1992-07-21: The Proud Tower

The Proud Tower (1966)

A Portrait of the World Before the War: 1890-1914

by Barbara W. Tuchman (1912-1989)

This book examines aspects of the world as it existed in the period before World War I.  Tuchman’s intent is to portray the thinking and atmosphere of the people leading up to that war.

Chapter 1:  The Patricians,  England: 1895-1902

This chapter describes the British government and its leaders between 1895 and 1902.  The Conservative party, led by Lord Salisbury, had just solidified its position and taken over the government, and Tuchman describes it as the last Western government to possess all the attributes of aristocracy in working order.  Its members, as its society’s “superior citizens, felt they owed a duty to the State to guard its interests and manage its affairs.  They governed from duty, heritage and habit – and, as they saw it, from right.”

Winston Churchill referred to the “brilliant and powerful body” of two hundred great families that had been governing England for generations, in which everyone knew or was related to everyone else.  The nobility and gentry were given to large families, five to twelve children, who intermarried among themselves, binding them in a closed landed class.

The primary interest of this class, at the pinnacle of society, was to preserve the status quo and to resist change that threatened it, which amounted to all change.

The object of education of this class “was not the scientific spirit or the exact mind, but a ‘graceful dignity’ which entitled the bearer to the status of English gentleman, and an unshatterable belief in that status as the highest good of man on earth.  As such, it obligated the bearer to live up to it.  In every boy’s room at Eton hung the famous picture by Lady Butler of the disaster at Majuba Hill showing am officer with uplifted sword charging deathward to the cry of ‘Floreat Etona!‘  The spirit instilled may have accounted for … the preponderance of bravery over strategy in British officers.”

Society was divided into several sets whose edges overlapped and members mingled.  At the head of the “fast”, or sporting, Marlborough House set was the cigar and paunch, the protruding Hanoverian countenance finished off by a short gray beard, the portly yet regal figure of the Prince of Wales.  Eclectic, sociable, utterly bored (as was everyone who suffered under it) by the dull monotony of the royal regimen prescribed by his widowed mother, the Prince opened his circle of the nobility to a variety of disturbing outsiders, provided they were either beautiful, rich or amusing: Americxans, Jews, bankers and stockbrokers, even an occasional manufacturer, explorer or other temporary celebrity.  Profesionally the Prince met everybody: among his personal friends he included some of the country’s ablest men…  On the whole, in his circle, intellectuals and literary people were not welcome and brains not appreciated, because, according to Lady Warwick, Society, or this section of it, “did not want to be made to think.”  It was pleasure-loving, reckless, thoughtless and wildly extravagant.  The newcomers, especially the Jews, were in most cases resented, “not because we disliked them individually, for some of them were charming and even brilliant, but because they had brains and understood finance.”  This was doubly disturbing because society most particularly did not want to think about making money, only about spending it.

On the right of the sporting set were the “Incorruptibles,” the strict, reactionary, intensely class-conscious long-established families who regarded the Prince’s circle as “vulgar” and themselves as upholding the tone of Society.  Each family was encircled by a tribe of poorer country cousins who appeared in London once or twice a generation to bring out a daughter, but otherwise had hardly emerged fromthe Eighteenth Century.  On the left were the “Intellectuals,” or “Souls,” who gathered in worship around their sun and center, Arthur Balfour, nephew of Lord Salisbury and the most brilliant and popular man in London.  As a group they were particularly literate, self-consciously clever and endlessly self-admiring.  They enjoyed each other’s company in the same way that an unusually handsome man or woman enjoys preening before a mirror.  “You sit around and talk about each other’s souls,” remarked Lord Charles Beresford at a dinner in 1888.  “I shall call you the ‘Souls,'” and so they were named.  An admiral of the Navy and vivd ornament of the Prince of Wales’s set, Lord Charles was not himself one of the Souls, although he had married an unusual wife who wore a tiara with her tea gowns and was painted by Sargent with two sets of eyebrows because, as the painter briefly explained, she had two sets, a pencilled one above the real.

