Tumultuous Times … All the Time

The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World Before the War, 1890-1914

Barbara Tuchman

Don’t you find it true that, especially these days, we live within our times? Perhaps it’s because history isn’t a subject we study because, let’s face it, it won’t get you a job, unless you plan to be a college prof. So, we might come to believe that the tumult of today is somehow unique. While it certainly impacts us greatly, either physically or emotionally, today’s brand of riotous behavior is by no means unique. Groups running around inflicting pain and suffering on others in the name of a cause have rampaged throughout human history. Butchering people, terrorizing people with heinous acts, blowing up buildings and people, none are anything new in human history. Today, we call these people terrorists. In another era not very long ago, they were known as anarchists or revolutionaries.

Well, you might offer, true enough; however, for complexity the old days don’t compare to our situation. And definitely people with big issues didn’t have the same kind of destructive power within easy reach.

Today, not as comfort, but for perspective and insight, a bit of historical reading might be helpful. There’s no better author to read than Barbara Tuchman to gain this and era to read about than that running up to The Great War, The War to End All Wars, the war that traumatized humankind like no other before it: World War I.

As Tuchman illustrates, few things are as they appear on the surface, and this surely holds true for the late 19th and early 20th centuries known as the Belle Époque. While creative, innovative, and exciting, and relatively peaceful (relative to the earlier part of the 19th century), plenty of problems entangled the people of the times. It’s these that Tuchman explores as the roots that nurtured what might have otherwise been just another in a line of assassinations into the quick blossoming World War I. Of course, you’ll want to read The Proud Tower to discover how such a fantastical age could contribute to such suffering and carnage. But you’ll especially enjoy learning about or refreshing yourself on the famous people of the times and familiar and unfamiliar historical events.

The people are legion. They include English, French, German, and American politicians, military men, writers, musicians, unionists, socialists, revolutionaries, and assassins. Tuchman does an excellent job of sketching a vast cast of figures when they make their appearance at a historical event. Some may strike you as the small fry of history; yet these people illuminate the age and cast light on our own times. For example, as mention earlier, trapped as we are in our own little bit of history, we may succumb to the notion that wild-eyed terrorists like our crop never existed before, or, perhaps, where of a tamer variety. Anarchist terrorism plagued France and Paris during the Belle Époque, as well as the rest of Europe and Russia. After a string of explosions and murders, Emile Henry bombed the popular bourgeois Café Terminus. Already on edge, Parisians became hysterical with fear. “When, at a theatrical performance,” Tuchman writes, “some scenery back stage fell with a clatter, half the audience rushed for the exits screaming, ‘Les Anarchistes! Une bombe!'” Henry explained his choice of the Café Terminus because it was where gathered “‘all those who are satisfied with the established order, all the accomplices and employees of Property and the State, … all that mass of good little bourgeois who make 300 to 500 francs a month, who are more reactionary than their master, who hate the poor and range themselves on the side of the strong.'” When the judge reproached him for endangering innocents, he replied with hauteur, “‘There are no innocent bourgeois.'” It’s one of scores of anecdotes that enlighten the age, and our own times as well.

Tuchman writes about many familiar incidents, none better known than the Dreyfus Affair. Most of us possess a general knowledge of Dreyfus’s persecution. However, it will interest you to know that while prejudice played a role, it wasn’t what got Dreyfus, generally believed to be innocent though a thoroughly unpopular man due to his cool aloofness, tried, convicted, and sent to Devil’s Island. Difficult as it may be to believe, Dreyfus suffered as a result of prideful respect and self-aggrandizement in the ranks of the French army. Tuchman says it all in these few sentences: “It was a club loyal to its membership and cultivating its distinctiveness of which the visible mark was the uniform. Unlike British officers, who never wore uniform off duty, French officers before 1900 never wore anything else. Poorly paid, slowly promoted, drearily garrisoned for long stretches in some provincial town, their recompense was prestige: the honors, immunities and cachet of their caste; in short, the esteem in which they were held…. In the eyes of the people the Army was above politics; it was the nation, it was France, it was the greatness of France.” To protect the Army, the high command, who knew the charges were false and who knew the identity of the actual culprit, covered up the truth until their redoubt of deceit shattered under public pressure. Just as today, people, especially in power, will do anything to protect their privileges. The Dreyfus Affair is even more disheartening in light of the true facts.

And the United States was no unblemished defender of right and justice. Tuchman recounts our colonialist and imperialist aspirations that included the Spanish-American War and our brutal suppression of rebellion in the Philippines, suppression of the very people we purported to be helping. But more compelling are the flotsam of history most of us have forgotten or never knew of, such as the so-called “disappearing quorum.” A tactic employed by the minority party to block voting on matters it did not support (representatives refused to vote—remained silent—though physically present; the rules required a voice vote) until Republican Speaker Thomas Reed ended it. It was an obstructionist tactic you can easily appreciate simply by thinking about our present-day supermajority rule in the Senate. Just as it would be no easy task to end the supermajority rule, it was torture to kill the “disappearing quorum.” However, Thomas Reed, a man of uncommon wit, intelligence, cunning, and tenacity, accomplished the task. How he did it makes for entertaining reading.

If you enjoy and learn from The Proud Tower, you may wish to read other Tuchman histories, among them The Guns of August, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century, and Stilwell and the American Experience in China, 1911–45. w/c

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