I suppose it's debatable
January 30, 2014 5:49 AM   Subscribe

World's biggest error. Apparently.
posted by Wolof (127 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite

 
You forgot to include the mandated warning: "This article contains Niall Ferguson." That's a flagrant health and safety violation.
posted by Diablevert at 5:53 AM on January 30 [45 favorites]


I look forward to Michael Gove accusing Niall Ferguson of being a rabid left-wing academic.
posted by atrazine at 5:55 AM on January 30 [16 favorites]


Oh, Niall Ferguson. He came to give a lecture at my little Podunk liberal arts college oh so many years ago. He's actually a lot better in person than in book form - ie, I was interested by what he had to say.
posted by chainsofreedom at 5:57 AM on January 30


from the man who gave us "The British Empire was misunderstood and just wanted love"
posted by srboisvert at 5:57 AM on January 30 [8 favorites]


Given how interwoven the alliances and defense treaties were and the overall stupidity of a "damned foolish thing in the Balkans" instigating such a horrific conflict, can't we just leave it at a collective "Everyone Entering World War I" as the biggest mistake?
posted by RonButNotStupid at 5:59 AM on January 30 [14 favorites]


So we should have let the Kaiser over-run Europe until he eventually got cocky and stupidly invaded Russia, the way we usually do with pan-European dictators?
posted by Segundus at 6:01 AM on January 30 [4 favorites]


Bismarck's social welfare state might not have been a bad template for Europe to follow (Niall Ferguson's jackassitude not withstanding).
posted by Bee'sWing at 6:02 AM on January 30


'Academic' writes book mostly for headlines/sales/career, a bit less because he thinks his position is any good, story at eleven.
posted by From Bklyn at 6:05 AM on January 30


So we should have let the Kaiser over-run Europe until he eventually got cocky and stupidly invaded Russia, the way we usually do with pan-European dictators?


Well, to be fair, that has been one of the more reliable long-term military strategies anyone's come up with so far.
posted by Tomorrowful at 6:11 AM on January 30 [26 favorites]


I'm indifferent to Ferguson's views on WWI, since I don't have any relatives who were alive at that time.
posted by sour cream at 6:12 AM on January 30 [1 favorite]


and decried the Blackadder portrayal of the war as "a series of catastrophic mistakes perpetrated by an out-of-touch elite".

Hmmm, no I think that depiction remains an accurate one.
posted by Drinky Die at 6:15 AM on January 30 [10 favorites]


Excellent use of the "Prof" tag.
posted by middleclasstool at 6:16 AM on January 30


I was disappointed to discover that this was not Niall from One Direction.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 6:16 AM on January 30 [9 favorites]


I'm glad the USA never makes mistakes when it comes to war!
posted by pashdown at 6:22 AM on January 30


and decried the Blackadder portrayal of the war as "a series of catastrophic mistakes perpetrated by an out-of-touch elite".

Yeah, based on every portrayal of WW I ever I'm going to stick with that view. "Over the top, boys!" has to be the worst tactical strategy of all time. The constant flow of British soldiers directly into German machine gun fire may qualify as the biggest mistake of all time, so Ferguson is pretty close to the mark.
posted by GuyZero at 6:22 AM on January 30 [2 favorites]


Didn't he say the same thing about WWII or was that another rightwing "historian" I'm thinking about?
posted by MartinWisse at 6:26 AM on January 30


When I read this I was thinking, hmm yeah that makes sense. But then everyone in the thread is going "Oh, this idiot again." So now I'm confused.
posted by bleep at 6:28 AM on January 30 [6 favorites]


Didn't he say the same thing about WWII or was that another rightwing "historian" I'm thinking about?

Maybe thinking of Pat Buchanan on that.

Churchill, Hitler, and "The Unnecessary War": How Britain Lost Its Empire and the West Lost the World
posted by Drinky Die at 6:28 AM on January 30 [1 favorite]


Really? Not the Romans' adoption of Christianity? I mean if we're going by sheer number of wasted deaths?

Though I suppose if not for that, the Thirty Years War would have been between the followers of Jupiter and Apollo.
posted by Naberius at 6:30 AM on January 30 [1 favorite]


According to the article, "the biggest error in modern history" is what he said.
posted by pracowity at 6:32 AM on January 30


I was interested by what he had to say.

Which seems a minority viewpoint here. Enough to know that NF = bad and now and ever shall be.

Myself, I think everyone should have stayed out of WWI.

According to the article, "the biggest error in modern history" is what he said.

Doesn't matter. NF = bad
posted by IndigoJones at 6:32 AM on January 30 [3 favorites]


I thought the consenus was that Promethius was the biggest error in modern history.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 6:36 AM on January 30 [5 favorites]


Not to mention starting a land war in Asia, or going against a Sicilian when death is on the line.
posted by Strange Interlude at 6:38 AM on January 30 [28 favorites]



I thought the consenus was that Promethius was the biggest error in modern history.


the movie or the invention of fire?
posted by ennui.bz at 6:38 AM on January 30 [17 favorites]


This article contains Niall Ferguson. That's a flagrant health and safety violation.

I don't know who Niall Ferguson is, but I guess I'll throw rocks at him if that's what the rest of the mob is doing.
posted by swift at 6:39 AM on January 30 [16 favorites]


Douglas Adams said it best:
Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun.

Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-two million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.

This planet has – or rather had – a problem, which was this: most of the people living on it were unhappy for pretty much of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movements of small green pieces of paper, which is odd because on the whole it wasn't the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy.

And so the problem remained; lots of the people were mean, and most of them were miserable, even the ones with digital watches.

Many were increasingly of the opinion that they'd all made a big mistake in coming down from the trees in the first place. And some said that even the trees had been a bad move, and that no one should ever have left the oceans.
posted by zombieflanders at 6:39 AM on January 30 [26 favorites]


"Which seems a minority viewpoint here. Enough to know that NF = bad and now and ever shall be."

He's wrong about everything that isn't his specific academic expertise. Which would be fine, except that he has this nasty tendency to write authoritatively in high-profile media outlets about issues outside his academic expertise.

In this case, it's modern British history, so it's well within his expertise.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 6:42 AM on January 30 [6 favorites]


the movie or the invention of fire?

Fire was the biggest mistake, of course. It ruins everything it touches and once it touches something, it wants to touch everything.

The movie is an underrated masterpiece by a genius filmmaker working at the top of his game. Many people just didn't understand it, much like 1492.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 6:46 AM on January 30 [3 favorites]


Ooh I haven't seen 1492, should put it on my list!
posted by Mister_A at 6:47 AM on January 30


Douglas Adams said it best:

He also reiterated that sentiment in more general terms:
The story so far:
In the beginning the Universe was created.
This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move.
posted by RonButNotStupid at 6:49 AM on January 30 [9 favorites]


I though you said 1942 for a moment and was like, really, are we really doing a criticial reassessment of that old Spielberg film?

