The Proud Tower: A Portrait Of The World Before The War: 1890-1914, by Barbara W. Tuchman
The author is wise, I think, in this case, to consider this book to be a portrait rather than a more complete account. This book is certainly a partial book in multiple senses of the word, because it would not be possible for one single account to give all of the complexity of the world in the period immediately before World War I, and because the author herself definitely has a particular perspective of her own. From reading this book one can gather that she has a firm belief in the obligations owed by intellectuals to engage in public service in some fashion (although there is certainly some nuance here as well), and that she has a strong degree of opposition to imperialism and bullying of various kinds. Although I must admit that the author is far more of a leftist than I am, it is to her credit that she comments in ways that certainly drop the esteem that the reader would have about intellectuals and it takes someone of considerable honesty to do that. The fact that the author is this honest speaks highly of her integrity as a historian.
This large book of almost 500 pages is divided into various chapters which give various snapshots of life in the period just before World War I. Admittedly, the picture is a bit on the biased side. There are more pictures of elites (and this includes intellectuals as elites) than of the poor, teeming, huddled masses of various slums and tenements (although there is some of that too). The attention of the author is focused on Western Europe mostly with a bit about the United States and Russia, but we don’t get a picture of life in the prewar period of, say Japan or China or even Australia. This is a survey of convenience, one which examines the upper classes of Great Britain and the decisive elections and electoral decisions before World War I there in a couple of chapters, looks at socialists, including the death of Juares, the Dreyfuss scandal, American politics focused on the figure of Joseph Reed, the anarchists, and Strauss’ career as a composer in Germany. The author has a lot of intriguing things to say about the conflicts of the time in the various nations she discusses and the hopes and fears of various people as to what the future held, and to the ways that vulnerability was seen if not fully understood by the people of that time who were, like the people of every time, focused on what was going on and unaware of what would be decisive.
For the most part, I found this book very enjoyable to read. Although the author and I have different political worldviews, I found very intriguing the author’s insights about socialism and the belief of leftist intellectuals to presume to speak on behalf of the common man despite not being (generally) of the common people themselves. The author’s insight into the various divisions of leftist intellectual circles and her general interest in political and diplomatic history serves here well here. Whatever her own political beliefs, she had a clear passion for public service and an honesty that allowed her to tell others what her sources told her and not what she would have preferred to say. The fact that the story is a compelling narrative that includes discussions about the quorum rules of the House of Representatives as well as the effects of imprisonment in French Guiana on an innocent if not necessarily sympathetic man as well as the stories of the creativity of Strauss and some of his less compelling music as World War I approached makes this book a worthwhile and quirky one.