The men of the Souls all followed political careers and nearly all were junior ministers in Lord Salisbury’s Government.  A leading member was George Wyndham, who had written a book on French poets and an introduction to North’s Plutarch and after serving as Mr. Balfour’s Parliamentary Private Secretary was named Under-secretary of War in 1989, despite Lord Salisbury’s reluctant remark, “I don’t like poets.”

The intent of this passage, and the longer part in which it is embedded, seems to be to emphasize the range of interests or attitudes of Society, at the same time emphasizing its closed nature.

At home in the country, amnong his tenants and cottagers, crops and animals, on the estate that dominated the life of the district of which “The House” was the large unit and the village the small, on the land that his family had owned and cultivated and rented out and drawn income from for generations, the English patrician bloomed in his natural climate.  Here from childhood on he lived closely with nature, with the sky and trees, the fields and birds and deer in the woods.  “We were richly endowed in the surpasing beauty of the homes in which we were raised,” wrote Lady Frances Balfour.  The stately houses … had three or four hundred rooms, a hundred chimneys, and roofs measured in acres.  Others less grand often had been lived in longer, like Renishaw, inhabited by the Sitwells for at least seven hundred years.  Owners great and small never finished adding on to or altering the house and improving the landscape.  They removed or created hills, conjured up lakes, diverted streams, and cut vistas through their woods finished off by a marble pavilion to fix the eye.

Their homes proliferated.  A town house, a family estate, a second country home, a shooting box in a northern county, another in Scotland, possibly a castle in Ireland were not out of the ordinary.  There were 115 persons in Great Britain who owned over 50,000 acres each, and forty-five of them owned over 100,000 acres each, although much of this was uncultivatable land in Scotland whose income yield was low.  There were some sizty to sixty-five persons, all peers, who possessed both land over over 50,000 acres and incomes over PS50,000, and fifteen of these – seven dukes, three marquesses, three earls, one baron and one baronet – had landed incomes over PS100,000.  In all of great Britain, out of a population of 44,500,000 there were 2,500 landowners who owned more than 3,000 acres apiece and had landed incomes over PS3,000.

Income taxes were not payable on incomes under PS160 and in this category there were approximately eighteen to twenty million people.  Of tese, about three million were in white-collar or service trades – clerks, shopmen, tradesmen, innkeepers, farmers, teachers – who earned an average of PS75 a year.  Fifteen and a half million were manual workers, including  soldiers, sailors, postmen and policemen and those in agricultural and domestic service who earned less than PS50 a year.  The “poverty line” had been worked out at PS55 a year, or 21s. 8d. a week, for a family of five.  Indoor servants slept in attics or windowless basements.  Agricultural laborers lived in houses for which they paid a shilling a week, and worked with scythe, plow and sickle in the fields fromthe time when the great horn boomed at five o’clock in the morning until nightfall.  When their houses leaked or rotted they were dependent on the landlord for repairs, and unless the landlord took care of these men when their earning power came to an end, they went to the workhouse to finish out their days.  Estate servants – grooms, gardeners, caropenters, blacksmiths, dairymen and field hands – whose families had lived on the land as long as its owners, gave service that was “whole-hearted and passionate….  Their pride was bound up in it.”

With port after dinner, the gentlemen talked about the growth of democracy and the threat of Socialism.  Most people were aware of problems, such as homelessness, without imagining any major change in the order of things.

The facade of gentle Society was cracked in 1895 by the trial and conviction of Oscar Wilde, for “acts of gross indecency.”  This followed a book of 1893, Degeneration by Max Nordau which reinforced the presumption of decay in sociaety, citing as examples “the realism of Zola, the symbolism of Mallarme, the mysticism of Maeterlinck, in Wagner’s music, Ibsen’s dramas, Manet’s pictures, Tolstoy’s novels, Nietzsche’s philosophy, Dr. Jaeger’s woolen clothing, in Anarchism, Socialism, women’s dress, madness, suicide, nervous diseases, drug addiction, dancing, sexual license, all of which were combining to produce a society without self-control, discipline or shame.”

