Tis Pity He’s A Law (Unto Himself)

The BBC experimented with a new form of public history over the weekend, in which a lecture presented by Niall Ferguson on the causes of World War One became the keystone of a debate on air and online, which as well as being open to all those who tuned in and had internet access included a truly stupendous lineup of academic historians. Despite some misgivings, about the format generally and some of Ferguson’s history specifically, I think the idea was a great one and should definitely be repeated. I thought I’d jot down here some more comments about the whole thing.

The History
Ferguson’s star power was clearly a big selling point for the BBC, and he very much took pride of place – I’ll address some of the problems that created in a moment, but I also wanted to highlight some of the very real problems in Ferguson’s historical argument. Ferguson is no academic lightweight and has written directly (in a book also titled The Pity of War) on the points he covered in the programme. Moreover his central thesis–that WW1 was a straightforward conflict of imperial conquest, and Britain would have been better off out of it–is on the face of it a reasonable interpretation of the facts. However, in arguing his case, there were points where Ferguson dismissed or failed to even mention evidence in a manner that was slapdash at best: commenting that a higher percentage of the French population was in military service than that of Germany ignores the fact that France has a smaller population; bringing up the spate of German surrenders in the closing months of the war whilst failing to mention the Ludendorff Offensives of early 1918 avoids making clear that the Allies decisively defeated them (thus undermining Ferguson’s argument about the superiority of German soldiery, itself based on some suspect use of statistics which ignored the strategic disposition of forces); implying that a Kaiserreich customs-union would have been substantially similar to the European Union is a piece of counter-factual reasoning too obtuse to be of any use (as someone else commented, “What if the Aztecs had attacked, what then?”). These are the kinds of historical cheap shots which undermined the seriousness of Ferguson’s argument, and for the first time made clear to me why he is rumoured to be the basis of Irwin in The History Boys, offering easy controversy as a substitute for complex reasoning.

The Format
That said, given that Ferguson was clearly calling the shots on this programme, he deserves significant credit for being willing to cede a lot of screen time to a line up of academics who, by and large, tore his argument to pieces. Heather Jones, Gary Sheffield, David Reynolds and Hew Strachan amongst others responded to Ferguson’s arguments robustly. This was by far the best part of the programme and the BBC should be congratulated for having gathered such an impressive line up… But the very fact of how impressive the line up was made it frustrating that we didn’t hear more from them, and more discussion between them. The role assigned to the historians was to dispute with Ferguson, and given how outlandish some of his claims were and how easily knocked down, this seemed a waste. I’d have preferred if the programme had addressed itself to, say, five key questions about the war and asked a different historian to take each in turn before that historian could chair discussion on that issue. Gary Sheffield suggested to me that the BBC is overly obsessed with celebrity historians: my only response is that every single historian interviewed that night could clearly carry a programme on their own, indeed some of them already have, so why not expand the pool of celebrity historians?

Other aspects of the format also jarred. All the shiny special effects were unnecessary, and indeed illustrated to be so by the occasional sudden flashes of AJP Taylor talking directly to camera with nary an animated map or neon bar graph (though he was rocking a quite exceptional green shirt and tie combo). The “final thought” speech from Ferguson at the end was not just a bit cheesy, it also summed up a debate that hadn’t happened (i.e., one in which anybody else had agreed with Ferguson). Overall, Ferguson had too much of a commanding role, was at times bending the rules of history to suit himself and left a sense that most historical debate is just statements of personal preference rather than evidenced rigorous debate.

But all-in-all, The Pity of War was a welcome mark of the BBC treating history as a serious endeavour and historians as people worth putting on the tele. Now, if it can only strengthen that commitment, it’ll be doing very well indeed.

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