The 20th century
"WHAT was the 20th century's most distinctive feature? It is a historians' parlour game, but there can be no definitive answer. For some, it would be getting men to the moon, discovering penicillin, splitting the atom or some other great scientific achievement. For others, it would be the fastest and most sustained period of economic growth in history. Or the end of the age of empires, which had dominated the politics and economics of the world for centuries. For Niall Ferguson, however, only this last description comes close and even then only as background. In his view, the century's most distinctive feature was violence: the slaughter, and not only in war, of millions upon millions of people. His new book seeks to describe and, as far as possible, explain why this happened.
For a book with the word “war” in the title, it is interesting that few battles are mentioned. The first world war breezes past in just a few pages. Some short passages look at Hitler's advance into the Soviet Union in 1941 and at the Japanese imperial army's advance on the then Chinese capital of Nanking in 1937, but this is not a military history. The emphasis is firmly on causes and consequences, whether political, sociological, technological or economic. As the author points out, what was notable about the century's violence was the fact that, for all its global reach, the causes—and indeed much of the killing—were centred on the most developed and advanced part of the world, home of the supposed Enlightenment: Europe.
Mr Ferguson, a Glasgow-born Harvard professor, whose two-volume “House of Rothschild” is still regarded, after nearly ten years, as one of the finest studies of its kind, has since become what his more academic colleagues call a popular historian. Essentially, this means that his themes are broad and ambitious, his books are a good read, he appears on television a lot and sells a lot of copies. In addition to those virtues, however, there are some vices.
One is that his books try a bit too hard to make eye-catching claims. A small but particularly irritating example comes right at the start when Mr Ferguson chooses to look at “the world on September 11th 1901”, a date which proves to have no relevance whatsoever if it hadn't been for the events a century later. A bigger example is the claim, promoted in particular by his publishers, that in his view “the biggest upheaval of the 20th century was the decline of the western dominance over Asia”, shown by Japan's defeat of Russia in 1904-05 and now the rise of China. If that were really Mr Ferguson's view, one might have expected rather more of the book to have been devoted to it. As it is, this reviewer was left suspecting that the claim was an afterthought, designed to make a book that is mainly about Europe catch the eye of those who are currently—and understandably—obsessed by China.
The most important weakness, however, is one that goes some way to justifying the claims of Mr Ferguson's academic colleagues who carp at his embrace of the popular. It is that his books seem to be written to deadlines set by television series—this one starts in Britain on Channel Four on June 19th—rather than by his research or thinking. The result is an odd combination of bravura writing, clear and original insights, and incoherence. Some long and detailed passages seem undigested, the output, it would seem, of an army of research assistants rather than the outstanding writer and thinker that Mr Ferguson plainly is. The final chapter begins by dating the end of “the War of the World” as July 27th 1953, the armistice that brought the Korean war to a close, but then appears to contradict that conclusion with long sections on the Cuban missile crisis, the wars in Vietnam and Cambodia, the fall of the Soviet Union and the Balkan wars, all of which look tightly connected to the themes of the rest of the book.
For all those criticisms, however, Mr Ferguson's book is well worth reading. His introductory essay on the part played in the century's violence by ideas of racial superiority amid the ethnic mish-mash that was central and eastern Europe is especially good—although he could have made more of the role of empires, including the British one that he has admired in previous books, in fostering that racist delusion.
Another strength is the way he blends together economic, financial and political analysis in a manner that far too few historians are equipped to do. He is a fine debunker: for example, his view is that Britain's success in the second world war owed less to Winston Churchill's brilliance and more to managing the war effort by committee, and thus making fewer spectacular errors. He is also admirably even-handed, offering equal space and scrutiny to Allied slaughter of civilians in bombing raids and Allied shootings of prisoners as to atrocities committed by the Japanese and German forces. It was all part and parcel of the violence, after all."