We do not hear much about the Armenian genocide of 1915. Even less well known is the Turk’s expulsion of the Greeks of Western Anatolia and the Pontic coast in the years after World War I. At Smyrna, Greek and Armenian Christians were literally driven into the sea or massacred. Shockingly, nearly 20 British, French, and American warships stood offshore, observing. “What better symbol could be imagined of the decline of the West,” writes British historian Niall Ferguson, “than the brutal expulsion of the heirs of Hellenic civilization from Asia Minor—except perhaps the utter failure of the heirs of ancient Greek democracy to do anything to prevent it?”
While agreeing wholeheartedly, I can’t help but recall Ferguson’s previous book, Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire (2004), which argues that Turkey should be welcomed into the European Union. “The economic case has been growing stronger,” what with all that cheap labor available, and the “strategic arguments . . . are compelling.” (Ferguson thinks it will “bind Turkey to the West.”) The argument goes something like this: A “European” Turkey will serve not only as a buffer against Middle Eastern disorder but as a model for moderate, Westernized Islam. (We were told the same thing about Iraq.) The alternative is an embittered “Islamofascist” Turkey, bent on taking revenge upon the West.
The explicit threat—let us in, or we’ll become your enemy—is reason enough to toss out the membership application, but strategic considerations should rule it out anyway. Consider what the admission of Turkey to the European Union would mean. It would extend the borders of “Europe” deep into Central Asia, creating an indefensible promontory, and allow Syria, Iraq, and Iran to share a border with Europe. It would set a precedent for the admission of additional non-European and Islamic countries. (Already Lebanon, Jordan, Tunisia, and Morocco have been mentioned in this connection.) It would flood Europe with millions of Turkish, and millions more Middle Eastern and Central Asian, migrants, who would trudge across the new “bridge” to Europe. Why import such dangerous diversity? This is especially lethal in an age of Islamic terrorism, when, as Ferguson himself writes, “it takes only a few would-be martyrs within a single Muslim community to produce a calamity.” The price of safety for such multicultural indulgences, across Europe and North America, is already being paid: a progressive shrinking of our traditional freedoms.
Professor Ferguson is known for both his scholarly productivity and his media ubiquity. In addition to his numerous books, he writes a regular column for the London Telegraph and short articles for American magazines, and he has written and presented three television documentaries for the BBC, each adapted from one of his books—Empire, Colossus, and now The War of the World. The common theme running through them all is the necessity of “liberal” (i.e., anglophone) empire to progress, stability, and civilization. A secondary theme is the strategic blundering that undid the Western imperium. Yet many of the greatest blunders go unnoticed by Mr. Ferguson.
Nowhere in War of the World does he define “the West,” which is a significant failure. As Ferguson himself admits, “to define is to delimit” and, hence, to exclude; and he doesn’t want to do that. Exclusion is incompatible with the free movement of labor that is essential to the globalism Ferguson sees as the highest expression of capitalism and liberal empire in its economic aspect. So when he does define the West—in an article in Vanity Fair (“Empire Falls,” October 2006)—he does so ideologically, as “that distinctive complex of beliefs and institutions which originated with the Greeks,” leaving the door open to anyone in the world willing to pay lip service to certain platitudes. I would argue that the West is what it is—a geography, a people, and a history—and that Islam and other Eastern religions are excluded from it by definition.
By the descent of the West, Ferguson means two things: first, the descent of Western civilization into the barbarism, cruelty, and destruction that marked the years between 1914 and 1945; and, second, the catastrophic result, “the decomposition of the European empires that had dominated the world at the beginning of the century.” In 1900, the West ruled the world, and an Englishman could travel across it in ease and comfort without a passport. After the devastating warfare of 1914-18 and 1939-45, Ferguson laments, both conditions were lost. Thus, it is British and European imperial decline that concerns him, together with the suicidal warfare that he sees as its chief cause—not the cultural, moral, and demographic decline, which he does discuss in the aforementioned Vanity Fair article.
Much of War of the World chronicles the savage and horrific violence that characterized the first half of the 20th century. To explain this, Ferguson invokes a “fatal formula” of ethnic conflict, economic volatility, and imperial decline. It all started with a rise in racial and national thinking, which inhibited the assimilation of minorities and created a dangerous aspiration for national unity and self-determination. All that was necessary for a conflagration was political fragmentation and economic hardship, and, when those followed in the aftermath of the Great War, it was only a matter of time before the match was struck.
It is an explanation worthy of a social scientist, pleasing to the advocates of an American world empire. But history is more complicated than that. Albert Camus believed in the “general culpability of a civilization” and pointed to “the historic responsibilities of Western nihilism.” Georges Bernanos saw in National Socialism a “return to pagan Rome.” Sophia Scholl, a German patriot who was executed in 1943 for distributing anti-Nazi leaflets, believed that Europe’s turn away from God left it vulnerable to the lies of the Adversary. “Whoever still doubts the reality, the existence, of demonic powers has failed by a wide margin to understand the metaphysical background of this war.”
There was a political background as well, but it was not imperial break-up. While not slighting the demoralizing effects of “inflation, over-industrialization, and unemployment,” Simone Weil cited “the humiliation of 1918.” Camus, her compatriot and fellow member of the French resistance, agreed. “In Germany, shaken by calamitous war, by defeat, and by economic distress, values no longer existed.” Jorge Luis Borges, who, in 1938, admitted to being “devastated” by Germany’s “chaotic descent into darkness,” nevertheless did not blame her for repudiating an unjust and vindictive postwar settlement. “I find it normal for the Germans to reject the treaty of Versailles. (There is no good European who does not detest that ruthless contrivance.)”
