Niall Ferguson is not very popular with serious historians these days. His recent comments on the possible alternative outcomes of the First World War have resulted in a flurry of indignation, not to mention derision (a Linkedin group discussion on the subject is entitled “...And now for the comedy turn”). It is not, in itself, Ferguson’s statement that the war was the “biggest error in modern history” that has caused such outrage, but his sheer arrogance in thinking he could have done any better in the context of contemporary political and military thinking.
“Britain could have lived with a German victory, “ said Ferguson in a TV documentary based on his own book The Pity of War (you would think titles borrowed from the best-known lines of Wilfred Owen’s work might be starting to appear somewhat hackneyed by now, but Professor Ferguson’s publishers must have thought it was a really snappy title). The basis of his argument is the economic situation in which the UK found itself after the war. It wasn’t in the “national interest” for Britain to join the war when it did, he says; by this he seems to mean our financial interests: “you can pay too high a price for upholding the notion of honour,” he adds.
The book was actually written as long ago as 1999, and an Amazon reviewer comments that, had it not been written by an Oxford academic, “you could be forgiven for thinking the book was out for a few cheap headlines by contradicting almost every accepted orthodoxy about the First World War”. The author's views have not, however, changed in the meantime. At first sight, Ferguson’s arguments appear to cut right across the much-criticised comments of his good friend, Education Secretary Michael Gove, who has been accused of wanting schools to present the war to their pupils as an “old-fashioned tale of goodies and baddies”.
It is perhaps typical of Niall Ferguson that he openly condemns the views of other Oxbridge historians on the teaching of the subject as being somehow not in touch with the real world. He dismisses Richard Evans and David Priestland as "authors of rather dry works on, respectively, Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia". His own status as a presenter of "popular" history programmes on television means, apparently, that he is both a superior historian and a better teacher. If only Michael Gove had taken "the advice I gave him", says Ferguson, the changes to the National Curriculum would have been much more effective.
I am under no illusions about my own status in this debate. I came late to understanding, or even being very interested in, the First World War, and my appreciation of the military and political considerations remains limited. However, my personal impression of Professor Ferguson is that he sees pretty much everything in highly materialistic terms, regarding economic success as the benchmark of a civilised society, and that words like “pity” are not part of his everyday vocabulary. On the contrary, the Protestant work ethic is his touchstone. It is interesting to see this apparent clash between one conservative thinker and another, but when you throw a third into the equation, the result is more interesting still. Whilst Ferguson makes his appeal to the masses, former Tory Cabinet minister Michael Portillo has been widely praised for his radio series analysing the causes of the First World War.
Portillo, a fascinating character whose style of presentation always seems to me to be imbued with a great humanity, used the opportunity given him by Radio 4 to explode many myths about the outbreak of war. Taking a copy of The Times from mid-1913, he examines contemporary news stories in such a way as to challenge received wisdom on the context of the war. A reviewer - without once mentioning Niall Ferguson's name - points out that Portillo's attractiveness as a presenter is partly that he is never "assertive"; he is aware of alternative theses and does not try to present himself as omniscient just because he has a first in History from Oxford and has presented popular television documentaries. Perhaps, in spite of his own political record, his family background (in case there is still anyone who doesn't know, his father was a Spanish Republican who opted out of military service because his brothers were all fighting for the Nationalists) gives him more right than most to comment on the political context of the wars of the twentieth century. You can still catch this series as a podcast by going to the BBC's website: http://www.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/series/r41913
We have not heard the last of these arguments, I'm sure, but an interesting little column in The Guardian points out that German society does not share Britain's obsession with the war and its causes, but simply recognises the events of 1914-1918 as a disaster that had lasting repercussions.
Read what I mean here: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/jan/13/tories-first-world-war-michael-gove-germany
And if I don't get some comments on this post, I shall be very disappointed!