Niall Ferguson: “Britain should have stayed out of First World War”

Britain made a terrible mistake in taking up arms in 1914, historian Niall Ferguson has claimed.

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Britain made a terrible mistake in taking up arms in 1914, historian Niall Ferguson has claimed.

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In an interview with BBC History Magazine, Ferguson said Britain could not only have lived with a German victory in the First World War, but it would in fact have been in its “interests to stay out in 1914”.

Speaking to the magazine’s editor, Rob Attar, ahead of his BBC Two documentary The Pity of War, Ferguson said: “The cost of the First World War to Britain was catastrophic, and it left the British empire at the end of it all in a much weakened state… Arguments about honour, of course, resonate today, as they resonated in 1914 but you can pay too high a price for upholding that notion of honour, and I think in the end Britain did.”

Ferguson told Attar: “We should feel dismay that the leaders, not just of Britain, but of the European states, could have taken decisions that led to such an appalling slaughter…. I feel a sense of sorrow that 10 million people (more by some estimates) died prematurely and often violently because the statesmen of the European empires gambled on war for really quite low stakes.”

The historian explained: “The right way for Britain to proceed was not to rush into a land war, but rather to exploit its massive advantages at sea and in financial terms.”

He added: “A better strategy would have been to wait and deal with the German challenge later, when Britain could respond on its own terms.”

Ferguson went on to describe the First World War as “the biggest error in modern history”.  

The full story can be found in the February issue of BBC History Magazine, on sale from today. To access the magazine digitally, click here.

To read Prof Gary Sheffield’s counter-argument, click here.

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