But that film was called 1941.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 6:51 AM on January 30 [1 favorite]


Well. Arguably, the German Empire of the First World War did not necessarily have the same "We must rule it all!" mentality that Hitler's Germany had twenty some years later. It probably would have forced treaties on the defeated countries (if it did win) that weren't built on years and hundreds of thousands of deaths like the Versailles Treaty. This, in turn, would have meant no Wiemar Republic or habitat for a lowly German soldier to emerge from to promote a Nazi regime. Likewise, it may have also resulted in the fight between Germany and Russia ending sooner, and Russia having a little better ability to resist the Communist overthrow of the Tsarist government. By 1939, there's no Hitler in Germany and no Stalin in Russia. The Second World War turns into a regional conflict with Japan facing off against a robust British Empire and a United States that had yet to full flex its military might on the global stage.

Would that have all happened that way? No idea. I don't think Ferguson's argument is that absurd or extreme.
posted by Atreides at 6:52 AM on January 30 [14 favorites]


The comments are certain to fan the flames of the debate sparked by the education secretary, Michael Gove, about whether Britain's role in the war should be seen as heroic courage or monumental error.
Those two things don't seem mutually exclusive. I hate this sort of jingoism that states that, to support the troops, you have to support the command decisions as well. That's bullshit. Gotta side with Ferguson on this one even though this sort of second-guessing of history is pointless at best.
posted by muddgirl at 6:54 AM on January 30 [3 favorites]


What a bunch of navel gazing wankery. It's so easy to sit 100 years off from something and throw out a whole lot of "should haves". Maybe the British should have invaded Germany in 1913 to preempt the war? Maybe they should have focused their efforts on building giant steam-powered trench-busting mech warriors? Maybe they should have allowed HG Wells to go back in time and assassinate the Kaiser in infancy?
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 6:55 AM on January 30 [2 favorites]


Bunny Ultramod, what didn't you like about Sugarland Express?
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 6:57 AM on January 30


Snark all you want. Ferguson is a lot of things, but he is taken very seriously as a scholar of WWI, and the Pity of War is a very very good book that is well respected among academic historians of WWI. So if you must comment, and remember you don't have to, try and contribute something.

Read any recent academic works on WWI, and they will all be citing Ferguson approvingly.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 6:57 AM on January 30 [6 favorites]


It's really hard to tell what would have happened if Britain hadn't entered the War, though. The Royal Navy was much superior to its German counterpart, but with a quick victory, Germany would have been able to keep building ships. With its less hubristic leaders, the High Seas Fleet might have been a contender.

And while getting into the War might not have been the greatest idea ever, significantly contributing to the genesis of a possible two-front War, as Germany did, is probably a larger mistake. How dumb do you have to be to invade Belgium when there's a good chance Britain will go to war with you, when Britain can strangle your economy with a blockade?

Britain did have an army in 1914, and it was a professional one. The problem is that it was much too small for a long war; but then most people didn't expect a long war.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 6:59 AM on January 30 [1 favorite]


Snark all you want. Ferguson is a lot of things, but he is taken very seriously as a scholar of WWI

So it's just one-upsmanship between WW I and WW II scholars about whether Chamberlain's pacification was worse that the entirety of WW I?
posted by GuyZero at 7:00 AM on January 30


It's totally possible to think that Ferguson is a) an enormous douchebag and b) correct about this issue.

I'm no student of history but I'm inclined to agree with him on this. I guess the other contenders I'd throw out are are: leaded gasoline and the US's support of the domino theory in the Cold War.
posted by Aizkolari at 7:00 AM on January 30 [7 favorites]


Britain joining WWI may have been the biggest error committed by Britain in modern history, but starting that war and the next were two much bigger errors. Germany was the fuck-up of the century.
posted by pracowity at 7:00 AM on January 30 [2 favorites]


Personally, I like to think that the ultimate cause of World War I was the bungling of Princess Victoria's attending physician in 1859. If the young Kaiser Wilhelm had not had one useless arm due to his difficult birth, he might not have grown up with a desperate need to prove himself as a military leader. Then he might not have favored autocratic Prussian rule.

My favorite "big mistake" theory is that the invention of agriculture was where we all went wrong. On some dark days, I almost agree. But who could possibly have conceived of the consequences? It's such a grandly useless idea to have, right up there with "how do you know you're not just a brain in a jar."
posted by Countess Elena at 7:00 AM on January 30 [7 favorites]


According to the Dan Carlin version of events, anyway (which I'm not going to claim is perfect, of course) Germany wasn't attempting to take over Europe at all, but just to assert itself to France and then Russia in a very quick, regimented timeframe so as to pre-emptively protect itself, because it saw itself inevitably fighting both nations in the very near term and knew it couldn't handle both at once.

Lest that come off as too sympathetic to Germany, he basically claims that, no, the worst mistake was going through Belgium, as it 1.) assumed that Belgium would either be okay with that or just so awestruck by the kaisermacht as to stand aside and let them through, 2.) painted Germany irrevocably as the villains of the inevitable war by throwing the first punch and against a country that couldn't defend itself (though it tuns out it defended itself a lot better than expected) and 3.) getting Britain, who had been on the fence, involved, when Wilhelm apparently thought he could just talk them into staying at home and ignoring their treaty.

So I'd say that was the biggest mistake. But under the last clear chance doctrine, yeah, Britain could have and probably should have stayed out of it. They would have been in a better position to use diplomatic back channels (all of the royals were related in one way or another -- it's just that none of them liked or respected Wilhelm) and it's unlikely to have become the protracted trench warfare nightmare that it became.

But that's an awful lot of hindsight, and from the other side of perhaps the most transformative event in modern history.
posted by Navelgazer at 7:04 AM on January 30 [8 favorites]


Ferguson's stature notwhithstanding, he would have to build a pretty convincing case for just exactly how 'Britain' could have made the decision to stay out of the conflict in '14. The naval arms race was a huge concern, and the royal navy had to believe that the earlier it had an opportunity to put Wilhelm in his place the better.
The great upheaval that ended the age of monarchies in Europe had yet to see it's final days, and for all that it was in its death throes, the triple entente had ramifications in africa, the middle east and asia that Britain surely felt aided in maintaining its empire over the influence of an ever strengthening Germany.
There were simply and tragically too many straws on that camel's back by august of that year.
But yes, through the lens of history, I can see how a brit would say it's the biggest error that Britain has ever made.
posted by OHenryPacey at 7:15 AM on January 30 [2 favorites]


How many people here have read Pity of War? That's what I thought. You don't like Ferguson, great. I don't care for his poltics either. That has fuck all to do with his insightful and interesting analysis of World War I.

The 10th Regiment of Foot: What a bunch of navel gazing wankery. It's so easy to sit 100 years off from something and throw out a whole lot of "should haves". Maybe the British should have invaded Germany in 1913 to preempt the war? Maybe they should have focused their efforts on building giant steam-powered trench-busting mech warriors? Maybe they should have allowed HG Wells to go back in time and assassinate the Kaiser in infancy?

This is moronic. There was nothing pre-determined regarding Britain's entry into the war, and a lot of it seems to be the Liberal government trying to stay in office. A dozen or so men made the difference; this isn't some fantasy-tinged speculation.

