Wes Freeman'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 12, 08

Read in December, 2008

Engaging history of white people from late 19th century to WWI. Written by American journalist living in U.K. and published in 1966, book purports to be "A Portrait of the World Before the War, 1890-1914" -- which it ain't by a damn sight -- and works as a pretty good oil painting of the U.K., France, Germany, and the U.S. (with smatterings of Russia, Spain and Italy thrown in for spice) before they all started killing each other with gas and machine guns. Author shows us the political, social, and artistic zeitgeist(en) of what we on this side of the pond call the Gilded Age, giving them all equal emphasis (she must have done hella research) and doing a slow reveal on a time when ideas held such cultural currency that it was hard to tell the difference between what was actually political, social and artistic. What author sees in them days was boundless anticipation, a sense of progress, thousands of folks intoxicated by theory and oratory right before The Great War slapped a moratorium on that kinda Euro-centric idealism for the foreseeable future. All that social ferment yields a heady brew, but pouring it down the drain of history ain't all bad. In addition to exegeses on social progression, book also gives us the image of Western Civilization as a trans-Atlantic European boys club wrestling with humanist governance vs. nationalist self-preservation in the face of great change. The line between crusading progressive and mustachioed blowhard gets a little blurry after awhile, and it's hard to tell who the good guys are: Still needing a slide-rule to work out who the heroes were in the Dreyfus Affair, France's multi-tentacled meta-nationalist trial-of-the-century. The impression I get is that this European generation was actually pretty jazzed about the war in which they would wind up exterminating themselves because a) it had been a long time since the last war and b) they had piles of cool new war things (gas, air machines, rules [see the Hague Conventions of 1899 & 1907:]) they wanted to try out. Kaiser Wilhelm II just knew this war was gonna be awesome.

Clever trick author pulls by saving her socialism section for the end, unwinding the tale of irascibly brilliant cadre men and women dedicating their significant mental resources to the liberation of the international worker; taking Marx's admonishment against nationhood to heart, French, German, British and American intellectuals brainstorm for decades about the best way to improve the plight of the bottom strata of society. Their rhetoric gets a little heavy, even silly, at times, but when WWI cuts it short, it's a drag. When Kaiser Wilhelm declares war, barking, "I know no groups, only Germans" (the inverse of Marx's maxim "the worker knows no fatherland") we get ready to watch the Socialists march off to kill each other back on earth. Author gives us the full brunt of nationalism's tragic victory over humanism. We also get ready for serious men in ridiculous helmets, blood-muddy trenches, evil-looking gas masks, the tropes of a new century's killing fields; an ugly, absurd death for a shining, absurd era. Author knows how remote this period will seem to her readers in the 60s -- and it's from fucking Mars in 2008, by the way -- so she writes it all down with the kind of loving and amused distance we reserve at Christmas for kids who don't know about Santa Claus yet. Author loves this time, but I think she's glad she knows the truth.
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Comments (showing 1-4 of 4) (4 new)

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Clif I don't know if it is so alien to today...particularly the part about American lust for empire regarding the Philippines/Cuba/Hawaii as strategic bases. The exact same American exceptionalism grabbed hold of us as we have made a mess in Iraq. Also, the fear of one group losing place to the masses is certainly present in Republican rhetoric these days.


Jeff Typical sad left wing, rich white boy rhetorical flourish from Clif. I reckon he Does not understand international politics nor how empire worked, nor even what a gentleman was and tries to make a squalid analogy to today's events. sad and uneducated....but a popular John Stewart show world view.


Clif Jeff: your comment is nothing but a personal attack without knowing the person. There is no information in it. Why not make a comment on the issues that the book addresses, why you did or did not like the book, or about the take the reviewer has on the book?


Andrew O Great review. I love to hear other peoples perspectives on books I have read.


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