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Guided Tour

When war broke out in 1914, very few people realized what it was going to involve. While the French soldiers scrawled A Berlin on the railroad cars taking them to the front and the German Crown Prince called for a “bright and jolly war”—a frisch-fröhlichen Krieg—the British were confident that “it would all be over by Christmas.” Only very few people saw beyond the immediate upsurge of patriotic enthusiasm to the long term social and political consequences of the war—the revolutions and, as the French socialist leader, Jean Jaurès, had prophesied in 1905, “the crises of counter-revolution, of violent reaction, of exasperated nationalism, of stifling dictatorship, of monstrous militarism, a long chain of retrograde violence and of enslavement.” Sir Edward Grey, it is true, saw the lights going out all over Europe; but more people would probably have agreed with the German industrialist Walther Rathenau, who heard “the ringing opening chord for an immortal song of sacrifice, loyalty and heroism.”

In fact, for all the belligerent countries, the outbreak of war provided a temporary relief from internal tensions. In France the “Carnet B,” the list of left-wing agitators who were to be arrested on the outbreak of war, was put aside as militant syndicalists loyally and even enthusiastically obeyed their mobilization orders and the Union Sacrée was proclaimed. In Germany the political truce, the Burgfrieden, gave people of nearly all political views a moment of passionate patriotic solidarity, an awareness of Germany as a community, a Volksgemeinschaft, such as they had not felt since the period of national unification nearly fifty years before. Even in England, Mr. Asquith noted on July 26th, 1914, “Anyhow, it is the most dangerous situation of the last forty years. It may incidentally have the effect of throwing into the background the lurid pictures of civil war in Ulster.” The liberal doctrine that all problems have solutions reached a paradoxical conclusion in the belief that, in some cases at least, war might settle the difficulties with which each country was faced. Any analysis of the world before the war, therefore, must include a study of the political and social tensions from which the war seemed to be a release, and of the concept of ultimate national interests for which the Great Powers were prepared to fight if necessary.

It is understandable that Mrs. Tuchman, having provided in The Guns of August an excellent narrative of the opening campaigns of the First World War, should have been attracted by the idea of studying in depth the society which disintegrated on the battlefields. In her new book she has attempted an ambitious piece of historical painting. She concentrates on internal social and political problems and does not deal with the factors that actually caused the war. This is because she does her best to ignore the final dénouement; “it was not a part of the experience of the people of this book.” It is only a later generation that thinks of the prewar decades as inevitably ending in catastrophe. Contemporaries did not know what was coming, and their view of their own times necessarily had a different perspective from ours.

In fact such a refusal to use hindsight is bound to be somewhat artificial and hard to sustain. The irony of history is never far from our thoughts, as indeed is implied by the quotation from Poe from which Mrs. Tuchman takes her title: “While from a proud tower in the town/Death looks gigantically down.” She is quite right to reject the rosy, nostalgic view of these years as “la belle époque,” the last period of untroubled peace and prosperity before the deluge. In so far as the eight chapters of this book have a common theme, and they differ considerably in content and method, it is that, even without the impact of the war, the old values were being challenged, and that in the societies with which the book is mainly concerned, England, the United States, France, and Germany, some sort of revolutionary change was already on the way even before 1914. The role of the patricians in England was, after the election of 1906, being replaced by what Mrs. Tuchman describes as “a new class which, though as yet far from the possession of power, by its pressure on the possessors was causing upheaval in the components of society.” In France, the Dreyfus case and the anarchist acts of propaganda had shown how deep were the divisions in French society, while in Germany it was not only the Social Democrats who felt that the Kaiser’s personal regime was decadent and doomed to disappear. At the same time, the liberal ideas of peace and progress were being undermined; the Hague peace conferences of 1899 and 1907—to which Mrs. Tuchman devotes her best and most original chapter—showed how the sincere good intentions of the humanitarian propagandists for disarmament and arbitration were exploited by the cynicism of governments and the greed of armament manufacturers. The Socialist International, too, whose belief that the unity of the proletariat would prevent war was affirmed again and again during those years, nevertheless found that this brotherhood was as illusory for the workers as it had been for the bourgeoisie.

For the United States the First World War was perhaps not so traumatic an experience as it was for the countries of Europe, and in America the war did not have as its consequence the same violent social and revolutionary changes. For this reason, Mrs. Tuchman is right to point to the transformation of traditional American policies involved in the war with Spain and typified by the rise of Theodore Roosevelt. However, it was not until 1917 at the earliest that America’s involvement with Europe began to subject her to the common experiences of the European states; and Mrs. Tuchman’s chapter on “the end of a dream” between 1900 and 1902, though very enjoyable for its anecdotes of “Czar” Reed or President Eliot of Harvard, suggests that, although changing in outlook; the United States was still outside some of the main intellectual and social currents of the age.