Navelgazer: According to the Dan Carlin version of events, anyway (which I'm not going to claim is perfect, of course) Germany wasn't attempting to take over Europe at all, but just to assert itself to France and then Russia in a very quick, regimented timeframe so as to pre-emptively protect itself, because it saw itself inevitably fighting both nations in the very near term and knew it couldn't handle both at once.

Lest that come off as too sympathetic to Germany, he basically claims that, no, the worst mistake was going through Belgium, as it 1.) assumed that Belgium would either be okay with that or just so awestruck by the kaisermacht as to stand aside and let them through, 2.) painted Germany irrevocably as the villains of the inevitable war by throwing the first punch and against a country that couldn't defend itself (though it tuns out it defended itself a lot better than expected) and 3.) getting Britain, who had been on the fence, involved, when Wilhelm apparently thought he could just talk them into staying at home and ignoring their treaty.


This is broadly Ferguson's take as well.
posted by spaltavian at 7:16 AM on January 30 [5 favorites]


This is where I compose my AskMe question about recommendations for a good history of WWI.
posted by JanetLand at 7:17 AM on January 30 [2 favorites]


Reading the comments to most articles is almost never a good thing, but I couldn't help but smile at the single comment (so far) that the guardian staff have picked out as "contributing to the discussion". The entirety of which is "The daily mail wont like this."
posted by talitha_kumi at 7:19 AM on January 30 [6 favorites]


JanetLand: This is where I compose my AskMe question about recommendations for a good history of WWI.

Pity of War, seriously. I can't listen to Ferguson talk about contemporary politics, either, but his work on Word War I is illuminating.
posted by spaltavian at 7:21 AM on January 30


Snark all you want. Ferguson is a lot of things, but he is taken very seriously as a scholar of WWI

It's totally possible to think that Ferguson is a) an enormous douchebag and b) correct about this issue.


Not only that, but I'd argue that being a navel-gazing wanker is almost a pre-requisite for consideration as a serious WW-I scholar!
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 7:21 AM on January 30



The Pity of War is a very very good book that is well respected among academic historians of WWI.

Glad you brought that up. Except for possibly the precise formulation: Biggest Mistake In Modern History™ the ideas presented here were made in The Pity Of War, which was published sixteen years ago.

What's the news here?

Ferguson is a lot of things, but he is taken very seriously as a scholar of WWI . . .

Disagreements among academics are well and good, but I think the dispute, at bottom is his value as a public intellectual. This seems like re-announcing a controverial view in the name of clicks/hits/buzz. I don't see anyone benefiting but NF and his intermediaries.

WP: "Ferguson was an advisor to John McCain's U.S. presidential campaign in 2008, and announced his support for Mitt Romney in 2012 and has been a vocal critic of Barack Obama."

So: On the contemporary scene, an historian on the wrong side of history.

The movie [Prometheus] is an underrated masterpiece by a genius filmmaker working at the top of his game.

Well, at least we agree that it was a movie and that it was made.
 
posted by Herodios at 7:25 AM on January 30


The movie [Prometheus] is an underrated masterpiece by a genius filmmaker working at the top of his game.

Unfortunately his game is making steaming turds.
posted by blue_beetle at 7:29 AM on January 30


OHenryPacey:Ferguson's stature notwhithstanding, he would have to build a pretty convincing case for just exactly how 'Britain' could have made the decision to stay out of the conflict in '14. The naval arms race was a huge concern,

Not in 1914; Germany had given up the the naval arms race in 1912 and even Churchill knew the Royal Navy was unassailable before even that. Alarmist press abounded but there was absolutely zero chance of the German navy threatening Britain.

the royal navy had to believe that the earlier it had an opportunity to put Wilhelm in his place the better.

The "navalists" were so convinced of British naval supremecy that they advocated simply blockading the Germany coast and not sending even a small BEF. They were content to let the French do the fighting while Germany was starved. They did not believe a continental commitment was needed, nor did they fear the naval arms race.

Even Lord Northcliffe, the arch Germanphobe whose press clamored for war, did not want any BEF. He was convinced a the navy could do all the fighting.

Herodios
: Except for possibly the precise formulation: Biggest Mistake In Modern History

I pretty sure that's the last line in Pity of War, actually.
posted by spaltavian at 7:30 AM on January 30 [1 favorite]


I'd like to hear some non-eurocentric candidates for worst mistake in modern history. Do we have to claim ALL the superlatives for ourselves?
posted by selfnoise at 7:31 AM on January 30 [1 favorite]


I generally don't totally disagree with this, but I disagree with referring to it as "modern history" as though the only history that counts is English-speaking, or even just as European. Unless there's some missing part of this argument where it would have prevented further fighting in Europe entirely, we've also got such gems as the Great Leap Forward, which I think ranks way higher on the "completely indefensible folly" scale as far as I can tell.
posted by Sequence at 7:35 AM on January 30 [5 favorites]


Ferguson is a lot of things, but he is taken very seriously as a scholar of WWI,

That is... not my sense of his position in the academy. He's better known as an economic/financial historian than a political/diplomatic/military one; if you look at his list of publications you see he's actually written relatively little about WWI.

and the Pity of War is a very very good book that is well respected among academic historians of WWI.

I've never actually seen a positive mention by an academic historian of the book. Certainly the review I read of it in the Journal of Modern History when it first came out was less than glowing. Do you have any examples?
posted by asterix at 7:35 AM on January 30 [2 favorites]


I'd like to hear some non-eurocentric candidates for worst mistake in modern history. Do we have to claim ALL the superlatives for ourselves?

I'm sure Mao and Stalin could offer a few entries in that contest.

Then, of course, there's The Joker's Boner.
posted by Herodios at 7:41 AM on January 30 [3 favorites]


After watching Oliver Stone's Untold History, I'd say the biggest mistake was FDR's failure to ensure Henry Wallace would get the veep nomination in 1944. Maybe it's a dream, but without Truman, we might've avoided Hiroshima/Nagasaki and the Cold War.
posted by sixpack at 7:45 AM on January 30 [1 favorite]


I'd like to hear some non-eurocentric candidates for worst mistake in modern history. Do we have to claim ALL the superlatives for ourselves?

I'm pretty sure that the non-Eurocentric view would be that the decisions that lead to the eventual dissolution of the great European Empires in the early 20th century were some of the best "mistakes" ever!
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 7:45 AM on January 30


Do you have any examples?

Sure. Start with the third edition of James Joll's the Origins of the First World War.

He's better known as an economic/financial historian than a political/diplomatic/military one

These aren't exclusive categories, much his work on international finance deals directly with the outbreak of World War I.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 7:46 AM on January 30 [2 favorites]


Herodios: I'm sure Mao and Stalin could offer a few entries in that contest.

Except China and the Soviet Union didn't totally blow their centuries-long global dominance on a useless intercine war. Stalin and Mao could be said to be guility of equal or greater moral errors, or you might say its' good that Britain/Europe lost their grip on world power, but that's besides Ferguson's point. When you lose your top postion, probably forever, on an action that even when sucessful, ruins you, that's a pretty big error.
posted by spaltavian at 7:46 AM on January 30


I'd like to hear some non-eurocentric candidates for worst mistake in modern history.

