The fateful quarter-century leading up to World War I was a time when the world of privilege still existed in Olympian luxury and the world of protest was heaving in its pain, its power, and its hate. The age was the climax of a century of the most accelerated rate of change in history, a cataclysmic shaping of destiny.
In The Proud Tower, Barbara Tuchman concentrates on society rather than the state. With an artist's selectivity, Tuchman brings to vivid life the people, places, and events that shaped the years leading up to the Great War: the Edwardian aristocracy and the end of their reign; the Anarchists of Europe and America, who voiced the protest of the oppressed; Germany, as portrayed through the figure of the self-depicted hero, Richard Strauss; the sudden gorgeous blaze of Diaghilev's Russian Ballet and Stravinsky's music; the Dreyfus Affair; the two Peace Conferences at the Hague; and, finally, the youth, ideals, enthusiasm, and tragedy of Socialism, epitomized in the moment when the heroic Jean Jaures was shot to death on the night the War began and an epoch ended.
©1996 Barbara W. Tuchman; (P)2005 Blackstone Audiobooks
"It would be impossible to read The Proud Tower without pleasure and admiration." (The New York Times)
"Tuchman proved in The Guns of August that she could write better military history than most men. In this sequel, she tells her story with cool wit and warm understanding." (Time)
This is a compelling cultural and political portrait of the world prior to World War I. The author's method is to focus closely on personalities and movements around the world. The treatment of Germany via Richard Strauss is fascinating. Her portrait of the anarchists shows surprising parallels with today's terrorists, and you can be sure it is not anachronistic, because this book was published in the early 1960s. There is much more.
Nadia May is a superb narrator for long complex non-fiction works such as this. I marvel at her ability to intelligently sustain drive and interest with this type of text.
Tuchman's Proud Tower is both history and literary work of art. Her focus on the the high tide of the 2nd industrial revolution, the cult of progress, the rise of mass politics and the invention of the modern city, suggest an ambition closer to Gibbon recalling his beloved Romans than a world that is only a century past. And in a moral sense, this is the point of her work, the historical rupture of WW1 and all that it swept away. Tuchman's account of the Dreyfus Affair, Speaker of the House Thomas Reed's showdown with Congress and the death of Jaures are like perfect miniatures from Plutarch, each of them models and warnings about the end of a civilization.
I, too, started with "A Distant Mirror," which I've read in print twice (20 years apart), and I've always liked Tuchman's ability to use a few singular characters to illustrate the broad strokes of an era. Having listened to several Henry James, Edith Wharton, Virginia Woolf, et al, novels recently, I realized I didn't really have a comprehensive view of late 19th century/pre-WWI political and social history, and I was pleased to find Tuchman had written about the era. Like Simon Winchester, she uses gem-quality details to bring both place and time to life.
I enjoyed the narration very much, but this is clearly a very subjective matter. I have listened to several books (coincidentally) narrated by May, and I really like her tone, her accent(s), her voicings, and her pace. I learned early on in my Audible membership to listen to a sample before downloading, and I am still grateful for classics that offer several narrator options.
I am a bilingual high school teacher. I mostly read non-fiction, especially history, but I am also a sucker for science-fiction and fantasy novels.
This book was truly a complete picture of life leading up to the First World War. British politics, the Spanish-American War, the French Dreyfus Affair, German composers, peace conferences, socialists, and anarchists are all covered in excruciating detail, along with several other topics. I knew very little about the period before I started listening and now I feel like I really understand what life was like in that period. To really understand the First World War, you need to understand more than just the Triple Entente/Triple Alliance and the Serbian terrorist attack of 1914. The tension, the romantic attitude towards war, and the arms race all contributed as well, along with many other factors.
The world really was culturally foreign in that time compared to the rest of the 20th century, so understanding it takes covering a wide variety of parts of life in that time period to properly get the feeling of it. This book covers everything you might want to know (and more) and gives a clear picture of what factors created the powder keg that existed in 1914. It sticks with one topic for a section, even if that means referencing events that haven't been explained yet. Don't worry if you hear a reference to something and are frustrated by the lack of explanation - she gets to them later and as the book goes on it fits together better and better.
The narration in this book is perhaps the best I've ever encountered. Nadia May is the only narrator I've ever heard do a huge variety of accents without sounding like she's mocking them (her only weakness is American accents - she is British and her American accents sound mostly British with some American phonemes to my ears). I teach French and her pronunciation in that language is impeccable - I find it very annoying if it is done poorly, and this is the first one I've listened to with French terms where I haven't found the pronunciation lacking. I know very little German, but her German sounds just as high-quality as far as I can tell.
The reason I gave this book four stars instead of five (and I would have liked to do 4.5) was because of the lack of explanation for foreign-language statements at times and for the extent of background knowledge required on the variety of democratic systems existing at the time. While I understand French perfectly, I did notice a lack of translation for some longer phrases and once it reached the section with German, which I only understand in terms of phrasebook-level phrases, it was frustrating to not get the full picture sometimes. Being Canadian, I understand the British system (ours is based on theirs) and the American system and am familiar with the French and German ones to an extent from teaching political science. But it would be confusing if you had no real understanding of those systems, especially the British one, which was talked about in detail but never explained. In fact, none of them were explained, just referenced.
