historical determinism, Virtual History, historian
[Niall Ferguson, Pity of War, counterfactual history]
principle of historical cause, Rothschild, biography, alternative history

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Niall Ferguson
Virtual History
The Pity of War

  Niall Ferguson (pronounced "Neal") was born in Glasgow in April 1964 and was educated at Glasgow Academy.

  As an adolescent in the 1970s, he felt that he wanted to write books but did not know what kind. He remembers that the decision turned on comparing Hamlet with the Thirty Years War.

  He was writing essays about both of them, and loving both of them. But he began to think that Hamlet was really just one text, and therefore rather limited, whereas, he discovered with astonishment, Glasgow University's library contained hundreds of books on the Thirty Years War. (As he says, he seems not to have known how much literary criticism there was in the world.) One work of history he devoured with special excitement was Friedrich von Schiller's account of the Thirty Years War, a great 18th-century German's stirring reprisal of his country's 17th-century trauma. That glimpse of the historian's landscape as a place of infinite possibilities set Niall Ferguson on his way and also hinted at the particular themes of his career. Since he began by studying a war that took place mainly in Germany, it is not entirely surprising that most of his subsequent work has taken him to Germany or somewhere in the neighbourhood.

  His accomplishments might suggest he has been hurtling toward success for two straight decades, but for a while he veered foolishly off course. At 17, when he arrived as a scholarship student at Magdalen College, he somehow forgot why he was there. He threw himself into a hectic social life, the Oxford Union, student theatre, anything except his studies. Soon he was so inadequate a student that (he now realizes) almost any other university in the world would have withdrawn his scholarship and sent him packing. But, as he says, Oxford forgives and Oxford forgets, if you prove yourself in the end.

  Toward the close of his second year, as he was smoking a hookah on stage while dressed as the caterpillar in a production of Alice in Wonderland, he asked himself: What the hell am I doing here? More or less instantly, he turned into the scholar that nature had always intended him to be. He went into the library and, in a sense, never came out.

  He does not lack a private life (he and his journalist wife, Sue Douglas, have three children) but the habit of deep research has remained with him ever since he ended his adolescence with his first serious assault on the Bodleian Library. Frantic catching-up won him a First that was good enough for a further scholarship, and soon he was heading toward a PhD. Cautiously, he chose subjects that would help him earn a living outside academe if he had to: economics and (because of its place in world business) Germany. He went off to Hamburg to study German inflation.

  At Oxford since 1992 as Fellow and Tutor in Modern History, he was subsequently made Professor of Political and Financial History, a grand title devised to please him, express precisely what he does, and perhaps prevent him from considering offers elsewhere.

  Niall Ferguson's major publications to date include:- Paper and Iron: Hamburg Business and German Politics in the Era of Inflation, 1897-1927 (1995), which turned his doctoral thesis into a cool, measured account of the financial panics that drove the Germans crazy. Then he broke new ground with The World's Banker: The History of the House of Rothschild (1998), having been given first-ever access to the private archives (but only up to 1915) of the bank that played power-broker in half a dozen European countries for generations. He caused a sensation with The Pity of War (1998), an account of the origins, the strategies and the meaning of the First World War. And, after a brief pause for breath, he wrote a book that tries to show that there are different ways of explaining the relationship between economics and politics, The Cash Nexus: Money and Power in the Modern World 1700-2000 (2001). A later work being Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power; and yet more recently Colossus: The Price of America's Empire, which is expected to be published in 2004.

  It was not, however, through any of these that Ferguson first came to receive a measure of international notice as this was achieved through a rather more unusual work Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals (1997), which he conceived, edited and partly wrote - his involvement arising from his enthusiasm for what has been called counterfactual history - the spinning of elaborate theories about what might have happened.

  Some reviewers treated Virtual History as no more than a clever parlour game, but Ferguson's subsequent writing demonstrates that it was close to the core of his life's work. Ferguson has been pressing toward a new and perhaps less confident kind of history. He wants historians to see any given period in the past as it was seen by those who lived it, rather than by those who know how it came out. One of his projects has been attacking historical determinism and putting in its place a more realistic (if far more complicated) principle of historical cause.

  It is precisely because historians don't much like to engage in what they consider idle speculation that this whole volume seems a little tentative. After justifying his idea in a long prologue that evokes chaos theory and other of-the-moment ideas Ferguson clears the stage for the first essay. By John Adamson, it is engagingly titled England without Cromwell: What if Charles I had avoided the Civil War?

