Historian Barbara Tuchman
July 3, 2013


Tuchman & History

I’ve been interested in WW II since sometime in the 1970s, but you can't really understand the Second World War without some understanding of the First and its aftermath. When the Library of America volume of Barbara Tuchman's The Guns of August and The Proud Tower arrived I decided to read the two books. Guns was written and published first and deals with events from the assassination in Sarajevo up until August of 1914, while The Proud Tower covers the period from 1890 up until 1910-14. I decided to read them in the reverse order of publication.

The Proud Tower

Let me start by making a few general observations about The Proud Tower. First, Tuchman has a generally liberal attitude. You find this in her passing observations about things like the income tax. Her comments about the resistance of the well off to paying relatively small percentages of their income imply that she had a bit of disdain for those who did not want to give up their incomes for the government to spend. She also seems accepting of the myth that the Haymarket perps were unfairly convicted, a myth, which like the innocence of the Rosenbergs has been passed down through generations of liberal parents and children. The Vietnam war was raging when she published the book, and her afterword reflects that. Secondly, the book is overlong. Most of the chapters, if not all of them, could have been shortened by 20-30 pages. Much of what she covers is fairly dull, and quite frankly boring. Third, the end of the 19th century was an interesting period in art and literature, and what she gives is mostly the boring political history of the period. She could have given essays on aestheticism, sexual attitudes, theater, novel, and so forth. We get one chapter that is largely about Richard Strauss, but that terminates with his career at mid-point.

I'll be taking a brief break, and will resume with The Guns of August.

The Guns of August

Guns opens not, as you might expect, with the death of Archduke Ferdinand, but with the funeral of Edward VII. Tuchman's point here, and I think it may have been a largely conventional point even then, was the irony that the web of familial relations that meant that Victoria's son Edward had a kinship to her grandson Wilhelm II. The interbreeding by Saxe-Coburgs with just about every other house in Europe was unable to prevent the outbreak of the war. It also points up the breakdown of the monarchical institutions that the war would bring about. This is all well and good, but it foregrounds something that is not really an intrinsic part of the story. The assassination at Sarajevo is more directly related to the outbreak of the war, and that gets a one page treatment at best.

Tuchman devotes over 60 pages to the war plans of the various nations. John Keegan covers the same topic far more succinctly in his The First World War. Of course, Tuchman is focusing much more intently on a narrower aspect of the war, but I’m afraid that she overwrites this aspect, and includes an excessive amount of detail.

Tuchman was born in 1912, and was traveling with her parents aboard ship when they witnessed the opening naval confrontation of the war. This was the pursuit of the German ships Goeben and Breslau. I had originally thought that this section of the book was developed in excess of its actual importance. Keegan's history of WW I does not cover it in great detail, in fact, if I recall correctly, it doesn't cover it at all.* The importance of the pursuit, and its denouement, lies in the fact that it helped bring the Ottoman Empire in on the side of Germany, and led to the prolongation of the war.

*As I stated at the outset I've been more interested in WW II, which concluded in 1945, the year of my birth, than in WW I. What I know about WW I has come mostly from movies of the 1920s, such as Wings and the 1930s (Suzy, All Quiet on the Western Front, Dawn Patrol, and a few later films. I've tried, at least twice, to get through Solzshenitzyn's August 1914 and failed both times. Keegan's remains the only history of WW I that I've gotten through.
Let me put in a plug here for Wings. It's an incredibly beautiful film in many respects, particularly in the Blu-Ray restoration, and it alone is ample justification for buying a Blu-Ray player.

Tuchman's evaluation of the incident can be found near the end of her chapter on the pursuit:

With the Black Sea closed, her exports dropped by 98 per cent her imports by 95 per cent. The cutting off of Russia with all its consequences, the vain and sanguinary tragedy of Gallipoli, the diversion of Allied strength in the campaigns of Mesopotamia, Suez, and Palestine, the ultimate breakup of the Ottoman Emprire, the subsequent history of the Middle East, followed from the voyage of the Goeben.“*

*Tuchman, 184. While it is always interesting to speculate about historical what ifs, I think there is an underlying bias that sees known historical evils being replaced by wished for historical goods. However, short of personal deification there is no way of knowing what evils further down the line from the current moment might have been avoided. There are numerous alternate history books out there, one that is a notable effort is Isaac Asimov’s The End of Eternity, which describes the manipulation of the timeline to achieve wished for results. Speculation about alternate histories involves the question as to whether this is the best of all possible worlds. Liebniz was mocked by Voltaire for that assertion. However, the assertion was not that this world is good, but that all other possible worlds were worse. Given the events of the 20th and 21st centuries that may lead one to ask how much worse things could be.

