Sunday, December 06, 2015

Review of Tuchman's "The Proud Tower"

Anyone who has read Barbara W. Tuchman's more famous work, The Guns of August, will already know that she far exceeds the average historian in raw ability to set words in front of each other. Her prose is lucid, engaging, evocative, and deeply moving in a way that the modern historian simply cannot match. Even more than in The Guns of August, Tuchman distinguishes herself in The Proud Tower by demonstrating a particularly discriminating ability to insert choice quotes from contemporaries; the 'pithiness' much lauded in an era when oratory skills were still the primary currency of societal influence. Mere "color," a professor once described these bon mots to me in dismissal. Color goes a long way, however, in enlivening a world with which we are only familiar in black and white photography.

Barbara W. Tuchman, The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World Before the War 1890-1914 (New York: Ballantine Books, 1996).

What struck me about The Proud Tower, first published as a series of literary articles in the 1960s, then, was not Tuchman's virtuosity as a writer--which I had expected--but rather the unanticipated contemporary relevance of many of the period's societal and political debates and moods which she so vividly details. The chapters, which each cover a particular trend, evolution, or twist in history, invite the reader to compare and contrast with modern problems. The parallels are often striking. More importantly, the dissimilarities which emerge as Tuchman sketches each issue are instructive in helping the reader think through change and recurrence in political life.

The Proud Tower opens with a survey of the last truly aristocratic government of the United Kingdom, Salisbury's coalition of conservatives and liberal unionists formed after the 1895 election, and closes with the assassination of the French socialist leader Jean Jaur├Ęs on the eve of the war. The scope is mostly confined to Britain, France, Germany, and the United States. The structure of her writing varies between chapters revolving around biographies and those which focus on key struggles. In the first category are her sketches of Tom Reed, speaker of the House of Representatives who broke the power of the "silent quorum" as a minority veto but whose traditionalist non-interventionism was overwhelmed by a cresting wave of imperalist fervor, and Richard Strauss, whose music was both a reaction and a representation of the emotional evolution of the dark undercurrent of fatalistic nationalism in contemporary German society. In the second category are Tuchman's descriptions of the Hague Peace Conferences, the rise and fall of anarchist violence ("propaganda of the deed"), the Dreyfus Affair, and the last hurrah of the British Liberal party--a constitutional restriction on the veto power of the House of Lords--before it lost the progressive mandate to Labour.

Where to begin with the comparisons?

1. The Rabble are Rising

A theme which runs through the collection of essays is the end of government by the privileged and the rise of populism as the foundation of political legitimacy and power. Not only was Salisbury's 1895 government dominated by aristocrats, the Liberal opposition was as well. The ideal that government was best left to those accustomed to the effort, educated by a lifetime managing vast personal estates accumulated over the centuries, was dead by the time the House of Commons voted to pay members an annual salary of 400 pounds in 1911. This "Transfer of Power," as Tuchman describes it, was characterized by the extension of universal manhood suffrage (and soon after the war, women's suffrage as well), and the organization of labor into parties and unions.The efforts of the conservatives, in Britain and elsewhere, to hold firm against the tide of popular power, appealed to the belief that only the privileged had the necessary disinterest to think of the national interest first and personal aggrandizement last. They saw the rise of professional politicians as marking the ruin of political independence.

The shift in political power caused by universal suffrage and the rise of working-class parties was unprecedented, yet a further evolution in the basis of political organization is presently threatening as great a leap as the one described by Tuchman. That evolution, of course, is the destruction of 'party elites' and partisan intellectuals at the hands of social media and direct appeals to the electorate. In the United States, the Republican Party has Donald Trump on its hands; in the United Kingdom, the Labour elite was trampled under by Jeremy Corbyn's rank and file. In Spain, new parties have pulled the rug from under the old Socialist and Popular Parties, while in Italy the rise of protest parties shows a new political vitality. The erosion of support for the traditional right in the United Kingdom (to UKIP), in Germany (to AfD and others), in France (to Marine Le Pen), and in Switzerland (to the SVP) demonstrates the widespread elimination of policy intermediaries. Of course, this trend has hurt the left in many of these states, with conservative-by-nature working-class voters finding new voices outside the traditional left-right divide - this is most clear in Poland where the victory of the Law and Justice Party is as much a product of the discrediting of the left as the rise in nationalism. 