Ferguson does not see it that way. In The Pity of War (1999), his mildly revisionist study of World War I and the predecessor of The War of the World, he absolves the Treaty of Versailles of any responsibility for the emergence of a virulent form of German revanchism. “The real problem with the peace was not that it was too harsh, but that the Allies failed to enforce it.” Ferguson even faults John Maynard Keynes, the author of the brilliant exposé The Economic Consequences of the Peace (1919), for contributing to the undeserved “guilty feeling of having wronged Germany which so inhibited British diplomacy between the two wars.” He is right to suggest that the Germans shot themselves in the foot trying to lighten the burden of reparations (they deliberately inflated their currency and ran up large deficits) but omits to mention that they would never have adopted such desperate expedients without the indemnity. He apparently regards the war-guilt clause as so unimportant that he lets it go unmentioned, and he sees the loss of German colonies and contiguous territories as insignificant. He also ignores Britain’s starvation blockade of Germany, which continued until Germany signed the infamous treaty.
In crafting their punitive peace, the Anglo-French victors ignored Machiavelli’s admonition to avoid the middle policy when treating a defeated enemy. He must either be crushed or conciliated; halfway measures simply temper resentment with the hope of revenge. As Germany did not deserve to be crushed, she should have been conciliated. Second, England and France acquiesced in the Bolshevik takeover of Russia. (Their intervention was half-hearted and quickly abandoned.) This was more than stupid and shortsighted; it was a betrayal of their Russian allies.
Ferguson is correct about the miscalculations of Whitehall diplomacy leading up to the war. The British increased the probability of war by signing the Triple Entente in 1904, thus completing the diplomatic and military encirclement of Germany. Then they needlessly turned a continental war into a worldwide one by backing France in 1914. This is the most controversial argument of Ferguson’s Pity of War: A German victory on the Continent would have threatened neither England nor her empire. Not so a German defeat, which gravely weakened both. Hence the “pity” of a war Ferguson considers “the greatest error of modern history.”
That raises questions that Ferguson grapples with in War of the World. Why did Britain’s leaders choose to take part in the final act of Western imperial suicide? By declaring war on Germany in 1939, did they not repeat the error of 1914? Why not come to an understanding with Hitler, allowing him a free hand in Eastern Europe, in return for leaving Western Europe and the British Empire alone? Ferguson’s answer is that Hitler could not be trusted, that his Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine posed a lethal threat to the homeland. Britain had to fight, again. But was that not to will the final act of destruction? Ferguson perceives a way out of the grim dilemma: preemptive war. Britain and France should have gone to war in 1938 over the Sudetenland: “Germany was simply not ready for a European war in 1938.”
But were the French and British people ready for such a military adventure, especially one that might have turned into a long, hard fight? This assumption appears to be what Ferguson elsewhere derides as “counter-factual without political plausibility.” He imagines a quick Anglo-French victory, achieved with the help of the Soviet Union. But Ferguson does not take into account the power of nationalism—an habitual weakness of the neoconservative mind. (Consider Iraq.) When allied tanks rumbled into the Rhineland, outraged Germans would have rallied behind Hitler and fought like tigers in defense of their violated homeland. In such a war, Germany would have appeared, and would have had some claim to be, the aggrieved party, especially had the Red Army attacked from the east. (We must keep in mind that the evil of the Hitler regime was not yet revealed in its totality.) And even had the Germans been overcome, would their defeat have led to a lasting peace, or merely a third European war?
Instead, the British should have followed a policy of containment, an option Ferguson does not consider. They could have declared a western security perimeter (France, Belgium, Holland, and Norway) and continued to rearm, thus putting Hitler’s professions of good will toward the West to the test. If the war had come anyway (either because Hitler attacked them, or because they decided they could not tolerate the death camps), they would have been better prepared than they were in 1939.
Ferguson rightly considers the Allied victory to have been morally “tainted”; wrongly, he believes that taint unavoidable. For instance, he justifies the terror bombing of German cities on the grounds of military necessity: It impeded German armament production and forced the Luftwaffe to withdraw antiaircraft guns and fighter planes from the Eastern Front. True, but utilitarian considerations cannot justify murdering civilians and destroying cities.
Ferguson defends the Soviet alliance on similar grounds. (One must on occasion ally oneself with a lesser evil in order to defeat a greater one.) But was that alliance really necessary, or was it merely expedient? The Atlantic powers could have waged a separate war against Nazi Germany and, after defeating her, declared war on Soviet Russia. (Solzhenitsyn has been making this argument for 60 years.) Another option: They might have offered the Germans generous peace terms, on condition that they overthrow Hitler and prosecute the Nazi leadership for war crimes. This strategy might have induced the Wehrmacht divisions in the west to surrender, thereby shortening the war and keeping the Red Army out of Central Europe.
In 1934, Lord Chatterfield observed that “we have got most of the world already or the best parts of it, and we only want to keep what we have got and to prevent others from taking it away from us.” It was sound advice then, but even more so today, when overpopulation, resource scarcity, water shortages, climate change, and environmental crisis threaten the world. It remains the most vital task of Western statesmanship to act upon it.
[The War of the World: Twentieth-Century Conflict and the Descent of the West, by Niall Ferguson (New York: The Penguin Press) 808 pp., $32.95]