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am 20. März 1999
This is an extremely interesting and thought-provoking book, written by a young and industrious historian who seems to be striving for A.J.P. Taylor-hood. Niall Ferguson's The Pity of War is basically a Euro-skeptical history of Britain's part in the First World War. He argues that there was no reason for Britain to get involved in the war in 1914; that Britain's intervention turned what might have been a brief and victorious war for the Germans into a European catastrophe; that this catastrophe caused the "short twentieth century," from the outbreak of war to the fall of communism; that the short twentieth century was a bloody detour through war and totalitarianism, ending in the result that the Germans were aiming at in 1914, viz. German hegemony in a united Europe; and that by trying to stop Germany Britain only ruined itself and caused the death of millions, directly and indirectly. In a nutshell, since things turned out the same in the end, only worse, it was a pity that Britain intervened in the war.
Obviously, this is a book that could not have been written ten years ago, before the collapse of communism pressed an historical reset button. One of things that makes Ferguson's book so interesting is the way post-communist events seem to have influenced his view of the past. One sees the United States' victory in the Cold War arms race behind his argument that Germany should have spent more on arms before 1914. One also sees the herds of Iraqis surrendering to the Coalition forces in the Gulf War behind his discussion of the importance of surrendering and prisoner-taking. As a result, Ferguson may have written the first twenty-first century history of the twentieth century's most important conflict.
I didn't agree with many of the things Ferguson says in his book, but I did find it consistently engrossing and challenging. It was a refreshing book that made me re-examine just about everything I have ever learned about the First World War, and I recommend it highly.
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am 20. April 2000
Though not a military history (I'd rely on John Keegan's magisterial new book for that), Ferguson's bold and beautifully written revisionist argument is indispensable. I teach a course (at the community college level here in California) on the First and Second World Wars, and have found myself integrating more and more of Ferguson's material in the past year. BY FAR the best material is in the chapter "The Death Instinct: Why Men Fought" -- though it will make some readers uncomfortable, it helped me to understand the strange joy in killing that I find seeping through in the words of supposedly anti-war writers such as Sassoon and Graves. All in all, a bit unwieldy, but provocative, useful, and scholarly.
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am 9. Juni 1999
In 'The Pity of War' Niall Ferguson attempts to correct the traditional view that militaristic Germany dragged the rest of Europe into the First World War. The power of Ferguson's argumentation is the scope of the material he uses. Deftly he switches from pre-war children's books that speculate about a German invasion in Britain to an overview of the military strength of the different European nations at the eve of the war. Whatever aspect of the war he discusses, he is always authoritative. (At times even too much so. Ferguson's speciality is financial and economical analysis. In the chapter on the aftermath of the Versailles treaty, Ferguson arrogantly pretends to know how Germany could have prevented the hyperinflation of the 1920's. Niall Ferguson as the backseat driver to history.). The book is so full of nuance and so well-researched that I was shocked when I arrived at the final chapter 'What if?' Ferguson describes what would have happened, had Britain not sent its expeditionary force to aid the french. According to Ferguson, Germany would then have been satisfied with creating a European customs union (the EU avant la lettre), Britain would have continued to rule the waves and Adolf Hitler would never have risen to power. This ill-founded speculation may have helped to get the author media attention, but it certainly is a blemish on an otherwise very powerful book. Forget the final five pages and concentrate upon the rest.
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am 29. Juli 1999
In my early high school years I took an interest in military history, particulary WW I and II. I foolishly mentioned to my father that as there were some 40 steps to WW I, and both sides had opportunities to step back from the precipice, all were equally culpable for the carnage. I was almost beaten for that, as both my parents lost three uncles and my grandfather was wounded three times fighting the Huns. My parents therefore had a vested interest in propogating the myth that these sacrifices were made to protect freedom and democracy.
