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122 of 128 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars "A refreshing variant on an otherwise sterile debate"
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 Slate.com 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...
Published on July 11, 2003 by T. Graczewski

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70 of 77 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Detailed and controversial economic history of World War I
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...
Published on October 16, 2001 by R. H OAKLEY


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122 of 128 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars "A refreshing variant on an otherwise sterile debate", July 11, 2003
By 
T. Graczewski "tgraczewski" (Burlingame, CA United States) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Pity Of War: Explaining World War I (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 Slate.com 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.
The book reads as if it were ghost-written by Alfred von Wegerer, the head of Germany's Center for the Study of the Causes of the War, a quasi-think tank offshoot of the War Guilt Section of the German Foreign Ministry in the 1920s and 30s whose sole mission was to spin the history of World War I in Germany's favor. First, he blames his native Britain for just about everything: diplomatic blundering that led to the start of the war; entry into the war that made it a global conflict; and a contribution to the war that made it stretch on for four long, miserable years. Second, he claims that a German victory would have just led to a benign, EU-like arrangment on the continent. Again, I say: It is the heterodox approach and perspective of this book that makes it well worth reading, not its iconoclastic message.
In closing, if you are looking for one book to read on the First World War, this is not the one to get. If, however, you are familiar with the subject and are looking for a book that will challenge your assumptions and perhaps make you rethink your understanding the seminal conflict of the twentieth century, The Pity of the War may be well-worth your time.
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54 of 57 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A provocative revisionist history, March 20, 1999
By A Customer
This review is from: The Pity Of War (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.
I didn't agree with many of the things Ferguson says in his book, but I did find it consistently engrossing and challenging. It was a refreshing book that made me re-examine just about everything I have ever learned about the First World War, and I recommend it highly.
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70 of 77 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Detailed and controversial economic history of World War I, October 16, 2001
By 
R. H OAKLEY "roboakley" (Vienna, VA United States) - See all my reviews
This review is from: The Pity Of War: Explaining World War I (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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73 of 85 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A 21st Century History of the War, January 18, 2000
This review is from: The Pity Of War (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. Our view today is dominated by what happened after 1914, not by the history which preceeded it. This book attempts, in part, to rectify this. For balance I recommend G.F. Kennan's The Faithful Alliance: France, Russia, and the Coming of the First World War and David G. Herrmann's The Arming of Europe and the Making of the First World War. As far as the attrocity argument goes, Germany's main crime in my opinion was that they used those methods, which had up to that point been used only against aboriginal peoples, against Europeans. One must remember that the original lopping off hands and feet stories were based on actual Belgian attrocities in the Congo. As to over 5,000 Belgian civilians killed during the invasion, Admiral Dewey dispatched that many Filipinos during the first days of our own Philippine-American War in 1899, a war that we instigated and fought with blatant cruelty. This brings up the trully controversial point (from a US perspective) that Ferguson brings up on page 55. As he states, "Compared with the US, Germany was a pacific power." Stange that none of the reviews have mentioned this. A comparison of even our more recent history (Operation Just Cause, the invasion of Panama in 1989) to the 1914 German actions in Belgium seem to justify the opinion of Ambrose Bierce, when he wrote, "War has never found us ready. War has never found any modern nation ready, excepting Prussia, and her only once. If we will learn nothing by experience, let us try observation. Let us cease our hypocritical cant, rise from our dreams of peace and of the love of it, confess ourselves the warlike people that we are, and become the military people we are not."
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46 of 53 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Provacative, but not necessarily right., April 28, 1999
By 
Steven Zoraster (Austin, Texas USA) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Pity Of War (Hardcover)
This is supposed to be a revisionist book about World War I. Around page 1 the author, Niall Ferguson, announces that he is going to correct 10 major myths about the war. (Or, at least, provide a final refutation of those myths.) Although the book is well written, and the arguments clear, I am not certain that the goal of the author is obtained. First, scholars have recognized some of those myths as myths for decades. These certainly include the first two: The myth that war was inevitable due to economic rivalries, imperialism, secret military alliances, or an arms race; and the myth that Germany started the war because the German government felt strong relative to other European powers.
