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By Barbara W. Tuchman

New York: The Macmillan Company, 1966
Library of Congress catalogue card number: 65-23074
528 pages

Bob Corbett
March 2016

This is a rich, rewarding, complex, challenging and simply fascinating look at our world as it moved toward World War I. It is not at all about the war. The book details various critical events of historical change in the period between the 1880s up to 1914, but doesn’t treat of the war at all.

In some way it reminds me of a jigsaw puzzle. There are 8 major pieces which match up to the 8 main sections of this historical treatise. In each section Barbara Tuchman analyzes some important historical shift, mainly in a single nation, and how that change, coupled with the other changes going on in other nations, set the stage for the explosion of World War I.

Earlier versions of each section had already appeared as independent essays, but by putting them all together in one collection one begins to see that there were very diverse and powerful forces in different places in the world that, all together, led up toward the First World War.

This is not a work for the faint of heart or for lazy readers. It is demanding, and profound, yet filled with delightfully detailed stories that bring each major thesis to the fore, and while doing it with detailed historical analyses. There are also lots of great laughs at the foibles and manners of some of the principle historical figures in each section.

Again, the work is a fairly demanding read, but I would highly recommend it to anyone who wants to deeply enrichen his or her understanding of the world as it came toward “The Great War.”

Below I will simply share some of my notes about each particular chapter. I can’t really say much more about the work as a whole since it is a republication of those earlier independent essays.


In contrast in the US, the reality in pre-war England was:

“. . . the idea prevailing in the more newly minted United State [was] that only the self-made who carried the badge of ability and that men of easy circumstances were more likely than not to be stupid or wicked, if not both.”

The ruling class of England dominated society:

“They learned the practice of government from the possession of great estates, they undertook to manage the affairs of the nation as inevitably and unquestionably as beavers build a dam. It was their ordained role and natural task.”

The ruling class of England opposed the right to vote for the non-propertied class and held working class people incapable of ruling.

However, changes were clearly coming. Even the ruling class began to think that the great estates would not survive and would be:

“. . . shut up solely because of the inexorable necessities of democratic finance.”


“The ruling class did not grow rulers only. It produced the same proportion as any other class of the unfit and misfit, the bad or merely stupid.”

The ruling class tended to have large families and lots of marriages, often among related families. In the countryside “The House” was the manor house which dominated over the tenants and cottagers. However, it was a single unit.

“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 of over 3,000 pounds.”

By 1894 there was a growing crisis between the Upper and Lower Houses, Houses of Lords and that of Commons.

Gladstone spoke of:

“. . . this tremendous contrariety and incessant conflict upon matters of high principle and profound importance.”

There were changes among sophisticated women as well:

“The ladies of the Souls, in conscious reaction to the Victorian feminine ideal, determined to be intellectual, to be slim and likewise to allow themselves a new freedom of private morality.”

This was a subtle movement

“ . . . to depart from Victorian morality without deserting propriety” (in other words, sneaky).

There was an important question of the nature of the rising power of labor.

Tory democracy argued:

“its advocates thought it possible to meet the demands of the workers at the same time preserving intact the citadel of privilege, but Belfour suspected the bitter truth of history.”

The younger generation of Tories recognized the need for change, yet still had a very hard time. Lord Randolph Churchill was important in this group:

“. . . Balfour believed in democracy and extension of the suffrage and in improvement of the working conditions and of the rights of labour but not at the cost of privilege that protected the ruling class.

In 1890 “Britain’s (domain) extended over a quarter of the land surface of the world.”

Since 1899 “… in the last twelve years alone, territories equal to twenty-four times the area of Great Britain had been added to the Empire.” Further the belief in “manifest destiny” was widespread.

Queen Victoria died in 1901 and 1902 ended the British victory in South Africa. But the clear path of significant changes in England was well understood.


In the United States there was a challenge to society in the rise of anarchism and its vision for a

“. . . stateless society, without government, without law, without ownership of property, in which, corrupt institutions having been swept away, man would be free to be good as God intended . . .”

6 heads of state were assassinated before 1914. 2 in France, Spain, Austria, Italy and U.S. (McKinley).

There was a growing set of voices for fundamental changes in society. Karl Marx argued change via the industrial proletariat. Bakunin and the anarchists wanted untrained and oppressed workers in general to run things.