As a group, the political elites are bemoaning there new irrelevance in much the same tone as the conservative heirs of Lord Salisbury. Without the guidance of the established political intellectuals, cries the Eurocrat in Brussels, the free-trader in Washington, and the economist in Buenos Aires, the people will run the state into the ground! The old model of consensus-seeking centrists tottering on the backs of uneducated masses is failing, but what will replace it is still emerging. It remains unclear whether the current destruction of political elites is one iteration in an endless cycle of political death and rebirth, stretching back to the nineteenth century, or the advent of a new politics built on greater citizen participation and polarization enabled by new technology and new media.

2. The Bomb, the Pistol, and the Terror

The anarchists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century were successful in their immediate goals, but hardly relevant as a political force compared to the trade unionists and organized Socialists. As related by Tuchman, six heads of state or government were assassinated by anarchists in the twenty years before the war: a president of France, two prime ministers of Spain, an empress of Austria-Hungary, a king of Spain, and one president of the United States of America. That list, of course, does not include Alexander II of Russia, killed in 1881. The list also does not include the numerous deaths caused by indiscriminate attacks, such as the bombing of Paris' Cafe Terminus in 1894, and which strained the fabric of urban European society as forcefully as the two terrorist attacks in the same city this year. From 1892 to 1894, Paris was subjected to:
"A two-year reign of dynamite, dagger and gunshot [which] killed ordinary men as well as great ones, destroyed property, banished safety, spread terror and then subsided."
I read Tuchman's accounts of the anarchists and their deeds in the shadow of the recent Paris massacre. The parallels between anarchism and Islamic extremism are unnerving, but only run so far. The problem facing law enforcement officials was similar: how to identify those individuals or groups, motivated by a common but disorganized ideology of violence, who might emerge from political apathy to conduct unpredictable and undeterrable acts of mass violence. Anarchist intellectuals encouraged propaganda of the deed, but were always at arms length from the suicidal perpetrators of actual attacks. Indeed, the "lone wolf" character of anarchist violence insulated those intellectuals from the law in much the same way preachers of religious extremism are protected at present. 

 Where the comparisons fail, however, is in the content of the ideology and what this meant for the terrorists' grand strategy. Anarchism, famously, opposes political organization as antithetical to its goal of a stateless society. Isolated anarchists conducted their attacks in an attempt to spark a revolution that would overthrow the aristocratic order and introduce a better world through a mass uprising. The goals of Islamic extremists, to the degree they are properly understood, appear to be more narrowly coercive: punish western societies for interfering in Muslim countries, and introduce enough pain that they accede to the inevitability of recognizing the Islamic State. Anarchism failed in part because a 'spark' was not enough to generate a revolution; the strategic underpinnings of anarchist tactics was fundamentally flawed. The validity of the strategic underpinnings of Islamic terrorism are harder to mark up as a failure. One might note the aftermath of the 2004 Madrid train bombing, after which the Aznar government's support for the invasion of Iraq cost it its mandate.

3. Dreyfus and the Political Divide

The Dreyfus Affair dominated the political landscape of France from 1894 to 1899, and going by Tuchman's description of the divisiveness of the scandal, in recent decades nothing of as intense a furor has totally consumed one society's political elite. The story of poor Captain Alfred Dreyfus gives the lie to claims that modern democratic politics are somehow more rancorous than in the past. The extremes of passion engendered by the affair, as described in Tuchman's account, must be read to be appreciated. I will only summarize the events.

Dreyfus was the unintentional victim of well-founded suspicions that a French artillery officer on the General Staff was leaking secrets to the Germans. The hunt for the leak produced Dreyfus as its main suspect; he was tried in late 1894 and found guilty. Dreyfus' prosecutors were sure of his guilt, but could not extract a confession; as a result, they fabricated proof. The army closed ranks around the prosecutors and protected the fabrications as military secrets for the next five years until Dreyfus was re-tried and freed. To earn him that re-trial, a motley alliance of politicians and public intellectuals (a native specialty of France) labored intensively through publication of the facts and lobbying of successive governments, to establish doubt in the military's case. The conservative establishment pushed back against the allegations of a stain on the military's honor, and used every tool of the law to prevent justice.

I first learned about the Dreyfus Affair in the context of the history of European anti-Semitism. Dreyfus, a Jew, was suspect because of his identity, and the anti-Semitism of both his military prosecutors and the anti-Dreyfusards who defended them is well illustrated by Tuchman's account. To her credit, however, Tuchman also sets the affair in the context of other pressures in French society: nationalism, liberalism, raw personal ambition, and militarism. All of these factors played a role in influencing which camp the main players found themselves. I know of several book-length takes on the affair but haven't had the time to read any of them. If, like me, you are unfamiliar with the story, Tuchman's chapter is an eye-opener.

