Vivid And Venerable

09.29.14 9:45 AM ET

Barbara Tuchman’s ‘The Guns of August’ Is Still WWI’s Peerless Chronicle

She never earned a Ph.D. or taught in a university history department. Barbara Tuchman called herself a writer whose subject was history. Whatever she was, there was no one better.

The historian Fritz Stern memorably called World War I “the first calamity of the twentieth century, the calamity from which all other calamities sprang.” No one in late June 1914 anticipated that the assassination by a Serbian nationalist of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, would draw in all five major European powers and their various allies into a cataclysm that would snuff out the lives of 20 million soldiers and civilians, destroy three empires, and lay the groundwork for an even bloodier World War II.

Shock and disillusionment over such vast, seemingly senseless destruction led the writers and artists dubbed a “lost generation” to toss out most of the old assumptions about the meaning and purpose of human experience, and gave birth to what scholars in the humanities generally refer to these days as “modernity.”

Historians have never stopped debating the Great War’s causes and consequences, and they never will. The centenary of the conflict’s outbreak this year has ushered in a torrent of new books about its origins, as well new editions of contemporary memoirs and classic histories. Margaret Macmillan’s The War that Ended Peace and Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers are, it appears, the most celebrated of the new books thus far. Macmillan insightfully charts the development of the welter of pre-war alliances, and shows how, as doubt and insecurity festered over intentions, the alliances themselves contributed to the start of general war. Clark’s rich and subtle narrative explores the ways in which various power centers within each of the key nations—the monarchy, the ministry of state, the military, and the press—shaped decisions and attitudes leading up to the big crisis.

But as brilliant and penetrating as both books are, it would be plain wrong to call either book definitive, and none of Macmillan’s or Clark’s distinguished academic colleagues have done so, though both books have enjoyed high praise in important review venues. Why? In large measure, I expect it is out of a general recognition that the mindboggling complexity of the event permits even the most learned person only glimpses of the truth, rather than the Whole Animal.

It’s fair to say, though, that the first literary event to mark the centenary of the War happened a bit further back in time, when in 2012 the Library of America published its edition of Barbara W. Tuchman’s classic, The Guns of August: The Outbreak of World War I. (The early publication date of the LOA volume, which also contains Tuchman’s The Proud Tower, is explained in the publisher’s promotional literature:  2012 happened to mark the centenary of the author’s birth, and stood on the edge of the centenary of the War itself.)

Originally published in 1962, The Guns of August spent more than 40 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction in 1963. It has never been out of print. Rereading the book for the first time since the early ’70s, it’s not hard to see why it continues to attract a wide readership even to this day.

The Guns of August is a spell-binding exploration of the failure of great-power diplomacy to prevent a war no one wanted, and an elegantly written, lucid military history of the war up to the First Battle of the Marne in September 1914. It was at the Marne that the German drive on Paris was miraculously halted at the very last moment, and the Western Front settled down into a seemingly futile, static war of attrition that would not break open for more than three years.

“After the Marne,” Tuchman writes with characteristic sagacity, “the war grew and spread until it drew in the nations of both hemispheres and entangled them in a pattern of world conflict no peace treaty could dissolve. The Battle of the Marne was one of the decisive battles of the world not because it determined that Germany would ultimately lose or the Allies would ultimately win the war but because it determined that the war would go on. There was no looking back …”

And so in a single paragraph she captures brilliantly both the tragedy and the significance of the basic story line of her fine book.

Tuchman charts the rapid descent of a peaceful and prosperous Europe into the abyss with the literary tool kit of a gifted novelist and the instincts of a tenacious, world-weary detective. She conjures up the roiling emotional strain of diplomats and generals as they make agonizing, and, all too often, disastrous decisions; paints gut-wrenching scenes of battles, and indelible portraits of emperors, war ministers, and crumbling empires.

Just by way of example: The German plan to fight and win a two-front war against France and Russia, the infamous Schlieffen Plan, “was as rigid and complete as the blueprint of a battleship.” The Russian minister of war, Vladimir Sukhomlinov, was “an artful, indolent, pleasure-loving chubby little man of whom his colleague Sazonov said, ‘It was very difficult to make him work but to get him to tell the truth was well-nigh impossible.’”

Kaiser William II of Germany, who bears more blame than any other human being for Europe’s stumble toward war in this account, though there are a host of close seconds, was “more cosmopolitan and more timid than the archetype Prussian.” He “had never actually wanted a general war. He wanted greater power, greater prestige, above all more authority in the world’s affairs… but he preferred to obtain them by frightening rather than by fighting other nations.”

France’s General-in-Chief, Josef Joffre, “was about as subservient as Julius Caesar.” The Ottoman Empire, which soon joined the German alliance, she describes as “the “‘Sick Man’ of Europe… considered moribund by the hovering European powers who were waiting to fall upon the carcass. But year after year the fabulous invalid refused to die, still grasping in decrepit hands the keys to immense possessions.”

