On the Spot: Niall Ferguson
‘What will future generations judge us most harshly for? Losing the Second Cold War to China.’
Why are you an economic and political historian?
I also try to be a social and cultural historian. The idea of dividing history into specialisms strikes me as mistaken. The key is to be able to relate, for example, shifts in financial institutions and markets to political events. This has been a recurring leitmotif of my work.
What’s the most important lesson history has taught you?
That most decision-makers operate with skewed theories about history. A review of Philip Zelikow’s book on Suez is on the money: ‘It is a rare quality in world leaders to be able to make historical analogies without fully embracing them, thereby becoming trapped.’ Most get trapped.
Which book has had the greatest influence on you?
Tolstoy’s War and Peace.
What book in your field should everyone read?
Which moment would you most like to go back to?
2 August 1914, when Britain’s Cabinet decided on war. Like the Ghost of Christmas Future, I would offer a vision of what they were to do to their country, not to mention their sons.
Which historian has had the greatest influence on you?
Norman Stone, when I was starting out my D.Phil. And A.J.P. Taylor, though we never met. As a schoolboy, I learned from him how to write history.
Which person in history would you most like to have met?
Robert Burns. Or David Hume.
How many languages do you have?
I speak German and French. I am learning Spanish.
What’s the most exciting field in history today?
Applied history: learning from the past with a view to improving policy.
What historical topic have you changed your mind on?
That the wrong side won the War of Independence.
Which genre of history do you like least?
Most recent historiography of the US is provincial and ill-written.
Is there a major historical text you have not read?
Theodor Mommsen’s History of Rome, among many.
What’s your favourite archive?
The Royal Archives at Windsor.
What’s the best museum?
Oxford’s Ashmolean, followed by the Uffizi in Florence.
Normans or Anglo-Saxons?
Anglo-Saxons. The best parts of English are theirs.
Rome or Athens?
Braudel or Gibbon?
Michelangelo or Frida Kahlo?
What’s the most commom misconception about your field?
That it matters whether a historian is socialist, liberal or conservative.
What will future generations judge us most harshly for?
Losing the Second Cold War to China.
Niall Ferguson is a senior fellow of the Hoover Institution, Stanford, and the Center for European Studies, Harvard. He has published 15 books, the latest of which is The Square and the Tower: Networks, Hierarchies and the Struggle for Global Power (Allen Lane, 2017).