1. Pearl Harbor

2. If you're doing Pearl Harbor, directing the second wave of bombing towards the battleships again rather than hitting the fuel dumps and submarine pens.
posted by COBRA! at 7:47 AM on January 30


There should be a Stopped Clocks website that tells you the correct time by linking to one of 720 images of different stopped clocks.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 7:49 AM on January 30 [7 favorites]


Agree or disagree with the man, there's something delicious about Ferguson's use of the word "modern" in this formulation.

I mean, y'know, because cultural history and all.
posted by dersins at 7:54 AM on January 30


There should be a Stopped Clocks website that tells you the correct time by linking to one of 720 images of different stopped clocks.

You just need to find a copy of The Clock.
posted by asterix at 8:07 AM on January 30


After watching Oliver Stone's Untold History, I'd say the biggest mistake was FDR's failure to ensure Henry Wallace would get the veep nomination in 1944. Maybe it's a dream, but without Truman, we might've avoided Hiroshima/Nagasaki and the Cold War.

Why's that? The Manhattan Project predates Truman; with or without Hiroshama & Nagasaki, the US and USSR would build and test atomic weapons. If anything, I'd be more worried about a world that had them but had never seen them used, because the actual use drove their power and danger into the public mind; with no actual use, I can easily see a trigger-happy general or head of state more or less thinking "Time to see what these things can really do."
posted by Tomorrowful at 8:11 AM on January 30 [8 favorites]


One bit of information that helps illuminate the back and forth about Ferguson is that The Pity of War (his tome on WWI) was published in 1998, when he was still an Oxford academic and predates his more pop-history apologetics for the British empire, his argument for muscular American empire, his career in finance, his most recent grand claims about the history of western civilization, his Harvard sinecure, and his recent ill-informed homophobic dismissal of Keynsianism.

As the focus of his published work has expanded further and further in scope (from Britiain in 1914, to Britain from 1700s-present, to Britain and the US, to all history of western civ) the degree to which we should take him seriously has decreased proportionally. I'm not saying his views have changed but his work on WWI is, IMO, better history as opposed to his more politicised work from the last decade.

WWI is in the news because of the centennial, which is why Ferguson is popping up now, but it confuses the chronoology of his work. The best summary of how he's gone off the rails over the last decade that I know of is here.
posted by Wretch729 at 8:14 AM on January 30 [8 favorites]


(By which I mean, even if someone other than Truman doesn't drop the bombs, I don't see why that avoids the cold war. The US and USSR were huge, powerful, massively opposed in every political/philosophical sense, and butting heads as major powers even before WWII had wrapped up. You're going to need a lot more than a different VP to avoid that.)
posted by Tomorrowful at 8:14 AM on January 30 [2 favorites]


One bit of information that helps illuminate the back and forth about Ferguson is that The Pity of War (his tome on WWI) was published in 1998, when he was still an Oxford academic and predates his more pop-history . . . his Harvard sinecure . . .

I was gonna say earlier that "NF is past his sell-by date -- that's how the US got him." But I changed my mind. Then I changed my mind again.

As the focus of his published work has expanded further and further in scope . . . the degree to which we should take him seriously has decreased proportionally. . . . The best summary of how he's gone off the rails over the last decade that I know of is here.

Thank you.
 
posted by Herodios at 8:25 AM on January 30


How could you have not had any relatives who were alive during that period? Or is this a joke I'm not getting
posted by Brocktoon at 8:30 AM on January 30


I hear his next book is titled The Pity of Pummeling the Equestrian Cadaver.
posted by quonsar II: smock fishpants and the temple of foon at 8:36 AM on January 30 [1 favorite]


TIL there are WWI fanboys. Who knew!
posted by El Sabor Asiatico at 8:44 AM on January 30


The reason I have extreme dislike for NF and his ilk is that the "British Empire" is not really a unitary thing. When he says that entering WWI was a mistake for the "British Empire" he is presuming the perspective of the rulers and beneficiaries of the empire and the consequences that he rues are those of the imperialists and not as much the subjects or victems.

If he had said it was the greatest mistake of the British Imperialists in the modern era he could make a strong case but I would say that their mistake has on the whole benefited the British Empire because it initiated the process that dismantled colonialism and made the UK less evil (thought they still try now and again).
posted by srboisvert at 8:49 AM on January 30 [3 favorites]


I've heard a different theory
posted by fullerine at 8:51 AM on January 30 [2 favorites]


> JanetLand: This is where I compose my AskMe question about recommendations for a good history of WWI.

Pity of War, seriously.


Nonsense. Nothing against Ferguson's book, but every scholar of the period I've read recently, whatever their own take on the war, has agreed that Hew Strachan is the WWI historian of our day. Start with him—he knows the material inside out and writes brilliantly.
posted by languagehat at 8:52 AM on January 30 [6 favorites]


> The reason I have extreme dislike for NF and his ilk is that the "British Empire" is not really a unitary thing. When he says that entering WWI was a mistake for the "British Empire" he is presuming the perspective of the rulers and beneficiaries of the empire and the consequences that he rues are those of the imperialists and not as much the subjects or victems.

Yes, this is my take on Ferguson. His politics bleed over into his historical analysis.
posted by languagehat at 8:53 AM on January 30 [1 favorite]


Without the Cold War and MAD we most likely would have W.W.III around the mid 60s, since we never would have learned the lesson tuhat full-scale war is unthinkable. That would most likely have involved repeated use of nuclear weapons, and even without them, there would be massive military and civilian casualties.

Really, the only reason we haven't had at least two general wars is that the politicians have had pounded into their heads "If we go to war we WE ALL DIE." Without the actual evidence of the effect of nuclear weapons, that won't happen.
posted by happyroach at 9:09 AM on January 30 [1 favorite]


srboisvert: when he says that entering WWI was a mistake for the "British Empire" he is presuming the perspective of the rulers and beneficiaries of the empire and the consequences that he rues are those of the imperialists and not as much the subjects or victems.

No, he isn't. Ferguson has argued that the way de-colonization actually happened was worse for the third-world than a different path for de-colonization, but Pity of War (or War of the World, for that matter) does not confuse what's good for imperial elites with people who lived in the Empire. Saying something is "bad for the Empire" is pretty easily read as "good for India".

languagehat: His politics bleed over into his historical analysis.

Are you saying he does this regarding his take on World War I? Is there something you can point to in Pity of War, that colors his analysis, or is this just based on disliking him from interviews? I mean, he mentions that Keynes is gay too luridly, but that doesn't really play into his mixed-bag view of the man.
posted by spaltavian at 9:11 AM on January 30


This thread seems like some kind of test case on the "if my enemy says it, I'm agin it!" attitude. Yeah, NF is a dickhead who says an unbelievable number of dickish things. But WWI has always been the classic example--particular from a left-wing standpoint--of an unnecessary war.
posted by yoink at 9:20 AM on January 30 [5 favorites]


The Royal Navy was much superior to its German counterpart, but with a quick victory, Germany would have been able to keep building ships.

Beyond the raw material to make 'em you'd need energy to power them.

