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Niall Ferguson (born April 18, 1964, in Glasgowmarker) is a Britishmarker historian who specialises in financial and economic history as well as the history of colonialism. He is the Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History at Harvard Universitymarker and the William Ziegler Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business Schoolmarker. He was educated at the private Glasgow Academymarker in Scotland, and at Magdalen College, Oxfordmarker.

He is best known outside academia for his revisionist views rehabilitating imperialism and colonialism; within academia, his championing of counterfactual history is a subject of some considerable controversy. In 2008, Ferguson published his most recent book, The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World which he also presented as a Channel 4 television series. At Harvard Collegemarker, Ferguson teaches a popular undergraduate class entitled Western Ascendancy.


Academic career

Ferguson is a Senior Research Fellow of Jesus Collegemarker, Oxford Universitymarker and a Senior Fellow of the Hoover Institution, Stanford Universitymarker. He is a resident faculty member of the Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies, and an advisory fellow of the Barsanti Military History Center at the University of North Texasmarker.

Business career

In 2007, Ferguson was appointed as an Investment Management Consultant by GLG Partners, focusing on geopolitical risk as well as current structural issues in economic behaviour relating to investment decisions. GLG is a UK-based hedge fund management firm headed by Noam Gottesman.

Career as commentator

In October 2007, Niall Ferguson left The Sunday Telegraph to join the Financial Times, where he is now a contributing editor.

Ferguson has often disparaged the European Union as a disaster waiting to happen, and has criticised President Vladimir Putin of Russia for authoritarianism. In Ferguson's view, Putin's policies stand to lead Russia to catastrophes equivalent to those that befell Germany during the Nazi era.

Subject matter

World War I

In 1998 Ferguson published the critically acclaimed The Pity of War: Explaining World War One. This is an analytic account of what Ferguson considered to be the ten great myths of the Great War. The book generated much controversy, particularly Ferguson's suggestion that it may have proved more beneficial for Europe if Britain had stayed out of the First World War in 1914, thereby allowing Germany to win. Ferguson has argued that the British decision to intervene was what stopped a German victory in 1914–15. Furthermore, Ferguson expressed disagreement with the Sonderweg interpretation of German history championed by some German historians such as Fritz Fischer, Hans-Ulrich Wehler, Hans Mommsen and Wolfgang Mommsen who argued that the German Empiremarker deliberately started an aggressive war in 1914 and that the Second Reich was little more than a dress rehearsal for the Third Reich. Likewise, Ferguson has often attacked the work of the German historian Michael Stürmer who argued that it was Germany's geographical situation in Central Europe that determined the course of German history.

On the contrary, Ferguson maintains that Germany waged a preventive war in 1914, a war largely forced on the Germans by reckless and irresponsible British diplomacy. In particular, Ferguson accused the British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey of maintaining an ambiguous attitude to the question of whether Britain would enter the war or not, and thus confused Berlin over just what was the British attitude towards the question of intervention in the war. Instead, Ferguson has accused London of unnecessarily allowing a regional war in Europe to escalate into a world war. Moreover, Ferguson denied that the origins of National Socialism can be traced back to Imperial Germany; instead Ferguson asserted the origins of Nazism can only be traced back to the First World War and its aftermath.

