The Proud Tower: A Real Nostalgia Killer of a Book

When a certain presidential candidate says the turn of the twentieth century is one of those eras he’s referring to when he says “Make America Great Again,” somebody should shove Barbara Tuchman’s Proud Tower in front of him. A downtrodden, angry working class, horrifying terrorist attacks, a huge gap between rich and poor, violent putdowns of protest, virulent racism and blatant imperialism: the era has all too much in common with our own—except it was much, much worse.

Basically, the book is a key to the modern world.

Indeed, one of Tuchman’s main objectives in writing the book was to overturn people’s preconceptions about the era—and in particular to declare war against nostalgia. “We have been misled,” she writes, “by the people of the time themselves who, in looking back across the gulf of the War, see that earlier half of their lives misted over by a lovely sunset haze of peace and security. It did not seem so golden when they were in the midst of it.” Nostalgia, folks, is the mind-killer.

The complete title of the book is The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World Before the War, 1890-1914, and it is a detailed, entertaining depiction of the political scene in the years leading up to the Great War and the cast of characters inhabiting it in England, France, Germany, and the United States.

The era is an enigma to most of us. We know World War II quite well, but the First World War and what led to it, to most of us, is as confusingly labyrinthine as a Congressional bill. Prior to reading this book, almost nothing interested me less than late nineteenth and twentieth century history. The time, to me, represented humanity at its most stodgy.

But I gave the book a shot because I had previously read Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror, an enthralling account of late medieval life through the eyes of a somewhat obscure French nobleman. It’s got vivid details about day-to-day life in the Middle Ages, it’s got accounts of insane royalty and bloodthirsty mercenaries, it’s got the plague. Plus, Tuchman provides an incisive, somewhat ironic voice that could make even the boringest of eras interesting.

So that’s why I decided to pick up The Proud Tower. The book clearly outlines the main conflicting groups: the upper class versus working class, the intellectuals versus the masses they profess to represent, the Capitalists versus the Socialists, the colonizers versus the colonized, the Germans versus just about everybody else. The fights, compromises, and alliances between these various groups make us what we are today. Basically, the book is a key to the modern world.

There are some surprises, as well—at least there were for me. The first was that whether the U.S. should become a world power with a military that ventured beyond our borders was a hotly debated topic. Our involvement in Cuba, the Philippines, and Hawaii were considered by many to be gross oversteps—they believed in a strictly defensive national army and that to venture further than that would be to become the very thing we originally rebelled against. Of course, these opposers of imperialism seem to have forgotten what we did to the Native Americans—but selective memory and self-contradiction seem to be par for the course in politics.

The other surprise connected to that was that the supporters of a larger, farer-reaching military were unapologetically racist. “We are a conquering race… We must obey our blood and occupy new markets and if necessary new lands,” proclaimed Indiana senator Albert Beveridge, adding that “debased civilizations and decaying races” should be subjected by “the higher civilization of the nobler and more virile types of man.”

Another revelation to me was how desperately malevolent the Anarchy movement was at the time. The entire second chapter of The Proud Tower is devoted entirely to it, and it makes for absolutely thrilling reading. It chronicles the secret plotting, the assassinations, the terrorist attacks of an international, loosely-connected group of radicals who believed such shocking acts of violence would eventually bring about a “stateless society, without government, without law, without ownership of property, in which, corrupt institutions having been swept away, man would be free to be good as God intended him.

Such utopian pipe dreams seem so alien to us now—but, as Tuchman notes, it was a sentimental time. “Its inhabitants lived, as compared to a later time, with more self-reliance, more confidence, more hope,” but also “more injustice and hypocrisy, more misery and want.

Although far from justifying their actions and beliefs, Tuchman does root the Anarchists’ extreme politics in the extreme situation most members of the lower classes found themselves stuck in at the time. Seventeen-hour work days with no days off, families crammed into rank, rancid living quarters, governments partnered with industries to gun down strikers, the lack of the vote among non-property-owning men (not the case in the U.S., but the case in many European countries)—it was hardly a time you would want to live in were you to have access to a time machine.

Many at the time felt humanity was headed toward a fate unspeakably horrible—mass bloodshed and upheaval—and all but the Anarchists, hard-line Socialists, and gung-ho militarists dreaded it. So strenuous efforts by both political insiders and political outsiders were made to curb widespread war. In Chapter Five of The Proud Tower we get a glimpse into the inner workings of the first International Peace Conference at the Hague. Mutual distrust and opposing interests between governments prevented any major breakthroughs, of course—but at least they tried.

The Socialists at the time also felt that they could prevent war in Europe by a general strike by all working men. But their efforts failed, according to Tuchman, because of a strident nationalism—which is to say a deep irrationality, a strong herd instinct, which trumps all logical political considerations and even self-interest. “The working class went to war willingly,” she writes, “even eagerly, like the middle class, like the upper class, like the species.

This “force of the irrational in public affairs,” as Tuchman calls it, is still very much with us today, and will no doubt always be with us. A critical distance is crucial—but it’s only time that allows that.

A lot of people say time is unkind, but it’s actually quite kind. The political struggles of people a hundred years ago—their prejudices, their animosities, their dogmas held so dear—all if it can now be examined critically, level-headedly, even sympathetically. Time and distance grant a certain rationality, an ability to assess the strengths and weaknesses of all sides of an issue.

I know it’s tough to be in two places at the same time, but the main test of a people and their leaders is how well they can apply this same critical distance to their current situation. Whether we pass or fail this test, only time will tell.

  • July 27, 2016
  • Jon Eckblad
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