Niall Ferguson's book takes aim at several myths about WW I and integrates several ideas in one volume. Several have been addressed before in other forums to better effect, and he has missed, I think some salient points. These include the British desire (under Churchill, no less) to maintain total naval supremacy in the face of the German Navy's dreadnoght buildup. British intelligence also failed to anticipate German chemical research success in fixing nitrates from the atmosphere to produce explosives. This allowed German industry to continue to operate at full capacity despite the blockade.
Ferguson's industrial and economic capabilies are very consistent with those found in Paul Kennedy's 'Rise and Fall of the Great Powers' (1987), but Kennedy says it better.
The perception of war by the public before and during WW I is quite enlightening, as is his conclusion that some men actually enjoyed the killing. There is much anecdotal evidence to support this. For many men war is the only time that they achieve any importance or success, and they fade into obscurity afterwards. Although a different war and front, picture Sgt Steiner from 'Cross of Iron' and you've got the picture.
In sum, Pity of War is an extremely well researched tome that attempts to dispel some of our most cherished myths. I can only give it 4 stars due to its occassional lack of focus. It is required reading for any politician considering sending soldiers, sailors, or airmen into battle.
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am 25. September 2003
undoubtedly the best WWI book written since a very long time. i would not call it provocative, but it is certainly rousing crusted schoolbook doctrine - and this is both, healthy as well as stimulating. beside this, it is also profoundly elaborated. for conservative minds it might be even unsavory, because it's 'uncomfortable'. good so. no serious future WWI discussion is imaginable without the previous lecture of this book. thanks god - there are still people out there, who don't believe everything what grandpa has told us all. furthermore, i have to say (as an austrian), that this book could have never been written by a german or austrian, but a british.
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am 26. Juni 1999
Ferguson's courageous history of the first world war explains how sadistic, relentless killing quickly became an end in itself. And WWI led directly to worse barbarity and terror, so that in 1999 the world faces virtually the same problem in the Balkans which existed in 1914. In explaing how the first great war came about Ferguson stands head and shoulders above the "victor's historians" who fill the textbooks and befuddle political leaders. He finds much to blame conservative British leadership for. And nothing kind to say about America's role. Unfortunately - and this is not Ferguson's fault - he cannot explain how the pointless savagery could have been avoided or cut short. Senseless murder may simply be an instinct; if so, it's time for all of us to face up to that. Forget heroics; war, like all murder, is failure. There are no "good wars." The value of Ferguson's effort cannot be overstated, but it is only a beginning.
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am 25. Juni 2000
This book doesn't necessarily hang together as a coherent unit, but it is an excellent collection of essays about the Great War. Trying to make sense of the slaughter of millions of young men for absolutely no reason and no cause is certainly difficult, and the author should be commended for allocating the blame equitably among the butchers, particularly the U.K. As an American, it's taken for granted in history fed to kids growing up that we were on the right side and that we had a reason for being involved in that senseless orgy of death. So it's nice to see an account of some of the major issues that cuts through the propaganda and assigns the proper blame to Britain and fat, old, stupid, drunken idiots like Churchill who had no problem sending an entire generation to die for no good reason.
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am 10. März 1999
This is a rather strange book. It is like a series of essays on various aspects of the First World War. The author aims at dispelling several of what he sees as myths about the conflict. These are (1)That Militarism played a big part in the war breaking out. (2)That the war was popular (3)That Germany wanted the war (4)That Germany used its economic resources badly in the war (5)That starvation led to the collapse of the central powers (6)That fighting men found their life intolerable
Some of the book is interesting and well argued. Some of it now is reasonably well accepted generally. For instance a number of commentators have accepted that the weakness of Germany was one reason for the war. Russia at the time of the war was completing an armaments program and a railway system which would bring its armies to Germanys borders within a short time. War for Germany in 1914 was seen as regrettable but better than facing a much stronger army in a few more years.The arguments about the amount of money that each of the nations spent on arms is interesting. The author suggests strongly that if any country was obsessed with the military it was France rather than Germany.