“Anarchism was not a labour movement and was no more than one element in the general upheaval of the lower classes.”

This was a period of great discrepancy in wealth. Proudhon’s famous claim warned:

“Property is theft.”

The enemies of the anarchists were “ . . . priests, monarchs, financiers, capitalists, moneylenders, lawyers.”

The enemies of the workers were: “. . . the landlord, the factory owner, the boss, the policeman . . .”

“They could hate but only a few were rebels. Most (both anarchists and Marxists) existed in apathy, stupefied by poverty.”

Anarchists were at odds with reformist socialists and trade unionists.

While Anarchism attained

“ . . . a shining moral grandeur . . .” “. . . it was only at the cost of a noticeable removal from reality.”

1890 in the U.S. two Russian Jewish immigrants were major figures, Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman.

Berkman went to prison after an unsuccessful attempt to kill Henry Clay Frick, manager of Andrew Carnegie steelworks.

There were constant clashes between the Anarchists and the Marxists.

It seems to me that one of the great ironies of history is that the anarchist movement intellectually led and inspired by some of the most utopian and peaceful people to ever write, created a movement of some of the most violent and rabid killers and destroyers in human history.

So very odd. The dream was opposed to the methods to attempt to go TO the dream. The Anarchist criticism of modern bourgeois society attracted many, though most did not also support the violence associated with the anarchist activists.

After a spate of anarchist inspired bombings occurred in Paris in 1894

“. . . the terrible capacity of the Anarchist idea to be transformed from love of mankind to hatred of men was revealed.”

At trial another anarchist said: “There are no innocent bourgeois.”

“. . . We who hand out death know how to take it . . . Mine is not the last head you will cut off. You have hung in Chicago, beheaded in Germany, garroted in Jerez, shot in Barcelona, guillotined in Paris, but there is one thing you cannot destroy: Anarchism.”

Syndicalism grew out of groups sympathetic with the need for social change, but not by radical violence. Out of it came trade unions working for better pay and working conditions.

Under unions: “ . . . the general strike was to replace propaganda of the deed.”

In 1900 an Italian man from Paterson, NJ. assassinated King Humbert of Italy. Polish-American Leon Czlgosz, inspired by Gaetano Brecis’ murderer of King Humbert, killed President McKinley.

After McKinley’s death the heat of anarchism’s passion seemed to diminish.


The wealthy in U.S. were not much into politics. Population increased by 50% between 1890 and 1900 to 75 million. In 1890 a serious movement began in the U.S. to move from the near exclusive aim of developing the mainland of the U.S. to coming to grips with larger expansion which would require a serious sea power.

1880 interest was growing for a canal in Central America. The U.S. lack of sea power became an issue. It took until 1890 for U.S. sea power to truly begin to develop.

“It is sea power which is essential to every splendid people.” Henry Cabot Lodge on March 2, 1895.

On Feb. 24, 1895 a Spanish gunboat fired on an American merchant vessel near Cuba. However, many Americans, especially from older U.S. families, were strongly opposed to getting involved, seeing the U.S. as a sort of an isolationist nation.

Many felt there was a general spirit of negative change in American and Europe. Charles Eliot Norton, a Professor of Fine Arts at Harvard, and regarded intellectual of the time, worried that:

“. . . decline is everywhere . . . the dead water of the Fin de siècle . . . where not a breath stirred the idle air of education or fretted the mental torpor of self-control.”

Many in the U.S. feared other Americans who seemed ready for foreign adventures including even the annexation of Venezuela.

I had to laugh at Tuchman’s description of President McKinley as

“. . . unpracticed in the art of living up to his convictions.”

In 1895 Japan defeated China in war. This signaled Japan as a rising power in the East. But the worry of this “yellow peril” gave a more urgent sense of the need of a canal in Central America.

This led to even more support for the U.S. to take Cuba and annex it.

Theodore Roosevelt, not yet president, wanted a stronger more expansive USA. This aim was thought of by proponents as the “Manifest Destiny” of the US.

