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Niall Ferguson

Niall Ferguson

Niall Ferguson is Herzog Professor of Financial History at the Stern School of Business, New York University.  He is also a Senior Research Fellow of Jesus College, Oxford, and a Senior Fellow of the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.  His books for Penguin include The Pity of War, The Cash Nexus, Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World and War of the World.

Visit the War of the World page.

Niall Ferguson talks about his latest book The War of the World

When did your attention first turn to the possibilities of writing about 'The War of the World'?
At least ten years ago, in fact.  I had intended my second book to be about intermarriage and ethnic conflict in the Central and East European borderlands, which is one of the core stories of The War of the World.  But then along came the history of the Rothschilds, The Pity of War, and all the other projects since then, and the idea was nudged on to the backburner.  But I never stopped working on it.  And the more I read, the more I realized that it was a global story.  Indeed, the amount of stuff I accumulated for this book ended up being so huge that the shelves in my study very nearly collapsed under its weight.  On reflection, I think I was probably wise to wait.  It's a tremendously difficult subject and I don't think I was ready for it back then.

Did you have very different aims for the book and for the television series?
Not really, though inevitably the different formats produced differences in content.  The centre of gravity of the book is very clearly the Second World War, whereas the television series gives more even coverage to the twentieth century as a whole.  But my intention was always that the two should be complementary.  You can provide a great deal more supporting evidence in 800 or so pages than is possible in six 55 minute films.  On the other hand, the films let you see fascinating places like Brest-Litovsk, Shenyang, Kursk, Okinawa and Guatemala City - places I suspect few people would visit as tourists.

Did you find your initial views challenged by what you found out during researching and writing?  Despite all you know about the 20th century was there anything you found yourself shocked by in an unexpected way?
Yes, and that's precisely why I found writing this book so exciting.  I went into it with the usual preconceptions and hypotheses.  But - to take just one example - I had never seriously worked through the options open to British politicians in 1938.  I found it immensely exciting to revisit the 'what ifs' about the Second World War, and find that some of my earlier ideas had simply been wrong.  I hadn't fully appreciated the extent of Germany's vulnerablity in 1938 and how right Churchill had been to call for confrontation rather than appeasement.  Likewise, I had never seriously looked at the story of Japan's war in China, which is in many ways where the Second World War begins.  Understanding the Asian war was a huge challenge, but it forced me to rethink not just the war but the entire twentieth century.

If there were just one or two things in The War of the World that you would like your reader to come away with, what would those be?
The most important idea is about the precise causes of extreme violence in the twentieth century.  The fact that it was quite localized in space and in time is the key.  Once you look at the dangerous zones - especially the fatal triangle between the Baltic, the Balkans and the Black Sea - you begin to see the three factors which, in combination, made for really lethal conflict.  Ethnic disintegration, as heterogeneous societies tore themselves apart.  Economic volatility, which disrupted old social orders.  And empires in decline, which caused traditional power structures.  Those three 'e's are the key, I think.  The related point is that, although the war still looms very large in the collective memories of British, American, Canadian and Australasian people, we English-speakers were mostly quite far removed from the war's worst theatres.  Understood as a protracted Eurasian conflict focused on Central and Eastern Europe and Manchuria, Korea and South-East Asia, I think the Second World War looks very different.  Maybe it is better understood as Fifty Years War, running from 1904 to 1953.

The War of the World in many ways carries on a rethinking of the 20th century begun in The Pity of War and carried on in Empire.  What would you like to do next?
I am writing two biographies, one of a financier, Siegmund Warburg, and one of a diplomat (and historian), Henry Kissinger.  It seemed time, after a series of big works of synthesis, to return to archival research and the study of individual lives.

Where did your title come from?
We struggled and struggled to find the right title.  For a long time it was just 'The War'.  Then it nearly became 'The Long War', which would have been a disaster as the Bush administration has just used that name to rebrand the former 'Global War on Terror'.  In the end, it was one of the young creative hotshots [Rob Williams] at Penguin who came up with The War of the World, inspired perhaps by the Spielberg movie based on Wells's The War of the Worlds.  I knew at once that he'd hit the nail on the head and I'm immensely grateful to him, because it helped me to recast the most important of all the book's arguments - the one about how men can treat other human beings as aliens.


You’ve never seen history like it. In Empire, bestselling author Niall Ferguson unravels the controversial and compelling history of the British Empire, and explains how a rainy island in the North Atlantic went on to become one of the biggest empires in all history. Here, Niall Ferguson talks exclusively to about the inspiration behind Empire, and his experiences whilst filming the TV series.

What inspired you to write Empire?
I suppose I had been thinking imperial thoughts for some years. My history of the Rothschild bank ended up having a large section on the Empire, since late nineteenth century imperialism depended so heavily on overseas investment by big City banks like Rothschilds. The Pity of War includes a fairly clear argument about the strengths and weaknesses of the British Empire during the First World War. And, The Cash Nexus, ended with what now seems a rather prescient call for the United States to play a more imperial role.

