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.

Running through all her books are premonitions – or, better still, a mood – of cataclysm, and she can exhibit a nostalgia for simpler, gayer, more confident world now for ever lost. In A Distant Mirror she finds solace in the thought that 14th-century Europeans survived a crisis even worse than the one in which we find ourselves today. This sense of being condemned to live in the shadow of apocalypse, without certainties or hope of moral progress, may explain why, from her first book to her last, all Tuchman’s work has dealt with wars: their origins, their consequences and, above all, what it was like to fight in them. At a time when professional historians were beginning to turn their backs on diplomatic and military history in favour of new topics that seemed to promise deeper knowledge, Tuchman (born in 1912) dared to affirm the significance of battle and displayed a rare talent for explaining the plans of generals and the manoeuvres of armies. She has an almost Homeric passion for the blood and guts of combat.

This, then, was the Tuchman formula; and all its ingredients came together in almost perfect proportion to produce August 1914, a book which brilliantly illuminates the first month of the Great War. The sense of a tragic destiny dragging Europe to ruin and decline is already set in the first paragraph, where Tuchman describes the funeral procession that followed the bier of Edward VII in May 1910: ‘The muffled tongue of Big Ben tolled nine by the clock as the cortege left the palace, but on history’s clock it was sunset, and the sun of the old world was setting in a dying blaze of splendour never to be seen again.’

Five hundred pages later, after detailing the military preparations of the belligerents,[2] the inability or unwillingness of the Great Powers to prevent the outbreak of war during the July crisis, and the first battles culminating in the German setback on the Marne, Tuchman concludes that faults in pre-war planning were responsible for the deadlock in the west; and that this deadlock, ‘fixed by the failures of the first month, determined the future course of the war and, as a result, the terms of the peace, the shape of the interwar period, and the conditions of the Second Round’. ‘The nations were caught in a trap, a trap made during the first thirty days of battles that failed to be decisive.’

Along the way much attention is given by Tuchman to what Winston Churchill called ‘the terrible “ifs” ’ of history. What, Tuchman asks, if Germany had not decided to invade and occupy Belgium; if the French General Staff had adopted a defensive rather than an offensive strategy, thus preventing the German armies from penetrating so deeply into France; if Schlieffen’s successor, General Helmuth von Moltke, had not violated Schlieffen’s plan by weakening the German right wing in order to send two army corps to the defence of East Prussia; and if the French had not possessed in Joffre a commander so unflappable that his sleep and appetite were scarcely troubled by the French retreat?

Interesting questions, these, that remind us that most actions in war and diplomacy, as in tennis, take the form of a response to the adversary’s initiative: but in her determination to demonstrate that the fate of nations may hang on the thread of a single man’s decision, Tuchman sometimes goes to extremes that shake the reader’s confidence in her knowledge of modern history. Commenting on the failure of Admiral Milne’s Mediterranean fleet to prevent the German battle-cruiser Goeben from escaping to safety in Constantinople, she constructs an elaborate causal chain that begins in suggestive metaphor and ends in unchecked fantasy.

Thereafter the red edges of war spread over another half of the world. Turkey’s neighbours, Bulgaria, Rumania, Italy and Greece, were eventually drawn in. Thereafter, with her exit to the Mediterranean closed, Russia was left dependent on Archangel, icebound half the year, and on Vladivostock, 8,000 miles from the battlefront. With the Black Sea closed, her exports dropped by 98 per cent and her imports by 95 per cent. The cutting off of Russia with all its consequences, the vain and sanguinary tragedy of Gallipoli, the diversion of Allied strength in the campaigns of Mesopotamia, Suez and Palestine, the ultimate breakup of the Ottoman Empire, the subsequent history of the Middle East, followed from the voyage of the Goeben.

August 1914 derived much of its sense of drama from Tuchman’s claim, repeated with dirge-like insistence, that the inconclusive battles of the first month of the war had brought one world to an end and initiated another from which, she said wistfully, there was, and has been, no escape. But at no point in that book did she try to specify the characteristics of the earlier world that had presumably died. She never told us what August 1914 had changed. It was therefore logical, and perhaps inevitable, that she would choose as the topic of her next book the period that gave birth to the Great War. More surprising was her decision to abandon the kind of political history at which she had proved so adept. On opening The Proud Tower, we are notified that the ‘so-called’ diplomatic origins of the Great War – which had figured prominently in August 1914 – were ‘only the fever chart of the patient; they do not tell us what caused the fever.’ Pursuing this medical analogy, Tuchman announced her intention to probe for underlying causes and added that, to do this, it was going to be necessary ‘to operate within the framework of a whole society and try to discover what moved people in it’. Power politics and economic rivalries, no matter how important, she said, were not going to be her subject.

In that same introduction, Tuchman explained how she had come to select her themes and protagonists. She had chosen to confine herself to the Anglo-American and Western European world ‘from which our experience and culture most directly derive’, and to those subjects that exerted their major influence before 1914 rather than after. This, she admitted, meant excluding Eastern Europe,[3] as well as figures such as Freud and Einstein who achieved renown after the war. Oppressed by ‘the faces and voices’ she had been compelled to leave out, Tuchman insisted that her book could have been written ‘all over again under the same title with entirely other subject-matter; and then a third time, still without repeating’.