Wilde, a prominent decadent, brought to public notice the hidden truth of common behavior among Society, where anything was allowed except exposure of Society to the censure of the lower classes.

Chapter 2:  The Idea and the Deed, The Anarchists: 1890-1914

The idea: in a stateless society, without government, law, ownership of property, or corrupt institutions, man would be free to to be good.

The deed: the assassination of six heads of state.

This chapter emphasizes the lack of direct contact between the theorists of Anarchism and the perpetrators of assassinations in the name of Anarchism.  This phenomenon might be an interesting case study in the interaction and propagation of memes.

Tuchman provides detailed descriptions of the major assassinations of the period, including the backgrounds of the assassins themselves.  This seems insensitive now, with more recent assassinations in this country and elsewhere;  she wrote this book before Kennedy’s death.

Another aspect of the phenomenon was the influence of the Anarchists on the labor movement (the conflict between anti-organizationism and organizations), the effect of press coverage of assassinations on political terrorism, and the impetus the movement gave to revolutionaries, particularly Lenin and other Russians.

Anarchism had dramatized the war between the two divisions of society, between the world of privelege and the world of protest.  In the one it shook awake a social conscience; in the other, as its energy passed into [the labor movement], it added its quality of violence and extremism to the struggle for power.  It was an idea which drew men to follow it but because of its built-in paradox could not draw them together into a group capable of concerted action.  It was the last cry of individual man, the last movement among the masses on behalf of individual liberty, the last hope of living unregulated, the last fist shaken against the encroaching State, before the State, the party, the union, the organization closed in.

In this closing paragraph, Tuchman draws the conflict which has been the dominant theme of the twentieth century, but seems to believe that it ended in 1914.  The conflict between the idea of individual liberty and the idea of social order is far from over.

Chapter 3:  End of a Dream, The United States: 1890-1902

In 1890 the Census Bureau declared the United States no longer had a land frontier.  Navy Captain A. T. Mahan of the Naval War College said, “Whether they will or no, Americans must now begin to look outward.”  The U.S. began the transition from an isolationist country to one involved with the rest of the world, including territorial expansion: the annexation of Hawaii, the building and committment to defense of the Isthmian Canal, control of the Caribbean and hostility to Spain, and designs on Canada as a way of countering British influence in the western hemisphere.  The building of a deep-water navy was begun in this period.

It was Mahan who discovered the principle “that command of the seas was the chief element in the power and prosperity of nations.”  His writings were influential in Britain, Germany, Japan and elsewhere.  About the British Navy in the Napoleonic wars, he said, “Those far-distance, storm-beaten ships upon which the Grand Army never looked, stood between it and the dominion of the world.”

In 1897 the words “empire” and “imperialism” were first used in discussing American policy; previously they had been used to describe the scramble of European powers to divide Africa.

The 1898 conflict with Spain triggered an internal conflict between the imperialists and anti-imperialists.  The latter saw the new course as counter to the foundation principles of the U.S., and founded an organization whose “stated purpose was not to oppose the war, but to insist that having been undertaken as a war of liberation, it must not be turned into one for empire.  The quest for power, money and glory abroad … would distract from reform at home and bring in its train a strong central government destructive of traditional states’ rights and local liberties.  Americans had enough to do to solve the problems of municipal corruption, war between capital and labour, disordered currency, unjust taxation, the use of public office for spoils, the rights of colored people in the South and of the Indians in the West, before taking alien peoples under their rule.”

The imperialist view was expressed by Albert Beveridge: ‘”We are a conquering race.  We must obey our blood and occupy new markets and if necessary new lands….  In the Almighty’s infinite plan … debased civilizations and decaying races” were to disappear “before the higher civilization of the nobler and more virile types of man.”  Pan-Germans in Berlin and Joseph Chamberlain in England also talked of the mission of the superior race, variously Teutonic or Anglo-Saxon, but Beveridge had nothing to learn from them; it was all his own.  He saw in present events “the progress of a mighty people and their free institutions” and the fulfillment of the dream “that god had put in the brain” of Jefferson, Hamilton, Emerson, U.S. Grant and other “imperial intellects”; the dream of “American expansion until all the seas shall bloom with that flower of liberty, the flag of the great Republic.”