In 1897 Roosevelt was anxious to:

  1. Annex Hawaii
  2. Drive Spain out of Cuba
  3. Get on with the project of a canal in Central America.

Before the annexation of Hawaii England’s Spectator newspaper wrote that the threat harked:

“. . . an end to the historic policy of the Republic since its foundation . . . and will mean its gradual evolution into a less peaceful and possibly military power.”

In Feb. 1898 the U.S. ship The Maine was blown up in the harbor of Havana. That led to war fever and 2 months later the U.S. declared war on Spain.

A strong anti-war sentiment feared foreign expansion and wanted no more people of color under the American flag.

Albert Beveridge, a powerful supporter of war argued that:

“We are a conquering race . . . We must obey our blood and occupy new markets and if necessary new lands.”

Tremendous pressures were building for the U.S. to take Hawaii and especially to stop Japan and even to annex the Philippines.

President McKinley announced it was “Manifest Destiny” for the U.S. to expand.

Finally in 1898 Hawaii was annexed.

In the bitterly contested 1900 presidential elections the Imperialists won bringing McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt into the White House.

FRANCE 1894 – 1899

In 1894 Capt. Alfred Dreyfus, a Jew, was convicted of treason. Without real evidence the military concocted evidence and got a conviction. He was imprisoned on Devil’s Island.

A three year battle eventually led to the exoneration of Dreyfus.

For the army to admit wrong doing and of railroading Dreyfus, was, in the view of many the end of France. The Dreyfus Affair was a complete crisis for France, as much as the French Revolution.

Each side fought for its side:

  1. The military saw it as:
  2. The Dreyfusards saw it as:

    Emile Zola emerged as one of the key defenders of Dreyfus.

    One clear result from the Dreyfus affair was a dominant increase in anti-Semitism in France. An 1886 work La France Juive (The French Jew) by Edouard Drumon contributed to this anti-Semitism in great measure.

    A key defender of the Jews was Theodor Herzl in Vienna. He wrote “Der Judenstaat” a key work in beginning the return to Palestine for Jews in order to have a homeland.

    “Dreyfus gave impulse to a new factor in world affairs which had waited for eighteen hundred years.” Colonel Picquart discovered evidence that clearly exonerated Dreyfus, but the army demanded the evidence be suppressed. Too much was at stake.

    Eventually even Emile Zola was put on trial. Zola was convicted of supporting Dreyfus.

    Finally some of the evidence was discovered to have been forged. A major witness, Colonel Henry committed suicide.

    In 1789 a new trial was ordered and Dreyfus was returned from Devil’s Island. He was once again convicted by a 5-2 vote. However, because of growing world opinion, Dreyfus was eventually given a pardon.

    “The amnesty does not judge, it does not accuse, it does not acquit; it ignores.”

    Eventually Dreyfus’ reputation was preserved.

    July 13, 1906 “. . . a bill restoring Dreyfus . . . to the Army was carried in the chambers by a 442-32 vote.”

    1899 AND 1907

    In 1898 the Czar Nicholas II called for a conference for limiting armaments. The world of nations seemed rather surprised and delighted at the idea, especially since Russia was seen by many as a militant nation.

    “LeTemps” said “. . . this flash of lightening out of the North.” Vienna’s response was “The Czar with an olive branch.”

    New weapons were being invented. Nations all were stockpiling, yet there was a terror of using them. There was a widespread belief that: “. . . war was to be so destructive as to be impossible, man would ultimately rather arbitrate than fight.”

    Munitions magnate, Alfred Nobel, left a great fortune in his will to provide a “peace prize.”

    There was an incredible growth in inventions, power, wealth and ease in this period. This included astonishing developments in materials of war.

    The Czar was neither bright nor interested. The idea of developing the military was from a Russian military which was significantly behind other nations in technologies of war.

    Germany, particularly in Europe, was benefitting from present times and growing in greatness and power. In 1891 Germany was seeking a Pan-German League and it would include: Germany, Belgium, Luxemburg, Switzerland, Austria-Hungry, Poland, Rumania and Serbia.

    The Germans especially wanted to take the Philippines.

    Now with the waning influence of God on people, war and power of the people – nationalism – was replacing God.

    The Czar of Russian did convince the major powers to a conference to stop war and it did meet in 1899 in The Hague. All major nations seemed to “participate,” but almost none BELIEVED in it all.

