empire meant she was far stronger than Germany. The sensible thing for Britain, he maintains, would have been an alliance with Germany, an option rejected not because of German strength but because of German weakness. The Foreign Office believed that if we cosied up to Germany ‘we should never be on decent terms with France, our neighbour in Europe and in many parts of the world, or with Russia, whose frontiers are coterminous with ours or nearly so over a large portion of Asia.’ It was thought more important to appease those powers which could threaten Britain’s position. Besides, Ferguson insists, Germany was not only weak but getting weaker: she went to war because she was losing the arms race and the balance of power was turning against her. (He cites the marvellously Prussian anxiety that once the Russians had completed the ‘strategic railroads’ in Poland ‘our position will be untenable.’ The notion of Polish railways being the key to European power would never have occurred to an Englishman or a Frenchman.)

The problem with all this is that it clashes with the central thesis of Ferguson’s book: that, eighty years before the fact, Germany was poised to bring about a united Europe under dominant German influence and that Britain’s real mistake was to get involved in a war to stop her. It was Sir Edward Grey’s determination to do so that turned what might otherwise have been a short European war into a protracted world war. This, Ferguson writes, was ‘worse than a tragedy’: it was ‘nothing less than the greatest error of modern history’. There is no shortage of evidence that Germany wished to impose a new customs union on the whole of Europe, just as Bismarck had once used the Zollverein to bind the disparate German states together. The resulting entity, under tacit German leadership, would have included not only the whole of today’s EU but Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey, Hungary, Poland and Switzerland in a United States of Europe (a phrase used before the war by the Kaiser), giving Europe the wherewithal to face the défi américain. With her far-flung maritime empire intact, Britain could have lived well enough with such a reality, Ferguson thinks; after all, we live with it today.

There is a certain realpolitik sense in all this, but Ferguson cannot argue simultaneously that Germany was poised to unite and dominate the whole of Europe, challenging the US for world supremacy, and that it was a weak second-rank power, losing the arms race and posing no serious threat to the British Empire. It is all very well to say that Russia was the menacing power on the frontier in India and the Middle East, but Russia was clearly a ramshackle mess, horribly defeated by Japan in 1905 and internally unstable. She had no capability – as Germany did – to rip into Britain’s export markets and challenge her dominance as far away as the Transvaal. The British ruling élite was already well aware that Britain’s world financial dominance was more precarious than it looked, depending for its survival on a constellation of maritime and imperial power which was vulnerable at many points. In 1914 Britain had only 248,000 trained soldiers compared to Germany’s 4.9 million. The real difference between Europe then and Europe now is that, in the wake of France’s humiliation at Bismarck’s hands in 1870-71, Britain could count on French hostility to Germany and, given France’s inferiority complex vis-à-vis Germany, its interest in an understanding with Britain. The French position remained a fixed point for ninety years and allowed Britain to pursue its normal policy of preventing any single power from dominating Europe.

The fundamental shift came in September 1958, when de Gaulle won Adenauer over to the Franco-German entente which has run Europe ever since. From the moment de Gaulle decided to make Adenauer the one and only politician he would ever invite to Colombey-les-deux-Eglises, Britain was left trailing in a comprehensively outwitted, also-ran position. Much of Britain’s bile about Europe is traceable to this. Nice guys finish last, but last guys don’t finish nice. Since 1958 Britain has had to chase after Europe and, in the end, to take whatever terms it can get. After forty years of that, it is not surprising that Ferguson feels the only thing to do is accept German hegemony: but to transpose our present frame of mind to the undefeated and unbowed British political class of 1914 is merely ahistorical. On the other hand, there is no denying that Britain’s dealings with German power have always been clumsy. Even when the climactic moment of reunification came and it was clear that a resurgent greater Germany would not be beaten back a third time, Mrs Thatcher’s initial response, conditioned no doubt by her strange little hate-Germany think-tank sessions, was simply to deny the possibility of reunification, attempt briefly to oppose it and then collapse. Mitterrand was shrewder, calling on Frenchmen to accept this giant act of self-determination in the spirit of 1789 but also reminding Germany that ‘there had been such a thing as the Second World War.’ Specifically, Germany was told that it would never be allowed to possess nuclear weapons and that the Oder-Neisse line (which Kohl had begun publicly to question) must be accepted for ever as Germany’s eastern limit. Ferguson is right that we have ended up with a German-led Europe anyway but eighty years of history have not been wiped out, for no such restraints could have been imposed on the Reich had it been victorious in 1914.

