Trevor's Reviews > The Proud Tower : A Portrait of the World Before the War, 1890-1914

The Proud Tower  by Barbara W. Tuchman
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's review
Jun 24, 10

bookshelves: history
Read from June 18 to 22, 2010

We humans like to think that there are single moments in our lives and in history around which the rest of history pivots. The point of these pivots is that they explain not only what comes after, but (and not unlike my new reading glasses) also snaps into focus all that went before. Suddenly the world makes sense. Strangely enough I don't think this was the experience the world had with the First World War – although it probably ought to have been. The war was so terrible (in the sense of striking terror in all who witnessed it) that rather than putting a clarifying lens on what had come before, it instead put rose coloured glasses on the nose of the world and people could only look back in wonder at what they now knew had been a golden age. ‘Beware golden ages’ is probably as good a motto for a historian as any other I can think up and so that can be the epigraph for this review.

This is a fascinatingly interesting book discussing a fascinatingly interesting time. As she says at the start, it wouldn’t be too hard to write another book on the same period and do much the same thing as she has done here without touching on any of the subjects discussed in this particuar book. Tuchman gives us a flavour of the world in the years before the war and that helps us to get an understanding of why the war might have happened in ways that were later hidden by the rose coloured glass of what became our collective memories.

This too is a period which I thought I knew things about, but one of the things I’ve found is that the interest in history is either increased or destroyed by detail. Here the detail brings to life the period and makes sense of what I had heard bits and pieces about previously, but only in sketches no bigger than thumb-nail size, rather than the lovely detail presented here.

The Dreyfus Affair is an interesting case in point. I’ve known of this since my teens, I have known it centred around a Jewish military officer who had been falsely accused of something and that people nearly tore the country apart due to the injustice of the case. I knew Zola had written J’accuse, something I’ve always planned to read. I also know that Lenin referred to the case as proving that the revolution may not come about due to economic crisis, but due to political crisis. All this I knew, but what he had been accused of, why the case was so dramatic, what social forces were aligned on which sides and why, even the link to Germany in the case and how transfixed not only France, but the world became with the case, all that I knew virtually nothing at all.

There is also a wonderful discussion on the young Wilhelm II of Germany that is remarkably interesting, particularly given his role later in the rush towards war. But for the rest of this review I am going to look at an idea from this book review and how it fits with the problems for the Socialist movement in these pre-War years.

The distinction between hope and despair is an interesting one, although as I've thought about it I’m starting to think it might not be a very useful distinction. They sound a bit like opposites, hope and despair, but are they really? What is the use of hope if it is not based on despair and can despair lead to anything other than suicide if there is no hope? The problems facing the socialists at the turn of the last century were not all that different from these questions. There is a nice line in the book where two socialists are walking down a street and one stops to put a coin in the plate of a beggar, to which his companion chides him for helping to delay the revolution. Here is the great schism in the left – the purists who saw Capitalism as an evil incapable of reform that needed to be violently removed from the face of the earth, and the reformers who saw any incremental improvement in the welfare of the working class as being justifiable on its own account. To be honest, both sides of this are equally obsessed with hope and despair – both were witnesses of the current despair, both hoped to improve the lot of those suffering, both saw the other as offering a false hope. Either a false hope in incremental improvement or a false hope in final and complete revolution. Both could look on in contempt at the other for betraying either the immediate or the long term welfare of those they sought to relieve.

It is a rare thing indeed to hear people talk of social revolution today. This is something that has been left to small groups of alienated young people at university campuses, young people who, ironically enough, spend time at university to ensure they move as far from the classes they would ‘assist’ as they possibly can. This is quite a change, as prior to the war these acrimonious debates rent the movement in twain and the effects on the movement could still be felt well into the 1970s.

And this is where I would like to say something about the benefits of history – what can we learn from history? I guess the first thing is that history is a series of competing narratives – just as this book is about the socialist movement tearing itself apart at the start of the last century it is also about the Anarchists preparing bombs to spark the revolution as it is about politicians and kings and businessmen and artists all seeking to leave their mark on the world and on history.

But what can we say about hope and despair? Is one more a benefit than the other? Are they alternate faces on the same coin? And what about today? I guess it would be easy, if a little simpleminded, to say that the reformers won and the revolutionaries brought about horrors even worse than those they sought to replace. I say ‘simpleminded’ as I often wonder if the Russian people would have had any better a time of it if the Capitalist revolution at the start of 1917 had been successful. The ‘collectivisation of farms’ would have still needed to happen, just as it needed to happen in the rest of Europe and America – just that rather than the Kulaks being blamed and punished during this process, they would have been the ones being made rich.

In equal measure there is hope and despair to be learnt from history. We can equally well show we learn and learn nothing from her pages. In whichever way you want to look at history – as a great teacher leading to the possibility of a brighter world or as Cassandra, bitterly ignored – a voice well worth listening to is Tuchman’s, another excellent book.
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Clif Tuchman's remark about being able to come at the time from other vantage points says something about how schematic any history must be. What a skill she had in making histories worth reading. The author really must construct history for us, bringing it to what must unavoidably be an artificial life.

Regarding your remark about young people today...I wonder if they can even conceive of a different system than capitalism. Back then, Marx offered a vision that seemed a plausible alternative.

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