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The War of the World: Twentieth-Century Conflict and the Descent of the West

4.1 out of 5 stars 110 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-1594201004
ISBN-10: 1594201005
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Why, if life was improving so rapidly for so many people at the dawn of the 20th century, were the next hundred years full of brutal conflict? Ferguson (Colossus) has a relatively simple answer: ethnic unrest is prone to break out during periods of economic volatility—booms as well as busts. When they take place in or near areas of imperial decline or transition, the unrest is more likely to escalate into full-scale conflict. This compelling theory is applicable to the Armenian genocide in Turkey, the slaughter of the Tutsis in Rwanda or the "ethnic cleansing" perpetrated against Bosnians, but the overwhelming majority of Ferguson's analysis is devoted to the two world wars and the fate of the Jews in Germany and eastern Europe. His richly informed analysis overturns many basic assumptions. For example, he argues that England's appeasement of Hitler in 1938 didn't lead to WWII, but was a misinformed response to a war that had started as early as 1935. But with Ferguson's claims about "the descent of the West" and the smaller wars in the latter half of the century tucked away into a comparatively brief epilogue, his thoughtful study falls short of its epic promise. (Sept. 25)
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From The New Yorker

Ferguson's eight-hundred-page reevaluation of the Second World War presents itself as a grand theory about ethnic conflict, the end of empire, and the postwar triumph of the East. The exact contours of the theory, however, remain unclear. Ferguson argues that the central story of the twentieth century is "the descent of the West," but he never really clarifies what "the West" means - Russia sometimes qualifies, sometimes not, depending upon what point Ferguson is trying to make. Ferguson is a skilled storyteller, and he offers many striking reflections on the bloodiest years of the past century, including a compelling analysis of appeasement. Unfortunately, the book as a whole is marred by sweeping judgments and jarring contradictions. A number of odd moves - such as the grouping of Hoovervilles with Soviet labor and German concentration camps - point up another conspicuous shortcoming: Ferguson's failure to make sense of America's power.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 880 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Press HC, The (September 21, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1594201005
  • ISBN-13: 978-1594201004
  • Product Dimensions: 6.3 x 2.1 x 9.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.8 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (110 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #713,307 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Steven Peterson TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on October 14, 2006
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Niall Ferguson's The War of the World has received a fair amount of "buzz." And, indeed, as one reads it, the scholarship, the knowledge of historical nuances, and the command of the sweep of the 20th century are all readily apparent. However, in the end, the book is somewhat unsatisfying.

The book begins with an interesting notion, namely that life was rapidly improving as the twentieth century began. However, the puzzle addressed by Ferguson follows from that: why did the rest of the century become so bloody? The First and Second World Wars were ghastly events in terms of the butchery of human life. And, looking at the subtitle to the book, one result was "the descent of the West."

What factors shaped the currents of this time period? He suggests three major factors: ethnic conflict, economic turbulence, and the decline of empires. The first two are easily understood. However, he also notes the disintegration/decline of the old empires, such as the British Empire.

What next? He suggests that the West is slowly being challenged by rising powers such as China. He also notes that the West, because of slow population growth, is coming increasingly to depend upon foreign labor, including those from the world of Islam (the Near East, as he terms it). Thus, his sense is that the West is facing challenges as we have entered the 21st century.

Obviously, this is an ambitious volume. It is worth reading to get a global, overarching perspective on the 20th century. However, in the end, it is not fully satisfying. The thesis is never crisply stated, the book tends to meander, and the final chapter does not really pull things together as well as it could. In short, the whole is somewhat less than the sum of its parts.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
In both relative and absolute terms, the bodycount of the last century was the highest in recorded history. There were 16 conflicts that left more than a million dead, another 6 that claimed from a half million to a million lives, and 14 more that claimed from a quarter to a half million lives; all told, about 167 to 188 million people lost their lives as a result of armed conflict. Harvard historian Niall Fergusson has written a monumental tour-de-force attempting to answer the question: why?

Being Niall Ferguson, author of "Empire" and "Colossus," the reasons are not the conventional ones. Large-scale killing has taken place in previous centuries, and the 20th century, blessed with material progress, should have been a peaceful one, yet the bloodshed was unprecedented.

Ferguson disagrees with the traditional explanation that the scale of killing was a result of more sophisticated military hardware. The killing fields of Rwanda and Cambodia showed that large-scale massacres could be carried out by primitive weapons.

Stalinism, Fascism, and Anti-Semitism have been cited as the sources of the centuries largests mass murders. Ferguson argues that although the nation-states that formed after the disintegration of empires embraced extreme ideologies, these nation-states were not inherently evil; in fact they carried out many positive and peaceful goals.

Ferguson, instead, identifies three elements - the three E's - that were responsible for much of the 20th century's armed conflicts: "ethnic disintegration, economic volitility, and empires in decline." One of the primary examples he uses to illustrate his thesis is the case of Central and Eastern Europe.
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Format: Hardcover
Niall Ferguson is a remarkably inventive and productive historian, who in the last decade has produced a number of major works including a largely favorable analysis of the British Empire, and one of the reluctant empire of the twentieth century, the American Colossus. Now in his latest book, an expanded version of a British Channel Four Television series, he surveys the history of the twentieth century, which he claims to be the bloodiest century in modern history. This century had `the greatest man- made catastrophe of all time' the Second World War. His thesis is that one major reason for the disasters of the century is the decline of the great multinational Empires which existed before the First World War- and the conflict brought about through `the emergence of new empire- states in Turkey, Russia, Japan and Germany.'

In explaining the violence of this most violent of centuries he also invokes two other major factors. The first is the ethnic conflict in which advanced processes of assimilation (as with the Jews in Germany) broke down. The second is the `economic volatility, the frequency and amplitude of changes in the rate of economic growth, prices, interest rates and employment" which bring with them intense social stresses and strain.

These theoretical elements outlined clearly in the first chapter of the book serve as basis for his panoramic survey of the century's great disasters.
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