The pity of war

by Niall Ferguson

Hardcover, 1998




London : Penguin Press, 1998. First ed,


"In The Pity of War, Niall Ferguson explodes the myths of 1914-18. He argues that the fatal conflict between Britain and Germany was far from inevitable. It was Britain's declaration of war that needlessly turned a continental conflict into a world war, and it was Britain's economic mismanagement and military inferiority that necessitated American involvement, forever altering the global balance of power." "Ferguson vividly brings back to life one of the seminal catastrophes of the century, not through a dry citation of chronological chapter and verse, but through a series of chapters that answer the key questions: Why did the war start? Why did it continue? And why did it stop? How did the Germans manage to kill more soldiers than they lost but still end up defeated in November 1918? Above all, why did men fight?"--Jacket.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member Brasidas
This is a book for those who already know the course of the war through previous reading and who wish to expand upon that knowledge by closer study of its underpinnings, social, cultural, political and financial. Do not pick this book up if you what you want are depictions of artillery battles and
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hand-to-hand combat. No question that that sort of strict military history can be very engaging, but that's not what Dr Ferguson is up to. Actual fighting is only described to the extent that it illuminates the political, cultural, and social history, especially on the various home fronts of the Entente and Central Powers. Dr Ferguson seeks to overturn some long-held beliefs about the war. He does this primarily through a masterful wielding of statistics. For example, the myth of war enthusiasm. He is able to show that this was something very short-lived, which occurred mostly at the beginning of the war. He is able to argue, too, that there were real alternatives for Britain if she had stayed out of the war. The Entente was after all a gentleman's agreement. There was no formal treaty committing British forces to the defense of France. Would Britain have been held in contempt by the international community for taking such a position, probably, but it was a real option whose upside was never given proper consideration in Britain. Among other things Ferguson believes that without Britain in the war the result would have been a limited general European conflict. Once Britain entered, however, with her unparalleled foreign possessions (colonies) it became a global imperialist war. Perhaps my favorite parts of the book are the statistics Ferguson is able to marshal to show how much more efficient Germany was on the battlefield. Germany killed something like 5 Entente soldiers for every 4 Central Power soldiers killed by the Entente Powers. And Germany did this on the cheap. It's budgetary constraints are discussed in comparison to those of the Entente Powers. There's no question that Germany was able not only to kill more Entente soldiers over the long term, they were able to do it far more cheaply than their enemies. Other topics covered include: (1) the myth of an ingrained militarism in Germany; Ferguson believes there was not one. (2) an examination of why men fought, this in a chapter titled "The Death Instinct" in which the author invokes Freud, Jung and others; and the prickly problem of taking prisoners. I found it fascinating throughout. Highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member GeraldLange
Excellent. I have found few books with as much information as this makes available, and none with more.
LibraryThing member bke
An interesting take on WWI, and counter to the usualy historical line. He makes a case that it would have been beter if Britain had stood aside, leading to a much shorter and elss desctuctive war and a probably German victory. The result being a Europe much like we have today, but without the
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intervening Hitler and Stalin dictatorships. This book is massive, pack with a lot of statistics in the middle, making for slow going at times.

It would be best to read the final chapter 'Conclusion: Alternatives to Armageddon' so you understand where the author is leading as you read the rest of the book.
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LibraryThing member jontseng
A wide-grasping synthesis of secondary sources, rather than original research. Individual chapters are neatly packaged (and very digestible) but Ferguson's approach of answering a series of "essay questions" means the book lacks structure and overall thrust. Nonetheless notably strong in analysing
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the economic aspects of the conflict.
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LibraryThing member TimCTaylor
Challenging and provocative. A little heavy-going but steadily blasts away at some well-established but lazy Great War myths.
LibraryThing member hhornblower
A very well written, well researched and well argued history of the causes and results of World War 1. It is actually less a history of the war, but a critique of the generally believed history of the war. There isn't the nitty gritty detail of the famous battles, very little mention of the
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Arch-Duke, nor the confrontations surrounding the armistice. Rather, this book is a refutation of the belief that the war was inevitable, explains how the entente powers barely managed to win the war, despite their advantages and how the central powers barely lost, despite their disadvantages and that the severe economic condition that Germany went through in the 20's and 30's wasn't entirely due to the massive reparations place on them under the treaty of Versailles.
The weakest argument, for me, was the inevitability (or non-inevitability) of the war. With the benefit of time and scholar can gather all the information they need, from all the parties involved to make an argument that the war could have easily been prevented, but that is the issue. At the time, the various powers did not have all the information at hand. Germany didn't know what Britain was going to do, Britain wasn't necessarily sure what France was going to do. The scholar has better access to that information. That being said, Mr Ferguson makes some rather well reasoned arguments.
I good read for anybody with an interest in the war. It will certainly make you think.
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Local notes

Signed by author. Dust jacket covered.
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