Niall Ferguson interview: ‘Public life these days is a cascade of abuse’

Historians in the News
tags: Niall Ferguson



Niall Ferguson, the historian and rightwing commentator, is ready to answer questions about many things, among them his critics (“They’re engaging in a rather unscrupulous and dishonest pursuit”); Barack Obama (“This presidency has not been a great success”); and anyone offended by his ideas (“There is a kind of PC 2.0 generation, who found a way of empowering themselves by seeking to police campuses in ways that sometimes vaguely remind me of the Cultural Revolution in China”). But for all his outspokenness, when I ask him about the contours of his life, Ferguson, who usually speaks in complete paragraphs, becomes tight-lipped – or perhaps merely tired, faced with going over old ground.

“You were born in Glasgow,” I say. “Yes.” “And you grew up there?” “Yes. So far as I have grown up.” “What did your parents do?” “My father was a doctor. My mother was a teacher.” He lays out his own teaching career, after receiving a PhD in German history from Oxford, like this: “Taught in Cambridge three years. Taught at Oxford 10 years. Got bored, came here. That’s it.”

There’s a little more to it than that. Ferguson’s first book, Paper and Iron (1995), was celebrated for its reassessment of the influence of German hyperinflation in the 1920s, and his two‑volume history of the Rothschild family was universally praised for its meticulous research. He has gone on to write numerous bestsellers and become an academic celebrity, currently teaching at Harvard, and has adapted a number of his books into TV series that he presents himself.

He is the author, most recently, of a 1,000-page authorised biography of Henry Kissinger. The first of two volumes, it covers the years 1923 to 1968 and bears the subtitle “The Idealist”. In a fiery indictment, The Trial of Henry Kissinger, Christopher Hitchens famously accused the statesman of “war crimes and crimes against humanity in Indochina, Chile, Argentina, Cyprus, East Timor and several other places” – and in some intellectual circles, to call Kissinger an idealist is nothing short of heresy.

Ferguson had unprecedented access to Kissinger’s private papers and argues that Richard Nixon’s secretary of state has been misunderstood for years as a machiavellian realist obsessed with power at any cost, and that his true reputation is buried under “visceral hostility” ranging from mere “vitriol” to “outright lunacy”. Ferguson has made a career out of combativeness. In more than a dozen books and countless columns, he has attempted to dismantle certain accepted notions of history, as well as the very concept of disagreeing with Niall Ferguson, and this new volume is in the same vein. ...




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