12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
This book looks at why the 20th century was the most violent in man's history, arguing that the various conflicts that took place between 1914 and 1953, from the start of WW1 to the end of the Korean War, were all part of one larger war, born out of an age of globalisation and the result of economic crisis and ethnic conflict. And, Ferguson argues, it's happening again, despite all our lofty talk of 'never again' and our theories that advanced weaponry now means total war is an impossibility. It's a very very good book, albeit sobering and disturbing.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 3 November 2012
This is the most impressive history book I've ever read, and also probably the most important, as it describes how the world we live in today was shaped in the previous century. Although linked to a TV series, it's much more than a work of popular history. I was impressed by the scholarly detail and analysis. Ferguson's conclusions are backed up by evidence and careful argument. Although he often considers alternative explanations, he convinces you with his attention to detail and depth of research. Ferguson does not seem to have an ideological agenda, he bases his opinions on objective, often mundane, facts. Although some might find them boring, I was impressed by his use of statistics, tables and charts. I particularly liked the way he uses economic data to prove a point: eg bond yields indicated that WWI was unexpected. Interestingly, once the war started, John Maynard Keynes predicted it would be over in a year, contrary to the opinion of bankers.
Although I've read quite a lot of 20th century history, I found a lot of fresh material in this book. I was unaware, for example, of the Turkish massacre of Greeks and Armenians in 1922. Ferguson provides much illuminating detail about such episodes as the Russian revolution, Soviet terror, and the war in China. He also examines anti-Semitism in some detail, showing how it pervaded Europe long before WWII. I was surprised to learn, for example, that the blood libel appears to have originated in 12th century England, and that radical left wingers were anti-Semitic for economic reasons. Stalin became anti-Semitic in his later years, but Ferguson shows how he was racist towards many other ethnic groups in the Soviet Union.
An original line taken by Ferguson is how race and ethnicity aggravated 20th century conflicts, resulting in the worst atrocities. But first he examines the concept of race in the book's Introduction. Referring to Richard Lewontin's (1972) claim that only 6% of genetic variation occurs between races, he concludes that "to some biologists, this means that, strictly speaking, human races do not exist". A. W. F. Edwards (BioEssays, 2003), however, has shown that this conclusion is based on an old statistical fallacy. Lewontin's analysis ignored correlations in the genetic data. When these are analysed using appropriate multivariate techniques, racial categories clearly emerge and largely agree with traditional concepts of race. Three pages on, in referring to "microsatellite markers", Ferguson alludes to this controversy, but he lets his Harvard colleague off rather lightly in not citing Edwards. But in the Epilogue, Ferguson ignores the controversy in claiming genetics revealed "race was a meaningless concept". Of course, the biological existence of race does not justify racism, but as Edwards put it: "it is a dangerous mistake to premise the moral equality of human beings on biological similarity because dissimilarity, once revealed, then becomes an argument for moral inequality". The point is, as Ferguson has succinctly put it elsewhere, "race doesn't matter because it is real, but because people conceive it to be real".
Also in the Introduction, Ferguson briefly mentions the "sociobiological" function of race: a diffuse kind of nepotism that leads us to trust members of our own race more than members of other races. I would have liked more on this. There have been some interesting computer simulations on "ethnocentrism" by Axelrod & Hammond and other research reviewed by Buchanan in New Scientist (March, 2007).
For me, the book got more interesting the further I got into it. Ferguson's economic and strategic perspective on WW2 explains the timing and motivations of Germany and Japan's aggression. It also explains their inevitable defeat when faced by the overwhelming economic power of the Soviet Union and USA. The author reveals some surprising facts about WW2: Britain was stronger than Germany in 1938 - appeasement gave time for Germany to build up her strength; blitzkrieg and area bombing were British ideas; the RAF was not the underdog in the Battle of Britain; the SS recruited Muslims, and so on.
