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on August 29, 2013
Back in the mid 1970s, when I was at school, there seemed to be two main theories on the origins of World War I. The German historian Fritz Fischer believed that Germany had deliberately instigated the war in an attempt to become a world power. AJP Taylor, a very influential British historian, argued that none of the statesmen of Europe wanted a world war, however the need to mobilize faster than potential rivals created an inexorable movement towards war. At the time I found neither theory particularly convincing. This book may appeal to people dissatisfied with the conventional wisdom. Ferguson's aim, in essence, is to demonstrate that Britain need not have fought against Germany in 1914. Ferguson also tries to expose the myths about why Britain went to war.

People have been trying to make sense of the war since 1914. Niall Ferguson takes a different tack and blames Britain. Ferguson argues that Britain's decision to intervene was "nothing less than the greatest error of modern history." He contends that Britain's participation turned it into a global conflict. If Britain had "stepped aside" the author believes that "continental Europe could have been transformed into something not wholly unlike the European Union we know today." Without the war there would have been no Hitler or Stalin and the history of the world would have been a lot different. Ferguson tries to prove that Germany was not interested in war and did not represent a threat to Britain. He also claims that Sir Edward Grey, the British Foreign Secretary, disliked Germans and did not do enough to stop the war.

Ferguson claims that if Germany really intended to dominate Europe military it needed a bigger military. The Germans were spending 3.5% of GNP on defense in 1914 which was less than Russia (4.6%) and France (3.9%) but more than Britain (3.1%). Both the French (827,000) and Russians (1,445,000) also had larger standing armies than Germany (761,000). The Royal Navy was over twice the size of the German navy.

In Ferguson's view Germany's leaders acted out of a sense of weakness. The troop numbers show why the Germans felt surrounded and vulnerable. They feared they would lose a two front war and would be crushed between the French and Russian armies. Their plan was to move quickly once the Russians mobilized and carry out a pre-emptive strike on France. The Kaiser pleaded with the Czar on July 31 not to mobilize. Once the Russians moved against Germany, the Germans decided they had to knock France out of the war.

The correspondence produced by Ferguson indicates that the Germans didn't want a war. The German chancellor, Bethmann-Hollweg, on July 29 offered to preserve the geographical integrity of France and Belgium, in return for British neutrality. The head of the German army, Moltke, said something similar on August 2. However, this was too late to stop the drift to war. Germany declared war on Russia on August 1, and on August 3 declared war on France. Britain declared war on Germany on August 4.

Ferguson claims that Sir Edward Grey, the British Foreign Secretary, was pro-French, and found the Germans rude and difficult to deal with. In siding with France and Russia he upset the balance of power in Europe. He should have befriended and reassured Germany, but he formed a secret alliance with France and didn't bother to tell his cabinet colleagues. Britain's close relations with France and later Russia just fed German paranoia. Ferguson shows that the British government did not feel itself bound by the 1839 treaty to protect Belgium neutrality. British lawyers had reviewed the treaty in 1905. However, Belgium became a convenient pretext later on.

Ferguson denies that the naval arms race between Britain and Germany caused the war. Most people agree that by 1912 Germany had abandoned its naval ambitions because of the cost. The naval blockade of 1914-18 helped defeat Germany. The allies could impose the blockade because they had more ships. The German Board of Public Health in December 1918 claimed that 763,000 German civilians died from starvation and disease caused by the blockade. The Germans actually needed a bigger navy for their own protection.

Ferguson claims there is a strong argument for Britain remaining neutral. In 1871 Prussia crushed France. In 1870 the then British prime minister, William Ewart Gladstone, did a deal with Bismark to keep the UK out of that war. The Germans seized the territory of Alsace-Lorraine and then went home. Ferguson suggests that Britain should have done something similar in 1914. Britain's participation in the war turned it into a world war and the country achieved at best a Pyrrhic victory and lost its superpower status. Ferguson argues that Germany's war aims did not pose a direct threat to the British Empire. One of the German war objectives was the creation of a customs union which looks a lot like the current EU.

Ferguson's views are controversial. Older more traditional historians, such as Michael Howard, have argued that Britain would have found it difficult to live with an all-powerful Germany run by the Kaiser. In their view it was a necessary war because the Kaiser's Germany was a threat to Britain's national security and political independence. After Germany defeated France and Russia it would have turned its attention on Britain. One advantage that Britain obtained by going to war in 1914 was the presence of allies who bore the brunt of the ground war against Germany for almost two years.

