The War of the World: Twentieth-Century Conflict and the Descent of the West

Overview

Niall Fergusson's most important book to date-a revolutionary reinterpretation of the modern era that resolves its central paradox: why unprecedented progress coincided with unprecedented violence and why the seeming triumph of the West bore the seeds of its undoing.

From the conflicts that presaged the First World War to the aftershocks of the cold war, the twentieth century was by far the bloodiest in all of human history. How can we explain the astonishing scale and intensity...

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Overview

Niall Fergusson's most important book to date-a revolutionary reinterpretation of the modern era that resolves its central paradox: why unprecedented progress coincided with unprecedented violence and why the seeming triumph of the West bore the seeds of its undoing.

From the conflicts that presaged the First World War to the aftershocks of the cold war, the twentieth century was by far the bloodiest in all of human history. How can we explain the astonishing scale and intensity of its violence when, thanks to the advances of science and economics, most people were better off than ever before-eating better, growing taller, and living longer? Wherever one looked, the world in 1900 offered the happy prospect of ever-greater interconnection. Why, then, did global progress descend into internecine war and genocide? Drawing on a pioneering combination of history, economics, and evolutionary theory, Niall Ferguson-one of Time magazine's "100 Most Influential People"-masterfully examines what he calls the age of hatred and sets out to explain what went wrong with modernity.

On a quest that takes him from the Siberian steppe to the plains of Poland, from the streets of Sarajevo to the beaches of Okinawa, Ferguson reveals an age turned upside down by economic volatility, multicultural communities torn apart by the irregularities of boom and bust, an era poisoned by the idea of irreconcilable racial differences, and a struggle between decaying old empires and predatory new states. Who won the war of the world? We tend to assume it was the West. Some even talk of the American century. But for Ferguson, the biggest upshot of twentieth-century upheaval was the decline of Western dominance over Asia.

A work of revelatory interpretive power, The War of the World is Niall Ferguson's masterwork.