  Most of the essays are written by British historians and deal with aspects of British history. The essays consider, variously, what might have happened had there been no American Revolution, what might have been the result for Ireland and England had Home Rule been enacted in 1912, the results of Britain staying out of WWI ( Niall Ferguson - The Kaiser's European Union ), how England would have dealt with a Nazi invasion in 1940, what the impact on Europe would have been if Germany had defeated Russia in WWII, how America and Russia might have interacted had there been no Cold War, and the state of the world today had Communism not collapsed. There is one 'American' scenario (and this by the only female essayist, Diane Kunz - Camelot Continued) which takes up the task of imagining what might have happened had Kennedy not been assassinated.

  The next work of Ferguson's to attract widespread notice was The Pity of War which was an attempt to re-evaluate Britain's role in the First World War. Ferguson argues mainly that the destruction of that war, which claimed the lives of some nine million men, could well have been avoided. By his reckoning, the war between Germany and Austria on one side and Russia and France on the other was one thing: it was only through the decision of the British that a local war became a world war.

  Much of Ferguson's analysis has to do with the decision that brought England into the war. He argues, for example, that Britain went to war because it misread German intentions: they saw Kaiser Wilhelm as another Napoleon, not understanding that Germany's main interests had always been focused on Eastern, rather than Western, Europe. He further argues that the proponents of sending an English army to France -- which was the trigger that made a wider war inevitable -- were a minority, and that it was only because of the lack of conviction of the rest of the cabinet ministers and party leaders that the fateful decision was made. Somewhat surprisingly, Ferguson argues that war with Germany was not even in England's economic interests, since a German overseas presence would only have worked to France's detriment, not Britain's.

  Ferguson asserts that Britains decision to enter into this war was historically speaking the greatest error of the twentieth century. Britain was wrong to cross the channel and fight the Germans in 1914. It cost far too much, in blood and money, for the advantage gained. By the end of the 20th century, after all, the Germans had achieved exactly what they wanted in 1914, economic leadership of Europe.


By 2004,in addition to his Oxford visiting professorship, Ferguson also taught Financial History at the Stern School of Business at New York University and was a Senior Fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. In the fall of 2004 he is due to join the faculty at Harvard University.

Popular European History pages
at Age-of-the-Sage

The preparation of these pages was influenced to some degree by a particular "Philosophy of History" as suggested by this quote from the famous Essay "History" by Ralph Waldo Emerson:-
There is one mind common to all individual men...
Of the works of this mind history is the record. Its genius is illustrated by the entire series of days. Man is explicable by nothing less than all his history. Without hurry, without rest, the human spirit goes forth from the beginning to embody every faculty, every thought, every emotion, which belongs to it in appropriate events. But the thought is always prior to the fact; all the facts of history preexist in the mind as laws. Each law in turn is made by circumstances predominant, and the limits of nature give power to but one at a time. A man is the whole encyclopaedia of facts. The creation of a thousand forests is in one acorn, and Egypt, Greece, Rome, Gaul, Britain, America, lie folded already in the first man. Epoch after epoch, camp, kingdom, empire, republic, democracy, are merely the application of his manifold spirit to the manifold world.
Ralph Waldo Emerson's Essay "History"
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the Unification of Risorgimento Italy
Otto von Bismarck &
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Italian unification map
Risorgimento Italy
Map of German unification
1 The European Revolution of 1848 begins
A broad outline of the background to the onset of the turmoils and a consideration of some of the early events.

2 The French Revolution of 1848
A particular focus on France - as the influential Austrian minister Prince Metternich, who sought to encourage the re-establishment of "Order" in the wake of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic turmoils of 1789-1815, said:-"When France sneezes Europe catches a cold".

3 The Revolution of 1848 in the German Lands and central Europe
"Germany" had a movement for a single parliament in 1848 and many central European would-be "nations" attempted to assert a distinct existence separate from the dynastic sovereignties they had been living under.

4 The "Italian" Revolution of 1848
A "liberal" Papacy after 1846 helps allow the embers of an "Italian" national aspiration to rekindle across the Italian Peninsula.

5 The Monarchs recover power 1848-1849
Some instances of social and political extremism allow previously pro-reform conservative elements to support the return of traditional authority. Louis Napoleon, (who later became the Emperor Napoleon III), attains to power in France offering social stability at home but ultimately follows policies productive of dramatic change in the wider European structure of states and their sovereignty.
Emerson's "Transcendental" approach to History
Spirituality & the wider world
Some Social Theory and insights
The Unfolding of History
The Vienna Declaration
Framework Convention on National minorities

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Niall Ferguson
Virtual History
The Pity of War