In This Review

The War of the World: Twentieth-Century Conflict and the Descent of the West
The War of the World: Twentieth-Century Conflict and the Descent of the West
By Niall Ferguson
Penguin Press, 2006, 544 pp
Purchase

Bold themes and vivid detail mark this sweeping history of armed violence in the twentieth century. Ferguson seeks answers for why that era -- particularly the years between 1904 and 1953 -- was the bloodiest in history. He argues that explanations focusing on changes in technologies of war, the rise of the modern industrial state, or clashing ideologies are not sufficient to account for the location and timing of upheavals of extreme violence. Instead, he points to the convulsive mix of ethnic violence, economic volatility, and declining European empires and places World War II in the context of a "50-Year War" that began in 1904 with the Japanese war against Russia and ended with the Korean War and the extension of the Iron Curtain to the East. Ferguson is particularly good at highlighting the instability inherent in the great multinational empires that both fueled and were broken apart by world war. He is most provocative in his claim that the century is ultimately a story of Western decline: in 1900, Western powers effectively ruled the world; after a century of wars and collapsed empires, it is Asia that is on the rise. This view, however, mistakes world domination for global rule and misses a key liberal insight: what triumphed in the twentieth century was a Western way of politics, economics, and global governance.