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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)

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1,948293,498 (4.05)169
  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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Showing 1-5 of 27 (next | show all)
This makes three books of Tuchman's I've read, and I've come to expect great scholarship and an engaging narrative. The same is true here, as she provides the reader with societal and political trends, and key players, in the roughly two decades preceding The Great War. Her focus is on France, Germany, and England, and the U.S. to a lesser degree. Her clear focus, at large, is on the "working man" and in particular the political jousting that occurred within the labor and socialist camps beginning in the 1890s. Attention is given the Anarchists and the assassinations and terror committed in its name; also to the Dreyfus Affair, in some depth. Space is given to theatrical and musical movements, imperialism, the ruling classes, and more, but, as she says in her introduction, not every cultural trend or societal advancement (medical, scientific, agricultural e.g.) is covered here. This arbitrariness of what topics are surveyed possibly keeps this from being a great work, but in any case I enjoyed learning so much about the pre-war period. Its worth mentioning this is not a "march to war" history, in the sense that armaments and alliances and the like are not examined. ( )
  JamesMScott | Dec 19, 2016 |
A social history of the world (Europe, U. S. A. and Russia) that runs the gamut between some brilliant insightful highs to some perverse and offensive lows. What else can you expect from Barbara W. Tuchman, whose book had me eagerly page turning one minute and wanting to throw it across the room the next. Her subject is a huge one; to give a lasting impression of the more developed countries in the period before they would all joyfully launch themselves into the first world war, and however skewed her impressions are I think she largely succeeds.

Tuchman’s excellent foreword describes her thought processes in writing the book: she says she has been highly selective in the subjects she has chosen to portray the social and cultural milieu of the period. There are chapters on late Victorian and early Edwardian governments in England, chapters on the anarchist movement in Europe, American expansionism, the Dreyfus affair in France, peace conferences at the Hague, the rise of socialism and most bizarrely the music of Richard Strauss, which she describes as the barometer of the weather in Germany. She says that there are other subjects she could have chosen to make her points about the societies in the various countries, so much so that her book could have been totally re-written. This selectivity could present the reader with some problems, because while you might well be interested in the rise of socialism, you might not be quite so interested in a long chapter on the music of Richard Strauss. To Tuchman’s credit her enthusiasm for the subjects she has chosen are undiminished and can carry the reader through the more esoteric of these.

Her book was published in 1966 and smacks of the now outdated patrician approach to history telling. At times it is like reading a selection of newspaper tabloid headlines and while these are undoubtedly entertaining and attention grabbing the reader might miss a more reasoned analysis of the issues. Tuchman is altogether short on analysis, she hits you with some facts and some colourful anecdotes of the characters involved and lets the reader form their own impressions. She cannot resist giving piquant pen portraits that sometimes verge on satire for example:

Lloyd George:
He had strong political principles but no scruples. Small and handsome, fearless, ruthless, and honey-tongued, with bright blue eyes, brown moustache and intense vitality, he constantly pursued and attracted women and adroitly avoided the occasional legal consequences. As a public speaker he was the Bernhardt of the political platform who ravished audiences with Celtic-lilt and strong emotion.

Captain Alfred Dreyfus:
As a person he was not liked by his brother officers. Stiff, silent, cold and almost unnaturally correct, he was without friends, opinions or visible feelings and attention. These characteristics appeared sinister as soon as he came under suspicion. His appearance the reverse of flamboyant, seemed the perfect cover for a spy. Of medium height and weight, medium brown hair, and medium age, thirty-six, he had a toneless voice and unremarkable features, distinguished only by rimless pince-nez, the fashionable form of eye glasses in his milieu.

Tuchman certainly has her heroes and her villains and she can’t help herself from going slightly over the top when it comes to describing handsome men. Women do not, by and large get the same treatment.

The overriding theme at the start of the period is how out of touch the leading politicians and the aristocracy were with the common people and the burgeoning industrialist. Rather like today there was a tremendous gap between the very rich and the rest of the population, but this was not such an issue for the leaders at that time because of the class system. People knew their place and although the period saw the sporadic violence of anarchism and the more thoughtful political gains of the socialist movement, when their country was seen to be threatened; nationalism took over. The herd instinct always in evidence was probably more prevalent at the turn of the nineteenth century. War it would seem was inevitable.

The Proud Tower will not be to everybody’s taste, but as an example of popular history, backed up by a wealth of research (50 pages of notes) and some humour then it proved to be an entertaining if somewhat frustrating read. Ridiculous even hysterical at times, but also packed with information and a portrait of the period that provides the basis for what happened next. A four star read. ( )
2 vote baswood | Dec 19, 2016 |
Comprehensive overview of pre-WW I Europe. Tuchman shows it was a different world before the War. The War swept away 19th century Europe. I was fascinated especially to read about the growing power of the labor unions and the Socialists. It was instructive to find out why labor and the Socialists did not do more to oppose the coming of the War. ( )
  jerry-book | Jan 26, 2016 |
Awesome book and great narrator but - in all honesty - really hard to get through. The author has done a stunning job of portraying what life was like before WWI: a lot on England and Europe but also America and Russia and touched upon most countries that existed at that time. It's just so detailed that I think the average reader would get bogged down in detail - I certainly did, and had to stop and reorient myself as to what year it is. Anyway, great book but be prepared for LOTS of detail. ( )
  marshapetry | Aug 26, 2015 |
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 |
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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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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)

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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 Jaurès was shot to death on the night the War began and an epoch ended.… (more)

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