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ISSN 1749-8155

Response to Review no. 72Printer-friendly versionPDF version

Niall Ferguson2009-09-01T14:52:30+01:00

During the First World, the Germans evolved a tactic known as ‘defence in depth’. Instead of concentrating their forces along a front line, they deployed nests of machine gunners across a broad band and kept a substantial force in the rear for a counter-attack.

There is something of the defence in depth about Jay Winter’s review of my book The Pity of War. As he observes, those sections of the book which deal with the economic history of the war ‘present a case which is at variance with that offered by many scholars including my own’. When writing them, I admit that I did wonder with some trepidation what response my argument would elicit from Professor Winter, who has devoted so much of his career to studying the war’s social history, and whose work I have long admired.

A core argument in Winter’s work is that the Germans lost the war because their war economy was mismanaged compared with those of Britain and France, and that this led to ultimately fatal internal weakness. Chapters nine and eleven of my book take a diametrically opposite line, showing that, by any meaningful measure of economic efficiency at war, it was the Entente powers which did badly. I reject the thesis that the Germans lost the war for internal reasons, showing that the main ‘losers’ of wartime privation were marginal groups irrelevant to German political stability.

Winter generously acknowledges that this is ‘a powerful argument’. Unfortunately, he does not give readers of Reviews in History his answer to it, saying only that it ‘requires a considered answer well beyond the scope this review’. In other words, we are promised a counter-attack – but not yet.

Instead, Winter has smuggled into his review of The Pity of War a review of another book of mine, Virtual History, in that most of his criticisms are directed at my use of counterfactual arguments. In my introduction to Virtual History I did my best to counter the familiar E. H. Carr-type arguments against counterfactuals. I tried to show why historians making statements about causation necessarily base them on either ‘covering laws’ or counterfactuals. Winter is unconvinced. He sees my counterfactual arguments as being ‘in the no mans land between projection and prediction’. ‘History,’ he tells us, ‘is too messy for real predictions to emerge from conflicting and incomplete evidence.’ ‘Too many variables are unknown to us to accept [counterfactual] statements as useful.’

This is a counsel of despair not unlike John Vincent view that historians simply cannot make statements about causation, and I could accept it if Winter abstained from making such statements. But he does not. He implies, for example, that if Britain had stayed out of the war, the French would not have been defeated by the Germans. (Incidentally, I do not say that they would have been defeated in 1914, as he seems to think, but rather later, perhaps in 1915 or 1916.) But we have enough evidence of French reliance on British reinforcements by 1916, to say nothing of British economic support from early on, to know that this is implausible. Imagine (for example) Verdun without the Somme to distract German forces. Could the French possibly have held out on the Western Front alone? Winter’s counterfactual, not mine, is the weak one.

Similarly, Winter says that I am ‘almost certainly mistaken’ to think that ‘one reason so many men volunteered in the first weeks of the war [in Britain’ was that unemployment soared’. He should look again at figures 8 and 10, which clearly show that the peaks of unemployment and enlistment coincide. Then he should consider the counterfactual his own position implies: that enlistment would have been just as high in August and September 1914 if unemployment had been unaffected by the outbreak of war. Again, his counterfactual is the one which lacks plausibility.

Another implied counterfactual in the whole review comes at the end, when ‘Winter says that British and French soldiers . . . were defending . . . what they saw as a way of life . . . I am persuaded that they were right.’ Very good; but if he is to persuade anyone else of this he must first provide some evidence that if the Germans had won the war, they would have significantly changed the British and French way of life. He cannot just assume it. Once again, Winter’s assertion implies a counterfactual – or, alternatively, a covering law that victors in wars always change the way of life of losers (which is not true).

Winter also misrepresents my argument about post-war stabilisation in Germany. To say that a rate of unemployment of around 10 per cent ... would have represented a significantly "softer landing" [for the German economy] than that of 1923/24’ is not the same as saying ‘joblessness leads to stability’ (Winter’s formulation). My point is that the much higher unemployment of 1923/24 destabilised Weimar Germany more than a lower level would have in 1920/21, if the Germans had stopped printing money at an earlier stage. In other words, ‘less joblessness leads to stability’.

Another quirk of Winter’s defence in depth is the ad hominem attack on my politics. He asserts that I was ‘an active member of the Conservative party in the Thatcher years’ and refers to a ‘conservative project’ lurking between the lines of The Pity of War. As a matter of fact, I have never been a member of the Conservative Party, though I certainly was supportive of many of the policies of the Thatcher governments. But the idea that this has a bearing on The Pity of War – also expressed by R. W. Johnson in his review of the book in the London Review of Books – is odd. One of my core arguments is that Britain should have stayed out of the First World War. Far from being a ‘Conservative’ argument, this was precisely the argument made by the Independent Labour Party and the more radical Liberals at the time. I am surprised that both reviewers, whose past political allegiances are unknown and uninteresting to me, should have missed this.

Finally, Winter’s claim that I do not place the domestic political considerations which influenced the British decision for war alongside the others is unjust. He quotes from my conclusion, which is a summary of the previous chapters. Had he gone back and re-read chapter 6, he would have remembered that I deal with all the other relevant considerations.

Having said all that, I am grateful to Jay Winter for his review; and I look forward to reading at some future date his ‘considered answer’ to my critique of his own work. It promises to be a formidable counter-attack when it comes.