Niall Ferguson on Historical Actors

Niall Ferguson is a Scottish-born historian, political commentator, and public intellectual. He is also the Lawrence Tisch Professor of History at Harvard.  Ferguson graduated from Magdalen College and studied for two years as a Hanseatic Scholar in Hamburg and Berlin. Before joining the Harvard faculty, Ferguson taught at Oxford University and New York University.

A prolific commentator on contemporary politics and economics—he came out in favor of the Iraq War in 2003—Ferguson is a contributing editor for the Financial Times and publishes regularly elsewhere in the British and American press. In 2004, Time magazine named him one of the world's hundred most influential people. Ferguson is the bestselling author of the popular histories The Pity of War: Explaining World War One, Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire, and The War of the World. Ferguson splits his time between the United Kingdom and the United States.

  • Transcript

TRANSCRIPT

Question: Who were the most important historical actors?

Ferguson: Well there’s a vast number to choose from, and perhaps it’s worth emphasizing the arbitrary nature of the selection process. If one’s thinking in terms of billions of past human beings, it’s extraordinary how hard it is to make a selection. Generally the selection has been made for you by previous historians, by posterity, by the contemporaries who built statues or wrote books about famous men and women. And so often one finds oneself writing about people who are already great or evil men or women before you even show up.

But I found myself recently in the book called “The War of the World” writing a considerable amount about Winston Church, Joseph Stalin, Adolph Hitler, Franklin Roosevelt – the stars, heroes and villains of the 20th century.

But part of what I do is to try to write the history of non-political institutions like firms; to look at the history of capitalism, the history of business; and to give equal billing to entrepreneurs as well as to generals and politicians, because the history of modernity actually requires that balance to be struck.

And then you get to know slightly less familiar figures. The first hero of any book I’ve ever wrote was a German-Jewish banker named Max Warburg who turned into the hero of my doctoral dissertation, rather to my own surprise, simply because as I rummaged around in archives in Homburg trying to understand why Germany had imploded economically in the 1920s. He kept cropping up and emerged as the central hero of my first book “Paper and Iron”.

 

Recorded on: Oct 31 2007


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