Where would Germany have gotten that energy?

(and without the oil flowing from the US of A - how would WWII turned out the way it did?)
posted by rough ashlar at 9:20 AM on January 30


Where would Germany have gotten that energy?

Rumania for the oil, Saarland for the coal.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 9:36 AM on January 30


If you have New Yorker access, here's a good recent article on Henry Wallace. It's sympathetic to the man, but concludes (correctly, in my opinion) that it was just as well he never became President.
posted by Chrysostom at 9:37 AM on January 30 [1 favorite]


Where would Germany have gotten that energy?

Rumania for the oil, Saarland for the coal.


Oh, and let's not forget their Ottoman allies driving into the Caucasus and Arabia.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 9:41 AM on January 30


And let's not forget that they had no reason to be going into Britain in WWI
posted by Navelgazer at 9:52 AM on January 30


My thinking on this is that there's two possibilities:

1. Britain lets Germany beat up on Europe in 1914 and enters the war a year or two later when it's better prepared.

2. Britain and its empire sits out WWI entirely, and goes to war with the Second Reich a generation later, when the two empires can't put it off any longer.

Possibility one isn't so bad overall, if you're British. A better prepared Britain might have prevailed over an exhausted and overstretched Germany, but the rest of Europe wouldn't have been too pleased.

Possibility two might have been disastrous. Giving Germany a generation to consolidate the resources and manpower of a conquered Europe (especially Eastern Europe and all those fossil fuels) might have meant facing a much more powerful war machine at that time.

Then there's the atomic bomb. The Manhattan Project was started in the 40's because of the urgency of the war, and the influence of distinguished scientists like Einstein who convinced politicians that Germany's atomic program was a threat. Not sure what the Second Reich would have been like for Jewish people (probably not great), but without the Nazis it might not have turned quite so bad so fast. (Though given the antisemitism of the time that might have happened anyway.) And if Jewish scientists hadn't been compelled to leave Europe in the 30s, Germany might have built their A-bomb long before anyone else, leaving them free to use it on the British Empire.
posted by Kevin Street at 9:59 AM on January 30 [2 favorites]


How could you have not had any relatives who were alive during that period? Or is this a joke I'm not getting

I assumed it was a wry reference to the controversy around his statements about Keynes, namely that homosexuals have a more short-term view of society due to their not usually having children.
posted by dsfan at 10:01 AM on January 30


Kevin Street - I think the problem here is that Germany didn't view themselves as aggressors in WWI. From their perspective Russia was mobilizing for them and they had their backs against the wall of France - a long-time enemy and historically Europe's greatest land army. So they had a short window of time to neutralize France before Russia showed up. It wasn't a war of domination for them, and certainly not at the outset.
posted by Navelgazer at 10:04 AM on January 30 [1 favorite]


I suppose it's a bit too soon for all the repercussions to have shaken out to unequivocally say that this kind of policy was the biggest mistake, but it's gotta be up there.
posted by jason_steakums at 10:16 AM on January 30


Just for reference, the classic analysis of Niall Ferguson's politics bleeding over into his historical writing is Pankaj Mishra's review of Civilization.
posted by demonic winged headgear at 10:21 AM on January 30


And the Germans were not alone. The Ottomans were pressing for an independant Caucasus and control of the Black sea. The British in Galipoli and naval campaigns in the Bosphorus, Dardanells and Black Sea as well as supporting the Arab revolt took pressure away from the Russian southern front. Without that and the Ottomans would have had a much easier time driving into the southern Russian Empire. In the Pacific, the Japanese would not have been able to take on the Germans and Austrians on their own. Without the Australian/New Zealand attacks on the German and Austrian colonies, the garrison in Tsingtao may have been able to repel the Japanese and the Germans would have potentially been able to reestablish the Chinese monarchy, thereby giving the Russians even more grief in Central Asia and the far east.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 10:21 AM on January 30 [3 favorites]


> But WWI has always been the classic example--particular from a left-wing standpoint--of an unnecessary war.

Read about what Germany did in/to Ukraine in the latter part of the war and see if you feel the same way. The whole Lebensraum/Untermenschen thing wasn't invented by the Nazis.

> I think the problem here is that Germany didn't view themselves as aggressors in WWI.

So? Who ever views themselves as aggressors? Germany was paranoid as fuck; that doesn't mean it wasn't guilty of aggression. Yes, the Fischer thesis was overstated (that Germany was itching for world conquest and totally responsible for the war), but that doesn't mean it was based on nothing.

> From their perspective Russia was mobilizing for them

But Russia didn't care that much about Germany (there were lots of Russians in high places who still thought fondly of Germany and wanted to get back to their former alliance)—they were mobilizing against Austria (from whom they wanted Galicia) and especially Turkey (from whom they wanted chunks of eastern Anatolia and above all the Straits and Constantinople). Read Sean McMeekin's brilliant if overheated The Russian Origins of the First World War for more on this important and overlooked topic.
posted by languagehat at 10:25 AM on January 30 [2 favorites]


Britain certainly could have lived with German economic dominance of the continent. It's living with it now.

Kevin Street: 1. Britain lets Germany beat up on Europe in 1914 and enters the war a year or two later when it's better prepared.

The war quickly ends in French defeat in this scenario. The BEF was small, but likely did prevent the fall of France. The German war aims were modest, (The September Program should not be taken at face value, but even if it was, it's not Napoleonic). Germany would have been quite happy to guarantee the post-war integrity of Western Europe's borders in return for British neutrality.

2. Britain and its empire sits out WWI entirely, and goes to war with the Second Reich a generation later

The Kaiser was't Hitler; there's no reason to believe a war later on was inevitable. Britain would have likely been more concerned with France, which is likely to have had some serious instability in the wake of defeat. (Such as Germany did in 1918-1919 in real life, or France did a generation before in 1870-1871.)

demonic winged headgear: Just for reference, the classic analysis of Niall Ferguson's politics bleeding over into his historical writing is Pankaj Mishra's review of Civilization.

Does that go into his past writings as well? It seemed the claim was being made about his WWI writings specifically. As for Civilization, it's a quasi-political tract to begin with. Nor is it terribly good.
posted by spaltavian at 10:28 AM on January 30


Oh, thank you demonic I can't believe I forgot about that Mishra review. Absolutely worth reading especially for the ensuing back and forth responses in subsequent issues of LRB, which are helpfully collected at the link you used.
posted by Wretch729 at 10:30 AM on January 30


Read about what Germany did in/to Ukraine in the latter part of the war and see if you feel the same way.

Somehow I don't think that reading about what Germany did in/to Ukraine in the latter part of the war will change my feelings about the objectively demonstrable fact that WWI has, in fact, a long history of being regarded by left-wing historians and activists as a classic example of an unnecessary war, no.