The author makes some interesting observations about the various pernicious ideologies and attitudes of the 20th century. He points out the similarities of the Hitler and Stalin regimes, although before WW2 Stalin was a much greater mass murderer and ethnic cleanser. Interesting that Lenin called Stalin a "nationalist-socialist", and there's a chilling quote from Trotsky sneering at the sanctity of human life. The author points out some interesting anti-capitalist and autocratic resemblances between Hitler and Roosevelt's early speeches. Racism and eugenics were not confined to the West: they underpinned Japanese expansion into Asia. The Japanese regarded other Asian races as inferior, even sub-human, while purporting to liberate them from Western colonisation. After early military successes, Japan regarded the white race as inferior too. Although in some respects Westernised, Japan rejected Western "individualistic materialism" and its army was run by anti-capitalist utopians.
Ferguson covers Japanese atrocities in harrowing detail, the most notorious of which became known as the Rape of Nanking. Sexual violence, mass murder of prisoners & civilians were, Ferguson suggests, instrumental in Japan's ambition to create a new world order based on racial subjugation and fear.
Some readers may find disturbing messages in what the book tells us about the fate of multi-ethnic communities. Ferguson shows that while the old empires generally accommodated ethnic minorities, the nation states that replaced them after WWI were far less tolerant of ethnic diversity within their new borders, producing some of the worst ethnic conflict. Surprisingly, the ideal of ethnically homogeneous nations was expressed across the political spectrum, including English liberal John Stuart Mill and Polish Communist leader Gomulka. Some readers may find it unpalatable that ethnic cleansing during and after WW2 homogenized nations and reduced the causes of conflict. Ferguson's speculations about the effects on present day Europe of Muslim immigration, and the "new enemy within", may make uncomfortable reading. But as Ferguson concludes "We shall avoid another century of conflict only if we understand the forces that caused the last one...".
Ferguson's writing style is generally elegant and clear, but sometimes I wondered if the punctuation was erroneous, or a result of the author's preference for short sentences and starting sentences with conjunctions: eg p.377 (hardback) the sentences beginning "Not only..." and "It also...". There are typos on p.576 - "been not been" and p.623 "There would no private property". In the Appendix he rightly criticises those who misuse the terms genocide and holocaust, but elsewhere his own choice of vocabulary is not infallible. On page lxxi he misuses the word crescendo when I think he means climax (but this misuse of crescendo is very common - even Winston Churchill misused it), and I dislike the use of 'epicentre' (p. 638), which now seems to have universally replaced 'centre' when there hasn't actually been an earthquake.
11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on 8 January 2008
A valuable, lengthy and exceptionally well-written book; the length is more than mitigated by the quality of the writing. The value of the book is not, imho, dependent on whether the reader buys into the author's theories or meta-analysis on prime causes for war - even if you would disagree with those, it stands well for its breathtaking field-of-view and the sheer amount of fact disseminated with great clarity. 816 pages is a long book, but one I couldn't put down.
But praise aside, be prepared for a depressing read about the recent history of inhumankind. I found it hard to shake off feelings of hopelessness and inevitable doom. Friends tried to steer me into "happier" reading material, concerned for my welfare and my obviously-affected state. I DIS-recommend the book if you are looking for light entertainment. But if you really want to learn something about the major violences of the 20th century, to see beyond the sectioning of history into local military/political conflicts, to attempt a more holistic view of the intersecting timelines, consequences and possible causes of humankind's greatest failing - war - then I strongly recommend this work
88 of 98 people found the following review helpful
on 22 July 2006
The Times review quoted above is right. Whilst this book is plainly not for everybody, judging by the intemperate comments in some of the other reviews, I would hope that many more will welcome it as a challenging, fascinating new take on the 20th century. Everyone knows the usual story (not least because it's about the only bit of history that's still taught in any depth in schools). It seems to me that Prof Ferguson has made a genuine attempt to grapple with some of the aspects of that story that sit uneasily in the overall picture. The wars between China and Japan, and Japan and Russia; the great similarities between Nazism and Communism (which are generally ignored in modern teaching); the horrific logic that lay behind German and Russian genocide; the reasons why ordinary, intelligent people came to behave like savages - these are difficult topics, and I think they benefit from an intelligent revisionist's approach.
