The War of the World: Twentieth-Century Conflict and the Descent of the Westby Niall Ferguson880pp | Penguin | ISBN 1594201005 | US$35
Niall Ferguson, along with Andrew Roberts and Michael Burleigh, is one of the “Young Turks” among contemporary historians. A professor at Harvard, a research fellow at Oxford and a senior fellow at Stanford, he has successfully bridged the gap between academia and the media. This book has itself been the subject of a recent television series; indeed, it has a dramatic and forceful fluency that lends itself to a visual presentation. At over 700 pages, with a wealth of maps, graphs and photos to support the text, it is in every sense a large book. The author describes it as the “Everest” of his career; with its enormous span, encompassing both the whole world and almost the whole of the 20th century, one can understand what he means.
Taking as his imaginative starting point H.G. Wells’s famous work of science fiction written in 1898, The War of the Worlds, Ferguson moves from this eerily prescient scenario, in which an alien species invades planet Earth in order to destroy it with terrifying, scientific efficiency, to what he calls “History’s Age of Hatred”. Why, he asks, given the hundred years of comparative peace and prosperity in Europe from 1814-1914, did this same continent trigger an unprecedented orgy of violence in the century that followed?
In four parts, comprising the First World War, the growth of the “empire states” that followed it, the Second World War and the post-war period, the author identifies three major reasons for the 20th century’s endless aggression: ethnic conflict, economic volatility and old empires in decline. These, he argues with a formidable arsenal of facts and figures, were the “fatal formula”.
While accepting the obvious point made by all commentators of the period, that technological advance made mass slaughter much easier so that, for instance, millions of men were able to be transported by the new railroads to the battle fields of WWI and armoured tanks, poison gas, bombs and submarines hugely increased the capacity to kill, Ferguson’s analysis is more penetrating. He selects the territory between the Baltic, the Balkans and the Black Sea as the unhappy triangle, the fault line (he uses the graphic image of shifting tectonic plates that cause earthquakes) of Europe. This, despite the seeming tranquillity and progress that preceded the Great War, was where the old empires, with their multi-ethnic populations, their shifting demographic balance and their political instability, were clustered together in an uneasy co-existence.
With the wisdom of hindsight, it is not difficult to realise that the Hohenzollerns of Prussia, the Hapsburgs of Austro-Hungary, the Romanovs of Russia and the Ottomans were bound, sooner or later, to clash. New nation-states were emerging in Turkey, Russia, Japan and Germany with their own sinister nationalist and imperial agendas. Commenting on the Armenian Massacres of 1915-17, which he calls “the first true genocide”, the author writes that they were “a horrific illustration of the convulsions that could seize a multi-ethnic polity trying to mutate from empire into nation-state”. Alongside this, the British Empire, over-extended and under-manned, was in slow decline; the “Pax Britannica” concealed its own ferment, unrest and potential for violent conflict, later in the century to break out in Iraq, India, Palestine and Northern Ireland.
These political changes were accompanied, Ferguson argues, with rapid economic shifts: inflation, deflation, boom, bust and depression – the volatility that, combined with other factors, will make conflict likely, indeed inevitable. This conflict, he demonstrates, was not simply of the conventional kind, directed against external enemies, “the formalised encounter between uniformed armies” as in the past. What was new about the 20th century was the scale and savagery of the ideological “war” conducted internally by governments against their own peoples: against the Jews, socialists, gypsies and others in Germany, the kulaks and the intelligentsia in Stalin’s Russia, the millions of Chairman Mao’s fellow Chinese. The empire established by Lenin, for instance, was “the first to be established on terror itself since the short-lived tyranny of the Jacobins in revolutionary France.”
