Niall Ferguson talks about his latest book The War of the World
When did your attention first turn to the possibilities of writing about ‘The War of the World’?At least ten years ago, in fact. I had intended my second book to be about intermarriage and ethnic conflict in the Central and East European borderlands, which is one of the core stories of The War of the World. But then along came the history of the Rothschilds, The Pity of War, and all the other projects since then, and the idea was nudged on to the backburner. But I never stopped working on it. And the more I read, the more I realized that it was a global story. Indeed, the amount of stuff I accumulated for this book ended up being so huge that the shelves in my study very nearly collapsed under its weight. On reflection, I think I was probably wise to wait. It’s a tremendously difficult subject and I don’t think I was ready for it back then.
Did you have very different aims for the book and for the television series?Not really, though inevitably the different formats produced differences in content. The centre of gravity of the book is very clearly the Second World War, whereas the television series gives more even coverage to the twentieth century as a whole. But my intention was always that the two should be complementary. You can provide a great deal more supporting evidence in 800 or so pages than is possible in six 55 minute films. On the other hand, the films let you see fascinating places like Brest-Litovsk, Shenyang, Kursk, Okinawa and Guatemala City – places I suspect few people would visit as tourists.
Did you find your initial views challenged by what you found out during researching and writing? Despite all you know about the 20th century was there anything you found yourself shocked by in an unexpected way?Yes, and that’s precisely why I found writing this book so exciting. I went into it with the usual preconceptions and hypotheses. But – to take just one example – I had never seriously worked through the options open to British politicians in 1938. I found it immensely exciting to revisit the ‘what ifs’ about the Second World War, and find that some of my earlier ideas had simply been wrong. I hadn’t fully appreciated the extent of Germany’s vulnerablity in 1938 and how right Churchill had been to call for confrontation rather than appeasement. Likewise, I had never seriously looked at the story of Japan’s war in China, which is in many ways where the Second World War begins. Understanding the Asian war was a huge challenge, but it forced me to rethink not just the war but the entire twentieth century.
If there were just one or two things in The War of the World that you would like your reader to come away with, what would those be?The most important idea is about the precise causes of extreme violence in the twentieth century. The fact that it was quite localized in space and in time is the key. Once you look at the dangerous zones – especially the fatal triangle between the Baltic, the Balkans and the Black Sea – you begin to see the three factors which, in combination, made for really lethal conflict. Ethnic disintegration, as heterogeneous societies tore themselves apart. Economic volatility, which disrupted old social orders. And empires in decline, which caused traditional power structures. Those three ‘e’s are the key, I think. The related point is that, although the war still looms very large in the collective memories of British, American, Canadian and Australasian people, we English-speakers were mostly quite far removed from the war’s worst theatres. Understood as a protracted Eurasian conflict focused on Central and Eastern Europe and Manchuria, Korea and South-East Asia, I think the Second World War looks very different. Maybe it is better understood as Fifty Years War, running from 1904 to 1953.
The War of the World in many ways carries on a rethinking of the 20th century begun in The Pity of War and carried on in Empire. What would you like to do next?I am writing two biographies, one of a financier, Siegmund Warburg, and one of a diplomat (and historian), Henry Kissinger. It seemed time, after a series of big works of synthesis, to return to archival research and the study of individual lives.
Where did your title come from?We struggled and struggled to find the right title. For a long time it was just ‘The War’. Then it nearly became ‘The Long War’, which would have been a disaster as the Bush administration has just used that name to rebrand the former ‘Global War on Terror’. In the end, it was one of the young creative hotshots [Rob Williams] at Penguin who came up with The War of the World, inspired perhaps by the Spielberg movie based on Wells’s The War of the Worlds. I knew at once that he’d hit the nail on the head and I’m immensely grateful to him, because it helped me to recast the most important of all the book’s arguments – the one about how men can treat other human beings as aliens.
You’ve never seen history like it. In Empire, bestselling author Niall Ferguson unravels the controversial and compelling history of the British Empire, and explains how a rainy island in the North Atlantic went on to become one of the biggest empires in all history. Here, Niall Ferguson talks exclusively to penguin.co.uk about the inspiration behind Empire, and his experiences whilst filming the TV series.
What inspired you to write Empire?I suppose I had been thinking imperial thoughts for some years. My history of the Rothschild bank ended up having a large section on the Empire, since late nineteenth century imperialism depended so heavily on overseas investment by big City banks like Rothschilds. The Pity of War includes a fairly clear argument about the strengths and weaknesses of the British Empire during the First World War. And, The Cash Nexus, ended with what now seems a rather prescient call for the United States to play a more imperial role.
The more reading I did for those books, particularly of recent British historiography, but also of the growing economics literature on the history of globalization, the more convinced I became that the history of the Empire was being underplayed. That extraordinary achievement, The New Oxford History of the British Empire, was being read by specialists – imperial historians, as they tend to be called – but not more widely. So I was contemplating having a stab at a history of the Empire when the idea of a television series surfaced. That was the catalyst.
Looking further back, I see myself as a late child of Empire. My family, like many Scottish families, had multiple imperial connections: relatives in Canada, uncles who had worked in India, South Africa and the Gulf. Yet I grew up at a time when the Empire had largely gone and its historical reputation was going too. That generation of student radicals who were heaping abuse on imperialism are now of course in power. When you hear the British Foreign Secretary blaming half the world’s present ills on the Empire you feel that the subject badly needs a more balanced public airing. This was the perfect opportunity to offer a reassessment of Empire which would make the latest scholarship accessible to the widest possible audience – not to whitewash the Empire, nor to apologize for it, but to offer a history of all its achievements, positi