Clif Hostetler'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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Dec 29, 10

bookshelves: history
Read from December 09 to 29, 2010

Barbara Tuchman is a widely respected historian, and I have always assumed I'd get around to reading all her books some day (I read two of her books in my pre- Goodreads.com days). I had not previously read The Proud Tower probably because the era prior to World War I is of limited interest to me. Things changed recently when Ken Follett came out with his book, Fall of Giants, and a book group I belong to decided to read, Edith Wharton's book The Age of Innocence. These are both fictional stories set in the late 19th and/or early 20th centuries. What better way to prepare myself for those books than to read Tuchman's nonfiction account of the era.

World War I was so horrible that it causes many to look back on the pre-war era as being a Golden Age. The book's Foreword indicates that, "It did not seem so golden ... in the midst of it." Tuchman offers the following rule based on her research:

"all statements of how lovely it was in that era made by persons contemporary with it will be found to have been made after 1914."

The Proud Tower is divided into chapters of varied subjects and I've decided to give my impressions of the book by making the following short comments about each chapter

Chapter 1 "The Patricians (England: 1895-1902)" is about British aristocracy of the era and focuses primarily on Prime Ministers, Salisbury and Balfour. I found this to be a boring chapter which is an indication of my interest in reading descriptions of British politians. They all seemed to convey a haughty confidence that God is an Englishman, and thus it is God's will that the British take on the white man's burden of maintaining a world wide empire.

Chapter 2 "The Idea and the Deed (Anarchists: 1890-1914)" is about the terrorist of that era. Anarchists had the theory that organized government was the cause of human suffering. It follows from this belief that if sufficient chaos could be created by acts of violence to cause governments to collapse, people would be then free to live in an egalitarian utopian society. The terror caused to this end by Anarchists of this era are summarized in the following quotation from the book:

"...six heads of state were assassinated for its sake in the twenty years before 1914. They were President Carnot of France in 1894, Premier Canovas of Spain in 1897, Empress Elizabeth of Austria in 1898, King Humbert of Italy in 1900, President McKinley of the United States in 1901, and another Premier of Spain, Canalejas, in 1912."

Chapter 3 "End of a Dream (United States: 1890-1902)" is the story how USA caught the colonial fever and ventured into their own war of aggression in the Spanish-American War. Americans then emulated the European colonial powers by holding on to The Philippines.

Chapter 4 "Give Me Combat" is an account of France 1894-1899. France's story is told largely by telling how the nation was tied up in knots from 1897 to 1899 because of the Dreyfus Affair. Anyone in France during those years who heard the term, "the affair," would have known what it meant. The Dreyfus Affair became a proxy battle for the division between the conservative and liberals of the time.

”The Revisionists, who fought for retrial, saw France as the fount of liberty, the country of light, the teacher of reason, the codifier of law, and to them the knowledge that she could have perpetrated a wrong and connived at a miscarriage of justice was insufferable. They fought for Justice. Those on the other side claimed to fight in the name of ‘Patrie’ for the preservation of the Army as the shield and protector of the nation and of the Church as the guide and instructor of its soul.”

Chapter 5 "The Steady Drummer" focuses on the peace conferences held at The Hague in 1899 and 1907. The purpose of the conferences was disarmament but the best they could do was agree to very limited rules of war. The participants at the time did not know, unlike the readers of this book, that World War I was coming. In hindsight it's pretty obvious that the the conferences didn't have a chance. There are some incredible quotes from this era, one of which is listed below:

"Lord Lansdowne, opposing the Old Age Pensions Bill in the House of Lords, said it would cost as much as a great war and the expense of the South African War was a better investment. ‘A war, terrible as are its consequences, has at any rate the effect of raising the moral fibre of the country …’ “

Chapter 6 titled "Neroism is in the Air" is about Germany 1890-1914 and uses Richard Strauss and his music as a primary focus while also covering others such as Kaiser Wilhem and Friedrich Nietzsche. One item that caught my attention is how Tuchman described "Also sprach Zarathustra," Op. 30 (Eng. Thus Spoke Zarathustra). It's a tone poem composed by Richard Strauss in 1896 inspired by Friedrich Nietzsche's philosophical treatise of the same name. What I found interesting is that Tuchman was writing in the mid 1960s and thus couldn't do what any writer after 1968 would have done and refer to it as the theme from "2001: A Space Odyssey." So how does one describe it when you can't refer to the movie?

"Trumpets sounded the opening, swelling into an immense orchestral paean by the whole ensemble which seemed to depict less the sunrise stated in the program notes than the creation of the world. Its magnificence was breathtaking."

Chapter 7 titled "Transfer of Power (England: 1902-1911)" tells the story of the beginnings of the Labor Party and the ascendance of the Liberal Party in England. This chapter describes the long tortured path toward passage of the Parliament Bill that limited the veto power of the House of Lords. At the time of its passage some considered it akin to near revolution, but in the end it hardly made a ripple of change.

Chapter 8, "The Death of Jaures (The Socialists: 1890-1914)" is about the Socialist and Labor movments of the time. Jean Jaurès who's name is in the chapter title was a French Socialist leader. He was an antimilitarist and was assassinated at the outbreak of World War I by a French nationalist. His death is symbolic of how the socialist cause was swallowed up the World War I. Some Socialists had theorized prior to WWI that future wars would be prevented because of organized labor's international spirit of brotherhood of workers. We all know how wrong that theory turned out to be. The following quotation from the book caught my eye as one of the more astounding comments.

"While campaigning for McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt said in a private conversation, 'The sentiment now animating a large proportion of our people can only be suppressed as the Commune was suppressed, by taking ten or a dozen of their leaders out, standing them against a wall and shooting them dead. I believe it will come to that. These leaders are plotting a social revolution and the subversion of the American Republic.' "

TR was referring to the Socialist Party of America and their presidential candidate, Eugene Debs.
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The following didn't come from this book. However, it's interesting information that I recently read about happenings in this era which I feel compelled to share with those who read my reviews:
Aspirin came into being in the late 1890s when Bayer in Germany began distributing it in powder form. One patient who should not have been taking aspirin was young Alexei Nicholaevich Romanov of Russia, who had hemophilia. Aspirin would make the bleeding in this disorder worse, but the imperial doctors likely gave the boy this new wonder drug without knowing. Alexei, son of the last czar, probably improved because the mystic Grigori Rasputin told the boy's mother to stop modern treatments and instead rely on spiritual healing. Rasputin's influence on the Romanov family may have contributed to the uprising against them, making aspirin a possible player in their murder and in the end of czarist Russia.
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