Friday, September 18, 2009

The War of the World

Niall Ferguson writes thick history books with controversial ideas. His argued in the Pity of War that Britain should have just sat out World War One and dealt with a German dominated Europe. In Colossus, he put forth the idea that the world needs America to be a real empire, but believed the country isn't up to the tasks. One of more recent books is War of the World which explores the incredibly violent 20th century. His argument is that the break up of empires and the expansion of the national/ethnic idea fuel the intense ferocity of century's killing.

So many American books about the war focus on the technology, whether it be aircraft carriers, tanks or planes. That's fine, it is how Americans tend to look at things. It also tends to make the conflict seem a bit more bloodless. This ship sank, forty planes were destroyed. We know that people died when we read this, but it removes the horror of it somewhat.

None of that for Ferguson. He goes straight down to the village level. He shows the remarkable breadth of the cruelty in the century. We've tended to focus all of our horror on the Holocaust. This makes sense as it is a uniquely terrible series of events, but our focus has obscured all else that happened and even the share of guilt in the Holocaust. Germans, naturally, get the blame for the Holocaust, but Ferguson shows the horrid but willing participation of many other Europeans.

He also shows the incredible terrors and evil of Stalin's regime, the terrors of bombing, the Japanese atrocities in China, the fate of African-Americans in the early 20th century and more. It makes for fairly grim reading. Thankfully, Ferguson is a strong and often witty writer, which alleviates the sadness quite a bit.

One strange bit is the subtitle. It is called the Descent of the West. He doesn't really support the declinist idea in the book, which is too bad, as it is certainly on the tops of peoples minds.

Thanks to that problem and a fair amount of bloat, I have to say that The War of the World isn't Ferguson's best book, but it remains a good, if dark, read.


kwandongbrian said...

I just listened to a podcast of a lecture he gave in Toronto - but can't find the link. controversial is right; I am an anglophile but I am not sure Britain's empire was as wonderful as he makes it to be.

In Boingboing, I just read about a physicist who read read fantasy books as a child. The books had a character with the same name as him and he began to believe he was reading about himself - thing he had forgotten. He imagined himself in those situations, drew out fantastic maps and thousands of pages of further exploits.

I can't find a character named "Tripp", but the disease in King's "The Stand" is called Captain Trip - just sayin'.

Tripp said...

So I believe I am an infectious disease? Hmmm, or does this explain my fascination with the morbid, perhaps?

Citizen Reader said...

Hey Tripp, or should I say Mr. Infectious Disease? (No, that doesn't sound good at all.):
I so want to read this book. Two problems: I just don't think I have the heart for it right now, and wow it's long. But it's definitely one I want to revisit; sounds fascinating.

Tripp said...

This may be one to skim or to skip ahead to the subjects that interest you. The chapters are somewhat independent. But you are right, it is a tad heavy.