    Each nation had its own limitation and plans on how to gain from the conference.

    Captain Mahan on the U.S. privately let most know that the U.S. would brook no limits on naval limitations since it would need a strong fleet to defend its Asia holdings from China.

    It was clear that the Victorian age was dead. New inventions and developments were changing the world, world culture and warfare along with it. However, there were also signs of optimism and hope in the advancement of science and invention. Austrian intellectual Stefan Zweig captured the optimism of many in his proclamation:

    “It seemed merely a matter of decades before the vast vestiges of evil and violence would finally be conquered.”

    Theodore Roosevelt championed a more belligerent and pushy U.S.A.

    Finally in 1907 the nations of the world agreed on a second conference. It, too, was held at The Hague. However, it went virtually nowhere. In order to avoid serious talk of any disarmament, the idea of a League of Nations to resolve disputes was substituted. In the end very little of substance was achieved.

    GERMANY – 1890 – 1914

    Richard Strauss’ (senior) tone poems were deeply stirring to the German public and led him to be called “Richard II” with Wagner being the first Richard.

    In music there was a strong conflict between Germany and Austria, between Berlin and Vienna (as well as southern Germany and Munich.)

    “Munich (and Vienna) fostered the arts and considered itself the modern Athens as opposed to the Sparta of Prussia (especially Berlin).
    “Berlin meant Prussia, the natural enemy of Munich and Bavaria. The North German regarded the South German as easy-going and self-indulgent, a sentimentalist who tended to be deplorably democratic, even liberal. In his turn, the South German regarded the North German as an arrogant bully with bad manners and an insolent stare who was politically reactionary and aggressively preoccupied with business.”

    Nietzsche was very influential in Germany especially in being anti-democratic and enhancing the concept of the ‘superman.’

    His rejection of conventional morality and the notion of some people rising to a higher ground of morality were appealing to German leaders.

    The title and theme of the essay harks back to the notion that while Rome burned Nero fiddled.

    This essay focuses primarily on the music of Richard Strauss (the first of the ‘non-melodic’) and his move toward a music that was much less melodic than the world was used to, and the philosophical notion of Nietzsche’s ‘Unbermensch” – the individual who stands out in his exceptional personality and who isn’t limited by traditional morality.

    Tuchman seems to suggest that the image of Nero “fiddling” while Rome burned is a fitting image of the intellectuals and government of pre-war Germany.

    ENGLAND: 1902 – 1911

    By 1903 “The age of the people was under way.” The common man was edging his way into positions of power and influence.

    An early battle concerned British use of Chinese slave labor in South Africa. The masses of England exploded. However, Tuchman cautions too quickly assuming humanitarianism as the motive among the working classes. In responding to “ ... an instantaneous howl of indignities against Mr. Balfour.”

    “The audience could not have told whether it howled from humanitarian indignation or fear of the competition of cheap labour.”

    In any case, it was clear in 1906 that working class power was on the rise and a thousand years of special privilege was being challenged.

    Times were changing:

    1. More people could read and newspapers were growing. People were more informed.
    2. Motor cars meant that candidates could reach many more people.
    3. The masses of the commoners were simply growing up.

    The tide of discontent was impossible to ignore or repress. It was a growing battle between the Liberals (the people) and the Tories (the former ruling class).

    “. . . a gulf as wide as any in previous time. . .

    Many changes took place at the time of the Boer War (1902)

    An education act added secondary education as “. . . an obligation of the state.”

    Also a call for votes for women was a major issue.

    Winston Churchill entered the fray as a leader for Free Trade.

    “. . . the British people were rapidly becoming as contentious as the French”

    The condition of many common people was a major issue.

    “The investigators produced the facts: sleep, diet, sanitation, privacy, even respiratory air, were inadequate for basic human needs.”
    “. . . For unskilled and unorganized labour, working conditions matched the slums.”
    “While the rich lived at an acme of luxury and leisure, the purchasing power of wages was falling and human material deteriorating.”
    “The Fabian Society wanted Socialism without Marx or revolution.”

    1906 electors brought working class victories for the first time. There was a conviction

    “. . . for the first time born in the working classes, that their social solution is in their own hands.”

    At the same time the growing Suffragette movement was attacking the status quo as well. Women were forcing the issue and both forced feeding of women who were fasting were having an effect.

