Why, if life was improving so rapidly for so many people at the dawn of the 20th century, were the next hundred years full of brutal conflict? Ferguson (Colossus) has a relatively simple answer: ethnic unrest is prone to break out during periods of economic volatility—booms as well as busts. When they take place in or near areas of imperial decline or transition, the unrest is more likely to escalate into full-scale conflict. This compelling theory is applicable to the Armenian genocide in Turkey, the slaughter of the Tutsis in Rwanda or the "ethnic cleansing" perpetrated against Bosnians, but the overwhelming majority of Ferguson's analysis is devoted to the two world wars and the fate of the Jews in Germany and eastern Europe. His richly informed analysis overturns many basic assumptions. For example, he argues that England's appeasement of Hitler in 1938 didn't lead to WWII, but was a misinformed response to a war that had started as early as 1935. But with Ferguson's claims about "the descent of the West" and the smaller wars in the latter half of the century tucked away into a comparatively brief epilogue, his thoughtful study falls short of its epic promise. (Sept. 25)
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Ferguson's broadest work to date, this sprawling book folds the author's previous theories of empire and economics into an international history of twentieth-century violence. What went wrong with modernity, he asks, such that the Fifty Years War from 1904 to 1953 could be the bloodiest in history, and why did so much violence happen at particular times (such as the early 1940s) and particular places (such as eastern Europe)? To the common answers of ethnic conflict and economic volatility, Ferguson adds, perhaps unsurprisingly, the decline of empires. Consistent with Empire and Colossus, the problem was frequently that the empires of the twentieth century were too strong not to fight, but that they were too weak, as illustrated by an analysis of Britain's reluctance to intervene in Germany before 1939. Coupled with ubiquitous and persistent notions of racial superiority and the ill-fitting contours of nation-states, the borderlands of empires--Manchuria, Poland, the Balkans--became the killing fields of the twentieth century. In chronicling what he labels the "descent of the West," Ferguson challenges many scholars on many fronts, and deploys a broad spectrum of sources--from war novels to population data to his perennial attention to the bond markets. His ultimate conclusion--that the War of the World was the suicide of the West--is tinged with regret about what might have been, and perhaps even a Gibbon-esque anxiety about the coming Asian century. Brendan Driscoll
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I really enjoy Niall Ferguson's writing, he always manages to include really interesting facts that keep my attention throughout the book. His arguments are effective as well.Published 18 months ago by Kelsi
Not what I was hoping for. I was expecting more a study of 20th century history and less on the dry listing of historical facts. Unfortunately, the book doesn't deliver. Read morePublished on Dec 29 2010 by CDD