The “myths” of World War I that Ferguson attacks, with his counter-arguments in parentheticals, are:
  • That Germany was a highly militarist country before 1914 (Ferguson claims Germany was Europe’s most anti-militarist country)
  • That naval challenges mounted by Germany drove Britain into informal alliances with France and Russia before 1914 (Ferguson claims the British were driven into alliances with France and Russia as a form of appeasement due to the strength of those nations, and an Anglo-German alliance failed to materialize due to German weakness)
  • That British foreign policy was driven by legitimate fears of Germany (Ferguson claims Germany posed no threat to Britain before 1914, and that all British fears of Germany were due to irrational anti-German prejudices)
  • That the pre-1914 arms race was consuming ever larger portions of national budgets at an unsustainable rate (Ferguson claims that the only limitations on more military spending before 1914 were political, not economic)
  • That World War I was as Fritz Fischer claimed a war of aggression on part of Germany that necessitated British involvement to stop Germany from conquering Europe (Ferguson claims if Germany had been victorious, something like the European Union would have been created in 1914, and that it would have been for the best if Britain chose to opt out of war in 1914)
  • That most people were happy with the outbreak of war in 1914 (Ferguson claims that most Europeans were saddened by the coming of war)
  • That propaganda was successful in making men wish to fight (Ferguson argues the opposite)
  • That the Allies made the best use of their economic resources (Ferguson argues the Allies “squandered” their economic resources)
  • That the British and the French had the better armies (Ferguson claims the German Army was superior)
  • That the Allies were more efficient at killing Germans (Ferguson argues that the Germans were more efficient at killing the Allies)
  • That most soldiers hated fighting in the war (Ferguson argues most soldiers fought more or less willingly)
  • That the British treated German prisoners of war well (Ferguson argues the British routinely killed German POWS)
  • That Germany was faced with reparations after 1921 that could not be paid except at ruinous economic cost (Ferguson argues that Germany could have easily paid reparations had there been the political will)

Another controversial aspect of the Pity of War was Ferguson's use of counterfactual history. Ferguson presented a counter-factual version of Europe under Imperial German domination that was peaceful, prosperous, democratic and without ideologies like Communism and fascism. In Ferguson's view, had Germany won World War One, then the lives of millions would have been saved, something like the European Union would have been founded in 1914, and Britain would have remained an empire and the world's dominant financial power. .


Ferguson wrote two volumes about the prominent Rothschild family:
  • The House of Rothschild: Volume 1: Money's Prophets: 1798–1848
  • The House of Rothschild: Volume 2: The World's Banker: 1849–1999
The books won the Wadsworth Prize for Business History and were also short-listed for the Jewish Quarterly/Wingate Literary Award and the American National Jewish Book Award.

Counterfactual history

Ferguson is the leading academic champion of counterfactual history, and edited a collection of essays exploring the subject titled Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals (1997). Ferguson likes to imagine alternative outcomes as a way of stressing the contingent aspects of history. For Ferguson, great forces don't make history; individuals do and nothing is predetermined. Thus, for Ferguson there are no paths in history that will determine how things will work out. The world is neither progressing nor regressing; only the actions of individuals will determine whether we live in a better or worse world. His championing of the method was controversial within the field.

Henry Kissinger

In 2003, former United States Secretary of State Henry Kissinger provided Ferguson with access to his White House diaries, letters, and archives for what Ferguson calls a "warts-and-all biography" of the man.

Economic policy

In its August 15, 2005 edition, The New Republic published "The New New Deal", an essay by Ferguson and Laurence J. Kotlikoff, a Professor of Economics at Boston Universitymarker. The two scholars called for the following changes to the American government's fiscal and income security policies:

  • Replacing the personal income tax, corporate income tax, FICA payroll tax, estate tax, and gift tax with a 33% Federal Retail Sales Tax (FRST), plus a monthly rebate, amounting to the FRST a household with similar demographics would pay if its income were at the poverty line. See also: FairTax;
  • Replacing the Old Age benefits paid under Social Security with a Personal Security System, consisting of private retirement accounts for all citizens, plus a government benefit payable to those whose savings were insufficient to afford a minimum retirement income;
  • Replacing Medicare and Medicaid with a Medical Security System that would provide health insurance vouchers to all citizens, the value of which would be determined by one's health;
  • Cutting federal discretionary spending by 20%.

A recent New Republic piece with Harvard's Samuel J. Abrams explored attitudes towards immigration in Europe and the United States


Defender of colonialism

Several of Ferguson's critics have argued that his writings favour imperialism. These critics include left-wing journalist Johann Hari who has argued that
For over a decade now, Ferguson has built a role as a court historian for the imperial American hard right...
His calculations consistently underestimate or ignore the massive crimes of Empire, and grossly overstate the benefits.

In response Ferguson wrote "Hari simultaneously misrepresented my work and caricatured to the point of absurdity the history of British imperialism".

