Breaking Down Niall Ferguson’s The War of the World
by Sam Kornell
Harvard professor and L.A. Times opinion columnist Niall Ferguson could not have been happy when, in June 2005, European scholar Tony Judt published Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945, an epic 15 years in the making that’s destined to be the definitive account of post-World War Europe. Ferguson’s unhappiness would have stemmed from the fact that he was likely hip-deep in his own history of the cauterizing causes and effects of the second Great War, a book that has now just been published as The War of the World. He might be even unhappier to hear that his own 800-page epic, unlike Judt’s magisterial endeavor, has little new to say, and little new evidence with which to say it.
Ferguson’s foundational thesis is that the last century was the most violent in history. “The 100 years after 1900 were without question the bloodiest century in history, far more violent in relative as well as absolute terms than any previous era,” he writes. The reason is the confluence of three forces: economic volatility, ethnic disintegration, and the collapse of empires. The book has been advertised, on the basis of this rubric, as “revolutionary” in its originality, the idea being that such an interpretation challenges the thought that deeply entrenched faith in new military technology, extreme ideology, and dictatorial demagogy were the vital causes of the violent cataclysms of the 20th century. But such distinctions are superficial in the context of the broad sweep of the historiography of the period in question—economic volatility, in the way Ferguson discusses it, is hardly absent from the work of Eric Hobsbawm or George Lichtheim or any other number of eminent historians who have written on the matter.
In the absence of any really revelatory framework, The War of the World would need fresh historical evidence to fulfill Ferguson’s oversized ambitions for it. But such evidence is not forthcoming. Ferguson does make the somewhat provocative claim that it was the West, not the East, that experienced a great decline in the 20th century. But this is not as provocative as it seems; Western empires may have declined, and may still be declining (specifically the hegemony of the U.S.), but despite the economic and political flourishing of China and India at the moment, it seems fanciful to imagine that the dissolution of the British Empire, for example, means they have “won,” or are winning, some overarching struggle for global influence.
Ferguson is a fine writer and effective purveyor of complicated statistical information. But it is difficult, while reading his voluminous book, to shake the feeling that one’s time would be better spent reading one of the other innumerable overarching books about violent conflagration in the 20th century.
4•1•1 Niall Ferguson comes to UCSB’s Campbell Hall on Sunday, October 15, at 3 p.m. See www.artsandlectures.ucsb.edu or call 893-3535.