Tuesday, March 5, 2013

When Empires and Ententes Break Down

I started reading this book the other night.  It had been sitting on my shelf for a long time.  It dates back to the days of the old NYTimes forums when I used to get into those rows with Mosca over European history.

Very interesting start as Ferguson relates his grandfather's experience in WWI and how the Scottish regiments sustained more per capita losses than just about any other country during the war.  Twenty-one per cent, as I recall.  The losses in WWI were great, estimated at close to 10 million, dwarfing that of the American Civil War.

The US didn't get into the war until late, much to Teddy Roosevelt's chagrin, and in the end he lost his youngest son, Quentin, who apparently was short-sighted like his father, and died in a plane crash.  I don't think Roosevelt ever forgave himself for that, as he was insistent that his sons go to war, as he had done in the Spanish-American War.

What I like most about Ferguson's account is the way he treats the pre-war climate in Europe, as the four major powers -- The UK, France, Russia and Germany -- vied for territorial possessions.  It was this sense of empire that appeared to put the superpowers at odds with each other, although Ferguson noted that the UK was very good at crisis management and had a relatively friendly relationship with Germany right up to the eve of the war.

He also explores the pre-war literature, particularly that of the British "militarists" who perceived Germany as a threat.  He also notes some of the German literature from the time that likewise prophesied war.  He wryly notes that Friedrich Engels was perhaps the only one to correctly predict the death toll, although Engels imagined a sweeping socialist revolution to occur in the wake of the war, which didn't extent far beyond Russia.

Ferguson noted a few asides that concern the United States, such as Roosevelt's intervention in the clash between the UK and Germany over Venezuela, and the relationships Roosevelt cultivated while in Europe, notably the Kaiser, as he took TR on a horseback ride to review the troops.

The thrust of Ferguson's arguments are economic, where he excels.  He is best known for his books on finance and his provocative arguments on world economics.  He is careful to separate his counterfactual arguments with the events as they occurred, while still making for a lively read.


  1. I may take a look at that. PBS just broadcast a version of Ford's The End of the Parade, also about that period (and of course that's just where Downton Abby is in their long march through English upper class history).

    Last year I read To End all Wars, by Adam Hochschild, which I really enjoyed. He asks the simple question of how the upper classes of England could have supported the war and sent their sons to die in it. And he shows those who resisted.

  2. I miss Mosca. I remember arguing with him about the upcoming conflicts over access to water, which he simply could not imagine. The markets solve all problems in his world view.

  3. Just looked at a review -- do you really think England should have just let Germany go for it? Sometimes I think these anti-communists can get a little carried away (although I'm sure it makes for some good arguments).

  4. I haven't gotten that deep into the book, but he doesn't let Germany off the hook. He argues mostly from the Germany and British sides, treating France and Russia as secondary powers. the Russo-Japanese War really hurt Russia, and I think gave Germany ideas that it could expand eastward without much resistance.

  5. This sounds interesting,


    a new book on how Europe went to war in 1914. This does seem like a war that could easily have been avoided, except for the hubris of the four "superpowers," especially Germany, which appeared to be gauging its opportunities for imperial expansion in the wake of the Russo-Japanese War. Russia appeared to be quite vulnerable to attack.