That there may be arguments to be made for the war is another issue altogether. Mind you, I'm not sure that the fact that the Germans did dreadful things in Ukraine late in the war does all that much to prove the war was justified. To make that argument you'd have to show that somehow the war was waged in order to prevent those atrocities and that waging the war minimized those atrocities (or made them less likely to occur again in the future) and that the atrocities it averted were greater than the atrocities committed as a direct result of waging the war. All of those would be difficult things to prove. Add to that the strong possibility that much of the horror of German Nazification becomes considerably less likely absent British participation in WWI (although admittedly one is getting deep into hypotheticals at that point) and the burden seems high indeed.
posted by yoink at 10:35 AM on January 30 [4 favorites]


Spaltavian - Mishra mentions The Pity of War in paragraphs 6-8 of his review, and doesn't so much directly attack the book's thesis as he does use it as the starting point in tracing Ferguson's ongoing apology for Anglo-American empire.
This wistful vision of an empire on which the sun need never have set had an immediately obvious defect. It grossly underestimated – in fact, ignored altogether – the growing strength of anti-colonial movements across Asia, which, whatever happened in Europe, would have undermined Britain’s dwindling capacity to manage its vast overseas holdings...

In retrospect, The Pity of War’s Stoddardesque laments about the needless emasculation of Anglo-Saxon power announced a theme that would become more pronounced as Ferguson, setting aside his expertise in economic history, emerged as an evangelist-cum-historian of empire...
‘Let me come clean,’ he wrote in the New York Times Magazine in April 2003, a few weeks after the shock-and-awe campaign began in Iraq, ‘I am a fully paid-up member of the neoimperialist gang.’
posted by Wretch729 at 10:35 AM on January 30 [2 favorites]


The whole Lebensraum/Untermenschen thing wasn't invented by the Nazis.

Nope, and isn't ironic that Waldorf schools are full of the children of liberal elites?
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 10:36 AM on January 30


languagehat: I wasn't defending Germany for starting the war, just questioning Kevin Street's analysis that an unchecked Germany was bound to end up fighting Britain eventually. They absolutely acted as aggressors in reality but they had a clear set of goals and Britain wasn't on them.
posted by Navelgazer at 10:39 AM on January 30


Also for fans of the "which blunder was worse" game Andrew Gelman (PoliSci/Stats Prof at Columbia) has some possible options on his blog. He suggests, among other things, the German invasions of Belgium in 1914 or Russia in 1941, as well as Japan's attack on the US in 1945.
posted by Wretch729 at 10:41 AM on January 30


This is a... complicated issue.

The idea that it was a mistake for Britain to get involved in WWI presupposes knowledge of the disastrous results of the war. Quite frankly, it's hard to make those sort of arguments when also trying to keep in mind the other incredibly common argument that the war was so disastrous for all involved because no one knew what it was going to be like or how to fight it.

Coming at things from the perspective of 1914, Britain had an increasingly positive relationship with France that had been building since King Edward had come to the throne; an increasingly hostile relationship with Germany based on the naval arms race, Germany's desires for colonial revision, its increasing trade power, and Wilhelm's incompetent diplomacy; a treaty to preserve the neutrality of Belgium; and a historic interest based on its position as the world trading power that no great power ever dominate the Low Countries, going back at least to the wars against Louis XIV.

As for the Kaiser not being Hitler, the example of the Ukraine is a salient one to a degree. That is, the Germans insisted on a vast annexationist program that would have redrawn the map of Europe entirely. I can't recall the plans in the West, but I seem to recall the annexation of the Low Countries would have been involved. Of course, we must be very careful here, because the Ukraine program occurred after over three years of bloody war, in which the perceived need for gains commensurate with the sacrifices that had been made was very strong. It's hard to say what the immediate demands would have been, if the war had ended in 1914 instead. I suspect they would have still been significant: France would have been certainly crippled, and German colonies would have replaced those of defeated powers.

In any case, as Lord Palmerston said, "We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow." Britain's involvement was entirely logical based on those interests, and the calculus of diplomacy and world power at the time. Whether it was "right" is something I'll leave theologians to argue over.
posted by Palindromedary at 10:50 AM on January 30 [2 favorites]


The idea that it was a mistake for Britain to get involved in WWI presupposes knowledge of the disastrous results of the war.

No, it doesn't. We say "in retrospect, that was a mistake" all the time. The claim that it was a "mistake" is separate from the claim that it was a mistake which the actors involved should have recognized as such at the time.
posted by yoink at 10:53 AM on January 30 [2 favorites]


Japan's attack on the US in 1945

Japan 'bungled' the formal war announcement just before the actual attack if sources I have seen are to be believed.

Would the reaction to the attack have been different if it was not "a sneak attack"? Perhaps. But un-announced attacks tend to get people upset.

Japan was having issues with its energy sources due to the US not selling energy to the nation - so what was there position supposed to be "Hey, its cool you don't want to sell us energy"? Japan decided it wasn't OK with the cut-off of energy resources and reacted.

If the various oil-producing nations decided to stop trading with an armed trading partner.....what does one think will happen?
posted by rough ashlar at 10:54 AM on January 30


No, it doesn't. We say "in retrospect, that was a mistake" all the time. The claim that it was a "mistake" is separate from the claim that it was a mistake which the actors involved should have recognized as such at the time.

Fair enough. I was thinking solely of the latter.
posted by Palindromedary at 10:58 AM on January 30


Starting the war was one thing, but the way it took on a life of its own and kept going in the face of enormous casualties is what's amazing and wants explaining.

It's like the huge western wildfires we've seen in the US over the last few years-- sure, it was stupid for that guy to start that bonfire, but the real story is the drought, the heat, and a fire-prevention regime that resulted in the accumulation of underbrush.
posted by jamjam at 11:22 AM on January 30


It's really hard for us to see the war without its disastrous consequences, as the actors did.

I'm curious about what the British leadership thought of France's chances if it didn't enter the war. Clearly the French were well motivated to win the war, but their attack plans were pretty catastrophic. And its ally Russia was a complete mess. But that wasn't obvious at the beginning of August. How did the British see the possibility of a French victory?
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 11:28 AM on January 30


Wilhelm's incompetent diplomacy

Wilhelm's dismissal of Bismarck has to at least be in the running for "biggest blunder," right?
posted by Navelgazer at 11:29 AM on January 30 [1 favorite]


Aizkolari: " I guess the other contenders I'd throw out are are: leaded gasoline and the US's support of the domino theory in the Cold War."

Reminder that leaded gasoline and ozone-destroying CFCs were basically due to the same guy.
posted by Chrysostom at 11:33 AM on January 30 [1 favorite]


> languagehat: I wasn't defending Germany for starting the war, just questioning Kevin Street's analysis that an unchecked Germany was bound to end up fighting Britain eventually. They absolutely acted as aggressors in reality but they had a clear set of goals and Britain wasn't on them.

Fair enough.

On the general issue, I think Palindromedary's take is excellent.
posted by languagehat at 11:49 AM on January 30


As a scholar of Belgian history who has lived in Belgium and whose doctoral adviser is Belgian, I can say with some certainty that many Belgians, as well as many Britons, did not see Britiain's entry into the war as a mistake. Britain -- on paper at least -- entered the war to save Belgian neutrality. Germany's blatant violation of neutral Belgium in order to invade France, and the massacres of civilians and crass destruction of cities that followed, were a galvanizing force for the Allies. This elevated the war -- at least temporarily -- from a clash of geopolitical powers to a fight for the respect of international law.