When Samuel Gompers declared that retention of the Philippines would show that “our war was witout a just cause,” Andrew Carnegie sent him a telegram saying, “Let us stand together to save the Republic.”

Speaker of the House Reed, commenting on the payment of $20,000,000 to Spain in return for their quitting claim to the Philippines, “We have bought 10 million Malays at $2 a head unpicked, and nobody knows what it will cost to pick them.”  The Filipinos turned against the occupation army while the Senate considered the treaty.  By the time it was ratified, by a one vote margin, there were 59 dead and 278 wounded Americans and 500 Filipino casualties, to be included in the cost of the picking.

William James wrote, “The way the country puked up its ancient principles at the first touch of temptation was sickening.”  Elsewhere, “We are now openly engaged in crushing out the sacredest thing inthis great human world – the attempt of a people long enslaved” to attain freedom and work out its own destiny.  The saddest thing for men like James was the parting with the American dream.

Chapter 4:  “Give Me Combat!”, France: 1894-1899

The conflict between those who felt Dreyfus deserved a retrial and those who wanted to bury the irregularities of his first trial occurred from 1897 to 1899, against a background of resurgent anti-Semitism, in France and elsewhere in Europe.

This was “part of a larger outbreak.  As a social and political force anti-Semitism emerged in the late Nineteenth Century out of other expanding forces which were building tensions between classes and among nations.  Industrialization, imperialism, the growth of cities, the decline of the countryside, the power of money and the power of machines, the clenched fist of the working class, the red flag of Socialism, the wane of the aristocracy, all these forces and factors were churning like the bowels of a volcano about to erupt. ‘Something very great – ancient, cosmopolitan, feudal, agrarian Europe’ … was dying and in the process creating conflicts, fears and newfound strengths that needed outlet.”

The evidence of Army complicity in framing Dreyfus was discovered by Colonel Picquart.  He presented his findings through channels and was told to suppress them.  “Trained as a soldier, as loyal and obedient to the service as any other officer, with no ax to grind, no personal motive, nothing to gain in public notoriety as was to move later actors in the Affair, Picquart acted then and thereafter, at certain risk to his career, from purely abstract respect for justice.”  He himself was anti-Semitic, but he could not stomach the fact that the Army could knowingly condone the punishment of an innocent man.

This long chapter describes the reactions of many individuals and their organizations to the polarization that divided France in the Affair.  The confusion of beliefs and motives is incredibly complex, and worth a much more detailed examination.  It is an interesting question whether the relations between people and ideas can be made clear in a visual presentation of some kind, like a network of links and nodes.

The effect of the Affair on the French is not at all clear.  It aroused great energy, broke many friendships and alliances, and forged many.  It focused world press attention on what was seen as a question of justice.

(21 July 1992)

Chapter 5: The Steady Drummer, The Hague: 1899 and 1907

The period after 1870 saw a tremendous increase in armaments, both quantity and efficacy, and in the size of standing armies.  Writers in the 1890s accurately forecast the character of the next war, based on the prevailing weaponry, the size of armies, the logistics of transporting and supplying them.

The drain on the treasury of the arms race prompted Czar Nicholas II to call for an arms limitation conference, which galvanized the peace movement, and its opponents.  Some of the opponents justified their position on grounds of Darwinism, the position that war was the conflict that weeded out the inferior races.  This kind of reasoning led the Germans, English and others to believe in their own destiny and the immorality of refraining from war.

The delegates of the major powers were not interested in the success of the conference, although there was some intention to save face for Russia.  Still, after a couple of weeks in the heady atmosphere and sensing the world’s conscience looking over their shoulder, many tried to make the best of it in spite of themselves.  This was in part due to the large corps of observers, but also to the presence of the world press; an attempt to exclude the press from the sessions was defeated by the persistence of W.T. Stead, as correspondent of the Manchester Guardian.