After German unification in 1871, Germany became the most powerful country in Europe. It had Europe's largest economy but also had its most efficient army. It can be argued that there has always been a need to get along with the Germans. The Versailles Treaty was an attempt to keep Germany in a subordinate position, but it just angered the Germans and the result was Adolf Hitler. Germany bounced back in the 1930s, more powerful than ever but "Britain was no longer strong enough to provide a check to it." Ultimately your view on whether the war was necessary depends on whether you believe that Germany was an existential threat to Britain in 1914. Many historians in Britain still believe Germany wanted to dominate Europe.

Ferguson believes that had Asquith's Liberal government not decided to go to war, Grey would have resigned, forcing a general election. Ferguson concludes that the Liberals voted for war mainly to remain in power and avoid an election which they were expected to lose. I do not find this a convincing argument, it seems too cynical for the era.

I have several problems with Ferguson's analysis. If you review the correspondence of those involved, Britain declared war because Germany invaded Belgium. Without that invasion, Britain would not have gone to war. Grey is often criticized for not making it clearer to Germany that the invasion of Belgium would mean war, but the German ambassador seems to have understood the British position. Back in 1914 the British people still believed in old fashioned concepts like honour and keeping your word. There was a sense of moral outrage in Britain about the invasion and a feeling that the country could not ignore a small country to which it had pledged its word. Public opinion supported the war and the vote for war in the House of Commons was almost unanimous.

The Germans did not seem to care whether Britain fought or not. Britain did not have a big enough army to deter Germany. While Germany hoped that Britain might remain neutral, she knew that it was unlikely, had discounted it, and was not prepared to alter her plans to secure it. The German army had the Schlieffen Plan which it could not or would not deviate from. This required the invasion of Belgium. The Kaiser told Moltke that he only wanted to attack Russia, but was told this was impossible, France had to be defeated first. Bethmann Hollweg, in his book on the war published in 1919 admitted that "Our military men had, as I had long been aware, only one plan of campaign." The German army's inflexibility was a major cause of the war.

It is not true that Grey did not try and engage the Germans in serious talks before the war began. Between 24 July and the outbreak of war Grey made six conference proposals to the the other great powers to resolve the issues diplomatically. Russia accepted but Germany and Austria-Hungary declined. Churchill wrote: "Had such a conference taken place there would have been no war. Mere acceptance of the principle of a conference of the Central Powers would have instantly relived the tension." The rejection of the conference proposal indicates that the Germans were not willing to negotiate.