    Socialism was in the air in the masses’ minds.

    This was the bringing about a crisis within the Liberal Party which couldn’t embrace:

    1. Any violent protests
    2. Socialism
    3. National suffragette protests

    “In THE CRISIS OF LIBERALISM, published in 1909, Hobson wrote that if Liberalism could not transform its role into a more positive one, then, ‘it is doomed to the same sort of impotence as has already befallen Liberalism in most continental countries.’ ”

    In 1909 Lord George created a sensation by introducing a tax program which hit the wealthy landowners hard. It was a conscious plan to force the issue to the fore. It worked.

    In this midst of this crisis King Edward died. The country was in turmoil.

    Finally the will of the Lords was broken.


    1890 – 1914

    The Second International Workingmen’s Association of 1889 had 33 nations involved, mostly in Europe, but included U.S., Japan, India and Australia as well.

    The assumed thesis was:

    “. . . the class solidarity of working men transcended national frontiers in a horizontal division of society.”

    They sought the destruction of capitalism.

    “It regarded both the ruling class and the bourgeoisie as the enemy.”
    “Socialism’s ultimate aim was the abolition of private property and the redistribution of the world’s goods to provide everybody with enough.”

    There was a conflict at the heart of Socialism:

      Run by intellectuals
    1. For workers
    2. There was little real connection between the two.

    4 main early demands emerged:

    1. The 8 hour day
    2. Universal manhood suffrage
    3. Citizens militias in place of standing armies
    4. May 1st as Labor Day.

    In 1893 34 year old Jean Jaures former professor of philosophy headed up the Socialists. He was pragmatic, a man of action.

    Eduard Bernstein was sympathetic to the workers but argued that Marx’s analysis was flawed, a sort of coming together between classes, but workers improving life was happening.

    He offered a serious challenge which was published in 1899. The Evolution of Socialism:

    “It set forth the facts contrary to Marx: the middle class was not disappearing; the number of propertied persons was increasing, not decreasing. In Germany the working class was not sinking in progressive impoverishment but slowly making gains. Capital was not accumulating among a diminishing number of capitalists but was rather being diffused over a wider ownership through the medium and of stocks and bonds and shares. Increased production was not all being consumed by capitalists but was spreading into increased consumption by the middle class and even, as they earned more, by the proletariat.”
    “The workers, he brazenly suggested, were not, as Marx assumed, a coherent, homogeneous ‘class,’ conscious of themselves as ‘the proletariat’ or likely to become so.”

    Bernstein again writes:

    “I confess openly I have little interest in what is generally called ‘the final goal of Socialism.’ This goal, whatever it may be, is nothing to me; the movement [for social progress] everything.”

    There was a huge issue: Could workers work in and with government rather that only via revolutions? Bernstein and others argued yet!

    In Russia there was a split:

    “Bolsheviks and Mensheviks [split] over the issue of collaboration in the future. The former insisted on revolution and dictatorship of the proletariat in one leap with no interim accommodation; the latter believed this could not be achieved until Russia first passed through a bourgeois stage of parliamentary government during which Socialists could have to collaborate with the liberal parties.”

    In 1905 the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World) was founded in U.S. by Eugene Debs and “Big” Bill Haywood. It was a combination of Syndicalism and Socialism.

    July 31, 1914. Jaures was murdered. The best hope for Socialists trying to stay out of war was dead.

    By July 4th war was fully engaged.

    The Afterword:

    “The four years that followed were, as Graham Wallas wrote, ‘four years of the most intense and heroic effort the human race has ever made.’ When the effort 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.

    The proud tower build up through the great age of European civilization was an edifice of grandeur and passion, of riches and beauty and dark reliance, more confidence, more hope; greater magnificence, extravagance and elegance; more careless ease, more gaiety, more pleasure in each other’s company and conversation, more injustice and hypocrisy, more misery and want, more sentiment including false sentiment, less sufferance of mediocrity, more dignity in work, more delight in nature, more zest. The Old World had much that has since been lost, whatever may have been gained. Looking back on it from 1915, Emile Verhaeren, the Belgian Socialist poet, dedicated his pages, “With emotion, to the man I used to be.”

    Bob Corbett


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