The Pity of War - Subverting Expectations

May 2018
1,019
Michigan
I feel the need to repost a topic regarding Niall Ferguson's "The Pity of War" due to lack of clarity in the articles posted by another user: I don't believe Dr. Ferguson's ideas were being done justice by the articles posted, and the list in the OP lacked the clarity of the list in The Pity of War. I don't agree with all of Ferguson's conclusions.

Ferguson attempts to answer ten questions, and by then end of the book, he gives ten answers:

1. Was the war inevitable, whether because of militarism, imperialism, secret diplomacy or the arms race?
2. Why did Germany's leaders gamble no war in 1914?
3. Why did Britain's leaders decide to intervene when war broke out on the Continent?
4. Was the war, as often asserted, really greeted with popular enthusiasm?
5. Did propaganda, and especially the press, keep the war going, as Karl Kraus believed?
6. Why did the huge economic superiority of the British Empire not suffice to inflict defeat on the Central Powers more quickly and without American intervention?
7. Why did the military superiority of the German Army fail to deliver victory over the British and French Armies at the Western Front, as it delivered victory over Serbia, Rumania and Russia?
8. Why did men keep fighting when, as the war poets tell us, conditions on the battlefield were so wretched?
9. Why did men stop fighting?
10. Who won the peace - to be precise, who ended up paying for the war?

The above is from the intro to his book.

His answers I can only briefly summarize. Assume I add "Dr. Ferguson asserts...' before most of these sentences when appropriate.

1. The war was not inevitable. Ferguson asserts that everywhere in Europe anti-militarism was the political ascendant in 1914 and that 'merchants of death' like Krupp actually had no interest in a major European war. He also asserts that the reason Britain did not pursue an alliance with Germany was because Germany posed little threat to her overseas empire.

2. The German leaders did not act out of a sense of power or hubris: they acted out of a sense of weakness. This military weakness was not due to a lack of resource, but due to political constraints: the combination of a decentralized federal system with a democratic national parliament made it more or less impossible for the Reich government to match the defense expenditure of its more centralized neighbors. Also, Germany spent 3.5% of its GDP on defense in 1913-1914, France 3.9%, and Russia 4.6%.

3. Ferguson asserts that Britain's decision to intervene was the result of secret plannig by generals and diplomats dating back to 1905. The Liberal government did not feel bound to the 1839 treaty to protect Belgium, and if Germany had not violated it in 1914, he asserts that Britain would have.

4. Ferguson uses the Financial crisis of 1914 as evidence of war pessimism. He asserts that the war not cause for open jubilation and apolcalyptic imagery was used as often as patriotic rhetoric.

5. The war was a media war, but Ferguson asserts that the period was economically damaging for newspapers, and thus it made little sense for the papers to prolong the war. He does very correctly say that the blatantly corny patriotic propaganda was rejected by most of the troops (as it is to this day.

6. This is one of the answers Ferguson himself took many pages to give, and still many pages just to summarize. He asserts that the British Empire wasted away much of their advantage through inefficiency, making the "least out of much" whereas the Germans made the "most out of a little" by better domestic resource management.

7. Ferguson has some strong arguments in his analysis for this, but they don't completely answer he question. He makes a good case that, when discounting troops who surrendered, the Germans were better at inflicting enemy deaths than the Allies. The argument goes on to say that it cost the Central Powers $11,345 to kill an enemy soldier, but the Allies $36,485.

8. This is the most controversial of Ferguson's assertions: that the men kept fighting and killing in the war because they enjoyed war/killing. I do not want to "spoil" Ferguson's arguments on this, but the ones he makes have some validity.

9. Ferguson asserts (perhaps uncontroversial-ly) that the Germans stopped fighting and started surrendering en-masse due to the domestic situation. He goes further to reinforce that Germany was not "stabbed in the back" but it was "stabbed in the front" by its own army.

10. Ferguson asserts that Britain got the short end of the victory stick because it lost effectively 22% of its national territory, incurred debts equal to 136% GDP and saw inflation then unemployment at unprecedented levels for more than a century. Ferguson asserts that the Easter Rising led more or less directly to the 1922 partition.
 

Tercios Espanoles

Ad Honorem
Mar 2014
6,701
Beneath a cold sun, a grey sun, a Heretic sun...
I have to say that I found his arguments about militarism (or its myth) to be the most persuasive. He backs that up with some particularly good data. With some of his other conclusions, I just can't tell if he's cherry-picking or not. All in all, as I've said in another recent thread, I find his book a valuable source, without putting much faith in his conclusions.
 

Chlodio

Forum Staff
Aug 2016
4,973
Dispargum
Several questions come to mind. First, if Germany had not, why would Britain violate Belgian neutrality in 1914?
 

Tercios Espanoles

Ad Honorem
Mar 2014
6,701
Beneath a cold sun, a grey sun, a Heretic sun...
Several questions come to mind. First, if Germany had not, why would Britain violate Belgian neutrality in 1914?
No, he says, if Germany had not violated Belgian neutrality in 1914, then Britain would have done so [at some later date].

I don't recall that part. I do recall he says Britain ought to have unashamedly reneged on its treaty commitments. I haven't read the book since it came out. Might be time to have another bash at it.
 
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May 2018
1,019
Michigan
I have to say that I found his arguments about militarism (or its myth) to be the most persuasive. He backs that up with some particularly good data. With some of his other conclusions, I just can't tell if he's cherry-picking or not. All in all, as I've said in another recent thread, I find his book a valuable source, without putting much faith in his conclusions.
I agree there. While some of Ferguson's conclusions are a bit hazy, his research is good and his data is valuable on its own merits.