Second, while his attack on some other myths are analytically convincing, Mr. Ferguson fails to provide convincing non-analytical explanations for why his numbers come out the way they do. For example, he argues that contrary to the standard myth, the German army was tactically and operationally superior to the armies of Britain, France and the United States clear through to the end of the war in 1918. His evidence essentially is that - ignoring surrender - the average German soldier killed or wounded more than 1 enemy soldier before he himself was killed or wounded. I believe the authors numbers, but I really didn't learn why they turned out the way they did. Yes, the German's developed better tactics for both attack and defense in trench warfare than their enemies, but why? Certainly their enemies tried hard to come up with good answers to those same problems, but failed. Again, why? Class structure is one reason on the part of the British is one reason cited, but I suspect that there must be more to it than that.
Third, at least the one myth I completely believe Mr. Ferguson demolished, is sort of a "so what?" While not one of his ten big myths, the author proves through quotes from letters, memoirs, and from other sources, that many soldiers from both sides who tried to surrender were killed (read "murdered") after surrendering. This really should not come as a surprise to anyone familiar with the military history of this century. There are many documented cases of how dangerous surrender could be during World War II and the Anglo-Boer war. (Try Paul Fussells' Doing Battle, or one of Stephen Ambrose's books about World War II for example, or any first-person account of the World War II eastern front. Or, just talk to a Vietnam era veteran who was in the infantry.)
Actually, there is a 11th myth that Dr. Ferguson attacks in "The Pity of War" that has received the most attention from other historians and reviewers. That "myth" is that Great Britain had to participate in the war to prevent Germany from dominating continental Europe, and thereby destroying its role as a great power. Ferguson argues that the original war aims of Germany in the west were relatively benign, and that after quickly defeating a France unaided by Great Britain, the Germans would have imposed heavy monetary reparations of France, and then restored independence to both Belgium and France. At worst, Germany would have forced both countries, along with much of central Europe into an economic union, not much different and not much more dangerous to Britain than the German-centered European Union that exists today.
In defense of this 11th myth, Ferguson points out that German plans for serious annexations of territory, such as all of Belgium and the Northwest of France, were not formulated until the war was a couple of months old. There are problems with this argument. The most obvious to me, is that although France would have lost the war without the aid of Great Britain, the logistic problems encountered by the German army during the opening phase of the war meant it would have taken France several months to lose. Those several months would have given the Germans plenty of time to decide that they deserved both territorial and political rewards for their war against France. So, even a short war won by Germany would have left them as the type of people you don't want as neighbors. Especially if you are the center of an empire based on sea power, and your new neighbors are going to control ports just on the other side of the English Channel.
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46 of 55 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting Information & Speculation, but a Few Gaps, October 26, 1999
By 
Ellen (Chicago, IL) - See all my reviews
This review is from: The Pity Of War (Hardcover)
Ferguson apparently decided to use his considerable knowledge of World War I research and data to challenge certain "myths" about the war. My most general point is that the reader should be prepared for a very strong bias against his native Britain; Ferguson seems to want to blame Britain for a lot of negative events (i.e. driving Germany into an expensive naval arms race, creating a world war out of a European war, inflation after this huge war, the rise of Hitler...). Germany, in constrast, gets very little space and only mild rebukes for its negative acts (i.e. starting the war by invading neutral Belgium, deliberately killing hundreds of Belgian civilians, killing neutral sailors and civilians through unrestricted submarine warfare, being the first to tell its troops not to take prisioners...) While this switch of focus occasionally will be refreshing for those who have read more conventional books about World War I, reading just this book will give the general reader a very distorted view of the war.
As others have noted, Ferguson's most obvious mistake was in concluding Britain did not have to enter the war because Germany's goal of a 1920s version of the current European Union did not imperil serious British interests. Besides the debate over whether Germany would have been content with that after the achievement of conquering its French enemy and the obvious fact that Britain could never have "known" this at the time, keeping one country from dominating the Continent had been the key focus of British foreign policy for two centuries!
