In the bloodbaths of the 20th century, Niall Ferguson detects the diminishing of the West. Alex Danchev assesses a very modern historian's big idea
The War of the World is a bid for the big idea, a lunge for longevity, a pitch for prognosis, a semaphore for significance, sapience, sales. Norman Mailer once produced a book called Advertisements for Myself . Niall Ferguson is fast becoming the Norman Mailer of modern historians: a contender, ready for all comers, unabashed and unrestrained. The pithiest verdict on this work is the author's own. " The War of the World is the Everest of my career," he announces. "It's the most important book I've written so far."
Like Mailer, Ferguson is a force to be reckoned with. He is a practised contrarian with a traditionalist streak, a scholarly self-publicist with a mission to inform. The information is nothing if not media-savvy. The War of the World is at once a book and a television series. Book-writing goes on concurrently with programme-making, he tells us; the one could not exist without the other. The imperatives of television history cannot be easy to square with the deep immersion demanded of a major work of scholarship. The finest documentary film-makers have felt a tension between lickety-split and long haul. On the other hand, the discipline may be beneficial: the need to engage, even to entertain; the drive for clarity and concision; the arresting detail; the maximum appeal.
Ferguson has mastered all this. Does he hear the voiceover in his inner ear? There is a certain cadence to the commentary here, almost a lilt to the declaratory style: "The Depression inspired the Japanese, the Italians and the Germans to think of foreign conquest. It convinced the British that they could do little to stop them." There is the killer fact. "The fares charged by the German state railway company, the Reichsbahn , for transporting the Jews of Europe to their deaths: 0.04 reichsmarks per adult-kilometre, with half-price fares for children over four and for groups of 400 or more." There is the point nailed down - nialled down - against the conventional wisdom, by Ferguson the ferocious. "Significantly, 15 out of 25 leaders of the Einsatzgruppen ["special task forces" or killing units] had doctorates. These were more extraordinary than ordinary men - members of the German academic elite." There is the glinting perception. Of his model and inspiration, The War of the Worlds (1898), by H. G. Wells: "What makes Wells's Martians so abhorrent, so terrifying and yet so fascinating is precisely their combination of murderousness and technological sophistication - like the selfish gene with a death ray."
As intellectual showman, Ferguson turns a neat trick. There are many clever things in this book, including an opening section on "9/11/01" - 1901 - and a gobbet of Gibbon. "In the fifty-second chapter of his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire , Edward Gibbon posed one of the great counterfactual questions of history. If the French had failed to defeat an invading Muslim army at the Battle of Poitiers in 732, would all of Western Europe have succumbed to Islam? 'Perhaps,' speculated Gibbon with his inimitable irony, 'the interpretation of the Koran would now be taught in the schools of Oxford, and her pulpits might demonstrate to a circumcised people the sanctity and truth of the revelation of Mahomet.' The idea was to amuse his readers, and perhaps to make fun of his old university. Yet today work is all but complete on the new Centre for Islamic Studies at Oxford, which features a prayer hall and a minaret tower."
This is a deft bit of business. Ferguson emulates Gibbon in amusing his readers and making fun of his old university; Ferguson salutes Gibbon with telegenic image of dreaming minaret; Ferguson trumps Gibbon by extracting from his 18th-century predecessor a conceit of 21st-century relevance, and what is more, a moral for his own work. He continues: "That fulfilment of Gibbon's unintended prophecy symbolises perfectly the fundamental reorientation of the world, which was the underlying trend of the 20th century. The decline of the West has not taken the form that Oswald Spengler had in mind when he wrote Der Untergang des Abendlandes soon after the First World War. Rather, it was precisely that reawakening of 'the powers of the blood' by the 'new Caesars' whom Spengler anticipated... which accelerated the material, but perhaps more importantly the moral descent of the West."