The major topics were arbitration, laws of war and arms limitation.  The last was doomed from the start.  On the laws of war, they agreed to ban dumdum bullets, over the objections of Britain and the US; they banned the launching of projectiles or explosives from balloons (for which no verb existed, since the technique had never been tried in war) for five years (it would have been forever except for the US delegate, Captain Mahan); they banned poison gas, with only the US dissenting.  None of these was really important.  The size of the armaments industry, particularly in Germany, was a significant factor in the unwillingness of governments to consider restraints.

Arbitration was the only hope of salvaging something to show the world.  The Kaiser was adamant against any form of arbitration, but finally decided to simply ignore it, and not block the conference.  With no hint of anything compulsory in it, a draft was ready for a final vote when Mahan objected to the article that made it every signatory’s “duty” to remind parties of a dispute of the arbitration tribunal.  Mahan had read an article of Stead’s, to the effect that arbitration could have prevented the 1898 war, and Mahan was appalled.  He objected on the grounds that the article would force the US and Europe to become entangled in each other’s affairs.  Finally, the day before the conference’s closing ceremonies were scheduled, a formula was found where the US signed, but disclaimed any obligation to “intrude, mingle or entangle” in European politics.  Thus, just barely, arbitration was born.

The second conference also saw only minor achievements.  Elihu Root, US Secretary of State, pushed for committment for a third conference, and got it, with a similar delay.  It would have occurred in 1915.  The conferences pointed up strong interests in peace; there was a well-organized, if ineffectual, international peace movement.  It also made explicit the views of many politicians and strategists that war was an inevitable, even desirable, fact of life among sovereign nations.

Chapter 6: “Neroism Is in the Air”, Germany: 1890-1914

Germany, and many people elsewhere, in this period was heavily influenced by Nietzschean ideas, but distorted by many interpreters.  His conception of the Ubermensch (usually rendered Superman in English, but perhaps Superior Man would be better) transcending morality became an excuse for everyman debasing morality.

Even so, scandal was useful to ambitious men, and the aristocracy, including the Kaiser’s inner circle, was weakened by revelations in the press derived from secret police files kept by a disgruntled bureaucrat.  An atmosphere of all-pervading decadence created a sense of unease among Germans.

This conflict between the logical conclusions of Nietzschean philosophy (as represented) and the conservative impulse for order seems a perfect example of the conflict between the Social and Reflective realms.  The effect on society may have been a confusion of values, and inability to maintain perspective on the most beneficial course to follow.

One peculiarity of this chapter is that it is almost entirely written around the works of the composer Richard Strauss.  As a non-political figure, he exemplifies the impact of the Reflective realm on culture, and culture on the Social realm, including international politics.

Chapter 7: Transfer of Power,  England: 1902-1911

The patricians’ control of the government was lost to the Liberal party in 1902.  In the same election, the Labour party made its first substantial gains, although the Liberals had a large majority without any other party.

The situation sharpened the conflict between the as-things-are and the as-things-should-be groups in England.  The Conservative party used the House of Lords to block some of the Liberals’ legislation, precipitating a constitutional crisis.  The entire situation was another classic example of conflict between the Social realm, represented by the Conservatives, and the Reflective realm, represented by the radicals who pushed the Liberals.  The Liberals had been in power before, but they were now pressed hard by the radicals who felt the time was ripe for implementing measures to protect the working classes and poor, and to limit the power of the capitalists.  Several observers felt this was the Liberal party’s last gasp, and that the Labour party was bound to replace it.

The issue on which the crisis turned was the Licensing Bill, a proposal to eliminate thirty thousand public houses across the country, as part of a temperance campaign.  The propertied class rejected it as an encroachment on the disposal and use of private property, and Winston Churchill (in his Liberal period) declared they had begun the class war.

The class war was confused by the strains on the Liberals, who were drawing apart from Labour.  As legislation was passed favoring the working classes, employers within the Liberal party reacted as might be expected.  In addition, Socialist rhetoric in the Commons prompted the Kaiser to suggest he might invade, as Victoria’s grandson, and restore the country to autocratic monarchy as a Germany feudatory state.  The Women’s Suffrage movement was also becoming stronger, and nearly cost Churchill his cabinet post when he lost a by-election.

