Niall Ferguson
Niall Ferguson; drawing by David Levine

The time has not yet come—and especially not as we crawl through our present Baghdad, Lebanon, Darfur, and Pyongyang mires—for us to obtain a balanced assessment of how the human species performed during the course of the twentieth century. Economists will tell us that it was the best of all centuries, in terms of sheer economic growth and advances in standards of living. Historians, joined by human rights lawyers, will argue that it was the worst of all historical periods, as measured by the number of human beings killed and mutilated by other human beings. Thus simultaneously amazed by our technological triumphs and ashamed by our self-inflicted wounds, we cannot but be daunted by the very idea of evaluating the impact and the import of the past hundred years. If, as Zhou Enlai once famously told Henry Kissinger, it is too early yet to assess the consequences of the French Revolution, how can we plausibly offer judgments on the effects of more recent convulsions, from Auschwitz to the airplane, from the Internet to Muslim intifadas?

Yet we cannot of course wait that long, even if we were immortal. While the chaos and dust of the twentieth century have not yet subsided, scholars and public alike feel a primal urge to make some sense of what went on; to grasp, and locate in their historical setting, the events that transformed our grandparents’ generation, such as the Great Depression and the onset of World War II; Nazism and the Holocaust; and the later age of cold war bomb shelters, Eisenhower prosperity, and Elvis songs. Then there are the challenges of the Vietnam War, the sexual revolution, third-world upheavals, and the weakening of the West.

This is not the place for a survey of various “histories of the twentieth century” that have been written, but it has to be said immediately that most of them are too hasty, unbalanced, and breathlessly one-sided (or bland and textbookish, which is even worse). Still, several of them already stand out by their sweep and originality, and before discussing the work under review it may be worthwhile to recall a few titles—the better to reflect upon Niall Ferguson’s long new study, and understand what it is and is not trying to do. All shortlists are artificial creations—“What Are the Five Most Original History Books on the Twentieth Century?” sounds like an after-dinner game—but the exercise is instructive in itself. I remain deeply impressed by Geoffrey Barraclough’s An Introduction to Contemporary History (what were the most important changes in our world condition since the fall of Bismarck?), William H. McNeill’s The Pursuit of Power (how society, technology, and war interacted over time in the modern age), Theodore von Laue’s The World Revolution of Westernization (on the destabilizing effects of borrowing Western technology but not Western liberal practices), Eric Hobsbawm’s Age of Extremes (on the destructive and creative twentieth century), and John McNeill’s Something New Under the Sun (on what we have done to our planet between 1900 and 2000).1 A book with a strong argument will always be more challenging, and better, than a mere distillation of common knowledge.

Onto this crowded, contested field now strides Niall Ferguson, professor of history at Harvard and a teacher at the Harvard Business School. Ferguson is what the British press dubs a “telly don,” hosting successful television shows like Empire and American Colossus. He is also a prolific columnist on contemporary international affairs for magazines, and may be best known to some readers for his many forays (in the Los Angeles Times, the Sunday Telegraph, and The Wall Street Journal) into the debate over the Iraq war and the limitations of US global policies. It is amusing to watch how his success with the editors of those publications, plus his carefully cultivated public persona, drives more traditional members of the academy in Britain quite nuts. It is easy to forget that his first two books were the truly impressive Paper and Iron: Hamburg Business and German Politics in the Era of Inflation, 1897–1927 (1995) and The World’s Banker: The History of the House of Rothschild(1998), in which he demonstrated a mastery of the intricacies of international bond markets and private capital flows. And that his next two works, The Pity of War (1999) and The Cash Nexus: Money and Power in the Modern World, 1700–2000 (2001), moved him into the consideration of power politics, imperial conflicts, and the face of battle. Four large works in six years is enough to produce unease in the minds of most fellow academics.

Still, it is not Ferguson’s productivity that is important here—Simon Schama, Geoffrey Parker, David Cannadine, and others, including Ferguson’s idol, the late A.J.P. Taylor, have all been able to write many books within a single decade—but the fact that, his journalistic opinions about George Bush’s fate in Iraq notwithstanding, he is a scholar with substantial credentials to write a major study on twentieth-century conflict.


So what is Ferguson saying? The key, as is so often the case, lies in the subtitle of this book and in particular in the Spenglerian phrase “Descent of the West.” That term has two separate though related meanings, related because the first meaning leads inexorably, at least in his view, to the second manifestation of the West’s decline. In his first and principal usage of this phrase, Ferguson is intent upon exploring why the twentieth century was so bloody, and not just as a result of the tens of millions of combatants and civilians slaughtered during the two world wars but also the many other conflicts—he counts a dozen or more—in which over a million people perished. What was more, these struggles brought with them ever-greater levels of atrociousness and barbarity, so that the “descent” was also a downward spiral toward beastly cruelties and genocides, a falling away from liberal Enlightenment “laws of war,” and a complete disregard for the Hague Conventions: mankind descending into animals.