Part of the wartime anti-German propaganda involved the invasion of Belgium. Belgium had been neutral since the 1840s and her neutrality had been respected and guaranteed by the major powers, England, France, Germany, et al. However, Belgium has the misfortune of being next door to France, so if you want to get to France, well little Belgium is going to be run over. Belgium was subsequently run over again at the start of WW II. It is currently a member of NATO and spends 1.1% of its GDP on defence.*

*See Wikipedia article on NATO. Expenditures as a percentage of GDP are 4.8% US, 2.6% UK, 2.1% Greece, other countries expend less than 2.0% of GDP. Iceland has no military and expends 0.0%.

Tuchman doesn't dwell on this, but Belgium's problem is in many respects the problem of the post-war world. Belgium at the start of hostilities in 1914 could only field 6 divisions to oppose the planned 34 German divisions. The officer corps was not well developed, and the army was not particularly good. Belgium was dependent for its survival on the good will of its guarantors, and on the ability of those guarantors to respond promptly to any threat to her neutrality. The most that the Belgians could offer was a weak defense that would serve only to make the Germans angry, and not impede them more than momentarily. That same problem confronts NATO today. A glance at the chart to the left shows that the US contribution towards NATO defense is 12 times larger than the next largest contributor's, Great Britain, and that the remainder, including Canada, make rather meager contributions towards their own defense. That means that they are largely dependent on the protection of the US in both its nuclear and non-nuclear capabilities.* Should a weak president, or a neo-isolationist president, or a president who is more interested in imitating Lamar Latrell on the gulf course than he is interested in defending the West be in power than the remaining NATO countries are not in a good position.§

*For a graph showing deployable military by NATO members see this chart. Charts are generated by the author using the data from the Wikipedia article cited above.

§For Lamar Latrell see Revenge of the Nerds.

Neutrals and small countries can exist only as long as their larger neighbors respect their neutrality and their borders. Otherwise, they will be gobbled up by their neighbors. Once a guaranteeing country decides to renege on its promises and obligations countries like Belgium, Holland, Norway, and the rest will be swallowed up. Neutral Sweden survived WW II intact largely because it provided, under the mask of neutrality, steel for Hitler.

The British, French, and Belgians did not integrate the command of their armies at the start of the conflict. Orders could be vague and subject to varying interpretations. For example, Churchill instructed the forces following the Goeben not to engage a superior force. The commander on the scene drew one conclusion, while others subsequently drew another. The commands of the land forces were each pursuing somewhat different aims, and operating under different military doctrines. The French, according to Tuchman, were devotees of the offensive. The Belgians wanted to simply hold out and keep their army in existence. The British came in with four divisions instead of six. The Russians ran out of wire, and communicated by wireless. So the allies had troubles all three of the Cs in C3 (Command, Control, Communications).*

*Other variants include C3I, (C3 + Intelligence); C4I, (C3I + Computers), C4ISR, (C4I + Surveillance and Reconnaissance). See here for additional abbreviations.

The Russians had additional problems. For one thing the Russian railroads were of a different gauge than German railroads. From a defensive standpoint, since it made it harder for the Germans to enter Russia, that was a good thing. From an offensive standpoint, since it made it harder for the Russians to carry the war to Germany, that was a bad thing. The Russians, as noted above ran out of wire. They also ran out of shells. That's definitely not a good thing.

