World’s End

Robert Wohl

  • August 1914 The Proud Tower by Barbara Tuchman
    Papermac, 499 pp, £4.95, September 1980, ISBN 0 333 30516 7

How good is Barbara Tuchman’s history? In one respect, the question is irrelevant because her readers have already answered it by purchasing hundreds of thousands of copies of her books. This fact alone might tempt the ‘serious’ student of history to dismiss her. But leaving aside her two Pulitzer prizes and her mountain of admiring reviews – many by distinguished and indisputably serious historians – Tuchman is not so easily dismissed. Broad in scope, ambitious in conception, carefully researched, her books make considerable demands on the reader, not the least of which is a willingness to pursue in minute detail topics as untrendy as the doctrinal disputes of pre-First World War socialists or the social and economic consequences of the Black Plague. That she has escalated her demands during the last twenty years while enlarging the circle of her readers suggests that she is a woman of distinctive talents.

Ideally, a consideration of Tuchman’s work would examine all seven of her books, which range from studies of British policy towards Spain and Palestine to her most recent, a daring (and, for me, surprisingly dull) reconstruction of European life in the 14th century.[1] But the centrepiece of her achievement and the books on which her claims as a historian will have to rest are August 1914 (published originally in the United States in 1962 under the title of The Guns of August) and The Proud Tower (1966).

A thoroughgoing nominalist who has no truck with theories or philosophies of history, Tuchman likes whenever possible to use individuals as the ‘vehicles’ for her narratives. This, she thinks, leads her to a truer vision of the period than she would have achieved with a preconceived plan. A Tuchman book, therefore, always teems with colourful characters, some heroes, but mostly bumblers, dunderheads and knaves, whose failings, both public and private, are observed with a relentless and unforgiving gaze.

And what an eye for detail and flair for language she possesses! Who, but Tuchman, would think to compare pre-First World War Europe to ‘a heap of swords piled as delicately as jackstraws’, of which one could not be pulled out without setting in motion all the others; or the German drive through Belgium to ‘the march of predator ants who periodically emerge from the South American jungle to carve a swatch of death across the land’? Given the choice, she will always make her point indirectly, through an anecdote; while she avoids long passages of generalisation, she is a master of the one-line commentary that leaves no doubt about where she stands. Note, for example, her description of Alfred von Schlieffen, Chief of the German General Staff from 1891 to 1906, as a man so singlemindedly concentrated on his profession ‘that when an aide, at the end of an all-night staff ride in East Prussia, pointed out to him the beauty of the river Pregel sparkling in the rising sun, the General gave a brief, hard look and replied, “An unimportant obstacle.” ’ So too, he evidently decided, was Belgian neutrality.

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[1] A Distant Mirror (Penguin, 697 pp., £2.50, 25 September 1980, 0 1400 54073).

[2] Austria, Hungary and Serbia are strangely absent from her account of military planning.

[3] By ‘Eastern Europe’, it turns out that Tuchman means Italy, Austria-Hungary, Scandinavia, Russia and the Balkans. Most of The Proud Tower deals with England, France and the United States.