Monday, June 19, 2006

War of the World

From some of what I'd read, I had got the impression that Niall Ferguson's new tv series War of the World would see the Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History acting as an apologist for imperialism. Well, not exactly. If anything, the direction of this series is anti-racist rather than pro-imperialist. Ferguson puts the blame for some of the worst atrocities of the twentieth century firmly upon racial tensions created by the forming of nation states out of nineteenth-century empires. But understanding that doesn't necessarily mean that he thinks that empires are a good idea. He's certainly scathing about the habit of the western empires to sit back and do nothing whilst ethnic cleansing takes place.

I wonder if there isn't some confusion here in the criticism of Ferguson, a simple-minded assumption that pointing out what happened as a consequence of imperial fall means a wish that imperial fall did not take place. I think it is actually quite difficult to argue against the proposition that the way in which the old empires of (in particular) Ottoman Turkey and Austria-Hungary were carved up into nation states (by the other empires that were still prospering at the time) caused the creation of ethnic enclaves within those nation states that contributed to subsequent conflicts, in the Second World War, the Yugoslav wars, and Iraq, to name but three. Denying that means that we are ill-equipped to stop it happening again.

I may not agree with all of Ferguson's views (he was for the invasion of Iraq and I wasn't). But I'm going to listen to what he has to say.

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