Is it true that the Allies forgot Belgium in the later years of the war, or even nurtured resentment toward it for supposedly not pulling its fair share? Yes. Did Britain and France (and Belgium itself, also a colonial power) show enormous hypocrisy in standing up for the "rights of small nations" like Belgium and Serbia while themselves ruling over vast empires of unwilling colonial subjects? Absolutely. Did Britain use Belgian neutrality as an excuse to engage in a power struggle with Germany? It's quite possible.

Looking for "the biggest error in modern history" seems like the classic question mal posée, as the French would say: a "poorly posed question," one which by its nature leads to misleading or faulty responses, because it attacks the issue at the wrong angle.

If I had to do so anyway, I would say that something relating to the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 would be in the running -- perhaps the United States not joining the League of Nations, or, possibly, the overly punitive sanctions on the Central Powers.
posted by dhens at 11:53 AM on January 30 [6 favorites]


Palindromedary: The idea that it was a mistake for Britain to get involved in WWI presupposes knowledge of the disastrous results of the war.

Some of the financial aspects are out of my depth, but Ferguson makes a convincing case that the "short war theory" was not universal. If you look at what was going on in the City, it seemed the market realized the war would be a disaster once they realized Britain would likely jump in.

an increasingly hostile relationship with Germany based on the naval arms race

The arms race really had ceased by 1914.

Germany's desires for colonial revision,

What did Britain care if Germany inherited some defunct Portuguese colonies? Certainly, Germany posed no threat to India, Egypt or Cape.

a treaty to preserve the neutrality of Belgium;

That Britain embraced the "scrap of paper whole-heartedly after the war broke out shouldn't be taken a serious assessment of British interests. This promise had been backpedaled considerably and the British already planned to violate Belgian neutrality in the event of war with Germany. The Germans probably saved the Asquith government when they invaded Belgium wholesale, rather than just pass through a corner.

that no great power ever dominate the Low Countries,

This certainly drove British thinking, but the Germans weren't hellbent on this until after the British entry in the war. German aims became increasing belligerent as the war went on, but they originally were envisioning a quick knockout blow to the French and a drawn out battle against the Russians, all of which depended on the British staying out. They knew full well no British government would have tolerated German annexation or occupation of the Low Countries, which is why calls to add them to the Reich were only spoken of after British entry.

if the war had ended in 1914 instead. I suspect they would have still been significant: France would have been certainly crippled

Certainly not worse than 1871, which neither threatened Britain, nor forced Britian to jump in.
posted by spaltavian at 12:49 PM on January 30 [2 favorites]


Wilhelm's dismissal of Bismarck has to at least be in the running for "biggest blunder," right?

Navelgazer you have a point but that just reveals the contingent nature of history, because if you point to Bismarck's dimissal as a blunder don't you have to also look at his critical role in setting up the intricate, delicate balance of power in Europe that allowed the cascade into war in 1914 as a blunder as well? Building a European order that was dependent on a brilliant German chancellor who could keep all the diplomatic balls in the air seems foolhardy, in hindsight, for all that Bismarck accomplished.

In short, if you point to one man as a single point of failure then you should question who built a system with single points of failure in the first place.
posted by Wretch729 at 12:51 PM on January 30 [1 favorite]


For anyone who's interested, Europeana 1914-1918 has a great collection of primary materials about WW1.
posted by orrnyereg at 12:53 PM on January 30


If only Niall Ferguson was there. He'da stopped that shit.
It's not like Bertrand Russell was a heavyweight intellect or sacrificed anything.

That said. And hyperbole on "the biggest" anything aside...

How is the statement: "The cost, let me emphasise, of the first world war to Britain was catastrophic, and it left the British empire at the end of it all in a much weakened state..." at all controversial?

Who's going to put him under fire for this view? Maybe WWI wasn't the biggest error, but there's no real question 10 million deaths in a few years put a real kink in everyone's hose.
Gallipoli and the Somme alone were catastrophic failures on a number of levels. (What was von Ludendorff's quote? The British fight like lions but are led by donkeys?)

It was a new kind of warfare, but plenty of egos and political motivations that were not related to diplomatic or strategic concerns interfered with a clear conception of reality.
And you had tens of thousands mowed down in afternoon.

Whether or not the war was necessary, the slaughter certainly wasn't. And perhaps, without the benefit of hindsight, that was the one thing that could have been at least mitigated at the time.
But it wasn't.
posted by Smedleyman at 1:00 PM on January 30


I'd like to hear some non-eurocentric candidates for worst mistake in modern history.

my candidates, in order, without regard to non-eurocentricism -

the mass production and popularization of the automobile

the failure to follow through effectively on the space program

germany's invasion of belgium in 1914

other blunders that i'm not sure how to rate -

russia's institution of the gulag and of ethnic relocation and colonization

japan's bombing of pearl harbor and invasion of china

germany's invasion of russia

russia's invasion of aghanistan

the u s's invasion of iraq

the division of palestine

the failure of reconstruction after the civil war

the belgian conquest of the congo

all of the above have had long reaching effects that are still going on, but my top three blunders have been world-changing
posted by pyramid termite at 1:25 PM on January 30


spaltavian: Some of the financial aspects are out of my depth, but Ferguson makes a convincing case that the "short war theory" was not universal. If you look at what was going on in the City, it seemed the market realized the war would be a disaster once they realized Britain would likely jump in.

True, but I don't think anyone is claiming that the view was "universal". The vast majority amongst those military planners and politicians with the power to affect events would suffice, and it was so in those areas.

The arms race really had ceased by 1914.

This is hindsight at best and wrong at worst. From the point of view of 1914 it had merely slowed as the British, through determined effort, pulled ahead. The Germans still possessed their massive fleet, were still growing it, and still possessed the ability to grow it further. No one runs an empire on hopes and assumptions of good intentions on the part of the other side. The tensions created as a result of the race were still in existence, and cannot be denied as part of the British decisionmaking tree.

What did Britain care if Germany inherited some defunct Portuguese colonies? Certainly, Germany posed no threat to India, Egypt or Cape.

British and French colonies were included in this. As colonies were considered a big deal at the time (whether correct or not), this cannot be ignored. And the very existence of the High Seas Fleet meant that Germany was a threat to all British overseas possessions.

That Britain embraced the "scrap of paper" whole-heartedly after the war broke out shouldn't be taken a serious assessment of British interests.

I'm not claiming that it was the sole reason or anything, just one factor amongst several I listed. But neither can it be entirely tossed out the window.

This certainly drove British thinking, but the Germans weren't hellbent on this until after the British entry in the war.

This would again be hindsight. The British could not rely on hopes that the Germans would simply give it back when they were done achieving continental hegemony. In addition, total domination of the region means the Low Countries de facto fall under German hegemony, even if there is no direct control. Opposition to any form of this fits the traditional British pattern to that date.

Certainly not worse than 1871, which neither threatened Britain, nor forced Britain to jump in.