The second meaning of the subtitle is indeed a play upon Spengler’s Der Untergang des Abendlandes, not just in its wording but in its meaning—the decline of the West relative to the concurrent rise of the non-Western world, especially Asia. In 1900 Europe and the United States dominated the “Orient,” and the general expectation was that their dominion over that vast region would only increase as the twentieth century unfolded—all of Asia would become something like the British Raj. By 1945, and despite the Allied victories, that assumption was fading fast. By the year 2000 it was hard to believe that people ever thought that way. Thus, Ferguson argues, the longer-term and global consequence of the West’s self-mutilation, quite unintended of course, was to swing the world’s power balances closer to where they were around 1500, before the invention of the long-range sailing ship and the steam engine enabled the West to eclipse the non-Western world. General de Gaulle often used to remark that the twentieth century had not been kind to Africa; nor, ironically, had it been particularly kind to much of Europe from the viewpoint of hard-power politics.

Ferguson is smart enough not to make his long work one-dimensional, a saga of an unremitting descent into the abyss. After all—and here the economists’ brighter arguments cannot be denied—humankind as a whole witnessed a far greater surge in productivity and prosperity during the twentieth century than in any other period in history. Now, rising standards of living, amazing technological breakthroughs, and remarkable and sustained growth rates may seem commonplace to many people in today’s fast-globalizing world economy. But it is worth reminding ourselves that such complacent assumptions also existed in the years around 1900 and were held perhaps with even greater conviction because economic growth was equally amazing at that time and, what was more, seemed likely to last forever. In Keynes’s memorable words, an English gentleman of that time

could secure forthwith, if he wished it, cheap and comfortable means of transit to any country or climate without passport or other formality, could dispatch his servant to the neighbouring office of a bank for such supply of the precious metals as might seem convenient, and could then proceed abroad to foreign quarters, without knowledge of their religion, language, or customs, bearing coined wealth upon his person, and would consider himself greatly aggrieved and much surprised at the least interference. But, most important of all, he regarded this state of affairs as normal, certain, and permanent, except in the direction of further improvement.2

What is to explain this apparent twentieth-century paradox: bloodshed and the obliteration of people and cities occurring at the same time as transnational prosperity, higher living standards, and much greater interconnectedness? Perhaps, on closer inspection, these two contradictory phenomena did not occur at the same time. Perhaps the explanation is simply a chronological one: there was peace and prosperity until 1914; then followed world war, interwar turbulences, another world war, and the grim cold war—Eric Hobsbawm’s “short twentieth century” of 1914– 19913 ; and then the post–cold war tilt toward global money-making once again. There is surely a lot to be said for dividing the last hundred years into periods, and it is worth noting that Ferguson arranges his arguments within strong chronological segments: the first 185 pages or so advance the tale to 1919; slightly more pages (193) analyze the interwar years; a full 210 pages go through World War II; then an epilogue of 58 pages takes the reader on a giddy survey through some of the worst events (Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda) of the past half-century.


Despite Ferguson’s sporadic accounts of horrible conflicts outside the Old World, such as the Rape of Nanking in 1937, The War of the World is undoubtedly a Eurocentric book. And that is how it should be, its author argues, because it was in Europe and its eastern borderlands—Poland, the Ukraine, the Balkans, Turkey, Armenia—that the bloodletting and holocausts were so relentless and repeated. A story that begins at Sarajevo in 1914 ends, fittingly enough, not too far away in the slaughter of Bosnian Muslims by Bosnian Serbs in the Bosnian town of Visegrad in 1992. If Latin America had been the scene of such holocausts during the twentieth century, then Ferguson’s focus would have been upon that continent instead.

How, then, is one to understand why extremes of violence occurred chiefly in certain regions, and at certain times? They were caused, Ferguson argues—persuasively, to this reviewer—by an explosive mix of three elements: “ethnic conflict, economic volatility and empires in decline.” None of these elements is new, and each of them has often been advanced to explain wars, past and present. The first reason is so ubiquitous that it scarcely requires explanation. Ethnicity or, if you like, racism, has been the cause of many of the heartless massacres of one group by another since time immemorial. And the ethnic mix across the lands running eastward from the Elbe River in eastern Germany to Smolensk in western Russia, and from the Adriatic to Baku on the Caspian Sea, was probably more racially and linguistically heterogeneous than across any similar stretch of land elsewhere on the planet. Ferguson seems to me particularly good in describing, with ample statistics and maps, the distribution of polyglot populations. Every land in the regions he discusses east of the Elbe possessed large religious, racial, and linguistic minorities; and everywhere, hated by most people apparently, there were Jews. Everywhere, also, there were Jew-baiters and rabble-rousers.

