Niall Ferguson Interview (2006): Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley
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Niall, welcome back to our program.
It's nice to be back, Harry.
When did you conceive the idea of this book?
It was about ten years ago. There was a proposal for a book that was going to be concerned with World War II but also with ethnic conflict in Central and Eastern Europe, and in the intervening period I did a few other things but the project rolled on. I kept gathering material and accumulating photocopies in the way that one does, always thinking how best to turn this into a viable project. In the last, I guess, eighteen months it came together very fast, partly because I turned it into a television series in Britain which I hope will be shown in the U.S. at some point, but also because I had a book deadline. So, there was a frantic writing period, but I was writing up stuff I'd been thinking about and teaching for really quite a long time.
Does the actual writing come naturally after you've dug in and done the research?
Pretty much. I think thinking is the hardest bit about doing history. There's a certain easiness about just absorbing lots and lots and lots of material, and when I looked at my shelves just before I started writing, I lined all the material up and sorted it into roughly the boxes I wanted it in, and I had some of it in electronic format. You know how these things are. At some level historians are beachcombers who just go around picking stuff up and they carry it around in the equivalent of lots and lots of plastic bags. But when I lined all the material up I was rather daunted because I had accumulated a lot over the years. Getting that raw material into a structure is the hard bit.
One of the advantages of using television as a medium is that you're forced to get the structure right, because there are not that many words in an hour of television. Once you've boiled it down into six hours you've got a structure which is pretty robust, mainly because you re-drafted the script twenty times. Once that's done, the writing of the book, which in a sense fleshes out this skeletal structure, is very straightforward. It's all in there, you just have to have enough hours in a day to get it done.
It's interesting because you're suggesting a synergy between the work of scholarship and the work of doing something for television. Oftentimes one only does only one component, that you've just described. Oftentimes they don't inform each other in a way that's clearly going on in your case.
I'm unusual in feeling that they're not in a sense incompatible and that one can address an audience of several million television viewers with essentially the same storyline, the same conceptual framework, the same argument as you then use to address a significantly smaller audience of book readers. This is a substantial book; it contains vastly many more words than the television series, but the conceptual framework's the same. I think the book benefits from having been written that way around, first the script, first the structure, and then the detail. I did the same with another book, Empire, and it worked well. I think Empire has a lot of narrative drive precisely because in its first incarnation it was a television series, and I hope the same is true of this book too.
I'm curious what's going on in the world as you're writing and thinking about the book, on the one hand, and then on the other hand, unanswered or incorrectly answered historical questions -- is that going on in your mind as you're gathering this material? Some of the topics you touch on have a very great relevance for contemporary events.
A central issue when I embarked on the project all those years ago was the nature of ethnic conflict, and I had a hypothesis which makes me sound a little like a social scientist, but the hypothesis was that we need to understand ethnic conflict as in some measure a backlash against processes of integration and assimilation that have somehow malfunctioned. I was reacting against a school of thought that was reaching its zenith at the time of the war in Bosnia, which said essentially that ethnic conflict is the result of ancient hatreds. That was a catch-phrase much in use in London in the early 1990s, and I strongly suspected that that was wrong. I felt the same way about the book Daniel Goldhagen wrote, Those Willing Executioners, which postulated that the Holocaust was based on an ancient, deep-rooted German eliminationist anti-Semitism. I'd done enough work on the German Jewish milieu in previous projects to be deeply skeptical about this proposition because it seemed to me that the reality was that if any ethnic minority in the world was successfully assimilated and integrated into a "host" society it was Jews in Germany by the later 1920s. I got this hypothesis that maybe we had to understand ethnic conflict as a backlash against assimilation rather than the combination of centuries of hatred. So, that was the starting point, and it was informed partly, as you said, by events that were going on. We were engulfed in a sense by ethnic conflicts in the 1990s when I was first thinking about the book, but also I was reacting against a theme in recent scholarship on the Third Reich and more generally on the mid-century crisis.
It's a big book, and so let me give you an exam question. Could you very briefly state the main thesis of the whole book? And then we'll break that apart.
Sure. The "War of the World" itself needs some explanation as a title. It's an allusion obviously to H.G. Wells' science fiction classic The War of the Worlds, which has had many movie and radio incarnations, and the central theme is that what Wells imagined happening, that's to say a city laid waste by hostile invaders with very powerful weaponry, did in fact happen. It's just that we didn't need Martians to invade the earth for London to be bombed to rubble. We had other human beings to do it. The question was, why was it that in the twentieth century there was so much of the violence of the sort Wells imagined, so many cities devastated, so many populations laid waste, without any need for alien invaders? Why were we the aliens? Why did we treat other human beings as aliens? That's the central question that the books asks.
It's an answer to the question, why was the twentieth century so violent, to put it very crudely, and an attempt to resolve a paradox, since the twentieth century was also the most extraordinary century in terms of economic, scientific, and other forms of progress.
Now, having posed the question that way, why so much violence amid so much progress, I then had to break it down. I broke it down by saying, okay, twentieth-century violence isn't evenly distributed, it's heavily concentrated in certain places at certain times. For example, Ukraine is not a great place to be born in, say, 1904. Your chances of dying a violent death, particularly if you're a male, are fantastically high. Whereas I was born in Scotland in 1964, and nobody's fired a bullet at me to date. That seems to me to be an important insight. All the previous explanations I knew of to try to unravel the violence of the twentieth century couldn't help me with timing or with location. They were all far too general: it was the technology, or wicked leaders, or evil and extreme ideologies. None of these things tell you why Ukraine is more dangerous than Scotland and why 1904 is more dangerous than 1964.
The book has a very simple, three-part answer to this question. It says that there are three things that help you identify the timing and location of very extreme, violent events. One is economic volatility. It's the economically bumpy times that tend to coincide with violence. The second is ethnic disintegration. It's multiethnic societies that are the most dangerous ones. When they tear one another apart you get much, much more violence than elsewhere. And finally, it's when empires decline that violence is most likely to escalate, and many, many empires declined and fell in the course of the twentieth century. I think it was about twelve in all. So, there you have a three-part answer, and you'll notice that each of my parts begins with the letter E, which from my point of view makes it much easier to remember.
Easier to place it on the bookstore bookshelf.
It's an aid to memory because if I'm trying to answer a question as difficult as that on a regular basis, it helps to have a mnemonic.
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