Unlike a lot of history books, which often rely on interpreting the correspondence of long dead politicians. Ferguson has complied a lot of statistical information and tables to support his case. I found this very helpful. The book is well written and I would recommend it to anyone interested in obtaining a better understanding of the war. I found Ferguson's thesis fascinating, but ultimately I was not convinced by his argument. While agreeing that the war was a disaster for Britain, the Germans made it impossible for Britain to step aside.
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on September 23, 2015
This is an unmistakably brilliant book. [Spoiler alert.] I agree with the author that Great Britain should have given peace a chance. At worst, the Conservatives would have implemented a declaration of war once the Liberals resigned office. I do not think that Germany would have limited itself to the War Aims that the author identifies as those existing before the conflict. However, Germany might have. If the Liberals had determined on neutrality and went to an election to vindicate their position, whatever the outcome, I do not think that we would have seen the socialism in Great Britain that ultimately Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair reversed. The Labour Party would never have become the Official Opposition and then the government.
I do not think that there was all that much difference between the Kaiser and the Fuehrer, when the persecutions and pogroms by Prussia in Poland are considered. Accordingly, I do not think that British neutrality would have led to the sunny results that the author hopes for. But we will never know and it is clear that World War I ruined the world for most of the 20th Century - until that joyous day November 9th, 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell.
At day's end, the author is right that the Kaiser and his General Staff was just looking for an excuse to mount a preemptive strike agains the French because of Germany's military weakness and that was the cause of the war. Further, he is right that ill-fated British intervention in the war was more a product of the Liberal Imperialists in Cabinet being prepared to destroy the government rather than accept the collective leadership of the Cabinet. Their behaviour was disgraceful.
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on October 20, 2016
This is an advanced book discussing the causes and effects of WWI. Ferguson particularly argues that the conflagration was Britain's fault not Germany's. This is a dense and scholarly book. Ferguson addresses ten questions in support of his thesis (p. 442). The book requires a bit of familiarity with macroeconomics, and a background in WWI history (I have read over fourteen nonfiction and over eight fiction books). I would not take up this book as my first exposure on WWI history. It takes alot of discipline and persistence to make it through. But if you are interested in WWI history, it raises interesting ideas.
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on July 13, 2015
This book has a plethora of knowledge about the First World War, concentrating on the social, political and economical determinants and consequences of the global conflict. Hard to find facts and impressive statistics, tables and graphs. For those who are looking for lurid descriptions of battles and deaths, however, it is somewhat disappointing, there are better books for this. And, in some of the chapters on the convoluted politics of the time, it is somewhat too long and detailed. The investment is worthwhile, however.
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on August 17, 2016
Non conventional but exceptionally insightful and broad ranging appraisal of the causes and effects of World War I. More useful if the reader knows quite a bit about these topics from reading the many recent books on thee topics. Especially pertinent is the recent book about the so-called Schlieffen Plan titled, as I recall, The Plan that Broke the World.
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on September 12, 2003
From the same author I had already red "The Cash Nexus" and had been very favourably impressed both for the readability and the argument (usually a mix of history and economics, not just economic history).
Well, about the content, this is not the usual history of First World War.
It is an attempt to look behind the stage of historical events, to try to evaluate the actual outcome of the events on the light of the choices available to the "actors". Looking at what might have happened (and did not happen) can help to cast new light on the meaning of actual events.
The question "what... if" from which the inquiry starts, is a great stimulus for the reader not just to enjoy the book but also to evaluate the conclusions of the author.
I greatly enjoyed this book even if I do not agree with some of Ferguson theses.
In particular the critic to the common idea that a culture favourable to the world arise in the last decades of XIX century is a bit excessive (on the light of the thought and following of thinkers like Wagner, Nietzsche, Darwinism with the survival of the fittest,... not to speak about Futurism and the like).
I was also a bit unsettled by the allegations about the role of Keynes as a fifth German column in the discussions of war reparations: it may well be, but I believe the arguments used are a bit too personal (the alleged "possible" love affair with dr. Melchior) or overstated (this influence on British public opinion and government in the aftermath of the war).
Then, as a "continental" European I've been really upset by the argument that, after all, it would have been better if the Germans won the blitzkrieg and formed a kind of proto-common European Market... Right, it would have cost less in terms of lives. Right, the Greater Reich wouldn't be in competition with the British Empire... and right... we would probably have avoided II WW, but in what kind of world we would live today?
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on April 6, 2017
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on March 10, 2017
Great job.
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on December 13, 2000
For all the effort, emotion and analysis put in it, this book is a bad read and Ferguson has tried to accomplish too much for a sigle volume.
To begin with, the book has at least two books in it. The first one being the analysis of causes, inevitibility and economics of the Great War. The second is a hapazardly collected, very subjective ideas on why men fight.
The style is too cumbersome and some of the analysis was circular. Some points are repeated over and over. The economic data was very through and interesting but maybe overdone. He has done a good job analyzing the very beginning of the war and all the possible exits that various parties, mainly UK missed before the conflict got very much out of hand. Ferguson has made a very good argument about how Britain did not have a compelling reason to enter the war in the way she did and exploded the conflict into catastrophic proportions. Britain did not have to waste so many of his young for so little gain. Kaiser was no Hitler.
He has done great disservice to his thesis by limiting his scope only to continental Europe. After all, Britain's designs on the spoils of the "sick man of Europe", Ottoman Empire was a major factor in Britain's policy at the time. With this vital piece of the puzzle missing, the conclusions about Britain's ability or willingness to prevent a World War is doomed to be inaccurate. Middle East was the prize Churchill was after and his policies left no choice for the Young Turks but to join up with Kaiser.
The carnage of the Great War is well quantified and highlights how inapt the generals were and their Napoleonic tactics combined with modern weapons contributed to incredible loss rates in the field.
Ferguson fails to give the book a character and a consistent theme. There is also his personal involvement with the topic that surfaces occasionally and awkwardly. His analysis and conclusions are not crisp, most of it buried in lengthy arguments and conter-arguments with himself. Especially in the second half of the book, he is well out of his depth and expertise while he tries to expand into the topic of war and fighting at a personal level.
I would only recommend this book only for the very hard-core World War I buffs.
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on March 15, 2017
Niall Ferguson has dealt with subjects sometime missed by other authors, An exceptional book, if only there was a DVD " The Pity of War " also available.
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