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The Pity Of War: Explaining World War I New edition Edition

74 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0465057122
ISBN-10: 0465057128
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Editorial Reviews Review

If someone less distinguished than Jesus College, Oxford, fellow Niall Ferguson had written The Pity of War, you could be forgiven for thinking the book was out for a few cheap headlines by contradicting almost every accepted orthodoxy about the First World War. Ferguson argues that Britain was as much to blame for the start of the war as Germany, and that, had Britain sacrificed Belgium to Germany, the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution would never have happened. Germany, he continues, would have created a united European state, and Britain could have remained a superpower. He also contends that there was little enthusiasm for the war in Britain in 1914; on the other hand, he claims the war was prolonged not by clever manipulation of the media, but by British soldiers' taking pleasure in combat. If that isn't enough, he further maintains that it wasn't the severity of the conditions imposed on Germany at Versailles in 1919 that led inexorably to World War II, and blames instead the comparative leniency and the failure to collect reparations in full.

The Pity of War, with no pretensions to offering a grand narrative of the war, goes over its chosen questions like a polemical tract. As such it is immensely readable, well researched, and controversial. You may not end up agreeing with all of Ferguson's arguments, but that should not deter you from reading it. All of us need our deeply held views challenged from time to time, even if only to remind us why we've got them. --John Crace, --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

Many readers will disagree with Oxford historian Ferguson's (Paper and Iron) daring revisionist account of the Great War as presented in this superbly illustrated book, but none will be bored by his elegant marshaling of facts to support his case. Ferguson argues that Germany had a justifiable fear of Russian and French militarism and was merely making a preemptive strike in August 1914. He suggests that Britain forced the escalation of what could have been a limited continental war by entering on the side of the Allies and then increased the body count on both sides through sheer ineptitude. An economic historian, Ferguson explains that Germany was efficient at inflicting "maximum slaughter at minimum expense," paying just $5133 to kill each Allied serviceman. The bungling but economically advantaged Allies, on the other hand, paid $16,754 for each German head. For all the book's strengths, however, Ferguson comes up short in his flawed, briefly sketched analyses of the ebb and flow of diplomatic and battlefield events. Grand strategy goes unstudied. Ferguson's war is, in the end, simply an economic problem. Scarcity equals loss, and whoever has the most supplies will prevail. Ultimately, it is hard to feel satisfied with Ferguson's narrow analysis of what is surely a far more complex equation.
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 608 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books; New edition edition (March 3, 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0465057128
  • ISBN-13: 978-0465057122
  • Product Dimensions: 1.8 x 5.5 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (74 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #52,188 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Niall Ferguson is one of our most renowned historians. He is the bestselling author of numerous books, including The War of the World, Colossus, and Empire.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

