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university in the world would have withdrawn his scholarship and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
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
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
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
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
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
Popular European History pages
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.
We strongly recommend:
Europe in 1848 : A seed-plot of History?
In relation to the European Revolutions of 1848 the historian Eric Hobsbawm has written:
"There have been plenty of greater revolutions in the history of the modern world, and certainly plenty of more successful ones.
Yet there has been none which spread more rapidly and widely, running like a bushfire across frontiers, countries and even oceans."
In 1806 the Habsburg Emperor, who held the "Holy Roman" Imperial title and exercised direct dynastic authority over many lands stretching from Poland to the Mediterranean,
was hard-pressed by the activities of Napoleon Bonaparte, and accepted the termination of the Holy Roman Empire (due to sweeping reforms instituted by Napoleon in western
parts of Germanic Europe), and adopted the title of Emperor of Austria.
By late spring 1848, the Habsburg Empire looked like a hopeless case: the monarchy's northern Italian possessions in revolt, invaded by a Piedmontese army
and largely cleared of Austrian troops; three different "national" governments in Vienna, Budapest and Zagreb each claiming sovereign authority; Polish, Romanian,
Slovenian, Serb, Czech, and Slovak national movements aspiring to a similar sovereign status; a mentally incompetent monarch and his court in flight from the
capital to the provinces; a state treasury completely bare.
Jonathan Sperber, The European Revolutions, 1848-1851, p. 203
In February 1948, the British historian Lewis Namier delivered a lecture commemorating the centennial of the
European Revolutions of 1848.
In this lecture Namier presented facts about the historical developments, themes, and events evident in 1848 and reached the
"1848 remains a seed-plot of history. It crystallized ideas and projected the pattern of things to come; it determined the course of the following century."
We are pleased to make available a series of informative pages about the highly significant and, we would venture to suggest,
the prodigiously historically instructive European Revolutions of 1848:
The events of 1848-1849 arose from the strong emergence into the Socio-Politico-Economic History of nineteenth-century Europe of populist forces such as Liberalism,
Constitutionalism, Nationalism and Socialism.
- 1 The European Revolutions of 1848 begin
- A broad outline of the background to the onset of the turmoils and a consideration of some of the early events in
Paris, Berlin, Vienna, Budapest and Prague.
- 2 The French Revolution of 1848
- A particular focus on France - as an Austrian foreign minister said "When France sneezes Europe catches a cold".
- 3 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.
- 4 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 promote a distinct existence for their "nationality".
- 5 The European Revolutions - reactionary aftermath 1848-1849
- Some instances of social and political extremism allow
previously pro-reform liberal elements to join conservative elements in
supporting the return of traditional authority. Such nationalities living within
the Habsburg Empire as the Czechs, Croats, Slovaks, Serbs and Roumanians,
find it more credible to look to the Emperor,
rather than to the democratised assemblies recently established in
Vienna and in Budapest as a result of populist aspiration, for the future
protection of their nationality.
The Austrian Emperor and many Kings and Dukes regain political powers.
Louis Napoleon, (who was a nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte), was elected as
President in France offering social stability at home but ultimately followed
policies which resulted in dramatic changes to the wider European structure of states and their sovereignty.
These populist forces were promoted by various interest groups within and between the pre-existing dynastic Empires and Kingdoms of Europe, often challenging the
continuance of dynastic authority and governance and proving to be competitive, in that popular aspirations expressed by some interest groups often proved unpalatable
to other interest groups within and between the pre-existing dynastic states of Europe.
Radical socialist reformers sought justice for the "disinherited" classes, the peasants and the factory workers, while more moderate political reformers were concerned
with protecting and increasing the influence of the middle classes, the bourgeoisie and the professional groups. The radicals in general favoured a republican
form of government while many moderates were prepared to accept constitutional monarchy as a satisfactory substitute …
… Many of the revolutionaries, especially in the German Confederation and Italy, wanted to transform their homeland into a strong and united country, but
their aims contradicted the nationalist aspirations of minority groups.
From the opening chapter to "Revolution and Reaction 1848-1852" by Geoffrey Brunn
Middle class liberals, who had favoured constitutional rather than dynastic governance, were amongst the first of the previously pro-reform aspirational groups to
return to supporting dynastic authority when it became plain that other populist interest groups favoured wider extensions of democracy than they themselves wished
to see adopted.
Rural dwellers were often largely satisfied with reforms to systems of land tenure and the reduction of obligations to provide assistance, through labour-services, to their
landlords. Once such reforms were put in place in the Austrian Empire, country dwellers, although often relatively materially poor, tended accept the suppression of
urban radicalism and the re-establishment of dynastic authorities.
All in all a "united front" failed to become established amongst those seeking reform and gradually proved possible for dynastic authorities to re-assert themselves
often with the aid of their pre-revolutionary military forces.
The historian A. J. P. Taylor later referred to the events of 1848 as being "a turning-point when history failed to turn" nevertheless "The Future" was put on notice that
such populist-aspirational forces were capable of making pressing claims in relation to Socio-Politico-Economic developments.