Ferguson: The Pity of War

In “The Pity of War” author Niall Ferguson takes on three primary objectives. He tries to explain the origins of WWI, arguing that German paranoia of encirclement, a disparity of domestic financial constraints among European powers, and British miscalculations of Germany’s long-term interests were among the primary catalysts of the outbreak of war in August 1914. He then seeks to dispel many “myths” about the nature of WWI and the actions of individuals and societies. For example, he argues that European militarism was actually in decline prior to August 1914. He argues that Germany was perhaps, despite many analyses, more efficient at financing and fighting WWI than any other European power. He also argues that war enthusiasm is over exaggerated. Rather than riding on a wave of war enthusiasm, men went into battle largely out of ignorance of the political forces propelling nations toward conflict and were motivated to stay in battle by sentiments of camaraderie.  Finally, Ferguson attempts to teach readers that wars are not inevitable political outcomes by using his explanation for the origins of WWI, along with his historical revisions, to ask a series of counterfactual questions about how the war could have been avoided and/or how the outcomes could have varied.

Ferguson makes an argument similar to Louise Young about the role of mass media in bolstering support for the war. According to Ferguson, media was an autonomous as well as censored government tool employed to manipulate foreign opinion for the war and win domestic support, both socially and financially. Like Young, he analyzes the cinema as a quintessential illustration of his argument. Ferguson’s economic analysis of the domestic financial constraints that were influencing decision making processes in the run up to WWI is similar to, and complementary of, work by political scientist David M. Rowe. In 2005, Rowe published an article titled “The Tragedy of Liberalism: How Globalization Caused the First World War.” In this article, he argues that not only domestic financial constraints but also the power of labor movements were instrumental in curtailing the buildup of European armies. Labor, Rowe argues, had realized substantial income gains by this time and consequently viewed military service not as a positive economic opportunity but as a negative opportunity cost.

I agree with several of Ferguson’s arguments. More than anything, I agree that war is pitiful, on so many levels. Unfortunately, many of Ferguson’s arguments are also pitiful (oh, if only I had more space…). For example, in chapter three, he seems to agree that the ambiguity of Britain’s commitment to France and Russia made war more likely, but then in chapter four he argues that German decision makers dismissed concerns over British intentions because they perceived the British Expeditionary Force as not large enough or strong enough to influence the outcome war. Clearly, these arguments are contradictory. Even more perplexing, though, is pondering how Ferguson can square the second argument with the fact that Germany waged a massive naval arms race with Britain. Would they have done so if they did not perceive Britain as a threat to their war aims? I think not. I found Ferguson’s economic analysis of domestic financial constraints and relative war efficiency in chapters five and nine most persuasive. This was also an original argument, which was refreshing. Ferguson’s book leaves many questions open about the causes of the First World War and whether Germany fought a preemptive or preventive war. Research would have to show that Britain, France, and Russia were planning and/or carrying out plans to attack Germany in order to validate Ferguson’s argument for preemptive war. And, the events surrounding and emanating from Archduke Ferdinand’s assassination are inadequate!

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