The Proud Tower is a book about the personalities of the people who were influencing the Western world, 1890-1914. We come into brief contact with many famous names and the people behind those names. Usually, it’s a flurry of specific facts about them and their lifestyle and their dedication to their cause, and their cause is usually tied closely with maintaining their class. The royalty saving their hereditary land holdings, their hereditary public positions of power and their hereditary genetic inbreeding to maintain the privileges that come with land and legal ownership of everything on it, including the people. Slightly below them in privilege but much larger in numbers are the members of the aristocracy who are also fighting to maintain the status quo, with all of its privileges. Below them almost to the point of invisibility are the others, who are represented by various organizations struggling for simple human existence, and if they succeed with that, a small voice in the government to at least state their needs if not to demand them.
From our modern perspective, the whole system seems criminally unfair to the vast majority of the people. There were the rulers, the enforcers of the rule, and everyone else. With local variations it was thus, from Great Britain to the other end of Russia. There in the beginning of the book, on page 9, we read of Lord Salisbury, the Prime Minister of England, “He regarded himself not as responsible to the people but as responsible for them. They were in his care. What reverence he felt for anyone was directed not down but up—to the monarchy. He revered Queen Victoria, who was some ten years his senior, both as her subject and, with chivalry toward her womanhood, as a man. For her he softened his brusqueness even if at Balmoral he could not conceal his boredom.”
Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan, an instructor at the US Naval Academy, wrote a book, The Influence of Sea Power on History, which had an enormous impact on this period of history. It convinced the powers of the world to build capital ships with which to assert their power and to acquire coaling ports and key locations throughout the world. He who controls the seas controls the world. Fifty years later the US had become the greatest sea power in the world, and today has far more sea power than the rest of the world combined. It’s because of Mahan that the US is dominant in the world. He also played an important role in the first attempt to create the League of Nations, the precursor to our United Nations.
Captain Alfred Dreyfus was a minor French officer who became the subject of a series of questionable newspaper stories that inflamed French patriotism for revenge against a clearly innocent man. For twelve years he was imprisoned in dreadful conditions while the French public fought over whether it was better for France for one innocent man to be imprisoned or for the General staff of their wonderful army to be challenged for framing him to satisfy the press.
Behind the whole period, there was “The Steady Drummer” of war. It was inflamed by some fabulous music by great composers like Richard Wagner and the then current favorite Richard Strauss. The nobility seemed to like the anxiety of war being promoted because it kept them in power as being a rallying point for the masses. The masses themselves didn’t want to fight and die in wars fomented by the nobility, and their spokesmen tried valiantly to create organizations to prevent war.
The book ends at the beginning of World War I when, according to Wikipedia, “The total number of military and civilian casualties in World War I was more than 38 million: there were over 17 million deaths and 20 million wounded, ranking it among the deadliest conflicts in human history.”
The Proud Tower makes clear the ultimate goal of aristocracy and of their nationalism is war.