I also expected more discussion of the strategic results of the German decision to go to unrestricted submarine warfare (as I noted above, the moral aspect of this decision is also quite neglected). Since this decision did eventually bring the US into the war, its neglect in a serious World War I book is surprising. In other words, he does not try to determine how much shipping this policy cost Britain. It would have had to deny Britain a large amount of food & arms to offset dragging the large US manpower and productive capacity into the war.
On other matters, I found the book enlightening. His view of the Central Powers as being better combat because they killed more men is known to serious students of the war, but his insight that the Central Powers were able to kill with so much less expenditure was interesting. I was also struck by the fact that even the huge number of dead men in this war were demographically replaceable--which means that the trenches were as useless strategically as they were wretched. This reality leads to another of his key insights--the importance of getting the other side to desert in large numbers, even though that conflicts with the short-term goal of killing men on the other side (both due to your men's emotions and having to use some of your men to escort and guard prisioners).
Last, Ferguson uses his analysis of most soldiers' willingness to keep fighting and some good quotes from a wide variety of sources to support the case that a large number of men did not mind, or even enjoyed, being in the trenches and killing. I believe this reflects the unpleasant reality that humans have a violent side and it will become predominant in many under the right conditions. Since the violent side of humans is one that many of us do not like to think about, I really appreciate that Ferguson discussed it at some length in this book. To get generally philosophical at the end of my review, since the tendency to violence will always exist in us, the most civilization can do is to keep it under control by channeling it (i.e. sports), encouraging people to find other ways to express emotion (i.e. the arts)...
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24 of 28 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting but flawed, January 3, 2001
By 
This review is from: The Pity Of War: Explaining World War I (Paperback)
This book is not a history of World War I but rather a series of essays on certain aspects of the conflict. Ferguson likes to deal in counterfactuals and here he takes issue with much of the conventional wisdom surrounding the war. For example, he argues that Germany was not a militaristic nation, contrary to almost universal belief. He also attempts to refute the common perception that the nations of Europe went to war enthusiastically. These chapters were somewhat persuasive. The chapters dealing with prisoner taking and the cost of killing enemy soldiers were quite interesting and were issues I'd not seen discussed in other histories. The essays on war finance and postwar economics were rather rambling and unfocused, however.
The most controversial conclusion was that the world would have been better off if Germany had won the war. He argues that a German-dominated Europe would be similar to the EU of today and no more threatening. Thus, the defining catastrophic event of the 20th century was Britain's decision to enter the war, thus thwarting the German victory. Therefore, the great Nemesis of modern civilization was not Hitler or Lenin but Sir Edward Gray!
On this point he was less than persuasive. I would have liked to read more details about the German war aims and less about John Maynard Keynes.
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76 of 96 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A Few (Only A Few!) Trenchant Observations, January 17, 2000
By 
Bruce Loveitt (Ogdensburg, NY USA) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Pity Of War (Hardcover)
I went into this book with high expectations. Unfortunately, these expectations were not met. If this material is considered controversial and revolutionary I cannot understand why. Mr. Ferguson devotes hugh chunks of this book to attempting to prove things that are either obvious or not all that important or that will never be proven one way or another. He states Germany wasn't as militaristic as historians have usually made her out to be. He tries to prove this several ways. He gives statistics to show that on the eve of war the allies were much more prepared in terms of military hardware. But this wasn't for lack of trying on Germany's part! There was an arms race and Germany was not able to keep up. Mr. Ferguson also quotes German novelists and poets who were anti-war before the war. Would you expect artistic people to be pro-war? He quotes German politicians and military men and even the Kaiser to show that they had doubts about waging war. Unfortunately, the main reason they had their doubts was that they weren't sure that they could win! They weren't pacifists. Mr. Ferguson seems to think that most people thought the war was inevitable and he goes to a lot of trouble proving the war did not have to happen and that up until the last moment England was undecided about entering. I think very few people thought the war was inevitable. War is seldom inevitable and that is the true pity of war.... A large portion of the book is a rehash of other material showing what it was like to be a soldier at the front. Mr. Ferguson asks why did the soldiers fight on and on year after year and gives several answers: to seek revenge for their comrades who had been killed; because they had a "death wish"; because they enjoyed killing, etc. I'm sorry but I do not find any of this to be novel information. One of the few interesting sections of the book presents Mr. Ferguson's thesis that the reparations demanded from Germany were not outrageous and were not responsible for the hyperinflation that developed in Germany in the early 1920's. The author presents some solid information that Germany's own internal economic policy (intentional inflation to allow depreciation of the mark and hence cheap exports, too high social spending, etc) was responsible for the hyperinflation. The closing chapter of this book has caused all the brouhaha as this is where Mr. Ferguson states that if England stayed out of the war she would not have ruined her economy and become a second rate power;Germany would have won the war and created a unified Europe with herself at the center;Hitler would not have come to power and hence we would have had no WWII. This is all interesting and plausible and even logical. Why are people calling it controversial? Unfortunately, you have to get through over 400 pages of dubious and not so creative actual historical analysis before you get to some interesting counter-factual speculation!
