In This Review

The Pity of War
The Pity of War
By Niall Ferguson
Basic Books, 1999, 520 pp

This massive investigation into World War I is not just another eloquent indictment of a tragedy that killed millions, destroyed Europe's international status, and opened the way to an even more horrible war. British historian Ferguson has written a multipronged revisionist onslaught that pins most of the blame on Britain's support of France. Had Britain remained neutral and left the war limited to the continent, Germany would probably have won and established an acceptable hegemony over Europe -- thus making Hitler unnecessary. In making his case, Ferguson argues that in 1914 Germany was less militaristic than France and that its war aims were initially quite limited. His other iconoclastic contentions: Britain came out of the war worse off than Germany, the reparations imposed on Germany were tolerable, and the Weimar Republic should have practiced mild deflation and currency stabilization instead of allowing wild inflation. Such large-scale rewriting of history is as irritating as it is daring. But to his credit, Ferguson offers a searching discussion of how the war was waged and why soldiers kept on fighting despite the atrocious conditions. He gloomily concludes that many experienced a thrill from the danger; some even took pleasure from killing. In showing how the war conditioned men to accept violence, Ferguson is, alas, back on familiar and solid ground.