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The Pity of War
By Niall Ferguson
Basic. 520 pp. $30.00
Reviewed by Chris Patsilelis, who frequently reviews books on military history.

Sunday, July 4, 1999

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The Pity of War, by Niall Ferguson, is probably one of the most controversial histories to come along in decades. Eschewing the narrative history form, Ferguson, a fellow in Modern History at Jesus College, Oxford and author of The House of Rothschild and Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals, offers a bold, revisionist account of the Great War. Through a careful marshalling of economic and social evidence, along with charts, graphs and various forms of statistical aids, Ferguson attempts to show that because Germany (rightly) feared French and Russian militarism, it understandably made a preemptive strike against France in August 1914. (This idea is contrary to every considered opinion about the origin of World War I, which holds that it was German militarism that started the war.)

Ferguson further contends that it was England's decision to intervene -- "nothing less than the greatest error of modern history" -- that created the global conflict. If England had just "stepped aside," the author opines in one of his toweringly imaginative "counterfactuals," "continental Europe could have been transformed into something not wholly unlike the European Union we know today -- but without the massive contraction in British overseas power entailed by the fighting of two world wars . . . . Bolshevism might have been averted . . . . And there plainly would not have been that great incursion of American financial and military power into European affairs which effectively marked the end of British financial predominance in the world. . . . "

There's more: "With the Kaiser triumphant, Adolf Hitler could have eked out his life as a mediocre postcard painter and a fulfilled old soldier in a German-dominated central Europe about which he could have found little to complain." Just beneath his counterfactual history of an averted Nazism and Bolshevism and the onset of a benevolent, German-dominated Europe lurks Ferguson's own desire for a return to the good old pre-1914 days when Europe was peaceful, the British Empire was potent, and the United States was just a minor economic irritant across the Atlantic. While there is merit in looking at history creatively and perhaps formulating theories on "what might have been," there is something peculiarly disingenuous about this book and something that strongly suggests a hidden agenda.

As for me, I'd rather take my history straight -- from a John Keegan or a Byron Farwell.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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