Thursday, December 02, 2010

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

The "Proud Tower" of Barbara Tuchman's title belongs to Edgar Allan Poe and from it "Death looks gigantically down". Any writing about the period covered in this work is of course coloured by the knowledge that it ends with the slaughter of the First World War.

Tuchman's history of the "world before the war" however is often at great pains to avoid discussing this. She wants to understand the period without its ending. Though she cannot but help herself occasionally, mentioning for instance, without comment, that a follow up to the Hague peace conference is scheduled to take place in 1916.

And because of this position it is hard at first to understand the author's theme. The first chapters (all of which originate as separate essays) seem at first to be simply about individuals - British "patricians" in the first, leading Anarchists in the second are followed by chapters on the political establishment of the United States and so on. But gradually what is exposed is a world in intense crisis - ripe it would seem for explosion or rift. So the chapter on Britain paints a portrait of a political world dominated by the old aristocratic order, heavy with tradition, individuals who are self-interested, bored by politics and economics. These Patricians increasingly clashing with a newer order, more professional men with wider interests.

This crisis at the top of society is best explored in Tuchman's chapter on the Dreyfus Affair. Dreyfus, a Jewish soldier is wrongly accused of being a German spy. Despite a lack of evidence, lies and forgeries from the military high-command result in a prosecution that rapidly becomes a cause celebre. France is riven by a huge debate, engulfing everyone. This much we know. But what Tuchman argues is that the affair, and the eventual release and pardon of Dreyfus marks the end of an era for France. The older order, a France dominated by an aristocratic military is no more, the world changes and new forces come on to the scene.

This sense of social crisis is nicely summed up in her chapter on Germany, which deals in depth with cultural changes in music and the arts, "A restlessness fermenting under the superabundant materialism was producing in artists a desire to shock; to rip and slash the thick quilt of bourgeois comfort."

The problem with the book isn't with the writing or the history. Well researched, and eminently readable, Tuchman has a fantastic prose that brings to life the characters she describes. Often her brief portraits can both capture and skewer an individual.  Lord Salisbury the British Prime Minister "cared nothing for sport and little for people. His aloofness was enhanced by shortsightedness so intense that he once failed to recognize a member of his own Cabinet, and once, his own butler". Tuchman does not fail to point out Salisbury's hatred of the lower orders and his fear of popular democracy.

The problem comes because Tuchman starts with the individuals. Any attempt to give a narrative to the history other than the most simplistic one of a society in crisis, is thus lost. Even though the build up to war, the growing economic and industrial power of the future belligerents and the potential for international clashes are there through out the book, Tuchman doesn't put this at the heart of the story, so the reader is left high and dry when trying to understand why war began in August 1914.

The problem becomes worse when you look at what is missing. Tuchman doesn't deal with the world beyond Europe and North America much - with barely a mention of South America, Asia or Africa, except as the arenas for Great Power clashes. And while the mass of the population is referred to obliquely (in terms of numbers of votes for instance) they don't really enter the story except very occasionally. Tuchman is only interested in the majority when they have some impact upon on the few individuals she is discussing.

This becomes almost distressing in her two chapters on the radicals. We are again treated to a long list of pen portraits of famous Anarchists and Socialists, some of which are frankly insulting - Rosa Luxemburg is described as "not good-looking". Yet the radical ideas of these individuals exist in a vacuum for Tuchman - there is no sense that some of these individuals commanded mass organisations, with the allegiance of millions of workers.

It is true to an extent that the leading members of the Social Democratic parties in the early 20th Century did become detached from those of the mass of workers. But to believe that millions of working people did not oppose the coming war, even if they felt unable to act against it, flies in the face of the evidence that she herself quotes.

Of course, this doesn't mean the book is without value. There is much to learn from Tuchman's wide reading and accessible language. Some obscure but fascinating moments in western history are brought out that illuminate the wider period. The chapter on Dreyfus is a fantastic summary of that complex and eventful time. The chapter that deals with Richard Strauss' radical and challenging music which caused shock and debate across Europe in a way that seems incredible today is fascinating, especially if you want to understand later developments in music, and the hopes for the international peace conferences convened by the great powers seem naive with hindsight, but clearly carried the aspirations of millions.

Tuchman writes wonderful history. But it is history from above even if she didn't want it to be. Her works illuminate some of the darkest times of human history and are best seen I think as giving a framework for the wider study of the historical forces that shaped our modern world.

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