Robert Fulford's series about Niall Ferguson, Part 1

(The National Post, March 14, 2001)

OXFORD, England - In a little more than five years, four great thick books have come tumbling out of the Oxford University office of Niall Ferguson, probably the most talented and easily the most industrious British historian of his generation. Pile them on a desk, pile his reviews on top of them, throw on a copy of his rich book contract, and you have evidence of more successful literary work than most university teachers dream of accomplishing in an entire career.

First there was Paper and Iron: Hamburg Business and German Politics in the Era of Inflation, 1897-1927, which turned his doctoral thesis into a cool, measured account of the financial panics that drove the Germans crazy. Then he broke new ground with The World's Banker: The History of the House of Rothschild, having been given first-ever access to the private archives (but only up to 1915) of the bank that played power-broker in half a dozen European countries for generations. About two years ago he caused a sensation with The Pity of War, an account of the origins, the strategies and the meaning of the First World War. And, after a brief pause for breath, he's just written a work that attempts to pull together in one collection of arguments all the strings of his startling career, The Cash Nexus: Money and Power in the Modern World 1700-2000, published this week.

His research has always been impressive, his ideas contentious, and his standards high: Fritz Stern, a major historian of modern Germany, reviewing the Rothschild book in The New Republic, said "Ferguson's work reaffirms one's faith in the possibility of great historical writing." But it is the sheer mass of meticulously organized material that makes the first strong impression. Together, the four Ferguson books contain 3,024 pages. If you add Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals (1997), which he conceived, edited and partly wrote, the page total reaches 3,572.

Niall (pronounced "Neal") Ferguson will celebrate his 37th birthday on April 18.

He's a radical Tory, in the sense that radical means going to the root. And he is a writer of unusual courage. When facts and logic lead him to dangerous and unpopular positions, he does not step back from them. In The Pity of War he reaches a conclusion that many have flirted with over the years but no one else has argued persuasively and confidently: that Britain was wrong to cross the channel and fight the Germans in 1914. It cost far too much, in blood and money, for the advantage gained. By the end of the 20th century, after all, the Germans had achieved exactly what they wanted in 1914, economic leadership of Europe.

The Cash Nexus, while it deals with nothing quite so abrasive, nevertheless makes uncomfortable reading by insisting that we unlearn some favourite assumptions. All those who write about politics, and most of those who practise politics, believe the economy is now the central concern of every democracy and voters reward politicians for good times while punishing them for bad. Not so, says Mr. Ferguson, and cites many proofs to the contrary. (As he was finishing his book, U.S. voters were giving him a powerful new argument by rejecting the Democrats, who had presided over the greatest boom in U.S. history and should have, by the logic of economics, easily won the presidency, the Senate, and the House.)

We also believe, because most of us are congenital optimists, that prosperity encourages democracy, and democracy inevitably creates prosperity, in an upward double-helix motion. Wrong, says Mr. Ferguson, and demonstrates that freedom and economic growth are not nearly as closely linked as we imagine. It has also been long accepted that the United States risks becoming dangerously overstretched as an empire by taking on too many global responsibilities. Wrong again, says Mr. Ferguson. The United States does not take on nearly enough. It does not commit sufficient resources to the military operations that will be needed to encourage democracy and peace, operations that only the United States can undertake (with the help of others). To make his point, and answer the overstretch argument, he invents a word: The Untied States, he claims, is "understretched."

These views, and the research that support them, have placed Mr. Ferguson at the centre of the profession of history in Britain and made him something of a media star as well. In a recent conversation in his office at Jesus College, Oxford, he talked about the first steps he took toward the life he now leads. It will not surprise those who know his style that he began to think of himself first as a writer. As an adolescent in Glasgow in the 1970s, he knew he wanted to write books but did not know what kind. He remembers that the decision turned on comparing Hamlet with the Thirty Years War.

He was writing essays about both of them, and loving both of them. But he began to think that Hamlet was really just one text, and therefore rather limited, whereas, he discovered with astonishment, Glasgow University's library contained hundreds of books on the Thirty Years War. (As he says, he seems not to have known how much literary criticism there was in the world.) One work of history he devoured with special excitement was Friedrich von Schiller's account of the Thirty Years War, a great 18th-century German's stirring reprisal of his country's 17th-century trauma. That glimpse of the historian's landscape as a place of infinite possibilities set Mr. Ferguson on his way and also hinted at the particular themes of his career. Since he began by studying a war that took place mainly in Germany, it is not entirely surprising that most of his subsequent work has taken him to Germany or somewhere in the neighbourhood.

His accomplishments might suggest he has been hurtling toward success for two straight decades, but for a while he veered foolishly off course. At 17, when he arrived as a scholarship student at Magdalen College, he somehow forgot why he was there. He threw himself into a hectic social life, the Oxford Union, student theatre, anything except his studies. Soon he was so inadequate a student that (he now realizes) almost any other university in the world would have withdrawn his scholarship and sent him packing. But, as he says, Oxford forgives and Oxford forgets, if you prove yourself in the end.