It will be seen that The Proud Tower raises a number of interesting problems, both of substance and of method. It is based on wide reading, especially of contemporary memoirs; it contains a great deal of information, mostly accurate, though it is a pity that the legend of Baron Holstein’s secret police files and his role in the Eulenburg Affair has been given fresh currency just when it had been disproved by the researches of Professor Rich and Herr Rogge. However, it cannot be said that the book solves all the problems which it raises. This is partly because each of its chapters stands on its own, and the links between them are not made explicit enough; the contrast between the ideals and methods of the Anarchists and those of the Social Democrats would surely be more pointed if the two movements were studied in relation to each other and not as unrelated phenomena in separate chapters.

The author, understandably enough, has been highly selective in the episodes or trends that she discusses, and there are obvious omissions for which no one will blame her, although to leave out Italy means that there is barely a mention of such important formative forces as Croce, d’Annunzio or the Futurists. It is a pity, too, that such few references as there are to Vienna are perfunctory and superficial. It is misleading, for example, to write that “Vienna was a place where something was visibly coming to an end; everyone knew it and no one spoke of it,” without at the same time mentioning, if not Karl Kraus and Die Fackel, which spoke of it all the time, at least the endless discussion of the nationalities problem on which the life or death of the Empire depended. However, even within the fields Mrs. Tuchman chooses to cover, there is often too much information and too little analysis. One often has the feeling that, having plucked a fact or a phrase from one of the many books she has consulted, she could not bear to leave it out. One can sympathize with her desire to give an impression of the wide and varied range of phenomena with which she is dealing, but the result is often confusing. She sets out, for example, to build her chapter on Germany around the career of Richard Strauss, an interesting and fruitful idea. Strauss is certainly a figure around whom a good argument can be built, for he was at the same time considered the most advanced composer in Europe, while himself being a characteristic product of the Kaiser’s Germany, with all its vulgarity and intellectual and emotional limitations. (Strauss was indeed to remain loyal and typical of the Germany in which he lived: in 1913 he composed a Festival Prelude for the centenary of the Battle of Leipzig; and in 1934 a special song for Hitler’s newly created Luftwaffe.) The trouble is that the author has had to fit into a chapter entitled “Neroism is in the air” (Romain Rolland’s phrase after hearing Strauss’s Zarathustra) not only episodes of political importance such as the Eulenburg affair and the Daily Telegraph crisis, but also quite unrelated and even contrary phenomena such as the origins of Cubism.

The book, with its crowded vitality, its jumps from one scene to another, its jerky movements, its tantalizing glimpses of figures of whom one wants to see more, often reminds one of those assemblages of early newsreels, in which a rapid flash of the Kaiser is followed by a fleeting appearance of Sarah Bernhardt. President Félix Faure (“Proud of his amatory prowess, President Faure died in the performance thereof”) gives way to Arthur Balfour, “still suave, effortless, unaddicted to political dogma.” At its worst, even the style becomes that of a film commentator: “In Vienna, the Kaiserstadt, scene of the Congress that had pasted Europe together after Napoleon, the time was twilight,” or, even less meaningfully, “History had reached 1910.”

However, in spite, or even because, of its weaknesses, this book may well have a popular success. Mrs. Tuchman has a narrative gift, and those sections where she is telling a story or describing an individual scene are vivid and often very entertaining. Above all, the book raises the important question of how one is to estimate the values of an age. Is it by the quality of its public life or by its popular culture, or is it by the ideas and movements which outlast it and continue to affect peoples’ lives several generations later? For example, Mrs. Tuchman justifies her neglect of Freud, rightly on her expressed premises, because The Interpretation of Dreams “attracted little attention and it took eight years to sell out the edition of six hundred copies,” and the book is cited in a brief catalogue of signs that the age of Victorianism was passing. Yet perhaps the significance of the decades before 1914 lies less in what was destroyed by the war, than in those movements which were just starting and which are still affecting our lives in the second half of the twentieth century. Seen from this perspective, the years from 1890 to 1914 are not just the end of one century, but the beginning of another, not just years in which old values were being replaced by meretricious or sinister substitutes, but years in which totally new values, intellectual, political, aesthetic, and moral were being created. On this view, it is the people who point ahead who are more important for the cultural historian: Stravinsky and Schoenberg are more interesting than Strauss, Lenin is more interesting than Millerand, Picasso than Sargent, and the Fagus factory than the Petit Palais. It would, in short, be more valuable to write about this period by taking account of the ideas which dominate our own age and not just in a mood of regret for the values which were vanishing by 1914.


Neglecting Freud April 14, 1966

Misgivings March 3, 1966

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