Other parts of the book are less well argued. It is clear that the war led to a mixed response from those who fought in it. Some such as Ernst Junger found it the most important experience in their life. In England it has generally been accepted that the high casualties brought widespread disillusionment. The book tries to argue that most who served in the war either enjoyed it or where not to negatively effected. To do this the writer lists a number of books that came out of he war which were jingoistic and patriotic.
This however is superficial. Germans emerged from the war feeling reasonably positive about it. They had generally been successful. After the war large numbers of Germans joined the Friekorps units putting down left wing rebellions and trying to preserve the German borders against the newly independent states set up after the war. The allies however had spent most of the war losing.
If one reads any account of the Second World War the it is clear the effect that the First had on military thought. Canada who as a dominion sent the largest contingent to Europe in the First War refused to send a significant number of troops in the second. They instead assisted England by the provision of convey escorts. England itself built up its air force as an alternative to fighting a land war in Europe. If one reads the biographies of English military commanders there was a real fear of putting their men through the sorts of experiences that they as junior officers had gone through in the first war.
The book is interesting to anyone who is familiar with the war but would probably be incomprehensible to someone who picks it up as their first book on the war.
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am 18. Juli 1999
This interesting volume is a series of related essays on the First World War (WWI). The author sets forward a number of questions/propositions about WWI and then proceeds to explore them in a series of well written chapters. This book is not based on any original research but is rather an attempt to use the extensive literature on WWI as the substrate for rigorous analysis. Much of the analysis reflects Ferguson's background as an economic historian. This book has structural flaws. While Ferguson intends clearly for this book to read by broad audience, it is best read by someone with a good knowledge of WWI, the preceding events, and optimally some knowledge of the historiography of WWI. Another flaw is that Ferguson describes his questions/propositions in the introductory and concluding chapters but not explicitly in any of the chapters actually discussing the questions. Putting the questions into the chapter headings would improve the continuity of the book. Much of Ferguson's analysis is based largely on the experience of the Western Front. This is not entirely Ferguson's fault; in the large library of the university where I work, there are only a handful of books on the Eastern Front. The literature on the Eastern Front is limited and this imposes some distortions into Ferguson's arguments. This book is written well and Ferguson's arguments, even when flawed, are based on thoughtful analysis and impressive knowledge of the literature. The real test of this book is how well he answers the questions/propositions he sets out in the introduction of the book. This rsults are mixed. One of Ferguson's problems is that some of his analyses are correct but either too narrow or close to being irrelevant. For example, he argues convincingly that WWI was not inevitable. True in the sense that this specific war at this specific time, and perhaps with this specific set of consequences, was avoidable. His own analysis, however, and reading of other histories of the pre-war period leads to the conclusion that some kind of general european conflict was highly likely. The really interesting question is why the European state system came to be so inflammatory. Ferguson expends considerable effort discussing the bases for Axis success in WWI. Despite considerable economic handicaps, the Axis powers came close to winning. Ferguson concludes that the Axis powers were more successful and that the basis for their success was that they were better soldiers than the Allies. These conclusions will surprise none and are an example of crashing through an open door. Ferguson also ignores the fact that the Axis powers held strategic initiative throughout most of the war. Ferguson's 2 most controversial arguments deal with the British decision to enter the war and the financial burdens of war reparations. He argues that Britain did not have to enter the war and that it would have been better to stay out of the war. On the former point, he is undoubtedly correct but the latter point can be argued only with the benefit of hindsight. Ferguson argues that post-war Germany's economic collapse was the result not of the burden of reparations but rather of the efforts of German leaders to avoid payment. His arguments are ingenious but highly technical and may well be incorrect.
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am 8. Juni 1999
Covers lots of ground. Generally reliable EXCEPT--and a big EXCEPT--for his central assertion that the Britain blundered wrongly into war. Given the 18th and 19th century Britishdetermination to prevent the continent being dominated by a single power, how Ferguson could conceive of a Britain accepting German dominance over Europe in 1914 is inconceivable.
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