135 of 141 people found the following review helpful By T. Graczewski VINE VOICE on July 11, 2003
Format: Paperback
I was not expecting to like this book. In fact, I very nearly avoided it altogether based on the overwhelmingly negative reviews by some of the leading scholars of strategic studies. In a fascinating exchange on in June 1999, Eliot Cohen (my academic advisor, mentor and good friend) and Paul Fussell competed with one another over which one disliked Ferguson's history more, describing his work alternatively as "smarty," "pedantic," "inane," and "irritating."
In the Summer 2001 issue of National Interest, Michael Howard, the doyen of war studies, was decidedly cool to the conclusions in The Pity of War, although not hostile to Ferguson' alternative approach, which he called "a refreshing variant on an otherwise sterile debate." In a separate 2001 interview Michael Howard claimed that the biggest breakthrough in the field of military history in his lifetime had been the "study of 'total history'; history studied in real depth and width."
It seems to me this is precisely what Ferguson's work provides and why it should be recommended. This is a book on war filled with charts and graphs showing the movement of bond prices, not battle maps showing the movement of divisions. If this book were written by a lesser talent, it would have been an embarrassing failure. But Ferguson writes extremely well and (perhaps more importantly given the recondite subject matter) his chapters are neatly laid out and his main points are clearly elucidated. Clearly elucidated -- and outlandish.
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57 of 60 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on March 20, 1999
Format: Hardcover
This is an extremely interesting and thought-provoking book, written by a young and industrious historian who seems to be striving for A.J.P. Taylor-hood. Niall Ferguson's The Pity of War is basically a Euro-skeptical history of Britain's part in the First World War. He argues that there was no reason for Britain to get involved in the war in 1914; that Britain's intervention turned what might have been a brief and victorious war for the Germans into a European catastrophe; that this catastrophe caused the "short twentieth century," from the outbreak of war to the fall of communism; that the short twentieth century was a bloody detour through war and totalitarianism, ending in the result that the Germans were aiming at in 1914, viz. German hegemony in a united Europe; and that by trying to stop Germany Britain only ruined itself and caused the death of millions, directly and indirectly. In a nutshell, since things turned out the same in the end, only worse, it was a pity that Britain intervened in the war.
Obviously, this is a book that could not have been written ten years ago, before the collapse of communism pressed an historical reset button. One of things that makes Ferguson's book so interesting is the way post-communist events seem to have influenced his view of the past. One sees the United States' victory in the Cold War arms race behind his argument that Germany should have spent more on arms before 1914. One also sees the herds of Iraqis surrendering to the Coalition forces in the Gulf War behind his discussion of the importance of surrendering and prisoner-taking. As a result, Ferguson may have written the first twenty-first century history of the twentieth century's most important conflict.
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76 of 84 people found the following review helpful By R. H OAKLEY on October 16, 2001
Format: Paperback
Niall Ferguson got headlines for what would have otherwise been a book for specialists of World War I when he included arguments that Britain should not have entered the war. He acknowledged that this would have certainly meant the fall of France and the acquisition by Germany of territory in the East at the expense of Russia. His argument created a great stir in Britain, which (like France) suffered enormously high casualties in World War I, much worse than in the World War II. Ferguson's book is a thoroughly argued, revisionist approach to the War. He disputes everything from the importance patriotism and war fever played in the early rush of enlistments to whether the Allies were economically more efficient than the Central Powers. Do not buy this book expecting an easy read. Ferguson supports his arguments by large amounts of statistical studies that are daunting even to a reader familiar with the controversies surrounding the war. In the end, one is left with the belief that it could not have been a good thing for Germany to have eliminated France and Russia as world powers, which would have allowed it to build up its Navy in competition with Britain. Of course, there is one benefit that would have come from Germany winning World War I; with the German political structure intact and victorious, it seems certain that Adolph Hitler would have lived his days out in obscurity.
In short, this book is only for someone deeply interested in the economic and social history of World War I.
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76 of 89 people found the following review helpful By seydlitz89 on January 18, 2000
Format: Hardcover
I've been interested in the subject of the First World War since my undergraduate days back in the 1970's. At that time the Fritz Fischer thesis, that Germany's decision on war was a grab for world power, had considerable appeal. I've always had problems with that view since it didn't address the question of why war in 1914, but not in 1905? Had Germany really wanted to make short work of Russia and France she could have done it then with the Russian Army in a shambles after their defeat by Japan. War did not come however. Instead it came nine years later with Germany in a much weaker strategic situation. What I think is most difficult for the reader to do today is to see Europe from the eyes of the elites who made the decisions in 1914. The German Army was viewed by many experts has having considerable flaws, not as the precision mechanism we preceive today. Also the European opinion of the Germans was different. Not too many years before many believed that Germany was unsuited for industry, that her people lacked the talent to master science and technology, that they were primarily a simple pastorial people. For many British to have thought, as Ferguson shows, that they could win the war with money alone stems from this. Also we Americans especially today lack any feeling for the sense of inferiority and weakness that the Germans felt towards the French especially. Germany had been before 1870 a collection of petty princedoms which had been played off against one another by the French, British, Swedes and Russians. Napoleon, still a impressive image at the beginning of this century, had fought most of his battles in Germany, moving about the country at will defeating the best armies put up against him.Read more ›
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