Tuchman mentions in this chapter, as she has before, the irrationality that was noticed by contemporary observers.  They seem to have expected that humans would act rationally in their best interests.  The violence of the Suffragettes and the reaction to them, “the low level on which the populace reacted politically, the appeal of the sensationalist press and the new phenomenon of mass interest in spectator sports” gave rise to pessimism about the ability of democracy to work.  Dr. Trotter, wrote about the “herd instinct” and concluded that mankind was doomed to be another of nature’s failures.  He described the subconscious as lacking individuality, will and self-control; it was irrational, imitative, cowardly, cruel and suggestible.  Because of man’s innate desire for group approval, he is at the mercy of this irrational force and vulnerable to the herd reaction.

Graham Wallas “did not want to accept the implications of Darwinism which seemed to condone and accept as inevitable the native aggressiveness of human nature. …Yet he foresaw that, unless the irrational was controlled, nations would engage in a series of inter-empire wars until only … one Empire will exist and the inhabitants of the globe, reduced by half, would have to begin all over again. …  the process seemed to be on the way with Germany and [England] marching toward world war merely because, having made entities of Nation and Empire, our sympathies are shut up within them.”

In order to eliminate the influence of the House of Lords, a budget incorporating tax-the-rich schemes was proposed, with inflammatory provisions for registering and taxing land.  The Lords vetoed it, and a new election was called.  There were proposals to have the King create as many as five hundred new peers, all Liberals, or to abolish or modify the Lords’ veto power.  The election of 1910 showed that the public was not that interested in the Lords.  One estimate found that “40 percent of the electorate were doubtful and 20 percent ‘highly detached,’ in short, returning to normal.”  The Liberals lost so many seats that they could no longer push through their legislation alone, and the Irish price of support was abolishing the Lords’ veto to push through Home Rule.  No positive result was achieved, and a second election within a year had the same result.  Ultimately a Parliament Bill, limiting the veto, passed both houses, and faded into irrelevance within a year.  The Irish interest was turned by rebellion in Ulster, and other issues came to the fore.

Chapter 8:  The Death of Jaures, The Socialists: 1890-1914

The ebb and flow of theory and practice among the Socialists provides an example of the recombination of memes.  The original theory predicted the spontaneous uprising of the proletariat, and overthrow of capitalism.  As the organizers became impatient, they took to promoting the cause and seeking intermediate results.  The hard-line theorists rejected any such approach as collaboration.  The participation of  Socialists in government, as Jaures, was bitterly reviled and threatened to split the movement irrevocably (though it already harbored many factions).  The Russian Revolution of 1905 exposed the unwillingness of Western workers to grasp the nettle, especially Germans, and weakened the purists’ position.  In the U.S., Debs consolidated the Socialists under a strict discipline, but simultaneously campaigned for President, winning up to 6% of the vote.

The decline of the theorists was accompanied by a rise of nationalism, particularly in Germany, where unions had done well in improving conditions, effectively the German workers a stake in the system.

The key point is that the recombination of memes takes place within individuals, and the spreading of memes takes place between them.  Each individual is exposed to the memes in his own environment, and these are the raw material with which he builds his notions, orders his priorities and makes his decisions.  Several leaders (such as Sam Gompers and Jaures) had the romantic idea that if a mobilization order were given, the working class Hero (a meme peculiar to the leaders, but without much ground in reality) would call Halt! to the process, rather than fire on his comrades across the borders.

When the war came, the Socialist parties throughout Europe supported their nations’ efforts against the foreign enemies, rather than their class’s efforts against the domestic enemy.


“When the war was over, illusions and enthusiasms possible up to 1914 slowly sank beneath a sea of massive disillusionment.  For the price it had paid, humanity’s major gain was a painful view of its own limitations.”

I would say that the painful view was of the limitations of the Social Realm within which the struggles had been fought.  Henceforth, that realm’s efforts to control the beast in man would falter, and the time since has displayed the results.  The Social must again subdue the Biological to establish order, before the struggle for individual rights within order can succeed.


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