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on 9 May 2007
The Pity of War seems like a good idea, re-evaluating the First World War and challenging the pre-conceived ideas. However, it is let down by a problematic structure which doesn't make it very readable and the fact that his arguments do not seem fully developed and all seem to point towards an already decided conclusion.
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My dear Father fought in WW1 in the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders; 3 of his brothers were killed whilst Father was wounded. He lived until he was 84 but was full of pain all his life for the masses of fine young men, on both sides, who lost their lives. He was of the view that it would take Scotland generations to recover from this unnecessary carnage. Niall Ferguson captures much of what I heard from Father.
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on 19 June 2015
I like Ferguson's books and this keeps up his high standard. This is a much- needed examination of the war from angles that are often neglected and I found most of his points to be convincing. There are passages that are heavy going and focussed on economic detail that seems more for the specialist reader, but this is well- worth a read for its insights into a conflict that looms large in the public imagination.
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on 24 February 2013
The good points in this book are the photos, the lists and the maps. The bad points all fall within the overly subjective narrative style of Ferguson himself.
I've seen him on television documentaries and he makes the odd insightful conclusion and he is the darling of Channel 4 and the Today programme on BBC Radio 4 but he seems to write for that certain demographic and doesn't seem to want to balance his arguments with any opposing viewpoint (rather the job of an objestive history).
In "Pity of War" he seems a throwback to the opinions of A.J.P. Taylor (whom he greatly admires) and seems to shoehorn statistics and facts to fit his overarching thesis: The Germans had the best troops, tactics and generals. Most of these opinions stem from the histories published in the 60s-80s when Ferguson would have been forming his viewpoints and many of which are now discredited.
Unlike Peter Hart, for instance, Ferguson seems to forget that the allies actually won the war and would prefer to dwell on statistical comparisons of casualties and war materials to prove otherwise.
Provocative - yes, thought provoking - yes. Reliable and unbiased - ???
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VINE VOICEon 23 November 2011
The Pity of War is another WW1 "revisionist" book, albeit one with a very different agenda and conclusions from the revisionist works of authors such as Richard Holmes, Gordon Corrigan & Trevor Wilson.

It starts off well, with some quite moving writing about his family and WW1, but subsequent chapters are mostly disappointing - I found his arguments were frequently superficial and muddled. I must confess I gave up on a few chapters. He scored a few points in the chapter about German repayments on reparations imposed by the Treaty of Versailles ("Can't Pay! Won't Pay.")

One of the big problems with this book is that Niall Ferguson is not primarily a military historian - he writes from quite a lofty perspective, but he doesn't have the understanding of the nitty-gritty on the battlefield *read Richard Holmes, or Gary Sheffield for this.)
The author obviously intended to write a controversial book; in this he succeeded, but whether he's written a good book is another question.
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on 29 January 2006
A very interesting book by Niall Ferguson, which although it was published back in 1998, I am first reading it now.
I have read a lot of books on the subject of the First World War, and therefore it is most interesting with an in-depth alternate history analysis based on economic and other facts. I can recommend also to read his own piece "The Kaisers European Union" in "Virtual History", which he is the editor of, where he develop the counterfactual (his)story. Alternate history is indeed an interesting approach so long as it it is based on probable scenarios and facts.
One minor point, I would like to have had developed was the (political) implications of an alternative German strategy in the beginning of the First World War. Niall Ferguson dismisses the "Ostaufmarch" (concentration on the bulk of the German forces in the East rather than in the West) very quickly on page 315 of "The Pity of War".
The political implications of an "Ostaufmarsch", which for instance also Hindenburgs and Ludendorffs subordinate Max Hoffmann argues for in his still worthwhile read "The War of Lost Opportunities", which is lacking in Fegusons Bibliography, would have ment no German violation of the neutrality of Belgium. Maybe he is right that Britain itself could have contemplated violating this neutrality, but Grey and other interventionist would have lacked the major political and public argument for intervention. There would also have been less reason to fight for France if it was Russia, which was invaded instead.
Other benifits of a German Eastern approach would have been that Austria-Hungary would have not experienced a great defeat in the beginning of the war as it did, and Rumania could have been won over to the camp of the Central Powers.
Would the Kaiser have suceeded, where Napoleon and Hitler failed? The answer is more likely yes, considering that he did succeed later in the war, and also a strike on Sct. Petersburg, would have been possible with the land support of the Balkan States (except of Serbia), Turkey and Austria-Hungary and the big German fleet. With strong fortresses in Alsace-Lorraine, the German Western army could probably have held out against France, and without Britain imediately in the war, maybe Italy would also have stucked to the Central Powers.
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on 9 May 2016
I love Niall Ferguson's books - he's a great writer - but this one is a bit dry. He just keeps listing sources that support his point. You feel like you're being bludgeoned rather than reading a well-reasoned argument.
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on 25 November 2007
I read the book with the hope to find out why and how could this madness have happened, but did not. It seems that Ferguson sets out with the aim to refute truisms about the WW I. His main propositions are:
- the war could have been avoided
- there was lack of militarism among masses
- media played a big part in whipping up patriotism and war hysteria, and keeping war going
- Britain could have stayed out of war being better off without fighting it
- there was economic and human (in numbers) superiority of the Entente Powers over the Central Powers but still Germany could have won the war
- Germany was much more effective in killing enemies than the Entente
- Germany only lost the war when the German soldiers lost will to fight and surrendered

Most of those propositions are sympathetic even if not always backed with evidence and logical arguments. Lot of paper could have been saved simply by stating that the Entente Powers combined GDP was 60% greater and they had 4,5 times as many people as the Central Powers... Overall it was too many words but about 10% of the book was really interesting: the last "What if" chapter and the argument that German victory in the continental war might have created a version of European Union many decades ahead of schedule.
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on 9 September 2004
Niall Ferguson is a professor at NYU plus a fellow at Oxford and the Stanford Hoover Institution. He has authored at least six other books on politics, history, and economics. In this book he attempts to explain where we went wrong in World War I, plus he makes certain projections on how he thinks things could have worked out better for all the parties involved. Also, he blames the British in part.
I thought his book Colossus was great and I gave it 5 stars. It was brilliant and innovative. Here I am not so sure plus he has competition and he throws in quite a strong dose of speculation. I put together a Listmania list of World War I books and there are about a dozen popular books ranging from great to so so. The problem here is that he is going over fairly well defined ground and there are some good competing writers that are a bit more neutral and scholarly. As an alternative to the present book by Ferguson, you might want to look at David Stevenson's Cataclysm: The First World War as a Political Tragedy. Many consider that book to be the best analysis book. Personally I still enjoy Guns of August, but that I am sure it will be replaced as one of the essential books by the Strachan books.
So just 3.5 stars and take a look at the Hew Strachan books.
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on 9 March 2015
Extremely informative and a well written book. The enormous amounts of facts that Niall Ferguson throws at us are understandable because of his very approachable style.. Great book and I learned a lot
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