Another strong criticism has been made of Ferguson's omission of Ireland in his Empire thesis despite much of Britain's Empire being defined by Irish resistance. There have also been accusations of anti-Irish sentiment against the writer who grew up in a strong Protestant, Unionist and pro-Empire environment in Glasgow.

Priyamvada Gopal, who teaches post-colonial studies at Cambridge, has reiterated similar critiques of Ferguson's television documentary. Gopal has also pointed to quotes from The War of the World such as Ferguson's statement that people "seem predisposed" to "trust members of their own race", and that "those who are drawn to 'the Other' may ... be atypical in their sexual predilections".

Ferguson said that he was "appalled" by the charges of racism, and argued that the idea of biologically distinct races is "a lot of 19th-century pseudo-science". At the same time, he said it was important to "understand better why the biologically nebulous concept of racial difference has proved so resilient", using arguments from evolutionary psychology to suggest that the tendency to stigmatize "the Other" and treat them as a different species might be rooted in ancient human instincts favoured by natural selection.

As scholar

A few fellow academics have questioned Ferguson's commitment to scholarship. For example, in the article quoted above Priyamvada Gopal characterizes Ferguson's popular work as "half-truths and fanciful speculation, shorn of academic protocols such as footnotes". Benjamin Wallace-Wells, an editor of The Washington Monthly, comments that
"The House of Rothschild remains Ferguson's only major work to have received prizes and wide acclaim from other historians.
Research restrains sweeping, absolute claims: Rothschild is the last book Ferguson wrote for which he did original archival work, and his detailed knowledge of his subject meant that his arguments for it couldn't be too grand."

Wallace-Wells goes on to accuse Ferguson of making overly sweeping claims in his later works without sufficient support or any original research to back them up, and of contradicting the academic consensus for the sake of being contrarian. However, many of his peers praise his work, such as John Lewis Gaddis, a renowned Cold War era historian, who characterized Ferguson as having unrivaled "range, productivity and visibility."

Ferguson has also been criticized by Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm on the BBC Radio Program "Start the Week", saying he was a nostalgist for empire.Ferguson responded to the above criticisms in a Washington Post "Live Discussions" online forum in 2006.

Exchange with Krugman

In May 2009, Ferguson became involved in a high-profile exchange of views with economist Paul Krugman (then the most recent Economics Nobel Prize winner) arising out of a panel discussion hosted by Pen/New York Review on April 30 2009, regarding the U.S. economy. Ferguson contended that the Obama administration's policies are simultaneously Keynesian and monetarist, in an incoherent mix, and specifically that the government's issuance of a multitude of new bonds will cause an increase in interest rates. Ferguson's concerns in this exchange have been analogous to those expressed by Germany's Chancellor, Angela Merkel.

Krugman has argued that Ferguson's view is "resurrecting 75-year old fallacies" and full of basic errors. J. Bradford DeLong of Berkeleymarker agreed with Krugman, concluding "Niall Ferguson does indeed know a lot less than economists knew in the 1920s".

In the weeks after that exchange, market interest rates did rise, and on May 30 Ferguson claimed this as vindication of his position. Krugman on the other hand, has stated that the increase in interest rates reflects an improvement in market sentiment.

Personal life

After attending The Glasgow Academymarker, he received a Demyship (half-scholarship) at Magdalen College, Oxfordmarker, graduating with a first-class honours degree in 1985. Ferguson is an accomplished fly fisher. He is married to journalist Susan Douglas, whom he met in 1987 when she was his editor at the UK Daily Mail. They have three children.


The Ascent of Money

Published in 2008 The Ascent of Money examines the long history of money, credit, and banking. In it he predicts a financial crisis as a result of the world economy and in particular the United Statesmarker using too much credit. Specifically he cites the ChinamarkerAmericamarker dynamic which he refers to as Chimerica where an Asian "savings glut" helped create the subprime mortgage crisis with an influx of easy money.

The Cash Nexus

In his 2001 book, The Cash Nexus, which he wrote following a year as Houblon-Norman Fellow at the Bank of Englandmarker, Ferguson argues that the popular saying, "money makes the world go 'round", is wrong; instead he presented a case for human actions in history motivated by far more than just economic concerns. Ferguson also made a case against historians such as Paul Kennedy who argued that the United States is a politically and economically over-stretched power on the verge of collapse. If anything, Ferguson argues that United States is not sufficiently involved in the affairs of the world.

