H-NET BOOK REVIEW
Published by H-German@h-net.msu.edu (April 2008)
Niall Ferguson. _The War of the World: Twentieth-Century Conflict and the Descent of the West_. New York: Penguin Books, 2007. lxxi + 808 pp. Illustrations, maps, notes, bibliography, index. $18.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-14-311239-6.
Reviewed for H-German by Talbot Imlay, Département d'histoire, Université Laval, Québec
An Awfully Bloody Awful Half-Century
As a historian, Niall Ferguson is in a class by himself. He is the author of several best-selling books on topics such as the First World War, British and American empires, the role of money over the past three centuries, and the Rothschild banking family. Along the way, he has presented several television documentaries related to the subjects of his books and has written scores of editorials, book reviews, and articles for prominent newspapers and magazines. But Ferguson is not merely a successful--not to say, the most successful--public historian. Also to his credit is an academic monograph on politics and business in Hamburg during the opening three decades of the last century as well as an important edited collection on counterfactual (or virtual) history. If this were not enough, Ferguson has also published and continues to publish articles in leading academic journals.
As befits someone of Ferguson's talent and energy, his latest book offers a panoramic study of war, conflict, and violence during the first half of the twentieth century. As with most of his earlier books, this one is ambitious in design and wide-ranging in scope. Its arguments are often convincing, sometimes provocative, and occasionally frustrating. The book, in short, is eminently readable despite its considerable length. Following recent scholarly trends that underscore the dark, not to say, catastrophic history of the twentieth century, Ferguson sets out to explain why its first five decades experienced such high and, indeed, unprecedented levels of violence and especially death. The answer, he argues, lies in three overlapping factors: ethnic conflict, economic volatility, and the decline of empires. The presence of these three factors distinguishes the period from earlier and later ones, and the changing mix of the three accounts for the variegated nature of the violence, whether in terms of place and time or in terms of the identity of victims and perpetrators. This variation notwithstanding, Ferguson suggests that the period should be viewed as a whole, as a "fifty years war" (or "war of the world")--one defined by multiple, sometimes overlapping regional conflicts that overflowed the temporal boundaries of 1914-18 and 1939-45. To this schema, Ferguson tacks on an additional argument concerning the decline of the West: the twentieth century, he insists, witnessed a transformation in world politics marked by the rapid end of western dominance over the East (Asia), a process due in no small part to the rippling effects of conflict and war ...