One need go no further than this sentence to understand why The Proud Tower is a less successful work of history than August 1914. Unable to make use of the narrative sequence she had found in the diplomatic and military history of the years between May 1910 and September 1914, Tuchman is forced to invent one of her own. The result is a series of eight essays, self-contained, entertaining in themselves, with occasional patches of superb writing, but feebly connected by concepts taken from the period itself: ‘the unconscious boredom of peace’, the desire for combat, and the existence of surplus energies seeking violent release.

Having finished her book, Tuchman was much too intelligent not to realise that, in some mysterious way, her topic had eluded her. Thus her introduction acknowledged that ‘what follows offers no over-all conclusion,’ but added defensively that ‘to draw some tidy generalisation from the heterogeneity of the age would be invalid.’ Admittedly, no ‘tidy’ generalisation would be likely to capture a civilisation as diverse as Europe was between 1890 and 1914. But instead of drawing the full consequences of the nominalist position and dwelling on the contradictions and complexities that make generalisation hazardous, as Theodore Zeldin was to do in his magisterial history of France, Tuchman wavered uncertainly between a vision of the period as comfortable and secure and a countervision that sees it wracked by anxieties and fears. Apparently, it never occurred to her that improvements in the quality of life for all sectors of the population were precisely what was creating anxiety and fear in some quarters and boredom in others.

One of the curious, almost quaint aspects of August 1914 was the extent to which Tuchman utilised national stereotypes in telling her tale. The Germans were brutal, barbaric, and drunk on a hundred years of German philosophy that taught them they should be a master race; the British were bumbling, non-committal, but, in the final analysis, they got their priorities right; the French, by contrast, were resilient, gallant, and full of Gallic élan. This device, while it gave August 1914 a strongly anti-German bias, also added to its effectiveness as a narrative by rendering a complex story comprehensible. Ludendorff, Von Kluck, Joffre, Sir John French, King Albert of Belgium – all come, in Tuchman’s portrayal, to embody the characteristics of the nations to which they belong. We feel that we are seeing a modern morality play re-enacted before our eyes. History takes on a meaning that most contemporary historians are unable, or unwilling, to give it.

But the same device, used in The Proud Tower, produces embarrassing results. We are invited to understand pre-war Germany and its culture through the figure of Richard Strauss. In Strauss’s tone-poems and operas, Tuchman finds traces of the German sickness, which takes the form of morbidity, vulgarity and arrogance; and she says of the dissonances in Strauss’s Sinfonia Domestica: ‘If this is German home life, German history becomes understandable.’

The point is not that morbidity, vulgarity and arrogance were absent in pre-war Germany, but rather that they could be found as easily in other European cultures. The author of Salome was English and the librettist of Elektra Viennese, but though Tuchman mentions these facts she finds it convenient not to dwell on them. And in case we’ve missed her message, a hundred pages later, while discussing European socialism, she returns to what we now recognise as one of her favourite themes, when she remarks, quite superfluously, that the German working class ‘shared the attachment to authority and obedience which in Germany seemed overdeveloped, as if, without its protection, some old Teutonic savagery, some inner Hun, might break out’. One can hold Germany responsible for the outbreak of the First World War and still find language like this excessive and, worse, of little relevance to the subject in hand.

In The Proud Tower Tuchman said that she intended to concentrate on society rather than the state; and as if to emphasise her gift for visual description, the book is subtitled ‘a portrait of the world before the war’. Yet from the perspective of historical studies today, what is striking about The Proud Tower is its almost total preoccupation with politics to the exclusion of society and culture. There is little on life in the recently rebuilt cities, or in the country, where most pre-war Europeans continued to live and work. While there are lots of facts and figures about poverty and the underclasses – inserted, by the way, quite inappropriately between accounts of anarchist assassinations – Tuchman is clearly more inspired by the life led by English patricians or the French gratin. Though she says that it is her intention to discover what moved people in this period, she at no time demonstrates any sustained interest in the sources of social conflict.

It turns out that this is, after all, political history of the old-fashioned kind. But it is not good political history, because Tuchman cannot decide what, except for German ambition and excess energy, was driving Europe toward war. How curious, come to think of it, that in neither of these books does she devote so much as a page to the events that culminated in the declaration of war by Austria against Serbia. Perhaps the circumstances surrounding the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand are closer to our tradition than Tuchman would like to think.

She is more at home when depicting surfaces than in probing depths. No one, I think, can match her in the description of a fateful meeting or the evocation of a column of marching men. But though she is quick to spy analogies, she seems incapable of establishing connections. Her interest gravitates toward what a man looks like rather than what he thinks. This is what makes August 1914 a work which will never be superseded; and this, ultimately, is what reduces The Proud Tower to a photo album that hides beneath its glossy portraits the secrets of the society to which its subjects belonged.

[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.