Colossus and Empire

In his books Colossus and Empire, Ferguson presents a nuanced and partially apologetic view of the British Empire and in conclusion proposes that the modern policies of the United Kingdom and the United States, in taking a more active role in resolving conflict arising from the failure of states, are analogous to that of the 'Anglicization' policies adopted by the British Empire throughout the 19th century. With regard to Colossus, Ferguson has pointed out that he has come to regard his advocacy of American hegemony in foreign affairs, his view in The Cash Nexus, as unrealistic. This is due, he claims, to his coming to the conclusion that the Iraq War was due largely to domestic politics, including interdepartmental rivalries within the U.S. government.

War of the World

The War of the World, published in 2006, had been ten years in the making and is a comprehensive analysis of the savagery of the 20th century. Ferguson shows how a combination of economic volatility, decaying empires, psychopathic dictators, and racially/ethnically motivated (and institutionalized) violence resulted in the wars, and the genocides of what he calls "History's Age of Hatred". The New York Times Book Review named War of the World one of the 100 Notable Books of the Year in 2006, while the International Herald Tribune called it "one of the most intriguing attempts by an historian to explain man's inhumanity to man". Ferguson addresses the paradox that, though the 20th century was "so bloody", it was also "a time of unparalleled [economic] progress". As with his earlier work Empire, War of the World was accompanied by a Channel 4 television series presented by Ferguson.


As Contributor

Television documentaries

  • Empire (2003)
  • American Colossus (2004)
  • The War of the World (2006)
  • The Ascent of Money (2008)



  1. [ Niall Ferguson - Biography]
  3. Niall Ferguson, Senior Fellow from the Hoover Institution website
  4. Ferguson, Niall The Pity of War, Basic Books: New York, 1998, 1999 pages 460–461
  5. Ferguson, Niall The Pity of War, Basic Books: New York, 1998, 1999 pages 154–156
  6. Ferguson, Niall The Pity of War, Basic Books: New York, 1998, 1999 pages 27–30
  7. Ferguson, Niall The Pity of War, Basic Books: New York, 1998, 1999 pages 52–55
  8. Ferguson, Niall The Pity of War, Basic Books: New York, 1998, 1999 pages 68–76
  9. Ferguson, Niall The Pity of War, Basic Books: New York, 1998, 1999 pages 87–101 & 118–125
  10. Ferguson, Niall The Pity of War, Basic Books: New York, 1998, 1999 pages 168–173
  11. Ferguson, Niall The Pity of War, Basic Books: New York, 1998, 1999 pages 197–205
  12. Ferguson, Niall The Pity of War, Basic Books: New York, 1998, 1999 pages 239–247
  13. Ferguson, Niall The Pity of War, Basic Books: New York, 1998, 1999 pages 267–277
  14. Ferguson, Niall The Pity of War, Basic Books: New York, 1998, 1999 pages 310–317
  15. Ferguson, Niall The Pity of War, Basic Books: New York, 1998, 1999 pages 336–338
  16. Ferguson, Niall The Pity of War, Basic Books: New York, 1998, 1999 pages 357–366
  17. Ferguson, Niall The Pity of War, Basic Books: New York, 1998, 1999 pages 380–388
  18. Ferguson, Niall The Pity of War, Basic Books: New York, 1998, 1999 pages 412–431
  19. Ferguson, Niall The Pity of War, Basic Books: New York, 1998, 1999 pages 168–173 & 460–461
  29. See Liquidity preference, loanable funds, and Niall Ferguson (wonkish) and Gratuitous ignorance, Paul Krugman, The Conscience of a Liberal.
  30. Brad DeLong: This Is Getting Damned Annoying: Will I Ever Be Allowed to Disagree with Paul Krugman Again About Anything? (Niall Ferguson Edition), May 20, 2009.
  31. (FT)
  32. What's moving interest rates
  33. [Niall Ferguson denied catching an 80 pound salmon in a radio interview on Bloomberg Surveillance 7/1/09]

General references

External links

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