I found the book utterly engrossing, and I warmly commend it to anybody who is interested in twentieth century history.
18 of 20 people found the following review helpful
Make no mistake: The War of the World is a fascinating, detailed and informative page-turner, but you are likely to emerge from it with any residual faith in humanity seriously damaged if not completely destroyed. We all know that the 20th century, and in particular the first half, was perhaps the single darkest chapter in human history, but such are the depths of depravity, slaughter and inhumanity exhaustively catalogued, enumerated, and endlessly reinforced here over some 650 pages that the accumulated effect is nothing short of devastating.
As usual, Ferguson takes a cross-grained approach to conventional wisdom, aggregating all the eastern and western conflicts, pogroms and massacres, so that although the substantial focus of the book is on the two world wars, the flow of blood is continuous. His central thesis concerns racial friction as a catalyst for conflict, and the endless repetition of the same patterns across so many disparate stages is truly frightening.
Nobody emerges well from this - the British are hesitant and stand-offish, but quick to justify the extermination of civilian populations in the cause of victory; the Americans slaughter Japanese PoWs indiscriminately, and the Allies are ultimately content to throw Eastern Europe to the wolves in full knowledge that they may be sowing the seeds of a still more devastating third war. Doubtless many of Ferguson's assertions are contentious, and occasionally he dismisses some evidence seemingly for no better reason than because it doesn't suit his thesis. Could the Third Reich really have been nipped in the bud if appeasement had failed a year earlier, as he argues at some length? What would the consequences of this have been for Europe's future stability, assuming the game of Empires had continued?
But ultimately history is all about interpretation, this is certainly the most compelling, chilling, readable and instructive overview of this period that I have ever read, and I highly recommend it.
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on 27 August 2007
A whodunnit with 180 million victims; Niall Ferguson sees the first half of the 20th century as one extended racist war. He uses financial analysis to show that investors didn't expect WWI, and when they began to expect WWII, he blames economic volatility and the border zones of declining empires for the 50 year war of the world. I think he underplays ideology but the book anyway makes its main point by tying together in one story the various conflicts from 1905 to the end of the Korean War (and then briefly, the hot wars in the third world in the years since).
62 of 72 people found the following review helpful
on 11 October 2006
I've been very impressed by Ferguson's other works, in particular The Cash Nexus, Empire, and Colossus. War of the World, however, does not rise to the same standards as these earlier books. I found the argument to be laboured and unconvincing. Ferguson presents a lengthy tour through the history of the 20th century, throwing in remarks along the way suggesting that these events back up his central thesis; namely that the 20th century was so violent because of the rise of racial conflict. I was, I admit, instantly suspicious of the work because of its TV tie-in and catchy title that sounded more like the suggestion of a publicist than an academic. Indeed, i found the tenuous analogy between HG Wells' genocidal Martians and real 20th century atrocities particularly grating in its trivialising banality. Upon finishing the book, I was left feeling that this was history for its own sake. You get a good romp through the 20th century, but no compelling analysis. Ferguson never really tests or develops his apparent conviction that race issues were the key driver of 20th century conflict. Mediocre and lengthy.
79 of 93 people found the following review helpful
Niall Fergusson's War of the World is a chronicle of the martial horrors of the 20th Century. The detail is stunning and the style as accessible as, say, Simon Schama or James McPherson in the same historical narrative genre. Professor Fergusson's central thesis seems to be that the root of all of the last century's major conflicts, and particularly WWII, lay not in economic privation or political ambition but racial hatred. The book's title is derived from HG Wells's science fiction novel War of the Worlds: the perpetrators of 20th Century warfare are analogous to Wells's alien hordes, bent on destruction of another race, in pursuit of their own "lebensraum".
