Review of: The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World Before the War 1890-1914 by Barbara Tuchman

Reading The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World Before the War 1890-1914, by Barbara Tuchman, reminds us of a style of narrative history that no longer exists, a kind that is starkly and unashamedly interpretative and neither makes a pretense to impartiality nor an attempt to disguise the author’s bias. In this vein, the way the story is told is nearly as important as the story itself; perhaps more so at times. Indeed, Tuchman – a true master of her craft – literally exhales pointed sentences that wickedly characterize and sometimes caricature the people, proud towernations, and movements that come to life at the stroke of her pen. It is not the dull footnoted history of academic journals nor the sensationalized popular brand that is thin on facts and thick with swagger. Rather, it is highly observational, often judgmental and artfully written – without sacrificing the fundamentals of writing good history that at its root documents the facts on the ground. As such, Tuchman establishes the particulars and then unapologetically spells out the implications. The Proud Tower provides perhaps the best vehicle for her flourish of all of her books. Sadly, it is the kind of history that could not be written and published today, not only because the author has passed on but because this genre has passed on with her. What a pity.

I came to Proud Tower because of my recent focus on the causes of World War I during the centennial of Europe’s singular great cataclysm – upon the heels of reading To End All Wars by Adam Hochschild, Europe’s Last Summer by David Fromkin, and Sleepwalkers by Christopher Clark – which led to the realization that my knowledge of global affairs in the decades preceding the Great War was spotty at best. Events almost never spring forth from a historical vacuum: the American Civil War, for instance, cannot be properly understand except in the context of the years that led up to it.

I have actually owned this volume for more than thirty years, a nice reminder that one of the benefit of amassing a fine personal library is that you may often pluck just what you are looking for right off of your own neatly ordered shelves. Apparently I even once made a go of reading it some years back; there was a bookmark abandoned around page fifty although I cannot recall when I made this abortive attempt. No matter: back to page one.

It should be noted at the outset that the use of the phrase “Portrait of the World Before the War” in the subtitle is no literary flourish. Proud Tower is nothing like Tuchman’s other books in its structure. In fact, it is hardly like any other book at all. Rather than a historical study it is instead a series of snapshots of nations and movements on the eve of the tragedy of the Great War that ended what historians of Europe term “the long nineteenth century.” Far from a textbook approach, Tuchman elegantly thumbnails certain aspects of prevailing national character in key countries – England, France, Germany and the United States – and significant international movements of the era: anarchism, socialism and the budding crusade for peace centered upon treaties at the Hague to avoid or moderate conflict. A chapter is devoted to each – except the Brits, who without explanation earn two. The result is an uneven narrative that combines flashes of brilliance with occasional long pauses of tedium. Still, there is much to value in Tuchman’s broad-brush approach: I learned a great deal about facets of the era that I expect will send me down various future corridors of inquiry.

Among the most fascinating portions of the book is the chapter entitled “The Idea and the Deed,” that focuses upon the anarchists – who were the unabashed terrorists of their era. All but forgotten today, the anarchists – driven by a vague anti-authoritarian impulse that promoted a stateless society — wreaked havoc across national borders for decades with surprising successes that in the end accomplished … well … nothing. Still, on a macro level their grandiose flamboyance shook the globe with a triumph of violence that targeted heads of state with an astonishing rate of headlining achievement. In the three decades from 1881-1911, anarchists were responsible for the assassinations of Tsar Alexander II of Russia, King Umberto of Italy, King Carlos I of Portugal and his son the Crown Prince, King George I of Greece, President of the United States William McKinley, Empress Elisabeth of Austria-Hungary, a Russian Prime Minister, two Spanish Prime Ministers and the President of France — and these were only their most prominent victims! Tuchman’s treatment of anarchism and its adherents is engrossing, although to my mind neither she nor other historians I have read on this subject properly delve into the long term consequences for European stability fraught by the murder of so many key leaders in essentially a single generation. In probing the causes for World War I, I believe that this topic begs deeper exploration.

Tuchman’s two chapters on Britain reveals a nation blessed with great freedom and protections for the rights of its citizens yet burdened with a surprisingly very narrow franchise and a shocking gap – even by the standards of the period – between the conspicuous wealth of the aristocratic elite who controlled everything and the masses of the desperately poor who turned the cogs of that storybook society of drawing rooms and balls. However, political power was – albeit very slowly – gradually coming to the labor forces who would transform British politics in the twentieth century. Tuchman’s wide-lens perspective is perhaps most effective in the long chapter on France devoted to the signature “Dreyfus Affair” and how that impacted every aspect of French politics and society. The chapter devoted to the United States highlights a clear break with its past as America – in the Spanish-American War and beyond – embarked not only upon imperialism and internationalism but a striking celebration of militarism often overlooked by historians. The chapter on the efforts at the Hague to seek through international law a triumph of diplomacy over jingoism exposes that the U.S. was among the most vigorously opposed to any limitations on the number and types of weapons permissible in combat, including “dumdum” expanding bullets, larger navies, developing prospects for air warfare – and it was America that provided the lone vote against the use of asphyxiating gas! The most bizarre chapter, and in my view the least successful, is the one on Germany entitled “Neroism is in the Air,” that seems to use opera in the era of Strauss as a metaphor for the looming madness in the German zeitgeist. Curiously, there is no chapter devoted to Russia, although the Russians step on and off stage in various dramas throughout the book.

In my opinion, the weakness in Proud Tower is that it should more probably have been fashioned as a collection of essays rather than as a continuous narrative for there is almost no flow from one chapter to the next. Tuchman’s attempt to clothe all of it in a common fabric comes in the final chapter devoted to the Socialists, entitled “The Death of Jaurès,” after its eponymous and most celebrated leader, but this effort tends to fall flat as the threads do not neatly bind the rest of the work into a definitive seamless garment. Tuchman leaves us to draw our own conclusions; here is my own: although Jean Jaurès, like Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand, is assassinated on the eve of the Great War by a nationalist rather than an anarchist, I was struck once more by the phenomenon of so many leading individuals suddenly and randomly plucked from the political sphere, voices at once silenced that might have offered some moderation to the great catastrophe of world war that was soon to engulf Europe and echo far beyond its geography. Despite its faults, I would recommend Proud Tower to any reader who seeks a greater understanding of the nature of that notable age that loomed large at the dramatic eve of one era and the terrible dawn of another.

Author: stanprager

Book nerd, computer geek, rock music fan, dogmatic skeptic.

2 thoughts on “Review of: The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World Before the War 1890-1914 by Barbara Tuchman”

  1. An extremely fascinating overview. Does Tuchman delve into the changes in Asia at all, either from a Western Colonial paradigm or the local Asian ones?

    The period was one of profound upheaval from the Boxer Rebellion, Russo Japanese War, 1911 Revolution in China, and the final expansions of the colonial powers in the region before the “Great War”.

    1. Only peripherally. And while she was ahead of her time in many ways, she wrote in an era that remained stubbornly Eurocentric and generally did not take into account the outer corridors of emerging globalism. If you read this book, be sure to follow it up with the acclaimed “Guns of August,” her much better-known work about the start of World War I. Thanks for reading and commenting on the review!

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