Here she conjures up the atmospherics of a single critical day, as the Germans find themselves on the verge of taking Paris:

September 4 opened with a sense of climax felt in widely separated places; a kind of extra-sensory awareness that great events sometimes send ahead. In Paris, [French General Joseph] Gallieni felt this was the “decisive” day. In Berlin, Princess Blucher wrote in her diary, “Nothing is talked of but the expected entry into Paris.” In Brussels the leaves had begun to fall, and a sudden wind blew them in gusts about the street. People felt the hidden chill of autumn in the air and wondered what would happen… At the American Legation Hugh Gibson noted a growing nervousness at German Headquarters… “I’m sure something big is in the air today.”

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In short, Tuchman writes with great brio, exquisite pacing, and a keen eye for telling details and arresting quotes.

The assassination of the Archduke in June 1914, as The Guns of August tells it, anyway, did not itself cause the war. Rather, it precipitated a month-long diplomatic crisis of byzantine complexity that exposed deeper, long-term sources of conflict. The desperately frantic work of the peacemakers was ultimately frustrated by the rigid system of alliances and understandings worked out among the great powers to deter war; by the chauvinism of militarist politicians seeking to exploit the festering crisis to enhance their own nation’s strategic position; and by generals who had been trained to secure military advantage in times of crisis rather than to work with diplomats to defuse the problems at hand: “General staffs, goaded by their relentless timetables [for troop mobilization], were pounding the tables for the signal to move lest their opponent gain an hour’s head start. Appalled upon the brink, the chiefs of state who would be ultimately responsible for their country’s fate attempted to back away, but the pull of military schedules dragged them forward.”

The leading military minds of Europe, Tuchman believes, were entranced by the cult of the offensive. It was thought essential to strike hard and fast with maximum force in order to achieve quick, decisive victory. No one with any military pull believed a general war in Europe either would—or could—last longer than a couple of months, nor did anyone plan for such a development.

And so Europe, and then the world, stumbled into the abyss. Threatened by invasion from Austria-Hungary, Serbia called on its ally Russia for support. The Czar, anxious to maintain Russia’s faltering influence and prestige in the Balkans, stood ready to pounce on Austria-Hungary.

The Kaiser and his generals couldn’t possibly countenance the sure defeat of Germany’s major ally at the hands of Russia, but knew full well it would have to take out Russia’s ally, France, before it could contend successfully with the huge Russian bear. It had all been worked out years ago… in the Schlieffen Plan. Any attack on France would place enormous pressure on England to come to its aid. And so it did.

In July 1914, each day brought new threats, demands, and ultimatums. Bit by bit, the great powers moved closer to the brink, and then over the brink, as massive German forces wheeled through neutral Belgium, pressing in on the heart of France.

While The Guns of August makes it plain that fecklessness, self-delusion and hideously costly mistakes born of plain incompetence were made by all the major participants at one juncture or another, Tuchman plainly singles out Germany for special culpability. “Believing themselves superior in soul, strength, in energy, industry and national virtual, Germans felt they deserved the dominion of Europe.”

Academic historians over the years have generally praised the elegance and incisiveness of Tuchman’s prose, but they have also taken her to task, often with an undeserved measure of condescension, for being too tough on the Germans, as well as for leaving developments on the Serbian-Austrian and Russian-Austrian fronts out of her narrative entirely. She’s also been criticized for abstaining from extended analytical forays into what one might call abstract causes, such as the inadequacy of supranational institutions for crisis resolution, or the absence of transparent decision-making protocols within the key government departments.

Tuchman, of course, never earned a Ph.D.; nor was she ever affiliated with a university history department. She described herself as a writer whose subject was history, not as a historian. She struck back at the “professional” historians more than once over a long and distinguished career. “The academic historian,” she opined, “suffers from having a captive audience, first in the supervisor of his dissertation, then in the lecture hall. Keeping the reader turning the page has not been his primary concern.”

As it happens, The Guns of August is one of the greatest page-turners in the English language. And it has to be said: having been a longtime editor of history books at an Ivy League press myself a few years back, the problem with academic history writing that she alluded to in the ’60s has only gotten considerably worse—a development that deeply troubles many of the best academic historians, as well as the readers of history, wherever and whoever they are.

As for the academics’ criticisms of The Guns of August: Yes, she does at times display a bit of glee in sticking it to the Germans gratuitously. But much of the rest of the criticism from the academics—about Guns, as well as her other fine books, such as The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World Before the War, 1890-1914, or her second Pulitzer-prize winner, Stilwell and the American Experience in China, 1911-1945—has long seemed to me rather off point, as if to say, “She’s got it wrong because she’s not doing it our way.”

If Barbara Tuchman declined to break from her taut and gripping narratives to delve into extended analyses of abstract causes, citing the works of the “professional” historians—if she “concentrates,” as Orville Prescott of The New York Times wrote about Guns 52 years ago, “on what people said, did and felt,” so be it. She didn’t write to suit the tastes of scholars, but for the most important readers in any liberal society by far—the serious general reader, the concerned citizen trying to sort out how the world in which he currently finds himself came into being.