But had not these disparate ethnic groups lived literally alongside one another for hundreds of years, interrupted by occasional pogroms but without full-scale genocides? Yes, says Ferguson, but that is where the other two elements come in. On top of their intense anxieties about national and religious identity, many of these peoples were affected by economic worries. They were affected, that is, by precisely those pressures for commercial and industrial and technological change that were forcing backward, agrarian societies, with much turmoil and resistance, into the ever-modernizing world of the twentieth century.

On this point, of course, Ferguson is advancing no great new theory. No less an observer than Lenin was excited by the potential for turbulence and revolution that emerged whenever hitherto stable social groups were upset by capitalism’s habit of disrupting traditional ways of life. And while the anti-Marxist economist Joseph Schumpeter famously described these processes as “creative gales,” they were gales nonetheless, destroying economies like a Caribbean hurricane before new structures emerged. In the lands of east-central Europe especially, patterns of everyday life were disrupted not just by invasions, destruction of crops, and looting of towns, but also by loss of markets, changed boundaries (with new tariff walls), and new competitors. Unemployment, the slide into poverty, and rootlessness became the order of the day, as did of course the blaming of the “Other”—the bourgeoisie, the Jewish merchants, the foreigner.

Even so, these seething discontents were long held in check by powerful state enforcement agencies. When uprisings occurred, shops were looted, farm machinery smashed, Jewish settlements attacked, and minorities plundered…until the troops arrived. But what if, as happened at the end of the World War I, four great, multiethnic, autocratic empires—the Habsburg, Turkish, Hohenzollern, and Romanoff—collapsed at the same time, leaving utterly chaotic conditions right across the lands that feature in Ferguson’s study? The end of empire is all too often accompanied by bloody internecine struggles for land and power, with even single villages split into two hostile camps, and with ethnic cleansing an almost inevitable result: witness the bloodshed that attended the 1947 partition of the Indian subcontinent, the ferocious regular and irregular wars that have taken place in the Palestinian and Iraqi lands since that same time, and the horrors that have occurred—and still occur—in the Congo, Rwanda, and Burundi since the end of Belgian imperial rule. The collapse of hitherto strong regimes can produce mayhem and strife as easily as peaceful democratic transitions. Little wonder that the current Chinese and Saudi governments are not attracted by naive American urgings to loosen the reins of power. And little wonder that the end of European and Turkish imperial authority brought chaos and purges to places like Bukovina, Lodz, Vilna, Armenia, and Visegrad.

So far, this review has concentrated upon those events, the major events described in The War of the World,that led, slowly but surely, to the death camps and mass murders throughout Europe’s eastern marches between 1939 and 1945; here was war without mercy, with no regard being paid to the Hague and Geneva distinctions between soldiers and civilians. But there is another aspect to Ferguson’s story of the “descent” in the standards and conduct of war that readers are likely to find equally significant, and probably just as disturbing, although for a different reason. This is not just a story of the burning of villages, the death camps, the widespread rapes and pillagings. It is also about how so many soldiers themselves—American, British, and Empire soldiers as well as Germans, Russians, and Japanese—slid further and further away from the internationally agreed rules of engagement in their treatment of enemy combatants as the fighting intensified. It is about how total war also barbarized the good guys—Allied infantry platoons, Allied bombing commanders—even as it gave German Einsatzgruppen the chance to do their filthy work.

To develop this argument, Ferguson has to go back to the killing fields of World War I. He returns, then, to themes he first developed in The Pity of War eight years ago, where he argued that months, then years, in the trenches reduced the troops of each side from their pre-1914 civilian norms to an animalistic struggle for survival, with the predominant emotion being loathing of the foe and a conviction that he was subhuman, swine, vermin, scum. Ferguson’s accounts in that earlier book of battlefield atrocities, which resurface in the present work, are chilling enough. During the fighting between 1939 and 1945 we know much already from John Dower’s War Without Mercy regarding the Pacific campaigns, and Christian Streit’s Keine Kameraden regarding the war of extermination between the Red Army and the Wehrmacht.4 What Ferguson suggests is that this dehumanization was a more general phenomenon, and readers who demur at this might do well to read the many firsthand accounts he gives from the Allied troops after 1945 who admit to their enraged elimination of the surrendered foe. It was little wonder—another powerful Ferguson argument in both books—that soldiers continued to fight even when outnumbered and outgunned; for why surrender, just to be shot by your capturer? Allied commanders often tried in vain to stop this habit, since what it did, obviously, was to increase the enemy’s resistance. But the killings of prisoners went on, right to the end of the war.

