That Terrible Tuchman Woman

Since one of the hats I wear is that of a military historian specializing in World War One, I regularly get asked questions about reading suggestions. With the centenary of that awful conflict upon us, people want to know more and that’s a great thing. The origins of the war and how it all unfolded so terribly in 1914 are understandably a topic of high interest, and at least once as week, often online, I get asked about one book in particular.

That book is Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August, which for more than a half-century has been a popular and widely cited work by the public about the disastrous events of the summer of 1914 that transformed a Balkan terrorist act into a continent-wide (and later nearly world-wide) conflict. The Guns of August was a huge best-seller, winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1963, and still retains the capability to make journalists go weepy, but as a work of history it’s complete crap.

Yes, complete and utter crap. There, I said it. Virtually all professional historians, including every Great War specialist I know, regard Tuchman’s magnum opus on 1914 as a colossal embarrassment. If you’d like a lucid explanation of why, I recommend this piece by a distinguished scholar who points out just how full of crap Tuchman is, in genteel and learned language.

Now, I have nothing against popular history — except when popular historians steal my published work for their best-selling profit — because I want the public to know more history. There are perfectly decent popular historians out there who write solid works that elaborate the past, and they deserve both readers and praise, particularly as so many academic historians have retreated into publishing unreadable tracts laden down with jargon that’s impenetrable to normals. Such popular historians are worth your time. Barbara Tuchman was never one of those.

Born in 1912 to a privileged Jewish family on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Tuchman, née Wertheim, got an undergraduate degree in history from Radcliffe (now part of Harvard) and studied for a doctorate but never completed it as she preferred to focus on writing over scholarship. Hence it’s not surprising that the many historical works she churned out down to her death in 1989, including several best sellers, were grippingly written yet often shoddily researched, plus loaded down with glaring biases.

The Guns of August can be considered emblematic. None has ever called it a boring read, right from its very first sentence: “So gorgeous was the spectacle on the May morning of 1910 when nine kings rode in the funeral of Edward VII of England that the crowd, waiting in hushed and black-clad awe, could not keep back gasps of admiration.” If you like this sort of thing, you like this sort of thing. I think such purple prose demands jacket artwork featuring Fabio, shirtless, but that’s just me.

More seriously, The Guns of August regularly descends into caricature, a world in which all Germans are plotting evil, and all generals are basically idiots (Tuchman was so fond rhapsodizing about the generic idiocy of military men that she later wrote a whole book on the subject). A full elaboration of the errors and misrepresentations in the book would require, well, a book itself, but there is one omission so glaring that it must be noted.

Tuchman leaves out the Eastern and Balkan fronts. As in completely. The actual, you know, causes of the Great War are covered in about a page, so Tuchman can spend time on more important things. Why Vienna decided to roll the dice and invade Serbia “with the bellicose frivolity of senile empires” as she purplishly puts it … well, you’ll not get that here, nor anything about why Russia threw in all it had to back up little Serbia. One supposes that the names were too hard for Tuchman to pronounce or perhaps the salons of Belgrade were a tad too déclassé for the Upper West Side.

Regardless, what Tuchman created is a world where why the Great War happened seems not to matter. Maybe that just got in the way of the story she wanted to tell. There were three great campaigns that fateful August — at the Marne, at Tannenberg and in Galicia — whose outcomes would dictate the course of that terrible war. The first gets a lot of coverage in The Guns of August while the other two … well, they just kinda don’t happen. This would be like writing a book about the outbreak of the Second World War without really mentioning Poland.

Why anybody ever took this book seriously is something of a mystery, and I won’t even get into how, with regard to Great War scholarship, the day it appeared it was already seriously out of date. Nevertheless, The Guns of August generated a devoted fan-base that included President John F. Kennedy, who ordered staffers to read it. Tuchman’s work informed the Kennedy White House during the Cuban Missile Crisis, with its essential message — that 1914 happened as a mistake, a failure of communication between rival leaders who didn’t really want war but got it — being helpful as nuclear Armageddon lurked in October 1962. This may be a case of bad history leading to good outcomes, since Tuchman’s take on how the Sarajevo crisis engulfed Europe was — there’s no nice way to say this — completely and utterly wrong.

My advice, then, is simple: Don’t read The Guns of August. Period. Just don’t. It will be a loss of time you cannot get back in this life. It’s a ripping read for sure, but if you want that you can get it from books that don’t grossly distort important historical events in the process. Think of Tuchman’s book as being like crystal meth, which I’m told is highly enjoyable … right until it rots your brain and worse.

There are many good books on the disastrous summer of 1914. Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers is a fine work that’s both well researched and written, while the Marne campaign is explained much better in this book than by Tuchman. For the Tannenberg campaign, ignored by The Guns of August, read this book, while the Galician debacle of August 1914 is written up comprehensively, for the first time, in my book, which is out later this year.

There’s a long history of history books that are beloved by journalists yet loathed by specialist historians. There is a broader expert-versus-generalist issue here, and I’m told serious astrophysicists are equally unfond of the output of Neil DeGrasse Tyson. A recent book on 1914 was likewise praised by newspapers and ripped to shreds by historians who know the subject. This is a problem that does not seem to be getting better. If you learn lots of falsehoods by reading The Guns of August, don’t say you weren’t warned.