Niall Ferguson Interview (2006): Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

The War of the World: Conversation with Niall Ferguson, Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History, Harvard University; October 19, 2006, by Harry Kreisler

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Empire Breakdown and Economic Volatility

Your second point of analysis is that we are witnessing during this period the breakdown of the old multinational empire which [had] governed in an almost "laid back" [manner], a tolerance of different communities creating situations where they could live side by side, although developments then led to different hierarchies, which became a problem.

This is why the breakdown of empire is an integral part of the story. Clearly there were multiethnic communities in North America; this wasn't unique to Central and Eastern Europe. New York was one of the cities with the largest immigrant Jewish population in the world in 1900, but New York doesn't become one of the killing fields of the twentieth century. Why not? Well, the answer is that it's very far from the imperial fault-lines, which interests me. The trouble about Central and Eastern Europe was that it was the place where multiple empires met. It's this sort of fault line between Romanov Russian empire, Hapsburg Austrian empire, Ottoman Turkish empire, and Holenzollen Prussian empire, four great empires all bumping up against one another rather like tectonic plates before an earthquake. In these empires, which were by definition more or less multinational, very large, encompassing huge tracts of land, minorities enjoyed a certain security, because A) these empires weren't capable of totalitarian control of their subjects, they relied on delegated authority to local elites; and, B) they were cosmopolitan and multiethnic. There wasn't a sense in which minorities were anomalous. There were a great many minorities in the Hapsburg empire, and in some ways the people running it were a minority, the German speakers of Vienna.

One of the hypotheses of the book is that for all their flaws, these empires may in fact have been preferable to what succeeded them after the First World War, namely a complex of nation states that were essentially based on the principle of majority rule, and in which minorities were much less secure and much more likely to be persecuted. So, the end of empire in Central and Eastern Europe spells trouble for ethnic minorities, and that case I mentioned earlier of Chernovitz illustrates the point quite well, because very shortly after the end of the First World War, Romanians are storming around central Chernovitz proclaiming that it's now Chernovcy, that the German civil servants have to hop it because now you have to speak Romanian to be a civil servant, and the German professors and the German Jewish professors [must go] because now the language of instruction will be Romanian. It's deeply traumatic to be on the receiving end of that if you have been the ruling elite of a town. That kind of pattern replicated itself in turns all over Central and Eastern Europe after the First World War.

You make an interesting point which I want to play with right now, and that is that the technologies, the instruments of consolidation of bringing order to an empire, had within them the seeds of the disintegration of the empire. You talk especially about the railroads, and it reminded me of the internet today. You're dealing with the problem of how the world finds order. Talk a little about the railroads, because they were a way to unite different parts of the empire, but they became something else.

Right. I spent a lot of time on railroads doing this project, including a stretch of the trans-Siberian railroad, and it became almost a leitmotif of the project, because railroads at the beginning of the twentieth century looked like instruments of power. The Russian state built railroads with great enthusiasm in order to mobilize its army more effectively. A lot of railroads went westwards from central Russia towards the Prussian-Austrian frontier for a very obvious reason, and it wasn't trade. So, as an instrument of power politics, railroads were crucial, and that's why in some measure we can understand 1914 as, in A.J.P. Taylor's famous phrase, a "war by timetable" in which the outbreak is in many ways inseparable from the exigencies of railway timetables, getting your troops into position in time before the other guys do.

And yet, even before 1914 it was becoming obvious that railways had an alternative and rather subversive role for an empire like Russia's. One of the most interesting things about the 1905 revolution in Russia, the first real tremor that shakes the czarist system is how the revolution spread along railroads, and it was often in railway towns that unrest first occurred. That was also, interestingly, where pogroms happened, and the interaction of revolutionary activity and anti-Semitic activity is one of the things that make 1905 very, very interesting, a harbinger of what lies ahead. People are simultaneously protesting against czarist incompetence in the Russo-Japanese war and beating up or even murdering local Jews as if they are in some sense to blame for foreign defeat.

So, there's a very, very subtle process going on. It turns out that railways aren't just for transporting troops. They can also transport seditious ideas. It's clear that the notion that the Jews were in some ways to blame spreads along railway lines. The [fact] that they've beaten up the Jews in town X is reported in town Y and it comes along the railway line and happens there. So, railways have that role.

They play, of course, another role altogether, an even more horrific role, in the interwar period when they become the means of transporting ethnic minorities to their deaths. We all think of cattle trucks in connection with the Holocaust but actually the Germans were latecomers to this technique because the Turks had used railroads to transport Armenians to the deserts of Syria, and Stalin had used cattle trucks to transport ethnic minorities all over the Soviet Union if he didn't trust them. So, railways are very much a key part of this story, and they are transformed from instruments of warfare or modes of transport for commerce into revolutionary conduits and ultimately into engines of genocide.

The third component of your analysis is looking at economic volatility during this period. You're suggesting that at some point in their evolution, empires bring economic stability because integration is occurring within them, but the larger global events during this period become near catastrophic as Germany has to repay its World War I debts. Talk a little about that.

Yes, economic volatility is a really important concept, partly because it reminds us that ups can be destabilizing, as well as downs, and what I'm interested in when I talk about volatility is precisely the frequency and amplitude of economic change.

We've forgotten what it's like to be in a recession. The last ten or so years have been among the most smoothly run, least volatile periods in all economic history, particularly in the United States, but also in Western Europe. But it wasn't like this in the early twentieth century, and it certainly wasn't like this in the mid-twentieth century, when growth would fluctuate very violently from huge booms to sudden dramatic busts, the most famous, of course, being the Great Depression. My argument is that [this understanding] helps us with the timing of extreme violence. There's no doubt that a multiethnic society comes under great strain when volatility surges. Even in good times, you get complaints about who benefits from what we would now call globalization. The benefits of rapid growth aren't evenly distributed in, say, czarist Russia, or in Turkey. They're actually quite often skewed towards ethnic minorities who tend to be taking advantage more successfully of the economic opportunities of a global economy. And then along come the bad times, and that's the moment at which the majority may turn around and say, look, the scapegoats are there in their big, fancy houses, the people who made the money in the good times.

So, volatility is critical for our understanding of why a multiethnic society can tear itself apart. In relatively stable times neighbors may live quite peacefully next door to neighbors of a different ethnic or sectarian group, but when things are all over the map economically, those relations are likely to become strained. I think the book shows that quite convincingly. It helps us certainly to understand the timing of violence. It was much more likely to happen in say the 1930s and 1940s than in any previous or succeeding decade.

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