The more reading I did for those books, particularly of recent British historiography, but also of the growing economics literature on the history of globalization, the more convinced I became that the history of the Empire was being underplayed. That extraordinary achievement, The New Oxford History of the British Empire, was being read by specialists - imperial historians, as they tend to be called - but not more widely. So I was contemplating having a stab at a history of the Empire when the idea of a television series surfaced. That was the catalyst.

Looking further back, I see myself as a late child of Empire. My family, like many Scottish families, had multiple imperial connections: relatives in Canada, uncles who had worked in India, South Africa and the Gulf. Yet I grew up at a time when the Empire had largely gone and its historical reputation was going too. That generation of student radicals who were heaping abuse on imperialism are now of course in power. When you hear the British Foreign Secretary blaming half the world's present ills on the Empire you feel that the subject badly needs a more balanced public airing. This was the perfect opportunity to offer a reassessment of Empire which would make the latest scholarship accessible to the widest possible audience - not to whitewash the Empire, nor to apologize for it, but to offer a history of all its achievements, positive and negative - from enslavement and ethnic cleansing in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, to the extraordinary export of economic liberalism and Christianity in the nineteenth.

How did you tackle such an enormous subject?
With help. Reading Jan Morris's trilogy, and then the Oxford History was a wonderful start. The reading list more or less suggested itself from then on. I was also lucky to have some wonderful research assistants, who diligently responded to my increasingly frantic requests to dig up the details of the first international cricket match or the first cup of tea drunk by an Englishman. Finally there was, for me, the new experience of researching with my feet by actually going to the places I was writing about.


You travelled to many of Britain's former colonies while filming for the Channel 4 series.  What was your most memorable experience, and how did the countries differ from what you expected?
The unforgettable occasion was the religious service I attended at the old Kuruman Mission Church in the north of the Cape Province in South Africa - an astonishing experience. I was quite overwhelmed by the beauty of the choirs that sang there and the intensity of the congregation's faith. But that's only one of many memories: watching the sun set over Simla with the Himalayas in the distance, dancing very ineptly in a Mukuni Village in Zambia, fearing for my life at Freetown Airport...

What did you read when you were growing up?
How long have you got? Relevant authors here were Rudyard Kipling, of course, John Buchan, H. Rider Haggard. I'm afraid I really was raised on tales of imperial adventure. As a teenager, of course, I was taught to despise them all in favour of Tolstoy and Thomas Mann. Quite wrongly.

Is there a particular book or author that has had a significant influence on you as a writer?
This project owes a huge debt to a huge legion of historians of Empire - the names that spring immediately to mind are Chris Bayly, Patrick O'Brien and Wm. Roger Louis.

Did you know?
I really did go around the world in 80 days - well, 99 to be precise - to make the series.

In an exclusive interview Niall Ferguson talks about the lessons of the past, the U.S. elections, greed, Harry Potter and the joys of reading

Economics is generally conceived as a difficult, dry subject. In The Pity of War you were writing about something that is so much tied up with human emotions and passions - nationalism and victory - was it a challenge to write about a subject that so many people feel distanced from?
Carlyle called it 'the dismal science', and he gave me the title 'The Cash Nexus' so he must have had the right idea, I think. Yes, economics has become a very dismal, and impenetrable, science - or pseudo-science. What I was trying to do was to talk about financial issues without being an economist, and making a virtue of the fact that I'm not. You're right - war is about passion. But greed is a passion, and for some people money is a passion, although most aren't pure capitalists. Most people don't want to think about taxation, interest rates, their pensions. There's a resistance to these things, and I think economics has made it worse by turning it into mathematics.

It seems to me that we can't leave out this dominant part of modern life and say that it's boring, because to me it is inseparable from understanding how the World Wars happened, why one side won, not the other - and equally, if you're interested in politics, you can write a million biographies of a million Prime Ministers and not understand a thing if you don't understand how party political finance works. That seems to me much more important than charismatic leadership, in the modern world. You don't think Bush won that election just because he's a charismatic leader. He won that election in part because he managed to raise a hell of a lot more money than Gore in that campaign. The Cash Nexus makes these dismal subjects undismal by showing that in fact they connect with the real world - that in fact war is why financial systems evolve, and the reason we pay the income tax that we do lies in history; it's not some theoretical phenomenon.

So is that how this book was born - as a logical progression from your two previous books, The World's Banker, which was about the Rothschilds, and The Pity of War?
Definitely. The effect of writing those two books - and of course The Pity of War was a lot about economics as well as about war - was that I suddenly realised that there was a general argument coming out of both of those books about the nature of power, and I wasn't really going to be happy with this section of my work if I didn't finish it off. The theoretical hunch was that power is something that can be nailed down, and that its root is in economics.