In a chapter of inspired acuity, Ferguson ascribes Germany’s desperation to go to war before the arms race tilted further against her to the fact that Britain, alone of the European powers, had a well established income tax and could raise money for more dreadnoughts on a roughly equitable basis, while Germany, which depended on indirect and thus regressive taxation, would have had much to fear from working-class resistance had it tried to follow suit. But, in a later chapter, when he wishes to argue that the Germans managed their war economy far more efficiently than the British, he asserts that Germany did not, after all, depend so much less on direct taxes than Britain: it financed 13.9 per cent of war expenditure that way, compared to Britain’s 18.2 per cent. Had it suited him, Ferguson would no doubt have argued, very reasonably, that 4.3 per cent of total war expenditure was a sum of great significance. The same applies to government deficits which, as a good Thatcherite, he abominates. He argues that Germany increased its national debt far less than Britain – but then produces a table showing British government deficits as a proportion of total expenditure rising from 54.8 per cent in 1914 to 69.2 per cent in 1918, while the German deficit accelerated from 23 per cent to 93.8 per cent. The fact that German wartime inflation was twice that of Britain or France would, one might have thought, have clinched the matter for the inflation-hating Ferguson. Not at all: suddenly he is full of reasons why inflation might not be such a bad thing after all.

He argues cogently and quite rightly that Germany and the Central Powers were always outmatched by the resources that their opponents could bring to bear against them and that it was an astonishing achievement that Germany should have come so close to winning the war. As late as 31 July 1918 Lord Milner was of the view that ‘we shall never thrash the Boche’ and plans were afoot for the evacuation of Dunkirk on the assumption of a French collapse and a million British prisoners falling into German hands. Ferguson believes that the Germans were much better at mobilising for war. Actually the figures he cites show the opposite: that Germany fought its war by running its economy into the ground. By 1918 the British economy had grown by 7 per cent from its 1913 level while Germany’s had shrunk by an extraordinary 27 per cent. Britain’s wheat production had by 1917 increased slightly over its 1914 level, but Germany’s had fallen by 42.8 per cent and starvation loomed.

Ferguson’s dislike of Keynes (the gay progenitor of what Ferguson usually hates most – inflation) is apparent throughout the book. When we hear that Keynes is unhappy about the war in 1916, Ferguson suggests that this was because ‘the boys he liked to pick up in London had all joined up.’ Keynes’s sympathy with one of the German representatives at Versailles leads Ferguson to comment: ‘as we have seen, Keynes was an active homosexual at this time.’ Keynes is blamed for being wrong about everything – even, obliquely, for the French occupation of the Ruhr. All this is consistent, I suspect, with Ferguson’s enthusiasm for Freud. Keynes is fashionable, so down with Keynes; Freud has fallen out of fashion, viva Freud.

Some of Ferguson’s finest chapters deal with the most difficult issues: why men carried on fighting for years in intolerable circumstances; the barbaric slaughter of the captured and wounded on both sides; and the fact that the war was won not because enough men were killed but because they surrendered in massive numbers: once the German Army began to crack in August 1918 there was no preventing Germany’s collapse. Here Ferguson’s contrarianism is deployed to best advantage. Men fought, he suggests, not only out of a sense of comradeship with one another, but because many of them liked it; they wanted to fight. To Guy Chapman war was ‘a mistress – once you have lain in her arms you can admit no other’. Teilhard de Chardin spoke of discovering within oneself ‘an underlying stream of clarity, energy and freedom that is to be found hardly anywhere in ordinary life’. As Ferguson notes, it was not those serving in the battalions with the highest casualties or in the most exposed positions who cracked. They found in combat an anaesthetic and a thrill, and deep down thought that death, no matter how far and wide it stalked, was something that couldn’t happen to them. ‘For morale to crack,’ Ferguson writes, ‘men needed time to weigh their chances of survival’ – and he cites the French soldier who wrote that ‘the attack freed you from the terrible anguish of waiting.’