The Russians also had problems with signals security. There was not enough wire, as already mentioned, to string for telephonic communications, consequently the Russians used the wireless. This would be okay, if messages were sent encrypted. There were not enough codebooks. So messages were sent en clair. Tuchman describes a scene at German HQ:

Here a signal corps officer handed him two intercepted Russian wireless messages, both sent in clear, one by Rennenkampf at 5:30 that morning, and one by Samsonov at 6:00 A.M. Rennenkampf's orders, giving marching distances for the First Army, revealed that his objective line for the next day would not bring him far enough to threaten the German Army from the rear. Samsonov’s following the previous day’ battle against General Scholtz, revealed that he had misinterpreted Scholtz’s backward wheel as full retreat and gave exact directions and times of movement for the pursuit of what he believed was a defeated foe.”*

*Tuchman, 324-5.

As if these incidents were not enough, throughout the whole of what came to be known as the Battle of Tannenberg the Germans consistently read the Russian messages:
Ludendorff came to depend on the intercepts which his staff regularly collected during the day, decoded or translated and sent to him every night at 11:00 P.M. If by chance they were late, he would worry and appear personally in the signal corps room to inquire what was the matter. Hoffmann acknowledged the intercepts as the real victor of Tannenberg. “We had an ally,” he said, “the enemy. We knew all the enemy’s plans.’”*

*Tuchman, 341.

It's really David Kahn though, in his monumental history of cryptography, The Codebreakers, who brings out the ineptness of the Russians entrusted with cryptography: Within a single army (the 2nd), for instance, the XIII Corps did not have the key needed to read cryptograms from its immediate neighbor the VI Corps.* Kahn also brings out that the messages received in the German HQ were sent in the clear because the Russian XIII Corps did not have the cipher key.§

*Kahn, 622.

§ Kahn, 623.

The German Army, confronted by two Russian armies that it could not defeat if they operated jointly was able, due to Russian failures in C3 to defeat each army separately. Kahn neatly sums up the importance of Tannenberg and the failure of Russian cryptology:
The case was clearcut. Interception of unenciphered communications had awarded the Germans their triumph. Tannenberg, which gave Russian the first push on her long slide into ruin and revolution, was the first battle in the history of the world to be decided by cryptologic failure.”*

*Kahn, 627.

Tuchman's appreciation of the Battle of Tannenberg does not seem to extend much beyond the absence of two German corps from the Marne.*

*Tuchman, 343. While the Marne is undoubtedly significant, it seems that Tuchman is oblivious to the greater implications of the significance of Tannenberg in that it precipitated the stalemate on the Eastern front. The Russians, under Lenin, sent Trotsky to negotiate the treaty of Brest-Litovsk. The Russians were thus able to pursue their own civil war that ended with the Bolsheviks consolidating the power that they were to hold for the next 73 years.

Tuchman's remaining chapters focus, for the most part, an preliminaries to the First Battle of the Marne. She sees this a decisive victory insofar as it forced the Germans to abandon their plans for an envelopment of the French armies, and forced a stalemate that led to four years of attrition.

Tuchman views, and she may be correct in her assesment, the build-up of the German navy as being a provocation to Britain. She seems on less solid ground in some of her assessments of intellectual and philosophical movements. For example, she portrays Nietzsche as a bit of German nationalist. That, in my eyes and those of Walter Kaufmann, seems a misinterpretation of Nietzsche. She has comments of Henri Bergson's élan vital that seem to derive more from reading in the popular press than in Bergson's books. Much of Guns is fairly dry, and moments of high drama are flattened. She spends too much time on things that should be handled in a sentence and a footnote. She describes a rumor that Russian troops were moving through England to the Western Front in France, and devotes about two pages to this. All that was required was a mention of the rumor. In another instance she spends several sentences describing an officer's entry into a room. He's a relatively minor character in her story, and the description of his entrance could have been condensed into a sentence.

Tuchman, I think, is overpraised by many. I haven't read The World Crisis, but Winston Churchill's history of WW II is also a top level history of a war of comparable significance, and is more interesting than Tuchman's writing. Rick Atkinson's books on WW II cover the military aspects of that war, and are excellent. John Keegan's book, which I've linked to, is a concise history of WW I, and generally very good. As a historian I would put Tuchman in second or third rank in terms of interest, drama, and literary qualities.

Next up, either Rommel's Infantry Attacks, or Pater's book on the Renaissance.