Stray Notes on Niall Ferguson


Niall Ferguson, ed. (1997), Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals (London: Macmillan: 0333647289).

I am finding that Niall Ferguson has the faults (and the virtues) of A.J.P. Taylor...

(i) For example, Ferguson has to work much too hard to dismiss the evidence we have that German war aims in World War I were far-reaching. Consider Bethmann-Hollweg's "September Program" (written less than two months after the beginning of the war!). The September Program called for France to cede to Germany the fortress of Belfort, the western slope of the Vosges, and the coast from Boulogne to Dunkirk. It called for Belgium to cede territory in the Ardennes and Longwy to Luxembourg; to cede Liege, Antwerp, and Verviers to Germany; and to give Germany full rights of military transit and use along the entire coast of Belgium.

Ferguson claims that before World War I began Germany's war aims were much more limited, arguing from absence: " evidence has ever been found by [Fritz] Fischer and his pupils that these objectives existed before Britain's entry into the war" (p. 257).


But none of these demands were demands for British territory--they were demands for French and Belgian territory made at a moment when German victory appeared imminent. It seems overwhelmingly likely to me that these war aims would have been proposed in the flush of apparent rapid victory whether Britain was in the war or not. Against this, Ferguson claims that on July 29, 1914 Bethmann-Hollweg was "prepared to guarantee the territorial integrity of France and Belgium... in return for British neutrality." And he goes on to say that "[h]ad Britain in fact stayed out, it would have been madness to have reneged on such a bargain" (p. 258).

Once again: yes, it would have been madness. But in all likelihood the Germans were mad. And in all likelihood they would have reneged. These were, after all, the people who launched World War I, perhaps the ultimate act of political madness--so the argument from rationality is a very, very weak one indeed.

Yet woven throughout Ferguson's argument is the assumption that Wilhelmine Germany's war aims were limited indeed. Hence the reason that "[Edward Grey] and the most senior officials in the [British] Foreign Office and the General Staff... conjure[d] up a German design of Napoleonic power, posing a direct threat to Britain" was possibly that "they were exaggerating--if not fabricating--such a threat in order to justify the military commitment to France they favoured" (p. 256). But all this is hard to sustain once you realize that Germany truly did contain a strong faction committed to maximalist war aims very early...

(ii) Feruson states that "... German historians have been too quick to dismiss Bethmann-Hollweg's proposal [to try to obtain British neutrality] as wild miscalculation, or even to argue that the Germans themselves did not expect to secure British neutrality. The documentary record does not bear this out. On the contrary, it shows that Bethmann-Hollweg's hopes of British non-intervention were far from unreasonable. He can be forgiven for not anticipating that, at the very last minute, the arguments of Grey and Crowe would prevail over the numerically stronger non-interventionists" (pp. 260-1).

Well: No.

Bethmann-Hollweg cannot be forgiven. The main task of a statesman is to try to peer into an uncertain and contingent future and make the best choices. And wishful thinking is perhaps the most unforgivable sin a statesman can commit.

I could go on. Ferguson seems to want to find the reason for Britain's going to war, as if democracies did not go to war for mixed motives--that each member of the consensus coalition in favor of the decision has his or her own aims and motives--and thus to say that politician X favored war for reason Y doesn't mean that interest group Z was unconcerned with W. Ferguson does not seem to realize that public feeling and public policy in a government are closely connected--he writes without apparent irony that Edward Grey's warning to the Germans that "'...if there were a violation of Belgian neutrality... it would be extremely hard to restrain public feeling'... did not commit the government itself" (pp. 271-2). Yet can anything other than public feeling commit a democracy to any sustained course of policy? No. Thus I do not think he has fully thought through the issues of agency and responsibility that any counterfactual history must face--and has not grasped that a policy that would have in the end led to a better outcome (ceteris paribus) may still have been a worse policy from the perspective of statesmen facing an uncertain future. (For he is right to claim that a German victory in 1915 with the British absent from the war would have been a better outcome than the World War I we saw.)

And there is the appalling conclusion to Ferguson's essay in this book: would have been infinitely preferable if Germany could have achieved its hegemonic position on the continent without two world wars. But it was not only Germany's fault that this did not happen... the British government... decided to turn the continental war into a world war, a conflict which lasted twice as long as and cost many more lives than Germany's first "bid for European Union" would have, if only it had gone according to plan. By fighting Germany in 1914, Asquith, Grey, and their colleagues helped ensure that, when Germany finally did achieve predominance on the continent, Britain was no longer strong enough to provide a check to it (pp. 279-80).

Well: no. The Gerhard Schroeder Bonn-Republic Germany that is now primus inter pares in the European Union (albeit with its capital in Berlin) is a very different animal from the Jew-hating, democracy-fearing, war-glorifying class-struggle-ridden Germany that made the "bid for European Union" in 1914. To identify the two of them as "Germany" shows a failure of imagination...

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