It must be quite gratifying when events in the news prove your theories - the fuel crisis, and the Bush/Gore election result ...
Yes, it is. I felt utter glee when Bush won the election, for no other reason than that it meant that what I had always felt about the relationship between economics and politics was right. Political commentators so often see economic prosperity as guaranteeing re-election, but if that was the case then Labour would have got in in 1992, and the Conservatives in 1997, when of course the opposite happened. The Bush/Gore election was a close-run thing, but I had a strong hunch that Bush would win, because that is what history has shown to be the case.

So if Bush won the election partly because he was able to raise more money, where does the power lie? In having cash put to one side for if and when you need it, or being able to spend it as and when you like?
One thing I wasn't taught properly in my financial education as a child, which focused always on saving money, is that the real importance - the key - is being able to borrow money, it's not actually about saving. In many ways, saving has been a completely disastrous strategy, because anyone who saved money from about 1914 was shattered by inflation. The real key to power is being able to borrow. Whether you're talking about great powers engaging in the big wars that shaped modern history, or whether you're talking about political parties. In effect, the political parties are borrowing money when they're getting donations.

Surely that's the best kind of borrowing - the type you don't have to pay back ...
Yes, although of course they do have to pay it back, in favours. The problem with political finance is the same problem with wars - which is that they come along irregularly: elections every four or five years, or longer in the case of wars, and it's impossible suddenly to jack up your revenue to the level you need, so the question is how can you rustle up the money? So debt is at the heart of the argument. There are some ways of borrowing money which are absolutely disastrous and unsustainable - which is why you get the failure of the French in the 18th century and their descent into Revolution. It was partly because the French didn't have a way of borrowing money that worked, and eventually the only way forward was complete political revolution.

But Bush was able to command the money - as indeed the Americans seem always to be able to do ...
Yes. America now is in much the same position as the British Empire was, controlling a vast proportion of the world's wealth. But it seems to me that America's power is much less sustainable, because they aren't using their position to maintain a sustainable situation in the less powerful countries. After the Second World War of course they very much imposed a new political system on Germany and Japan, and that has been immensely successful in getting those countries back on their feet. But attitudes have changed - I think partly because of their experience with the Vietnam War, and partly because voters are extremely wary of any sense of American imperialism. So instead they are using the power of their wealth to allow their people almost unlimited consumerism. Which is, I feel, a disastrous strategy. How much can people eat? It would be much better for the Americans to use their power to restore political order around the world. For example, with Iraq - potentially a hugely rich area, governed by a man who in effect is simply a troublesome local despot, and yet they're not really doing anything to improve the situation.

It's interesting that you talk about consumerism. There are many people now who would argue - and who are terrified by the prospect - that there are companies now whose wealth is so huge that they are perceived in many ways as being more powerful than small countries.
Yes, the backlash against globalisation is interesting. But what the protestors in Seattle and Prague don't realise is that in fact those companies cannot operate without the state. They would much rather be working in a country with a well-run political system, because it gives them a smooth playing field. So although those companies have influence because of their wealth, they find it very difficult to operate without strong and stable government. Nike and The Gap and so on will never replace the state in terms of power.

Paul Kennedy in his Decline and Fall of the Great Powers, said that power lies in the ability to produce pig-iron, when in fact the power is being able to buy pig-iron when you need it.

So the Cash Nexus is more than a history of the relationship between power and money - it's also communicating the importance of finance, and understanding its role in all our lives?
Many people are reluctant to understand these things. Compared with sex, money is strangely boring to most people, and yet it's so important, and so much a part of people's lives, that I have this kind of missionary zeal about it - I really want people to understand it because it's everywhere.

I've been reading the Harry Potter books to my children, for example, and Gringots - the goblin bank - is like a magical version of Rothschilds. Without his stash of gold there, Harry would be entirely dependent on the ghastly Dursleys. From the earliest ages now, children are aware of money. They're introduced to consumption much earlier, whereas we were introduced to saving. I spend my whole life trying to save money, for no apparent reason except that it's what I was taught to do - and I'm sure that was one of the origins of this book - childhood obsessions with money ... If people come away from The Cash Nexus thinking: 'Now I understand why I pay the income tax that I do, now I understand that money is more than just a dull thing that I'm obliged to try and find time for in my life,' then I will have achieved my goal.


What's Niall Ferguson Reading?

Who or what has been your greatest influence?
Everyone from Robert Burns to John Maynard Keynes: a very wide range of influences... Keynes for his thirst to understand and enliven economic questions, and Burns for his ability to remind us that in the end it's all about human passions.

What do you read when you can't get to sleep at night?
Anything and everything - it's a ritual with me that I can't get to sleep, however tired I am, unless I read first. Robert Louis Stevenson is a particular favourite. I read The Master of Ballantrae for the first time this summer, and loved it.

Which book that you've read in the last year has stayed with you the most?
The Master and Margarita. It's one of the greatest novels ever written - even Stevenson can't match it. I like books with a bit of the devil in them - if Penguin ever did an anthology of literature in which the devil plays a part, that would be a wonderful thing.

What are you reading at the moment?
Patrick Leigh Fermour's A Time of Gifts, which is absolutely wonderful, and also Robert Musil's The Man without Qualities - a chapter at a time...