The Proud Tower is a book published in 1966 by Barbara Tuchman, offering a glimpse of the state of the world before the First World War. As historians studying the Great War mostly focused on the political relationships between states and their policy makers leading to the war, it is sometimes difficult to grasp accurately what these various actors were actually feeling and in which context they were evolving.

Indeed, looking back on the era before the war, various contemporaries described this time as quiet, secured and prosper. Yet they mostly reflect the experiences of a class that was still insulated from the worst of the upheaval of these times, whose following decades will only outmatch it in intensity and scope of violence.

It turns out that the pre-world is one where values, ideas, and power collided: established aristocracies and great fortunes living from the decreasing pensions of their immense estates against the rising class of capitalists and merchants, and the abominable life of the poor, who ventured out from their lands to live in the sordid conditions of crammed city quarters.

To help us better assess the pre-war situation, Barbara Tuchman draws the portraits of Europeans nations as well as the nascent United States through 8 chapters describing various political and cultural leaders. Even though the different stories are sometimes loosely related, Barbara Tuchman’s writing skills manages to take us through the various situations with incredible agility, wit and subtle insights, describing events with astuteness and brilliant sharpness, allowing us to process and understand a complex but essential part of our history.

She chronicles the thriving world of the British aristocracy, whose land-based established order was slowly but surely giving way under the pressure of capitalism and democracy. In this class conscious country, appealing inequalities in income distribution made a lucky few exert outsized influence over the political and economical life, a self-appointed right to rule that was expected to remain so, until the challenges of industry and democracy breached into their world. What follows is a great battle for power that shook the country -but only the great social revolutions during the war would definitely assert the power of the less fortunate.

We also witness the transition of the United States from an introverted and idealist rising power to a newly converted imperialist country, out of a combination of strategic imperatives and the lobby of a few large corporations. In just a few years, the US shifted from a non-intervention policy to active wars with Spain, the bloody repression of an insurrection in the Philippines and the acquisition of various islands throughout the Pacific and the Caribbean. These land grabs include the critical island of Hawaii and Midway, seized in response of the rise of Japan, a strategic move that will only be fully understood some 7 decades later.

The Proud Tower also explores the political and social changes triggered by industrialization and urbanization, the hopes of the socialists and the great fights of the anarchists, both answering the pressures of unbridled capitalism which was turning cities into slums and workers into slaves. Organizations, standardization, regulations were expanding their reach deeper than ever into the lives of individuals, replacing artisans by workers, ownership by hierarchy, individual space by sordid promiscuity, fresh air by asphyxiating smog, villagers by strangers, common sense by intransigent laws…

Seeing the mobs of poor massing almost literally at their doorsteps, the powerful immediately reacted by bringing the political process to their advantage, turning the police and military forces to their side and ruling through an unbalanced democratic process where the few could control the many, leaving a sense of hopelessness to those understanding how the system worked.

The answer had to be a political one and took two forms: the anarchists choose to give back the initiative to the individual while the socialists offered a vision where the organization of society would be decided by the many instead of a few. Needless to say that both scared the established rulers because of their non-respect for ‘natural laws’ of society, where individuals were expected to stay in their positions and where the ‘animal spirit’ of the masses were not deemed fit to rule.

Finally, we explore the complex Dreyfus affair that paralysed France for more than 10 years, literally dividing the country into reactionary and progressive forces, reflecting the spirits of the times. During all those years, a courageous few challenged the state, the military and the power-that-be, as much to restore a grave judicial misgiving than to show how a minority was controlling the organs of the state.

In light of these tense situations, some people within the governmental structures throughout Europe believed that a war could unite their country again. Others, such as the infamous Russian former Minister of the Interior¬†Durnovo, predicted the collapse of their state. Given these incredible internal tensions and growing unease, the most remarkable feat of the war is the extraordinary resilience and cohesion of European societies through the intensifying difficulties. With the exception of Imperial Russia, heavy strains of the war didn’t actually led to total collapse until very late in the war.

At the very least, The Proud Tower is a good example of how the illusion of international prosperity and stability can be swept away by the political reality. It is needless to repeat the comparison with the current international situation, even though the current international structure does not come close to suggest that a global war is coming.

However, localized wars are a reality that we cannot write off, and the confrontations between established (US) and rising regional powers (Russia, China) need to be closely monitored. After all, The Proud Tower also shows how the fight of socialists and other institutions and idealists working for peace, as well as the integrated financial and economical ties were swept away by nationalism and gradual escalation toward worldwide war.

Should you be interested in reading more, you can read more in this Washington Post book review of 2009.


Written by Carlito

About Carlito Riego

"Great perfection may appear imperfect, but its usefulness is inexhaustible. Great abundance may appear empty, but its usefulness cannot be exhausted. Great correctness may appear twisted, great skills appear crude, great eloquence appear awkward. Activity conquers cold; inactivity conquers heat. Clear serenity governs the world." - Lao Zi