The War of the World, Niall Ferguson’s attempt to identify the macrotrends of the twentieth century and divine where humanity is headed next, has all the characteristics of the typical Ferguson tome: sweeping scope, counterintuitive hypotheses to explain world-shaking events, great narrative drive, and detail drawn from a huge and eclectic mix of sources that render how events were experienced and interpreted by individuals. Compared to
Through hundreds of pages detailing mass slaughter by the Nazis, Soviets, Japanese and allied powers, the central thesis – the steady decline of the West throughout the century – seems almost a non sequitur. Of course the Western powers had less absolute governmental control and economic dominance in 2000 than in 1900 - but that would have been true even if the 20th century had unfolded in Utopian harmony and unchecked economic growth. Indeed, those Westerners who scared up the specter of the “yellow peril” in the early 1900s would probably have been surprised by the extent of American and European economic dominance, not to mention American military dominance, a century later.
A third thesis – that the ethnic powder keg was generally touched off in periods of economic volatility – is interesting, but
The War of the World exhausts and troubles the reader by the sheer weight and depth of its chronicle of ‘what man has done to man.’ By reminding us of the sudden descent into violence following the long period of relative peace and globalization leading up to World War I, it leaves one haunted by the sense that the next cataclysm may be just around the corner.