Sunday, January 10, 2016

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

The Proud Tower is Barbara Tuchman’s depiction of the western world between 1890 and World War I. In her introduction, the author claims that “The Great War of 1914-18 lies like a band of scorched earth dividing that time from ours…we have been misled by the people of the time themselves who, looking back across the gulf of the War, see that earlier half of their lives misted over by a lovely sunset haze of peace and security. It did not seem so golden when they were in it. Their memories and their nostalgia have conditioned our view” (Tuchman, pp. xv-xvi).  Instead, we should see this period less romantically; as a time like any other, with its conflicts and its optimism existing side by side.

Tuchman’s chapter topics are highly selective, magnified and engrossing. The chapter list is brief and enigmatic enough that it should be displayed so the reader may see if she is interested: 1) “The Patricians,” is about the British aristocracy which continued to rule that country between 1895 and 1902. 2) “The Idea and the Deed,” is about the anarchists of Europe and the USA between 1890 and 1914. 3) “The End of a Dream,” discusses the change in US foreign policy from one that promoted worldwide democracy as an alternative to old world colonialism, to one that militaristically promoted US imperialism in the Western Hemisphere and the Pacific. 4) “Give Me Combat,” is about France’s internal division over the Dreyfus Affair. 5) “The Steady Drummer” is pervaded by humor and irony as the worlds militaristic powers meet for two Peace Conferences, where the goal is to show the public their commitment to peace while accomplishing nothing that might restrict their militaries. 6) “Neroism is in the Air,” presents Germany as an advanced culture in terms of art (especially music), science and industrial progress, but hints at the qualities that lead to the Great War. 7) “Transfer of Power,” portrays the political triumph of the Liberals and the commoners over the Patricians in Britain between 1902 and 1911. 8) “The Death of Jaures,” compares the hope of Socialism, (that workers would preserve world peace by refusing to fight a world war), against the reality of Nationalism.

These topics are interesting unto themselves, but hardly form a cohesive narrative of the period or even offer a summation. Tuchman is aware of this discord. In explanation, she states “I realize that what follows offers no over-all conclusion, but to draw some tidy generalization from the heterogeneity of the age would be invalid. I also know that what follows is far from the whole picture. It is not false modesty which prompts me to say so but simply an acute awareness of what I have not included. The faces and voices of all that I have left out crowd around me as I reach the end” (Tuchman, p. xviii).

Despite faults one may find with this book’s selection or cohesion, one will see a rare open-mindedness. Barbara Tuchman had a talent for presenting a balanced historical view. She was able to write sympathetically about people and groups with whom she felt no political or cultural affinity. In The Proud Tower, she depicts, with equal non-judgmental insight, both the British aristocracy and the western anarchists (two groups whose values she did not share). Her dispassionate portrayals permit readers an unprejudiced access to worldviews and cultures, that appear as if they are written by an insider of the milieu described. While Tuchman’s contribution to the study of this period is far from comprehensive, it is delightfully insightful and impartial.


Tuchman, Barbara. The Proud Tower.  A Portrait of the World Before the War: 1890-1914. New York: Bantam Books, 1989.