Niall Ferguson: Daniel Snowman Profiles the Historian of War, Finance, Empire and 'Virtual' History

By Snowman, Daniel | History Today, October 2004 | Go to article overview

Niall Ferguson: Daniel Snowman Profiles the Historian of War, Finance, Empire and 'Virtual' History


Snowman, Daniel, History Today


JOHN FERGUSON, NIALL'S PATERNAL GRANDFATHER, was one of the lucky ones. He fought in the trenches in the First World War and survived to live out his days to their normal span. His other grandfather, a journalist with literary leanings, spent much of the Second World War fighting in India and Burma. Great-aunt Aggie had emigrated to Canada, while Uncle Ian worked in India, Africa and the Gulf. As for Niall's father, a Glasgow doctor, he whisked his family off to do good works in Kenya for a couple of years in the 1960s. You don't have to look far to find out why Niall Ferguson has written so powerfully about war and empire; the subjects are in his blood. This summer, just forty years of age, Ferguson became Professor of International History at Harvard. Not that being a Professor was anything new. In 2000, he became Professor of Political and Financial History at Oxford and two years later took up the Herzog chair of Financial History at New York University's Stern Business School. Books and articles have continued to pour off his computer while he has also become a skilled TV presenter and journalist (his wife was one-time editor of the Sunday Express). Today, Niall Ferguson is one of the most prominent historians of his generation. He is also one of the more controversial, a convinced neoconservative arguing, for example, in favour of more assertive American imperialism. Some academic critics ask if he is still really a historian.

Niall Ferguson came from an ambitious, middle-class Scottish family which, while free-thinking almost to the point of atheism, was deeply imbued with an almost Calvinist ethos of hard work and self-improvement. Education, particularly in the 'hard' sciences, was understood to provide the best route up the social ladder from the mines and shipyards to bourgeois respectability and thence perhaps to England or the colonies. Niall's earliest memories include the magic of those two childhood years in Nairobi. When the family returned to Glasgow, Dr Ferguson resumed his medical practice. Was it a source of disappointment that the son didn't follow in his lather's footsteps and instead, encouraged by excellent teaching at the Glasgow Academy, became an avid reader of literature and edged towards the 'soft' subject of history? Possibly. But Niall's wise parents gave him every encouragement. After all, what the boy was best at was maths.

At seventeen, Niall went up to Oxford with a history scholarship to Magdalen. At eighteen, after a pretty dissolute first year, he was nearly back in Glasgow. Not that he wasn't active. He tried, with variable success, the Union, journalism, politics, acting, playing double bass in a jazz quintet (the thing I enjoyed most about being an undergraduate') and somehow also found time to write the requisite history essays. Then, one night, he suddenly decided he was wasting his time. This Damascan moment occurred while Niall was sitting on a toadstool smoking a hookah--playing the Caterpillar in a student production of Alice in Wonderland. After the performance, he went back to his rooms and resolved to pull out of all his extracurricular activities and settle down to the one thing he was any good at, which was history.

He had also retained his flair for maths and found himself captivated by economic history and the statistics these entailed, two things that were anathema to most of his, contemporaries. A stage adaptation of Karl Kraus' Last Days of Mankind convinced Ferguson he must learn German and for a while he thought of researching German satirical literature. Still regarded by the Oxford sobersides as something of a wild Glaswegian, he was sent to consult Norman Stone, recently arrived from Cambridge. Stone sensibly persuaded his young compatriot to focus on something more specific, perhaps involving 'number-crunching'. As Ferguson soon discovered. numbers don't come much bigger than those of the German hyperinflation of 1923-24 when millions of marks scarcely bought a loaf of bread. …

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