The other small issue was that the sections on British politics were so full of a huge number of characters that they were hard to follow, even when you understand their political system. Dozens of ministers, opposition leaders, union leaders, lords, aristocrats, and influential figures come and go and it requires some concentration to keep track of who's who. I listen to audiobooks in the car, and splitting up the British sections meant that it always took me a minute to remember which party Lord Salisbury belonged to and what the heck he'd been doing when I paused it that morning.
In general, one of the most enlightening and educational works of non-fiction I've ever read.
As always with Barbara Tuchman a masterful, enlightening and instructive view on the selected period. In this case you get the feeling of living through the pre-war period. Some chapters are just an absolute please (e.g. first one on the English goverment & establishment, chapter on the Dreyfus affair in France). It is also commendable how taking ~8-9 different subjects and sticking to them the author manages to create a coherent tapestry of the period
European history professor specializing in English history 1870-1939.
I read it or listen to it every few years. It's absolutely riveting, either for a general reader or an expert in the field.
The death of Jaures.
An excellent work, all round.
This is an excellent and important book, but there is no indexing on the file. It is one single file with no chapter breaks, so if you loose your place in the 20 odd hours, you have no way of finding your place. This is the third Audible.com book that has arrived in defective condition. The others were just very poorly recorded. Although this is the fault of the producer and not Audible.com, the latter should screen their products more carefully.
The wealth of information on various aspects of life in the period preceding World War I
Dreyfus' rehabilitation. The assassination of Jean Jaurès.
I have listened to many, and she is an excellent reader. She apparently knows French and pronounces most names correctly, but unfortunately leaves out the "s" at the end of one of the main figures in the book, Jaurès. It is tricky to know when the final "s" in French names is silent or pronounced, and before the age of internet it is not so easy to look up, so she should not be taken to task; I mention this only so that other readers should not be led astray in their own pronunciation of this name. Readers today, however, have little excuse to mispronounce foreign names as the correct pronunciation is easily found on the internet.
Parts of it (for me, some of the details of English political life) can seem a bit long, but the book is well worth one's patience.
Classics, history, historical fiction, marketing, Napoleonic stuff and of course 'Boys own Adventure'. This is my bent. Occasional self help as well.
If you are a student of the First World War history, then this book is essential. You can also see parallels to our own time and I guess far into the future. From what Barabara Tuchman describes, I am sure I don't think I would of liked to live in the few decades before the war as it was a train wreck waiting to happen. They could all see it coming and nobody really could apply a break. I think they wanted it. Nadia May is superb in narrating this book.
The Proud Tower opens with a description of the British Parliament, which had changed little since the end of the English Civil War and later it goes on to paint a picture of an equally archaic German near-absolute monarchy, it chronicles class divisions that would not have seemed unfamiliar to a medieval lord. But it also discusses the rising impact of liberalism, communism, and anarchy, the social forces that were spawned as a result of the industrial revolution. This book is ultimately about the clash between these forces, between the old world and the new. It demonstrates, though not intentionally, the dangers posed by both extremes and the benefits of compromise; but it also demonstrates that compromise was not always possible and, because of this fact, the eventual inevitability of the Great War. It is a story about the birth of modern western civilization and the pains we went through in achieving it. In many ways a prequel to her monumental work The Guns of August, I would recommend this book to anyone with an interest either in the Great War or in our modern cultural, social, and political institutions and how they came to be.
"A triumph of "amateur" history"
There are a flurry of new books about the run up to WW1. But despite its being nearly 50 years old I went for Tuchman because The Guns of August is a wonderful account of the war itself, A Distant Mirror is one of my favourite listens about medieval life and in all her writing she strikes a nice balance between strategic overview, domestic detail and vivid personalities. Other subscribers have complained that Tuchman's narrators sound so upper class that it puts them off but that's always felt to me to be a dumb thing to criticise. No narrator should have to apologise for their origins and narration should surely be judged by clarity and tone. Tuchman's stuff always scores highly in both regards.
The Proud Tower itself emerges from Tuchman's research as a sequence of essays on aspects of life between 1890 to 1914 that struck her as significant. It's not the books she expected to write and as a result it's not the book I expected to read making it more interesting and surprising than I anticipated. An example of this is the time she spends focusing on the significance of anarchism and its relationship to the emerging communist ideology. Not a subject I knew much about and not one I thought of as influential in the run up to the war but Tuchman makes an interesting and compelling case for its significance.
I'm only giving this 4 stars because it didn't quite reach the extraordinarily high standards of the books mentioned above but frankly not much does. But if you fancy a bit of old school history with a really strong authorial voice this is a great listen
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