Bookmarks Issue: 

Twentieth Century Conflict and the Descent of the West

A-The War of the WorldBy a conservative estimate, the number of deaths through war and large-scale violence during the 20th century is around 200 million. What did those conflicts have in common? According to prolific historian Niall Ferguson, three factors allowed despots such as Vladimir Lenin, Adolf Hitler, Mao Zedong, and others to establish a foothold in their respective countries: ethnic unrest, economic booms and busts, and the rise of centralized empires. Using World War II as the starting point and the primary focus of his study, Ferguson recaps a century that saw few periods of peace and, in the author’s words, "not the triumph of the West, but rather the crisis of the European empires and … the descent of the West."
Penguin. 880 pages. $35. ISBN: 1594201005

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"A sweeping and handsomely controlled narrative in which [Ferguson] balances wide-screen storytelling and close-focus anecdote, character sketch, and psychological insight with analysis and counterfactual speculation. Even those who have read widely in 20th-century history will find fresh, surprising details." Lance Morrow

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"With such a theme, Mr. Ferguson has set himself an enormous undertaking, but he is more than up to the task. Again he shows himself to be a writer of extraordinary energy and versatility." Norman Stone

Washington Times 4 of 5 Stars
"One of Mr. Ferguson’s singular contributions here is to put the violence of the Holocaust into the narrative of ethnic violence reaching back to the turn of the century. … It is a book that requires effort but one that pays rich dividends." David A. Smith

Denver Post 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Everyone already knows that poison gas and trench warfare, extermination camps and the firebombing of cities made the 20th century the bloodiest in modern history. What you hope for in this huge book is an interpretive clue: Why did men rain death down on fellow beings as if they were aliens?" David Poundstone

San Francisco Chronicle 3.5 of 5 Stars
"For all the book’s strengths, its lofty subtitle, Twentieth-Century Conflict and the Descent of the West, is deceptive. … But while Ferguson may … have prematurely sounded the death knell of the West, The War of the World remains a tour de force." Noam Lupu

Critical Summary

Niall Ferguson, Oxford and Harvard historian and author of Empire ( 3.5 of 5 Stars July/Aug 2003), Colossus ( 2.5 of 5 Stars Sept/Oct 2004), and The Pity of War: Explaining World War One (1998), examines humankind’s seemingly insatiable appetite for violence. Combining sweeping overviews and more intimate anecdotes and profiles, Ferguson—at 42, one of Time magazine’s "100 Most Influential People"—offers keen, fresh insight (even if critics differ on the success of his thesis) and interprets the major military events of the 20th century. The book’s subtitle is misleading, as Ferguson focuses on World War II, leaving too brief a space in which to discuss the numerous important conflicts that occurred between 1945 and 2000. Even critics skeptical of Ferguson’s direction, however, agree that the book is a worthy historical analysis from a formidable talent.