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The proud tower: a portrait of the world…
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The proud tower: a portrait of the world before the war, 1890-1914 (1966)

by Barbara W. Tuchman

Other authors: See the other authors section.

Series: The Coming of the Great War (1)

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
1,749264,033 (4.04)163
  1. 10
    The World That Never Was: A True Story of Dreamers, Schemers, Anarchists, and Secret Agents by Alex Butterworth (CGlanovsky)
    CGlanovsky: Addressing roughly the same time period, both books shed light on the 19th and early 20th Century Anarchist and Socialist movements.
  2. 10
    The Vertigo Years: Europe, 1900-1914 by Philipp Blom (SusannainSC)
    SusannainSC: Like The Proud Tower, a thematic exploration of the pre-war period, 1900-1914.
  3. 11
    The perfect summer: England 1911, just before the storm by Juliet Nicolson (CindyBytes)
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English (24)  Dutch (1)  Hebrew (1)  All languages (26)
Showing 1-5 of 24 (next | show all)
Reading The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World Before the War 1890-1914, by Barbara Tuchman, reminds us of a style of narrative history that no longer exists, a kind that is starkly and unashamedly interpretative and neither makes a pretense to impartiality nor an attempt to disguise the author’s bias. In this vein, the way the story is told is nearly as important as the story itself; perhaps more so at times. Indeed, Tuchman – a true master of her craft – literally exhales pointed sentences that wickedly characterize and sometimes caricature the people, nations, and movements that come to life at the stroke of her pen. It is not the dull footnoted history of academic journals nor the sensationalized popular brand that is thin on facts and thick with swagger. Rather, it is highly observational, often judgmental and artfully written – without sacrificing the fundamentals of writing good history that at its root documents the facts on the ground. As such, Tuchman establishes the particulars and then unapologetically spells out the implications. The Proud Tower provides perhaps the best vehicle for her flourish of all of her books. Sadly, it is the kind of history that could not be written and published today, not only because the author has passed on but because this genre has passed on with her. What a pity.
I came to Proud Tower because of my recent focus on the causes of World War I during the centennial of Europe’s singular great cataclysm – upon the heels of reading To End All Wars by Adam Hochschild, Europe’s Last Summer by David Fromkin, and Sleepwalkers by Christopher Clark – which led to the realization that my knowledge of global affairs in the decades preceding the Great War was spotty at best. Events almost never spring forth from a historical vacuum: the American Civil War, for instance, cannot be properly understand except in the context of the years that led up to it.
I have actually owned this volume for more than thirty years, a nice reminder that one of the benefit of amassing a fine personal library is that you may often pluck just what you are looking for right off of your own neatly ordered shelves. Apparently I even once made a go of reading it some years back; there was a bookmark abandoned around page fifty although I cannot recall when I made this abortive attempt. No matter: back to page one.
It should be noted at the outset that the use of the phrase “Portrait of the World Before the War” in the subtitle is no literary flourish. Proud Tower is nothing like Tuchman’s other books in its structure. In fact, it is hardly like any other book at all. Rather than a historical study it is instead a series of snapshots of nations and movements on the eve of the tragedy of the Great War that ended what historians of Europe term “the long nineteenth century.” Far from a textbook approach, Tuchman elegantly thumbnails certain aspects of prevailing national character in key countries – England, France, Germany and the United States – and significant international movements of the era: anarchism, socialism and the budding crusade for peace centered upon treaties at the Hague to avoid or moderate conflict. A chapter is devoted to each – except the Brits, who without explanation earn two. The result is an uneven narrative that combines flashes of brilliance with occasional long pauses of tedium. Still, there is much to value in Tuchman’s broad-brush approach: I learned a great deal about facets of the era that I expect will send me down various future corridors of inquiry.
