Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Five top books on Dreyfus and the Belle Epoque

Ruth Harris is the author of Lourdes: Body and Spirit in the Secular Age. A fellow and tutor at Oxford University, she has written widely on topics in French history, cultural history, women’s history, and the history of medicine.

Her latest book is Dreyfus: Politics, Emotion, and the Scandal of the Century.

With Toby Ash at The Browser, Harris discussed five books on Dreyfus and the Belle Epoque, including:
The Guns of August
by Barbara W Tuchman

This book marks the end of the Belle Epoque, charting the outbreak of World War I. Please tell us more.

This is a very strange book for me to choose. For many people, it is the ultimate old-fashioned diplomatic history. But it enthuses me for several reasons. First of all, it’s an extraordinary narrative. It reads magnificently and is a breathtaking horizon of events and people. Secondly, like me, she is obsessed with people. In the first chapter we have the funeral of Edward VII in 1910, which is attended by 10 European kings. She uses this funeral as a way of demonstrating the fundamental contradiction of pre-war Europe, in which increasingly bourgeois, urban, sophisticated industrial societies remained none the less monarchical, with only France as a major Republican power. Militarism and court cultures intermingled to an extraordinary extent.

What Tuchman does so well is to document the kind of thought patterns that pervaded the many national rivalries, which was all to do with imperialism, social Darwinism, but, above all, military planning and strategy. Again, what I love about this book, and in this way there’s an affinity between Tuchman and me, is that it describes the importance of irrational forces and charts their implications. She tries to look at why the war took the course that it did and discovers the many miscalculations of the leaders at the same time as describing their utter inability to shift course. Like the soldiers in the trenches that lined the Western Front after the Battle of the Marne, decision-makers simply dug in and a generation of men were lost. Leaders, for example, couldn’t grasp that free trade wouldn’t make a short war and peace inevitable. The Germans didn’t realise that by invading Belgium they actually invited the British into the war.

I also love the book because it is a history within a history. It became an immediate bestseller when it came out in 1962 and was the bible of key Cold War politicians, particularly US President Kennedy. What interested them was how to learn not to make the same mistakes. Apparently Kennedy kept citing it during the Cuban missile crisis where he resisted the advice of the military top brass. The shadow of World War I and the terrible mistakes and miscalculations of that war were constantly on his mind. His handling of the Cuban missile crisis was probably his finest achievement in an otherwise lacklustre presidency. Rarely are there lessons in history in an obvious or reductive sense, but in this instance this book seems to have had an important influence on how a president faced a terrible crisis.
Read about the other books Harris tagged at The Browser.

The Page 99 Test: Ruth Harris's Dreyfus.

--Marshal Zeringue