Toward the close of his second year, as he was smoking a hookah on stage while dressed as the caterpillar in a production of Alice in Wonderland, he asked himself: What the hell am I doing here? More or less instantly, he turned into the scholar that nature had always intended him to be. He went into the library and, in a sense, never came out.

He does not lack a private life (he and his journalist wife, Sue Douglas, have three children) but the habit of deep research has remained with him ever since he ended his adolescence with his first serious assault on the Bodleian Library. Frantic catching-up won him a First that was good enough for a further scholarship, and soon he was heading toward a PhD. Cautiously, he chose subjects that would help him earn a living outside academe if he had to: economics and (because of its place in world business) Germany. He went off to Hamburg to study German inflation.

His modest scholarship kept him in penury, a place he found unappealing. So for years he made himself relatively prosperous by writing freelance journalism, much of it clandestine. As "Alec Campbell," he wrote a column for a now-dead Sunday paper and then served as German correspondent for The Daily Telegraph while working on his thesis in Hamburg. When he began writing for the Daily Mail, his editors demanded a more honest byline and the right to run his picture. So he changed his name to Campbell Ferguson, and had his picture taken while hiding behind thick-rimmed glasses.

This secrecy was not a joke. He lacked academic tenure, and believed he might never get it if his professors knew he was making money writing for the papers, an activity that many academics view without enthusiasm. Even today, some colleagues let it be known that they find his success unseemly. "You are expected to be publicly poor," he says, "as a sign of your devotion. You are supposed to suffer and enjoy it." That's not his way. But to some extent, his success has been forgiven. At Oxford since 1992 as Fellow and Tutor in Modern History, he was recently made professor of political and financial history, a grand title devised to please him, express precisely what he does, and perhaps prevent him from considering offers elsewhere.

He now has a $1.3-million three-book contract, he is working on a television series about the British Empire, and he is involved in a Web site ( that broadcasts the lectures of major academics. His next book project is an account of European monarchy from the age of Napoleon to the First World War, shaped around the Saxe-Coburg family, whose English branch is the House of Windsor. He considers monarchy a neglected subject and believes royalty played a far larger part in 19th-century history than we acknowledge. The Saxe-Coburgs, in his view, were to governance what the Rothschilds were to finance, and he sees the monarchy book as a parallel to his work on the bankers.

When I went to visit him, Stephen Moss of the Guardian had not quite finished his interview. So for a few minutes I listened to a British journalist express his unconscious assumptions about Mr. Ferguson's career. Mr. Moss seemed to suppose that anyone achieving prosperity should immediately abandon work that pays relatively little. He wanted to know why Mr. Ferguson still bothers to write articles for the Telegraph. "It's an addiction," Mr. Ferguson answered. More seriously, he said that journalism taught him to write and remains a good discipline. Even his enemies envy Mr. Ferguson's style. It is crisp, poised and pointed; his tone suggests he has somehow absorbed vast quantities of European literature. His poise is partly grounded in independence from cliques; we never sense that he is writing for a club of like-minded Tories. And his phrasing is so fresh that when he occasionally lapses into academe-speak ("It is worth pausing at this point to ask ...") it comes as a shock.

The Guardian man professed not to understand how Mr. Ferguson could be both historian and journalist: "Can you have it both ways?" he asked. Actually, Mr. Ferguson operates within a long tradition, exemplified in the 20th century by A.J.P. Taylor and Hugh Trevor-Roper, both of them first-class scholars and first-class controversial journalists. As Mr. Ferguson says, "What's the point of having knowledge about modern history if you confine yourself to writing monographs for the Oxford University Press?"

The Guardian man had another idea: Would Mr. Ferguson be giving up teaching? Incredibly, he asked this question in Mr. Ferguson's warm and capacious "tutor's room," which has a fireplace, enough space for a dozen people to meet comfortably and its own bathroom (literally: there's a bathtub). This is in a 16th-century college created by Elizabeth I, where mullioned windows look on to an elegant quadrangle. It is the fantasy of every would-be don, including the would-be don that Mr. Ferguson once was. The idea that anything short of dynamite or death will get him out is preposterous. But Mr. Ferguson simply replied that every year there are some intellectually ambitious students and he would miss them.

To most other professionals, Mr. Ferguson's productivity remains his central mystery. If someone asks how he manages his time, he says, "I get up in the morning and work. My puzzle is with people who spend 10 years not producing a book. What do they do?" Perhaps the need to write so much is a neurotic compulsion. If so, he will not be seeking therapy. "It would be terrible to be cured." Someone once asked him what values he had been given by his father, a doctor. "Work, work and work," he said. He feels guilty when he is not knuckling down to something.

But surely there are quiet moments of self-satisfaction? I asked him whether he felt happy and relaxed when he finishes a piece of writing he knows is good.

He paused.

"Oh, for a split second."

Then it is back to work.

Robert Fulford's series about Niall Ferguson, Part 2
Robert Fulford's series about Niall Ferguson, Part 3

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