Kent'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
Nov 20, 2009

it was amazing
bookshelves: history
Read in December, 2009

I'm hesitating between a simple recommendation: "This was tremendous. Go forth and read ye likewise," and a more voluminous splatter of opinions and unhelpful comments.

No, actually, I'm not hesitating. The choice is simple.

Tuchman's object is to reveal the last decade or two of the Christendom, its pillars and its dynamiters. She covers the magnificent aristocracy of England in the first chapter. In their contempt of ideology the House of Lords were very Burkean, and incidentally reminded me a great deal of the aristocratical/agrarian society advocated in "I'll Take My Stand." (This kind of society really did exist once. For almost a thousand years, in fact.)

But in the midst of the Edenic garden of the British peers lurked a (you guessed it) snake. Sssss. Viz., the commoners were disposed to be fractious at this point in history, owing to discontent with grueling hours, cruel treatment, and hellish living conditions. The reaction to these wrongs is covered in Tuchman's chapters on Anarchism and Socialism.

In fact, by this time all of Christendom was in tension between two opposite ways of life. The aristocracy had come into existence in the Middle Ages, assuming naturally the role of governing over (and for) the lower classes. As feudalism goes, they carried out their role of protection and provision that the lower classes desperately needed, and in return the peasants gave them loyalty and service.

When the industrial revolution and the rise of the middle class came along, the stable system of peasantry, after a millennia or more, disappeared. They were drawn from the farm to the factory, and there enslaved to a degree unimaginable in centuries past.

Allured by wealth, the aristocrats abdicated their role of protection. They endeavored to reap the benefits of industrialism without suffering its consequences. They embraced the smoke and gears that brought them wealth, and in due time the filth and mechanicry destroyed their green fields and organic institutions. They supped with the devil, and their spoon was too short.

The imbalance between the Edenic gardens of the nobles and the infernal machinery of the cities was too great. Something had to give, and it did. Prophets of doom like Marx sounded the trumpet, and laborers by the thousands joined the standard of Socialism. They marched, denounced, rioted, and struck. More sinster yet were the Anarchists. They bombed, stabbed, and shot in heroical efforts to ring in the millennium of communism and fraternity. It seemed like all of Europe was facing a French Revolution that could only end it revolt and death.

Oddly enough, it didn't happen. "The worker" Marx said, "has no Fatherland." Actually, he did. Nationalism proved stronger than socialism. Kaiser's messianic blustering, the inferiority complex of the French--Britain's blind conservatism, and America's secular millennialism, actually destroyed Christendom. When the guns of August roared, the international workers of the world found the pull of the Fatherland was stronger, after all. Swamped in stupid pride, like Cadmus's army raised from dragon's teeth, the nations of Europe fell on each other and fought till they were dead.

And we, like Cadmus, wait hopefully for a remnant of five to found a new civilisation.
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