Fergusson marshals his evidence impressively into a blitzkrieg of evidence, detailing the development of the Nazi ideology, for example, from the minor sexual dalliances with Jewish women of those who were to become Nazism's principal leaders, through to the gas chambers and the Final Solution.
At times, it must be said, the litany of "evidence" of racial inferiority presented by the proponents of Nazism and related creeds comes so thick and fast that you have to remind yourself whose side the professor is on. Indeed, there are some commentators who believe he crosses the line. And though such accusations rather overstate the case it is understandable that a superficial reading of the text could easily lead one to that kind of impression.
One important thing that the author does is readjust some preconceptions. He points out, for example, that the conventional view of WWII beginning in 1939 is pegged to a UK audience. For the inhabitants of Manchuria, the Sudetenland and Abyssinia the war was well under way by then. He also gently, but firmly, "corrects" some past accounts of the same events, such as AJP Taylor's analysis of the origins of that war, whilst simultaneously acknowledging that historiography, like physics and astronomy, has moved forward since Taylor's day. He thus sidesteps any charges of damning with faint praise. (He is less generous, though, when dealing with historian EH Carr.)
As excellent as this book is, however, I'm not overwhelmingly convinced by the central thesis. Hanging the blame for World War II mostly on the back of anti-Semitism or Japanese contempt for their fellow Asians trivialises the big political-economic picture. Sure, the Axis powers in WWII were able successfully to exploit the prejudices they had amplified through their propaganda, and the atrocities inflicted on millions of Jews, Chinese and other specifically targeted groups had an undeniably premeditated racial driver, but without the hyperinflation of the twenties it has to be doubtful that there would have been a successful mobilisation in Germany.
The comparison is with all those semi-informed cleverdicks (not a term I would use on Fergusson, I hasten to add) who blame every war on religion. Sure there may be a case to be made in some instances (the Crusades, maybe?). But Ulster Protestants killing Catholics are like Southern trash lynching blacks: fighting for the right to be slightly less oppressed than the neighbours; for a slightly larger slice of a pitifully small pie. The solution is not found in the total extermination of either side, but in economic prosperity. Once they have a nice house, a big fridge and HDTV the majority are less concerned with bludgeoning other folks to death because of the colour of their skin or their mode of superstition. It is more difficult to, in Nietzsche's expression, "collect zeroes" in order to achieve your ambition if the supply of zeroes - a broad mass of dispossessed and disenchanted numbskulls - is limited. For although there were plenty of intellectuals at German universities who knew and accepted the principles of eugenics, it is doubtful that the average German thought beyond privation and finding scapegoats for it.
It is, of course, more complicated than that, and I doubt I would last five academic rounds with Niall Fergusson on the subject. And the fact that I don't agree with his thesis doesn't detract from an appreciation that War of the Worlds at least has a case to make and does so in masterly fashion.
The other point I would take issue with is his contention that the West did not win the War of the World. It's not that I disagree with what is said about the power accrued to the Soviet Union and then Russia since 1945, nor can I possibly deny the inexorable rise of China nor that Japan, for all its recent problems, remains an economic powerhouse to be reckoned with. It is more the framing of the war as a zero-sum game in which there have to be winners and losers. Yes there was untold suffering by millions at the end of the war, on both sides; yes, they were most definitely losers. But ultimately the transformation of Eastern Europe symbolised by the fall of the Berlin Wall opened up fantastic opportunities for East and West, even though it cannot be denied that Russia has some way to go before it clears up its act. Similarly, so does the rise of the tiger economies, and none more so than the rise of China. Like President Bush, I too would like to see far more political freedom bestowed on the peoples of Asia than is currently the case. But for the time being I, like billions of Chinese, possibly, think that economic progress is better than nothing, where Bush apparently would prefer they have "freedom". What's the value of having the freedom to starve? One thing the left had right during the seventies was that truly progressive movements grow best in conditions of prosperity.