In this sprawling book Ferguson is himself arguing on all fronts, raising as many questions as he answers: were Stalin’s crimes necessary to modernise an antiquated country? Was there any real difference between Stalin’s “socialism in one country” and Hitler’s National Socialism? What is the difference between Auschwitz and Hiroshima? What was the better option: to cut and run as the British did in India, or to stay on and fight, as they did in Kenya? He delights in the odd coincidences of history, analysing the differences between Roosevelt and Hitler, who both came to power in 1933 to countries in the grip of economic depression, or those between Margaret Thatcher and Ayatollah Khomeini, who both assumed power in 1979.
His book draws on a multitude of sources, literary and historical, such as Erich Maria Remarque’s classic of the Great War, All Quiet on the Western Front, Spengler’s Decline of the West (which, like the philosopher of conservatism, Roger Scruton, he recognises as important as it is cranky) and the Diaries of Victor Klemperer, which Ferguson describes as “the most penetrating and insightful account that was ever written of life and death under the swastika.”
Given the unadulterated gloom of his subject, the author’s prose fizzes with energy and a kind of mordant wisecracking; after 1945 “Stalag gave way to Gulag”; in Communist Russia “breakneck industrialization was always intended to break necks”; Goebbels sold Hitler to the German people “as if he were the miraculous offspring of the Messiah and Marlene Dietrich”.
It is his capacity to compress disparate events into an arresting image as well as his command of so many different killing zones that makes this work a brilliant tour de force. The sheer span of the subject matter covered make it a mine suited to inexhaustible quarrying. It also makes the book spiritually fatiguing to read for it is, one might say, a prolonged and persuasive exercise in despair. It is certainly not possible to read about this Age of Hatred for long without fearing that large sections of the human race are forever vulnerable to dictatorship by psychopaths. Ferguson cites Richard Dawkins’ theory of a “race meme”, whereby we identify some people as “alien” and thus to be destroyed. This is not H.G. Wells’ fictitious Martians; it is men attacking their own species – “the selfish gene with a death ray.” He is also influenced by Freud’s theory of the “death instinct”; rape and murder are merely suppressed in civilised society, always ready to be unleashed when the appropriate conditions lead to a breakdown. “We should not lose sight of the basic instincts buried within the most civilised men”.
Somewhere in the book Ferguson refers to “man’s inhumanity to man”. This poetical and much quoted phrase somehow doesn’t fit the bill presented here; it is more accurately man’s sickening ferocity towards his fellow man that we are witnessing time and time again. In an appendix the author attempts to put the 20th century carnage into historical perspective, with a brief glance at Ghengis Khan and Tamburlaine and the trail of slaughter they left in their wake. However, he is not convinced by the comparison, largely because he assumes that modern man ought to be more civilised than his medieval counterparts – only to demonstrate with depressing regularity that this is a fallacy, when leaders of apparently civilised societies can arouse “the most primitive murderous instincts of their fellow citizens.”
Ferguson concludes, “We shall avoid another century of conflict only if we understand the forces that caused the last one – the dark forces that conjure up ethnic conflict and imperial rivalry out of economic crisis.” But surely there is more to be said on the topic than this. To understand is the easy part. Popular historian Paul Johnson has commented that the repudiation of Judaeo-Christian values has cast its own menacing shadow over the last century. It cannot be a coincidence (though Ferguson does not reflect on it) that the most callous regimes of the 20th century were either Marxist-Communist, as with China and Russia (and Cambodia briefly, under Pol Pot), or neo-pagan, as with Nazi “Aryan” Germany. Trotsky once announced, “We must put an end to the papist-Quaker babble about the sanctity of human life” and Ferguson admits that the capacity to treat other human beings as “members of an inferior or malignant species” was one of the crucial reasons why the 20th century was so violent.

His diagnosis of the geographic, ethnic and political elements comprising the “fault-lines” are entirely persuasive; but he needs to bring his roving, pugnacious intelligence to bear on a deeper, more metaphysical fault-line: the fissure within the soul of man himself, as he struggles either to give expression to the good impulses within him – or succumbs to the evil of which he is demonstrably capable.
Francis Phillips writes from Bucks, in the UK.