Ferguson believes that "the descent of the West" is the most important development of the 20th century. That belief is stated and restated at the beginning and end of the work. For all the teeming matter in between, however, it is never fully explored. Evidently it owes something to Spengler, but from this text it is impossible to tell what that might be; indeed, in the absence of any references it is impossible to tell even that Der Untergang des Abendlandes (roughly "The Twilight of the Evening Lands") is in fact the work we know in abridged form as The Decline of the West (first published in English in 1926-28). In style and substance, Ferguson's proposition may also owe something to a more recent work by Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (1988), whose coda on the prognosis for the US caught the imagination of that market and launched an unlikely bestseller. (In the matter of the missing references, Ferguson repeats the inadequate explanation offered recently by Tony Judt that they would make an already long book "unacceptably bulky"; yet there is space in The War of the World for a bibliography of published works running to some 50 pages. Ferguson, like Judt, promises a full set of references on his website "in due course".)
Like Spengler's "decline", Ferguson's "descent" suggests some shrinkage, literal and metaphorical; a progressive impoverishment, moral and material; a losing-out and a hemming-in. "A hundred years ago, the West ruled the world," the authorial voice declaims. "After a century of internecine conflict between the European empires that is no longer the case. A hundred years ago the frontier between West and East was located somewhere in the neighbourhood of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Now it seems to run through every European city." Leaving aside the jarring locution - "somewhere in the neighbourhood of Bosnia-Herzegovina" suggests a clash of civilisations all of its own - this seems an unduly Eurocentric view of the world. Moreover, the implication is worryingly unclear, as the author appears to recognise. "That is not to say that conflict is inevitable along these new fault lines. But it is to say that... the fragile edifice of civilisation can very quickly collapse even where different ethnic groups seem quite well integrated, sharing the same language, if not the same faith or the same genes." If Ferguson is something of a self-confessed Spenglerian, he is also a covert Coetzeean. "Ah yes," says the Magistrate in J. M. Coetzee's prophetic novel Waiting for the Barbarians (1980), "time for the black flower of civilisation to bloom."
His project, says Ferguson, is an investigation of the terrible 20th century, "without question the bloodiest century in modern history". He wants to know why it was so bloody, and why in some areas rather than others. He proposes a tripartite analytical schema - ethnic conflict, economic volatility and empires in decline - and suggests a mismatch between ethnic identities and political structures, as in Central and Eastern Europe, leading to "essentially contested places" (Vilna/Wilna/Vilne/Vilnius) where living space turns into killing space all too easily.
The project is cogently established in a series of short essays situated in the early 1900s. It is then half-forgotten, or mislaid. The main body of the book, some 500 pages, is an international history of the period 1904-45, centring on the Second World War, culminating rather awkwardly in a fleeting fast-forward to the Korean War (1950-53) - thus arriving by accumulation at Ferguson's 50-year "war of the world". If this smacks a little of the factitious, the explanation may lie not only in the overpromotion of a slogan into a concept but also in the origins of the work. It began as a Second World War sequel to Ferguson's tightly plotted book of 1914-18, The Pity of War (1999). There is something about the Second World War that defeats even the most skilful scenarists. It defeated Paul Fussell when he attempted a sequel to The Great War and Modern Memory (1975), and it is hard to avoid the conclusion it has defeated Ferguson, too.
The result is a book of parts, curiously disarticulated. The international history is skilfully done and surprisingly traditional. It rattles along. It does not pursue the analytical schema in any thoroughgoing fashion; sometimes it is almost reminiscent of Martin Gilbert in its catalogue of cases, abrupt transitions and resolute refusal to pause and reflect. It is not so much concluded as suspended, and swiftly followed by a 50-page epilogue, titled "The descent of the West". Contrary to expectation, this too is mostly narrative - a canter through the second half of the century, featuring the Cuban Missile Crisis (1962), Guatemala (1966), Nixon in China (1972) and the Balkan wars (1990s), and an argument or afterthought emphasising 1979 over 1989 as terminus and turning-point. An appendix, "The war of the world in historical perspective", concedes that the 20th century may not have been uniquely bloody after all, and brings the book to its breathless end.
Not an Everest, then, but a lower range like the Jura. Beware aretes and declivities.
Alex Danchev is professor of international relations, Nottingham University.
The War of the World: History's Age of Hatred
Author - Niall Ferguson
Publisher - Allen Lane
Pages - 746
Price - £25.00
ISBN - 0 7139 9708 7