4. Richard Strauss and the Rise of China

Richard Strauss--not him of the Viennese waltzes, but rather the composer of that famous theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey--was an odd choice for Tuchman's chapter on the political climate of Germany on the eve of the war. It was an odd choice because Strauss was not a political actor and his music was not particularly beloved of the Kaiser and the other men of power. Wilhelm II disliked, for example, the explicit and sensuous themes of Strauss' opera Salome and opposed a debut in Berlin. While Strauss admired the Kaiser in the 1890s, the feeling was never mutual; Wilhelm's tastes were too orthodox. "You are one of the worst... All modern music is worthless," the emperor once informed Strauss after a concert. (page 308).

Listening to his works, it is not difficult to imagine the scenes which greeted the debuts of Strauss' masterpieces. Tuchman writes of the confusion in the audience, followed by chaos, and finally applause and approbation across Europe's capitals. Strauss' operas and tone poems were booed in the concert hall, but earned mass appreciation over time. But Tuchman's implicit argument, that there was a certain atmosphere of decay and politico-emotional self-destruction embodied in Strauss' music that could only have been produced by Wilhelmine Germany, cannot be evaluated except by ear. Read the chapter, then have a listen.

Last year, on the centenary of the First World War, there was a deluge of thought pieces comparing Imperial Germany to modern China. The argument runs something like this: both countries are hyper-nationalistic, economic powerhouses, challengers in an international power system (see: Graham Allison's Thucydides Trap), and resigned to fight for its space in the sun. Therefore, expect war. What is interesting about Tuchman's portrayal of the political mood in late-Imperial Germany is that the cultural datapoint, or at least the musical datapoint, does not to the argument. China is not a contemporary cultural and intellectual superpower in the way that Germany was at the turn of the century. China has no Nietzsche, and it has no Wagner or Strauss. In addition, it is utterly absent of the "nero-ism" Tuchman portrays in the cultural climate in Germany, and for that, maybe, we should be grateful.

5. Arms Control at the Hague

Finally, Tuchman's account of the Hague Peace Conferences, called by the Tsar to the general astonishment of political society, are a reminder that the foundations of the modern liberal international order were hard fought for. The conferences had three committees corresponding to three agendas: arms limitations, arbitration, and humanitarian rules in war. The committees had varying degrees of success, but each contributed to the future development of norms which now form the basis of modern international society.

Arbitration, of course, has been under attack for a long time (outside of the WTO) the norm of peaceful settlement of international disputes has always been fragile and under-appreciated. The challenges come from multiple directions: China's non-participation in the UNCLOS arbitration on the South China Sea is famous; Russia's flaunting of the ITLOS ruling on its detention of the Arctic Sunrise less so. More fundamental to the disintegration of support for peaceful dispute-settlement was the U.S. withdrawal of compulsory jurisdiction for the ICJ--a move both short-sighted and destructive. But there are also reasons for optimism, such as the upsurge in territorial cases filed by Latin American states. 

Tuchman notes an early attempt at the Hague Peace Conferences to ban an entire class of future weapons: bombs dropped from the sky from balloons. At the time, there was not even a word to describe this tactic given its novelty. A five-year ban was agreed on, the Russian military delegate noting that "the various means of injuring the enemy now in use are sufficient" (page 262). This historical dead-end poses a severe challenge for proponents of a ban on autonomous weapons, another class of future technologies which may well prove too useful to belligerents to keep out of arsenals. 


There is little of Tuchman's book which does not draw you in better than any airport page-turner. For the avid consumer of politico-historical narrative, The Proud Tower is as entertaining as it is informative. The only mild criticism I can muster against Tuchman is that her anti-German sentiments, fashionable in Anglo-Saxon society for long after the wars, show through at odd spots.

It is unfortunate, however, to be forever in the shadow of the knowledge that The Guns of August was so widely criticized in latter years for missing what was and what was not important in the causes of the First World War. I don't know enough history (or historiography) to assess whether a similar criticism is valid against The Proud Tower, but the shadow of doubt is hard to escape. Nonetheless, Tuchman's prose always runs ahead of that shadow and enjoying the book on its entertainment value alone is likely no great sin.