Fiction as Evidence

Niall Ferguson’s The War of the World is better than some rather carping reviewers might have you believe. It’s an ambitious (and snappily-written) re-thinking of twentieth-century history, seeing the collapse of empires and conflict between races as the root causes of “the century of hatred”. Ferguson started in economic history, and this gives him access to some good insights – for example, when he demonstrates the unexpectedness (and non-inevitability) of the Great War by showing how it took the stock markets and the Rothschilds by surprise.

I’ve got a couple of cavils, though. First, there’s a 47-page bibliography, but no footnotes. So when he tells you something intriguing – for instance when he suggests that the nearest thing to a British pogrom was when striking miners in Tredegar attacked Jewish businesses in 1911, presumably the details are in some book listed in those 47 pages, but there’s no hint where.

He other thing that bothers me is his occasional use of novels as historical evidence. So that when he writes about troop morale he cites – without reservation, as though they were transparent primary sources – Her Privates We, Barbuse’s Le Feu, and All Quiet on the Western Front. But Le Feu was written with a definite political purpose, Manning was writing several years after the event, and Remarque was both writing years later and definitely had grievances to parade. Later Ferguson uses in similar ways Andric’s Bridge over the Drina (1945)and a novel by Joseph Roth, also written many years later.

Reading lots of Great War novels, I’ve become more and more aware that you can never take them as uncomplicated renditions of reality, most of all when they pretend to be. Many are semi-autobiographical and have the tang of truth, but you always need to remember that they were written by an individual, for a certain type of audience, within certain constraints of context (and sometimes censorship) and for a particular purpose. Texts are not merely representations of a situation, they are actions within a situation.

I don’t particularly disagree with the unsurprising conclusions that Ferguson draws from his fictional texts, only with the way he draws them. And I just feel that he’d have got a subtler account of poilus’ political opinions from the trench newspapers analysed in Audoin-Rozeau’s Men at Arms than he gets from Barbusse.

But I still feel his book is worth reading.

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