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17 of 20 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars More essays than a book, March 10, 1999
By 
Tom Munro "tomfrombrunswick" (Melbourne, Victoria Australia) - See all my reviews
This review is from: The Pity Of War (Hardcover)
This is a rather strange book. It is like a series of essays on various aspects of the First World War. The author aims at dispelling several of what he sees as myths about the conflict. These are (1)That Militarism played a big part in the war breaking out. (2)That the war was popular (3)That Germany wanted the war (4)That Germany used its economic resources badly in the war (5)That starvation led to the collapse of the central powers (6)That fighting men found their life intolerable
Some of the book is interesting and well argued. Some of it now is reasonably well accepted generally. For instance a number of commentators have accepted that the weakness of Germany was one reason for the war. Russia at the time of the war was completing an armaments program and a railway system which would bring its armies to Germanys borders within a short time. War for Germany in 1914 was seen as regrettable but better than facing a much stronger army in a few more years.The arguments about the amount of money that each of the nations spent on arms is interesting. The author suggests strongly that if any country was obsessed with the military it was France rather than Germany.
Other parts of the book are less well argued. It is clear that the war led to a mixed response from those who fought in it. Some such as Ernst Junger found it the most important experience in their life. In England it has generally been accepted that the high casualties brought widespread disillusionment. The book tries to argue that most who served in the war either enjoyed it or where not to negatively effected. To do this the writer lists a number of books that came out of he war which were jingoistic and patriotic.
This however is superficial. Germans emerged from the war feeling reasonably positive about it. They had generally been successful. After the war large numbers of Germans joined the Friekorps units putting down left wing rebellions and trying to preserve the German borders against the newly independent states set up after the war. The allies however had spent most of the war losing.
If one reads any account of the Second World War the it is clear the effect that the First had on military thought. Canada who as a dominion sent the largest contingent to Europe in the First War refused to send a significant number of troops in the second. They instead assisted England by the provision of convey escorts. England itself built up its air force as an alternative to fighting a land war in Europe. If one reads the biographies of English military commanders there was a real fear of putting their men through the sorts of experiences that they as junior officers had gone through in the first war.
The book is interesting to anyone who is familiar with the war but would probably be incomprehensible to someone who picks it up as their first book on the war.
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17 of 20 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Killing became an end in itself., June 26, 1999
By 
Wallace F. Smith (Walnut Creek, CA USA) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Pity Of War (Hardcover)
Ferguson's courageous history of the first world war explains how sadistic, relentless killing quickly became an end in itself. And WWI led directly to worse barbarity and terror, so that in 1999 the world faces virtually the same problem in the Balkans which existed in 1914. In explaing how the first great war came about Ferguson stands head and shoulders above the "victor's historians" who fill the textbooks and befuddle political leaders. He finds much to blame conservative British leadership for. And nothing kind to say about America's role. Unfortunately - and this is not Ferguson's fault - he cannot explain how the pointless savagery could have been avoided or cut short. Senseless murder may simply be an instinct; if so, it's time for all of us to face up to that. Forget heroics; war, like all murder, is failure. There are no "good wars." The value of Ferguson's effort cannot be overstated, but it is only a beginning.
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The Pity Of War: Explaining World War I
The Pity Of War: Explaining World War I by Niall Ferguson (Paperback - March 3, 2000)
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