Meanwhile, the “descent” from human standards occurred in another sphere, in the increasingly indiscriminate aerial bombings of civilian populations. The Germans, as Ferguson points out, were first to venture down this slippery slope, disregarding international conventions; they were responsible for the first unrestricted U-boat warfare against merchant shipping; the first Zeppelin bombings of enemy towns; the first use of gas in the trenches. During World War II they were also the first to break loose of conventions, whether in the bombings of Warsaw, Rotterdam, Coventry, and London, or in the strafing of streams of retreating civilian refugees throughout Poland, Belgium, and northern France. Did not Churchill himself, in speech after speech in the House of Commons between 1940 and 1942, warn the German nation that as it sowed, so would it reap? He did indeed, though it is doubtful whether Churchill, even with his great imagination, could foresee the devastation that would be wrought upon Germany’s cities and towns by 1944 and 1945, from Hamburg to Berlin to Dresden. And in truth, for many who ordered and fought in those aerial campaigns, the revolutionary new weapons that obliterated Hiroshima and Nagasaki were, as Truman put it, just another big bomb.

Ferguson pays attention to the story of aerial bombing, not because he is on some desperate search for moral equivalency; there is no doubt, in his mind, that Adolf Hitler dragged humanity down into its worst-ever period of beastliness, and that Joseph Stalin came close after him, even if Mao and Pol Pot are serious also-rans. His point is that a steady, downward progression occurred on almost all fronts. During the first few months of World War II, the RAF Bomber Command was dropping only pamphlets over such German port cities as Bremen and Hamburg. Four years later—and following a tortured story of technological failures and successes—it was able to reduce Dresden to crumbled limestone and shattered marble. It was an ugly story because, somewhere along its telling, the strategic bombing campaign descended beneath the thin line which separates discriminate from indiscriminate warfare.5 But it is an integral part of Ferguson’s account of how advanced human societies came ever closer to the barbarities envisioned in H.G. Wells’s 1898 classic The War of the Worlds, except that in that novel the mass extermination of mankind was carried out by Martians. During the twentieth century, it was carried out by human hands and the killing instruments they controlled, against other humans.

Thus, in the author’s words, “the victory of 1945 was a tainted victory—if indeed it was a victory at all.” That seems to me, though, to be confusing two things. To be sure, the pursuit of Allied victory over the Nazi-Fascist world had seen deviations from the norm; the story is indeed tainted. But to offer this entire sentence without some further reflection on the war’s meaning runs the risk of forgetting that the young men who fought their way through North Africa, Burma, Italy, Normandy, and the Pacific Isles did so because they had been attacked and were threatened with defeat and conquest, and because they were determined to restore the liberties of others. Their deviations from the moral codes on warfare were the exceptions, not the rule. And it is no surprise that some of those who had fought, for example, the young British army captain Brian Urquhart were shocked to their knees when they entered Nazi concentration camps in May 1945, and then thrilled when they learned of the signing of the UN Charter in San Francisco only a month later.6 In most respects, the US, the British, and their smaller Western allies had not descended into the pit, and it was a victory. The same could not be said for the Soviets.

It would have been better had this book ended in 1945, with the gates to the concentration camps being opened and with large numbers of the Nazi elites committing suicide along with their Führer. The epilogue is simply too brief to be of use, a sort of flickering flashlight upon a number of grim and unusual episodes of the postwar world, from the involvement of the CIA in Guatemala’s dirty wars to Richard Nixon’s approach to China. Mingled in all this is Ferguson’s opinion, not at all developed, that the real winner of the twentieth century is Asia. That, it seems to me, is a subject for a separate book (and, of course, a very debatable proposition) and not an idea that should be tacked on at the end of a vast, formidably argued work.7

The War of the World is wonderfully produced by the Penguin Press, which seems better than most other publishers to have grasped the basic truth that a book, even a large and relatively expensive book, is going to attract readers who appreciate fine layout, a great index, a superb bibliography and footnote apparatus, as well as a challenging text. They ought to be pleased with this production.

This is Ferguson’s best work, by far, since The Pity of War. In many respects, from the dust jackets of both works (each one shows a dead soldier on a muddy, devastated battlefield) to his reflections on everything from bond markets to the face of battle, he has returned to the themes of his earlier book and to his strengths. By comparison, the intervening books, Empire: The Rise and Fall of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power (2003) and American Colossus: The Price of America’s Empire(2004), are lightweight. His new production is a learned and difficult work; it is also extremely selective, in time and space, and there are places where the “descent” theme slips from the deterioration of the rules of combat to an analysis of civilian atrocities and comes back to the battlefield again, testing the reader’s sense that he has got the main argument right. Ferguson’s concluding thesis that “Asia was the winner” is more a distraction than a conclusion; but his book as a whole left this reader deeply troubled by his reminders of what humankind had repeatedly inflicted upon itself over the past hundred years, and not a little scared at what we might manage to do in the decades to come. And that, no doubt, is what its author intended from the beginning.

This Issue

November 2, 2006