Among the most fascinating portions of the book is the chapter entitled “The Idea and the Deed,” that focuses upon the anarchists – who were the unabashed terrorists of their era. All but forgotten today, the anarchists – driven by a vague anti-authoritarian impulse that promoted a stateless society -- wreaked havoc across national borders for decades with surprising successes that in the end accomplished … well … nothing. Still, on a macro level their grandiose flamboyance shook the globe with a triumph of violence that targeted heads of state with an astonishing rate of headlining achievement. In the three decades from 1881-1911, anarchists were responsible for the assassinations of Tsar Alexander II of Russia, King Umberto of Italy, King Carlos I of Portugal and his son the Crown Prince, King George I of Greece, President of the United States William McKinley, Empress Elisabeth of Austria-Hungary, a Russian Prime Minister, two Spanish Prime Ministers and the President of France -- and these were only their most prominent victims! Tuchman’s treatment of anarchism and its adherents is engrossing, although to my mind neither she nor other historians I have read on this subject properly delve into the long term consequences for European stability fraught by the murder of so many key leaders in essentially a single generation. In probing the causes for World War I, I believe that this topic begs deeper exploration.
Tuchman’s two chapters on Britain reveals a nation blessed with great freedom and protections for the rights of its citizens yet burdened with a surprisingly very narrow franchise and a shocking gap – even by the standards of the period – between the conspicuous wealth of the aristocratic elite who controlled everything and the masses of the desperately poor who turned the cogs of that storybook society of drawing rooms and balls. However, political power was – albeit very slowly – gradually coming to the labor forces who would transform British politics in the twentieth century. Tuchman’s wide-lens perspective is perhaps most effective in the long chapter on France devoted to the signature “Dreyfus Affair” and how that impacted every aspect of French politics and society. The chapter devoted to the United States highlights a clear break with its past as America – in the Spanish-American War and beyond – embarked not only upon imperialism and internationalism but a striking celebration of militarism often overlooked by historians. The chapter on the efforts at the Hague to seek through international law a triumph of diplomacy over jingoism exposes that the U.S. was among the most vigorously opposed to any limitations on the number and types of weapons permissible in combat, including “dumdum” expanding bullets, larger navies, developing prospects for air warfare – and it was America that provided the lone vote against the use of asphyxiating gas! The most bizarre chapter, and in my view the least successful, is the one on Germany entitled “Neroism is in the Air,” that seems to use opera in the era of Strauss as a metaphor for the looming madness in the German zeitgeist. Curiously, there is no chapter devoted to Russia, although the Russians step on and off stage in various dramas throughout the book.
In my opinion, the weakness in Proud Tower is that it should more probably have been fashioned as a collection of essays rather than as a continuous narrative for there is almost no flow from one chapter to the next. Tuchman’s attempt to clothe all of it in a common fabric comes in the final chapter devoted to the Socialists, entitled “The Death of Jaurès,” after its eponymous and most celebrated leader, but this effort tends to fall flat as the threads do not neatly bind the rest of the work into a definitive seamless garment. Tuchman leaves us to draw our own conclusions; here is my own: although Jean Jaurès, like Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand, is assassinated on the eve of the Great War by a nationalist rather than an anarchist, I was struck once more by the phenomenon of so many leading individuals suddenly and randomly plucked from the political sphere, voices at once silenced that might have offered some moderation to the great catastrophe of world war that was soon to engulf Europe and echo far beyond its geography. Despite its faults, I would recommend Proud Tower to any reader who seeks a greater understanding of the nature of that notable age that loomed large at the dramatic eve of one era and the terrible dawn of another. ( )
  Garp83 | May 2, 2015 |
Excellent compilation of the Anarchist movement during the upheavals of the late 19th century. ( )
  cyclops1771 | Nov 12, 2014 |
I only rate this book as "about average." Tuchman has very strong biases — in her discussion of anarchism, her treatment of Emma Goldman is condescendingly dismissive — and she also tends to emphasize these biases through flamboyant language, for example (emphasis mine, and quoting from the Library of America edition pages 1077 and 1080)...