Other parts of the thesis, though, do work, as in the case Fergusson makes for a preemptive strike at Germany in 1938, when the country was in a relatively weaker condition militarily and economically. There was already, at that time, sufficient evidence that the developing Nazi state was a malign presence. However, one only has to look at the furore caused by the Iraq war to see why Chamberlain and company hesitated in the face of Hitler's procrastinations - just as the anti-war mob now would have liked Blair to have done in the face of Saddam's ploys. Those who do not learn from history are obliged to repeat it, and just because Saddam had no WMD at the point of invasion, who is to say that would have remained the case? Hitler in Mein Kampf recognised that he literally got away with murder for a while because nobody was willing to crush his movement.
Fergusson also makes a good case in favour of "Bomber" Harris's campaigns on German cities, whilst not denying that they were by nature no less savage than say the bombing of Guernica.
Although an account of war in the 20th Century, it is WWII that dominates, and quite rightly. WWII saw conflict on a monumental scale: the battlefield at the Kursk salient, in July 1943, Fergusson tells us, was the size of Wales. It also yields accounts of savagery and degradation of industrial proportions, such as the escalating tendency by both sides to take no prisoners, which in turn fuelled a reluctance by soldiers of both sides to surrender, leading to some ferocious battles to the death. (Historian Antony Beevor, in a Financial Times interview, talks of the role of Fear, as opposed to Hatred, as the key driver in these circumstances. I would contend that Fear is similarly at the root of the "War of the World", and that this was exploited and whipped up into Hatred by the likes of Hitler.)
Plenty to ponder, then. Professor Fergusson fuels the fires of discourse. I doubt the book would have been half so valuable had the result been everybody nodding in unison at platitudes. Full marks.
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on 27 July 2007
Prof Ferguson's approach to the wars of the century is potentially unorthodox.Apart from the Holocaust , he spends a fair amount commenting on the Armenian and Greek genocides in 1915-22 , which to a degree Hitler used as an example by saying "who remembers today the Armenians?",trying to convince others about the Jewish "problem".It is very easily read and fuels further discussion,argument and exchange of ideas.I think he is very fair and proportionate on his views and does not hesitate to critisize aspects of the war performed by the Allies in WWI and WWII.
A must book!!!
11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on 14 August 2009
Immediately the first thing that one notices upon picking up this book is the title. At first glance, you wonder why Ferguson went for such a title, but he brilliant reveals all in the coming 600 pages. The H.G. Wells novel "The war of the worlds," is about humans (perceived as being the weaker) fighting for survival against a Martian threat. Fergusson draws comparisons between aliens cleansing humans in Wellsian fiction and that of twentieth century nation states cleansing their neighbours (albeit own citizens at times) of what they perceive to be a similar alien threat. With hindsight and impartiality however, both the reader and Fergusson are able to acknowledge that both parties often mentioned are equally as human, making the events seem barbarous and shocking.
Fergusson's case for the twentieth century being so bloody is not only confined to different ethnicities blaming one another for their woes, but also that of economic volatility; highlighting particularly that of the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and the Treaty of Versailles' stifling of Germany's economic growth rate. Fergusson being primarily a monetary historian puts forward a very convincing case for both being principle causes of World War II.
Fergusson also touches upon Empires in decline, particularly that of British and French. However, in this particular field I didn't feel he contributed much to the debate. He reiterates largely what most historians already know about British and Dutch maritime presence in Asia being a principle reason for Japanese expansionist policy, along with Hitler's references to that of the British Empire in "Mein Kampf," where Hitler outlines his admiration of certain aspects of Britain's handling of India, throwing in the odd suggestion too.
Fergusson comes up with some brilliant one-liners throughout, notably where he contrasts different periods. For example he contrasts the roaring twenties with the aggressor states in the thirties by saying; "In the twenties people were dancing. In the thirties, they were marching." Fergusson is undoubtedly a well-read historian who knows a lot about the twentieth century. He puts forward his own case as to why the century was so bloody and his personality and humour often come out at times. I really enjoyed this book and would highly recommend it to a friend or anyone wishing to broaden their horizons.