Even if one wanted to stop, how to do so? Cowardice in battle carried a death penalty and all too often surrender to the enemy simply meant getting shot or worse (there are terrible descriptions of wounded men being bayonetted through the head, of prisoners being stamped and beaten to death and convincing evidence that the British, French, Germans and Americans were all guilty of such things). In effect, Ferguson maintains, the hostilities developed as ‘total war’, not in the sense Goebbels meant of all-out attack on civilian populations, but as implied by a new set of rules evolved in the course of the war. It was these rules which became the norm on the Eastern Front in the Second World War: ‘death for deserters; exemplary violence against civilians; and no quarter for prisoners’. Both Hitler and Stalin absorbed the lesson and applied it with terrible effect. Ferguson does such a persuasive job of showing the way these ‘rules’ evolved that he is not able to explain how it was that in November 1918 hundreds of thousands of Germans were willing to desert rather than carry on with the war. He is at pains to minimise technical factors – and perhaps doesn’t make enough of the huge Allied superiority in planes and tanks, which played a major part in that year’s summer offensive – but he is surely right to argue that American intervention was crucial, not because of anything the Americans did (as Malcolm Brown and John Keegan show, the Canadians and Australians had a for more significant role in the key Allied offensive), but because the knowledge that these legions of fresh and confident men were pouring into France put paid to German morale. Even so, as Ferguson points out, the ending of the war hardly diminished the lust for killing. The former soldiers of Central and Eastern Europe soon flung themselves into murderous civil conflicts, pogroms and revolutions: ‘the world was not weary of war, just weary of the First World War.’

Ferguson’s central thesis – that Britain should have stayed out of the war and done a deal with Germany once Belgium, France and Russia had been defeated – is not as shocking as it would once have been. His argument that without the First War there would have been no Bolshevism and no Nazism is already widely accepted: ‘with the Kaiser triumphant,’ Ferguson writes, ‘Adolf Hitler could have eked out his life as a mediocre postcard painter.’ There is only one problem: some forty pages earlier he has argued that ‘it was the postwar economic crisis, not the war, which spawned Nazism.’ Worse still, it turns out that what dealt the bourgeois order its fatal blow was, you’ve guessed it, Ferguson’s bête noire, inflation: the hyperinflation of 1923, he claims, saw the destruction of the bourgeois parties whose splinters ultimately rallied to Nazism. This is nonsense. In May 1924 the Nazis won 6.6 per cent of the vote, but this had fallen to 3 per cent by December and to 2.6 per cent in 1928. Weimar weathered inflation. What cast it down was the 1929 Crash and Depression. By 1930 the Nazis were up to 18.3 per cent and by July 1932 to 37.4 per cent. It would be more accurate to say that the great inflation of 1923 unnerved the bourgeoisie, and when the next great economic crisis struck, even though it was a crisis of deflation, vast swathes of the middle and lower middle classes switched to the Nazis in their anxiety to avoid forcible proletarianisation.

Reading Ferguson is fun: he has an endless propensity for argument and a willingness to take on all-comers, but there is something of the clever-silly about his over-determined contrarianism: you enjoy the perversity of the thing while wishing he enjoyed it less. He certainly shouldn’t be criticised for acknowledging that ‘history is good box office’ or getting big advances. The real problem is the motive from which he seems to write. Historians need to be driven by a passion, but hatred – even of the conventional wisdom of the bien pensant – is not enough.

[*] 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).