Breaking Down Niall Ferguson’s The War of the

by Sam Kornell

Book.jpgHarvard 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

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 or call 893-3535.


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