Pity of War
Basic Books u2022 1999 u2022 563 pages
Ferguson is a history professor who taught at Cambridge and is now
a tenured Oxford don. Those are the credentials of an establishment,
or "court," historian, whose main purpose is to protect
the patriotic and political myths of his government. Professor Ferguson,
however, has written an iconoclastic attack on one of the most venerable
patriotic myths of the British, namely that the First World War
was a great and necessary war in which the British performed the
noble act of intervening to protect Belgian neutrality, French freedom,
and the empires of both the French and British from the military
aggression of the hated Hun. Politicians like Lloyd George and Churchill
argued that the war was not only necessary, but inevitable.
asks and answers ten specific questions about the First World War,
one of the most important being whether the war, with its total
of more than nine million casualties, was worth it. Not only does
he answer in the negative, but concludes that the world war
was not necessary or inevitable, but was instead the result of grossly
erroneous decisions of British political leaders based on an improper
perception of the "threat" to the British Empire posed
by Germany. Ferguson regards it as "nothing less than the greatest
error in modern history."
goes further and puts most of the blame on the British because it
was the British government that ultimately decided to turn the continental
war into a world war. He argues that the British had no legal obligation
to protect Belgium or France and that the German naval build-up
did not really menace the British.
political leaders, Ferguson maintains, should have realized that
the Germans were mostly fearful of being surrounded by the growing
Russian industrial and military might, as well as the large French
army. He argues further that the Kaiser would have honored his pledge
to London, offered on the eve of the war, to guarantee French and
Belgian territorial integrity in exchange for Britain's neutrality.
concludes that "Britain's decision to intervene was the result
of secret planning by her generals and diplomats, which dated back
to 1905" and was based on a misreading of German intentions,
"which were imagined to be Napoleonic in scale." Political
calculations also played their part in bringing on war. Ferguson
notes that Foreign Minister Edward Grey provided the leadership
that put Britain on the bellicose path. Although a majority of the
other ministers were hesitant, "In the end they agreed to support
Grey, partly for fear of being turned out of office and letting
in the Tories."
First World War continues to disturb the British psyche today, much
as the Civil War still haunts Americans. British casualties in the
war numbered 723,000 – more than twice the number suffered in World
War II. The author writes that "The First World War remains
the worst thing the people of my country have ever had to endure."
of the most important costs of the war, which was prolonged by British
and American participation, was the destruction of the Russian government.
Ferguson contends that in the absence of British intervention, the
most likely result would have been a quick German victory with some
territorial concessions in the east, but no Bolshevik Revolution.
There would have been no Lenin – and no Hitler either. "It was
ultimately because of the war that both men were able to rise to
establish barbaric despotisms which perpetrated still more mass
the British stayed on the sidelines, Ferguson argues, their empire
would still be strong and viable; instead, their participation and
victory "effectively marked the end of British financial predominance
in the world." He believes that the British could have easily
coexisted with Germany, with which it had good relations before
the war. But the British victory came at a price "far
in excess of their gains" and "undid the first golden
age of economic u2018globalization.'"
War I also led to a great loss of individual liberty. "Wartime
Britain . . . became by stages a kind of police state," Ferguson
writes. Of course, liberty is always a casualty of war and the author
compares the British situation with the draconian measures imposed
in America by President Wilson. The suppression of free speech in
America "made a mockery of the Allied powers' claim to be fighting
the book is addressed mainly to a British audience, it is relevant
to Americans who tragically followed the British into both world
wars at a tremendous cost in freedom as a result of the centralization
of power in the leviathan government in Washington, D.C. There are
many valuable lessons to be learned from this timely and important
V. Denson [send him mail],
editor of The
Costs of War and Reassessing
the Presidency, is an attorney living in Opelika, Alabama.
This review is reprinted from the May 2000 issue of
Ideas on Liberty.