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Editorial Reviews

James F. Hoge Jr.
In The War of the World, British historian Niall Ferguson offers a novel analysis of the causes of 20th-century violence. With more than 650 pages of main text and a vast scope, this is obviously a big book. It is also a fascinating read, thanks to Ferguson's gifts as a writer of clear, energetic narrative history.
— The Washington Post
Simon Sebag Montefiore
Ferguson’s best passages are his damning but entertaining narration of the naïve, self-regarding and sinister folly of Anglo-French appeasement: “Our enemies are little worms,” Hitler said. “I saw them at Munich.” Ferguson argues that the Western powers should have gone to war in 1938, which would most likely have avoided much of the horror of World War II, or Britain and France could have forged an alliance with Stalin as a deterrent. He is undoubtedly correct, but this is simply omniscient hindsight: at the time, Stalin probably regarded the West as his chief enemy, while many in the West regarded barbaric Bolshevism as theirs. Moreover, it’s questionable if public opinion would really have tolerated war in 1938. Still, Ferguson is certainly right that “Stalin’s policy of trusting Hitler was a calamitous blunder without equal in the history of the 20th century.”
— The New York Times
The New Yorker
Ferguson’s eight-hundred-page reëvaluation of the Second World War presents itself as a grand theory about ethnic conflict, the end of empire, and the postwar triumph of the East. The exact contours of the theory, however, remain unclear. Ferguson argues that the central story of the twentieth century is “the descent of the West,” but he never really clarifies what “the West” means—Russia sometimes qualifies, sometimes not, depending upon what point Ferguson is trying to make. Ferguson is a skilled storyteller, and he offers many striking reflections on the bloodiest years of the past century, including a compelling analysis of appeasement. Unfortunately, the book as a whole is marred by sweeping judgments and jarring contradictions. A number of odd moves—such as the grouping of Hoovervilles with Soviet labor and German concentration camps—point up another conspicuous shortcoming: Ferguson’s failure to make sense of America’s power.
Publishers Weekly
Why, if life was improving so rapidly for so many people at the dawn of the 20th century, were the next hundred years full of brutal conflict? Ferguson (Colossus) has a relatively simple answer: ethnic unrest is prone to break out during periods of economic volatility-booms as well as busts. When they take place in or near areas of imperial decline or transition, the unrest is more likely to escalate into full-scale conflict. This compelling theory is applicable to the Armenian genocide in Turkey, the slaughter of the Tutsis in Rwanda or the "ethnic cleansing" perpetrated against Bosnians, but the overwhelming majority of Ferguson's analysis is devoted to the two world wars and the fate of the Jews in Germany and eastern Europe. His richly informed analysis overturns many basic assumptions. For example, he argues that England's appeasement of Hitler in 1938 didn't lead to WWII, but was a misinformed response to a war that had started as early as 1935. But with Ferguson's claims about "the descent of the West" and the smaller wars in the latter half of the century tucked away into a comparatively brief epilogue, his thoughtful study falls short of its epic promise. (Sept. 25) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
This book was originally intended as a sequel to Harvard historian Ferguson's The Pity of War, an examination of World War I, but the author's research lured him beyond the chronological confines of World War II to seek answers to a larger question: Why was the 20th century one of the most violent and brutal in history? Not content with the oft-cited explanations of larger populations living in closer proximity to one another or the availability of modern, more efficiently lethal weapons, Ferguson comes up with three explanations he considers more plausible-namely, economic volatility, disintegrating empires, and ethnic conflict-which he illustrates with numerous examples in this ambitious, thoroughly researched work. Ferguson often points out paradoxes, e.g., that the Third Reich, seeking to be racially pure, increasingly came to rely on foreign blood to fill its ranks in both the armed services and the workforce. He likes to pose "what if" questions, and in this thought-provoking, highly engaging, and nearly impossible-to-put-down book, he challenges readers to think outside the box-even if they disagree. Highly recommended for academic libraries. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 5/15/06.]-Patti C. McCall, Albany Molecular Research Inc. Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A sweeping, big-picture view of the bloodiest century in human history. The 21st is giving the 20th century a run for its money, but, as prolific historian Ferguson (History/Harvard Univ.; Colossus, 2004, etc.) notes, the latter is still the standard-bearer for human savagery, "far more violent in relative as well as absolute terms than any other previous era." Borrowing a page from the little-read German historian Oswald Spengler, Ferguson introduces grand themes in an effort to determine why the time should have been so murderous even as standards of living were improving throughout so much of the world. The War of the World (encompassing the period from before WWI to the end of the Korean War, about half a century), and particularly its bloodiest phase, WWII, were, he writes, fueled by several disparate sources, which "may be summarized as ethnic conflict, economic volatility and empires in decline." The first helps explain the Holocaust and Japan's savagery against captive Asian populations; Ferguson catalogues some of the endlessly inventive ways in which militarized states and pseudo-states have efficiently slaughtered their own people before tangling with their neighbors. Having delineated these far-reaching themes, which he has addressed in previous work-indeed, this opus is a sort of summary of his work to date-Ferguson delivers a more or less standard history, little of which will come as news to readers familiar with the work of, say, David Reynolds or Paul Johnson. Still, Ferguson writes with an eye for the telling detail, showing, for instance, that anyone who professed surprise at the Third Reich's program of expansionism could not have been paying attention, since Hitlerpublicly announced in 1936 that "the German armed forces must be ready for combat within four years."A lucid, blood-soaked study that will give no comfort to those pining for peace in our time.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781594201004
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA)
  • Publication date: 9/21/2006
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 880
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.26 (h) x 2.13 (d)

Meet the Author


Niall Ferguson is Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History at Harvard University, a Senior Research Fellow of Jesus College, Oxford University, and a Senior Fellow of the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. The bestselling author of Paper and Iron, The House of Rothschild, The Pity of War, The Cash Nexus, Empire, and Colossus, he also writes regularly for newspapers and magazines all over the world. Since 2003 he has written and presented three highly successful television documentary series for British television: Empire, American Colossus, and, The War of the World. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 26, 2007

    Greed and Fear, Midwives to Human Violence

    Niall Ferguson convincingly demonstrates in ¿The War of the World¿ why the 20th century, especially the fifty years from 1904 until 1953, was the bloodiest of all. Ferguson attributes the extreme violence of the 20th century to three factors: 1) ethnic conflict, specifically the breakdown of the assimilation process, 2) economic volatility, and 3) the decline of Empires. Think for example about the organized violence that Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union unleashed against anyone who was perceived as ¿undesirable.¿ Ferguson does not mention technology changes among these three factors. There was no correlation over the 20th century between weapons¿ destructiveness and the occurrence of violence. Think for example about the genocide in Rwanda which was predominantly a low-tech conflict. Paradoxically, this exceptionally violent century went hand in hand with unparalleled progress in the scientific, economic, political, and social domains. Perhaps more importantly, ¿The War of the World¿ casts a long shadow on the increasingly difficult coexistence of Shia and Sunni populations in the Middle East without mentioning non-Islamic minorities living in their midst. Ethnic conflicts, economic volatility, and the decline of the traditional power structures in the Near East represent some striking similarities to what happened in the first half of the 20th century in Europe. The religious conflict raging in the Middle East, especially in both Lebanon and Iraq, cannot be understood without considering the unbalanced distribution of wealth and power between Shias and Sunnis. Can the main players active in the Near East learn something from the past horrors that Ferguson describes in detail before a major realignment of populations becomes inevitable?

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