Hervé continued his campaign against army and country, undaunted by further trials and a term in jail. "We shall reply to the mobilization order by revolt!" he screamed.

and

In an opening tirade, Hervé again proposed mass disobedience to mobilization, in effect insurrection.

Overall, The Proud Tower is a fairly enjoyable read, though including some tediously long-winded descriptions of upper-class English society in its opening chapter, but the subjects which Tuchman covers (each chapter being somewhat self-contained topically) are limited and – notwithstanding brief references to Fashoda, Morocco, and the like – she largely ignores the overwhelmingly important topic of colonialism, with the exception of discussion of the American occupation of the Philippines (and even this is from a predominately American rather than Filipino perspective). Some of her choices of subject can also be quirky, notably, covering Germany by devoting an entire chapter to composer Richard Strauss.

Don't expect to derive any real understanding from this book of the underlying causes of the First World War, which will themselves be much-debated by historians of various stripes. The Proud Tower is more a collection of essays covering select subjects in the roughly quarter-century leading up to the War. Not bad, but it didn't really meet my expectations, considering Tuchman's high reputation as an historian and my own memory of other books like The Guns of August and Stilwell and the American Experience in China.

I read this in the Library of America edition, and I'm actually a bit surprised that the LoA would have bothered to include Tuchman in their canon. She's not, in my view, anywhere near as central to American historical literature as, say, Henry Adams or Francis Parkman, and The Proud Tower itself seems to me one of the lesser of her works. ( )
  CurrerBell | Oct 23, 2014 |
In commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I I decided to rereade Barbara Tuchman's The Guns of August. However, as I was going through my non-fiction shelves I came across this book, that I read 45 years ago in a college history class, and decided that this one, talking about the world in the twenty years before the war began, needed to be read first. Here Tuchman discusses the burning issues of those times - issues that have largely disappeared from today's politics: the beginning of the loss of exclusive political power by the aristocracy, the appeal of anarchism, the turning of the United States from an isolationist to an expansionist imperialistic power, the Dreyfus trial, the distressing growth of the popularity of Nietzsche's philosophy of the "superman" in Germany (and it's artistic expression through the music of Richard Strauss), the rise and splintering of socialism and the somewhat cynical beginnings of a League of Nations-type of organization to arbitrate disputes between countries without resorting to war.

Tuchman spins her tale out in an almost novelistic writing style which makes the more than a little complicated political machinations of the time easy to understand. As I got deeper and deeper into the book, I could almost hear the drumbeat and call to arms starting that would, in the end, explode into a cataclysmic four years of slaughter in 1914. This book is well worth a read right now. ( )
1 vote etxgardener | Jul 9, 2014 |
The chapter about Richard Strauss is the best part of the book. ( )
  christineplouvier | Apr 20, 2014 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Barbara W. Tuchmanprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
May, NadiaNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Epigraph
While from a proud tower in the town
Death looks gigantically down.

-- From"The City in the Sea"
Edgar Allan Poe
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The last government in the Western world to possess all the attributes of the aristocracy in working condition took office in England in June of 1895.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0345405013, Paperback)

"The diplomatic origins, so-called, of the War are only the fever chart of the patient; they do not tell us what caused the fever. To probe for underlying causes and deeper forces one must operate within the framework of a whole society and try to discover what moved the people in it."
--Barbara W. Tuchman
The fateful quarter-century leading up to the World War I was a time when the world of Privilege still existed in Olympian luxury and the world of Protest was heaving in its pain, its power, and its hate. The age was the climax of a century of the most accelerated rate of change in history, a cataclysmic shaping of destiny.
In The Proud Tower, Barbara Tuchman concentrates on society rather than the state. With an artist's selectivity, Tuchman bings to vivid life the people, places, and events that shaped the years leading up to the Great War: the Edwardian aristocracy and the end of their reign; the Anarchists of Europe and America, who voiced the protest of the oppressed; Germany, as portrayed through the figure of the self-depicted Hero, Richard Strauss; the sudden gorgeous blaze of Diaghilev's Russian Ballet and Stravinsky's music; the Dreyfus Affair; the two Peace Conferences at the Hague; and, finally, the youth, ideals, enthusiasm, and tragedy of Socialism, epitomized in the moment when the heroic Jean Jaurès was shot to death on the night the War began and an epoch ended.
"Tuchman [was] a distinguished historian who [wrote] her books with a rare combination of impeccable scholarship and literary polish. . . . It would be impossible to read The Proud Tower without pleasure and admiration."
--The New York Times
"Tuchman proved in The Guns of August that she could write better military history than most men. In this sequel, she tells her story with cool wit and warm understanding, eschewing both the sweeping generalizations of a Toynbee and the minute-by-minute simplicisms of a Walter Lord."
--Time

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:25:41 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

In The Proud Tower, Barbara Tuchman concentrates on society rather than the state. With an artist's selectivity, Tuchman brings to vivid life the people, places, and events that shaped the years leading up to the Great War: the Edwardian aristocracy and the end of their reign; the anarchists of Europe and America, who voiced the protest of the oppressed; Germany, as portrayed through the figure of the self-depicted hero, Richard Strauss; the sudden gorgeous blaze of Diaghilev's Russian Ballet and Stravinsky's music; the Dreyfus Affair; the two peace conferences in The Hague; and, finally, the youth, ideals, enthusiasm, and tragedy of socialism, epitomized in the moment when the heroic Jean Jaures was shot to death on the night the War began and an epoch ended.… (more)

» see all 2 descriptions

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