It would most certainly be worse than 1871, for the very reason that the Germans were logically not interested in going through this a third time, and were alarmed at how fast the France of 1871 was able to pay off the indemnities levied upon it that were even then intended to be crippling (i.e., back in 1871 the Germans wanted to cripple France financially for much longer than they had; it's hard to imagine a Germany victorious after yet another war, and with no other great powers left to intervene, would somehow be kinder). A much larger indemnity, further (albeit minor) annexations of French territory (possibly coupled with other minor transfers to Belgium), the seizure of some Belgian territory and all of Luxembourg, and the transfer of French colonies to German control are generally held to have been on the table. I'm not talking a Nazi scorched-earth, living-envy-the-dead victory here, but the overall result would have been a stronger Germany with the intent to do 1871 "right" against a weaker France.
posted by Palindromedary at 1:38 PM on January 30


Atreides: "Well. Arguably, the German Empire of the First World War did not necessarily have the same "We must rule it all!" mentality that Hitler's Germany had twenty some years later. It probably would have forced treaties on the defeated countries (if it did win) that weren't built on years and hundreds of thousands of deaths like the Versailles Treaty."
The repeatedly stolen church bells, natural history collections, cultural treasures, and significant art pieces as well as the torched libraries, women of a certain age, and the millions never born of Belgium would beg to differ.

The reasons for fighting in the Great War are largely forgotten, but they were very real, halting German Imperialism was very much not pointless. For a taste of what that really meant to people in the small countries of Europe check out the remarkably gripping Judicial Report on the Sacking of Louvain by the Flemish Professor Leon van der Essen, which is written with remarkable neutrality and conspicuous respect for truth. The report is euphemistically circumspect about the fate of women in Leuven, and what exactly the Germans did to priests, in the style of the time but don't be fooled. For the 'other side' of the story, this is the official German statement on what happened and a telegram to Wilson by the Kaiser that mentions it.

Also, check out this documentary,
Under the Eagle (50:03) The German invasion of Belgium and France was brutal and fanned the flames of war
posted by Blasdelb at 1:43 PM on January 30 [2 favorites]


Thank you Blasdelb. As I mentioned earlier, I fully realize that Britain probably used the "scrap of paper" argument for its own ends. That does not make the Germans' actions in Belgium any less awful.
posted by dhens at 2:07 PM on January 30


Let's not forget Austria-Hungary's conduct in occupied Serbia, either.
posted by dhens at 2:09 PM on January 30 [1 favorite]


the failure to follow through effectively on the space program

Sneakiest error, if not #1. There's no question a big meteor is going to hit us. Just a matter of when.
posted by Smedleyman at 4:57 PM on January 30


The New York Review of Books has a nice article on the various WWI books that have recently come out.
posted by Sticherbeast at 8:43 PM on January 30 [1 favorite]


My favourite part of the whole argument (disregarding, temporarily, its central point) is how apparently the UK could use the Royal Navy to contain/starve Germany by blockading its northern ports.

Completely forgetting that having taken France and Belgium it would have been in control of rather more coastline and ports facing more seas than could be contained by all the rest of the world's naval forces combined.
posted by genghis at 10:20 PM on January 30


the failure to follow through effectively on the space program

I understand your disappointment. I was all yah-woo Moon Colonies as a child. But where were you proposing to go? Absent "anti-gravity" or "warp drives," physics makes "the conquest of space" damn hard. We bounced around on the Moon, drove a rover and pitched a couple of golf balls. We, humanity, has raised a flag, ala Duck Dodgers. And that's about as far as we will ever go. Perhaps that is why we are so touched by Opportunity, Curiosity and Jade Rabbit; these brave little toasters carry our dreams of a future that will never be.
posted by SPrintF at 10:27 PM on January 30 [2 favorites]


"The Pity of War" isn't a general history of the conflict, though (for those looking for that) - isn't it more of an economic analysis of how the warring nations kept the thing going, stuff like that?
posted by thelonius at 8:16 AM on January 31


genghis - The Royal Navy did manage to do a reasonably effective job of blockading Napoleonic France, which would be pretty comparable in size at its height, but that was a different (pre-submarine) era and your point is still valid.
posted by Wretch729 at 8:36 AM on January 31


Thelonius: It's not a military history of the war, but it looks at it through more than just a financial lens. Diplomatic, political and social aspects are examined too.

It also does seek to explain the cause and outcome of the war as well, so maybe not a "general" history, but more sweeping that just a history of the wartime economy.
posted by spaltavian at 8:50 AM on January 31 [1 favorite]


The Royal Navy did manage to do a reasonably effective job of blockading Napoleonic France

Of course that lead to the War of 1812, so that wasn't so great.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 9:10 AM on January 31


Excellent timing: Dan Carlin just put up part 2 of his WWI series after a huge long wait!
posted by jason_steakums at 9:55 AM on January 31


We, humanity, has raised a flag, ala Duck Dodgers. And that's about as far as we will ever go.

Then humans, and all life, are doomed. But we spend so much time and effort on useless worthless destructive things. Like an obsessive adolescent spending his mcjob money buying bad-ass looking knives. Worrying if he looks cooler than some other kids he's never going to see again in any meaningful way, if he prepares any kind of real life for himself after high school.

There's plenty of room to debate technical stuff. Without energy from fossil fuels the way things are now, we couldn't even feed the people we have. So we'd need some big discoveries and a change of lifestyle.

I'm harder to kill than a water bear but I wouldn't want to live through our species going out with a whimper.
I mean it's easy to fight and even die over this stuff. And it's important, as far as it goes. But if we spend all of our time as a species fighting over this monkey bullshit, which amounts to pretty much "who's in charge" and more or less taking breaks called "peace" when it's settled for a bit, we're not going to do anything life has business be doing. That's most any war but especially the needlessly bloody ones like WW1. When all is said, that was about maintaining human inequity, but in one way, not the other. So there was a fight. *sigh*

What'd kill me is not that we didn't make it to another star, or even out to live somewhere else in the solar system. It's that we didn't even try.
I don't know how that feels. I don't want to know.

I suspect that's what the lost generation felt, at least in part. That the WW 1 struggle had been essentially meaningless despite the scope. That everything they had been told was a lie.
But they took some consolation that life goes on, the earth abides. But once Earth doesn't, or rather, once life stops 'going on'... well hell, it'd be obvious that we were kidding ourselves all along.
Without tangible survival benefits, technology is self-gratification. And we are creatures of technology. Might as well start genetically engineering brainy ants, see if they can pull off outliving dependance on the planet.
posted by Smedleyman at 7:53 PM on January 31


I remember someone speculating that people in a century or two will probably consider the two world wars to be one long war, with an interval of a cease fire, in the way that we teach schoolkids about "The Hundred Years' War".

I think I have "The Pity Of War", unless I sold it. I should read it this year; I think I skimmed a few chapters after I bought it. IIRC, he was arguing that the war was coming to an end in 1918 or so, one way or another, because the loans that were financing it (who was lending money?) were about to completely dry up, which is not something I had ever thought about much.
posted by thelonius at 2:24 AM on February 1


Nice roundup in the NYRB of recent WWI books.
posted by Chrysostom at 12:09 PM on February 20


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