The Guns of August and the Philosophy of History
“The Guns of August”, is a military history book written by Barbara Tuchman. It describes the First World War and the events behind of the war. The book was an immediate bestseller and was on the New York Times bestseller list for forty-two consecutive weeks and won the Pulitzer Prize. Even John F. Kennedy was so impressed by the book. He even gave copies to his cabinet and principal military advisors and commanded them to read it. Some people say that Kennedy drew from “The Guns of August” to help in dealing with the Cuban Missile Crisis. (Wikipedia)
“The Guns of August” is written with great insight and historical knowledge. It is not just a book but a book which implies profound philosophy of history. As my last work in the subject Philosophy of History, I would like to look into the philosophy of Barbara Tuchman shown in the one of her greatest books “The Guns of August”. I will try to show the philosophies of history of various philosopher which are impressed into on the book. So I would like to discuss more on philosophy of Barbara Tuchman in narrating the story of the First World War rather the story itself.
As I read the book, I was able to know that Tuchman used a priori imagination which has documentary support in narrating the stories of the World War I. In the first part of her book, she states that: “Sources for the narrative and for all quoted remarks are given in the Notes at the end of the book. I have tried to avoid spontaneous attribution or the “he must have” style of historical writing… All conditions of weather, thoughts or feelings and states of mind public or private, in the following pages have documentary support.”(Tuchman, 1962) Actually, she described feelings and states of mind of characters but as she says her descriptions are not spontaneous but based on historical facts. That is a priori imagination with historical knowledge and understanding. Some people say that Tuchman is a master of detail. As people read her book, they feel like they are in the war. I believe that describing of details is impossible with only documents. There must be a sort of imagination to describe details of an event.
In order to examine the philosophy of Barbara Tuchman and her view of the First World War, I carefully look how she begins the story. The story begins with funeral of Edward VII on May 20, 1910. The leaders of countries gathered to attend funeral of Edward, the King of England. Tuchman tries to explain the state of situation during 1910’s by describing hidden intention and state of the leaders and their countries: Germany, France, Russia, and Britain. Why does Tuchman begin the story of the World War I with the funeral of the king of England not the assassination of Archduke Francis Ferdinand?
Most of us think that the cause of breakout of the Great War was the assassination of Ferdinand. However Tuchman finds the real cause of the war from hidden tension and ambition of the countries in Europe. Indeed, for Tuchman, the assassination of Ferdinand was expected result of that tension between European countries.
Back to the story, the death of Edward IIV implied quite many things. He was the brilliant diplomat and succeeded to bring changes in relationship with France and other European countries, and this brilliant diplomatic skill completely encircled Germany and her ambition. We would see in the story, during the funeral, that Wilhelm, the leader of Germany was quite excited because the leader of England, who quite successfully and completely encircled Wilhelm’s country and restrained the ambition of Germany weather it was shown or hidden. Now, with the death of Edward, there would come various changes in Europe relations. After the death of Edward, the leaders of European powers busily and secretly work for their ambition and this is well shown in description of personal state of minds of characters.
Collingwood once said that “the principles and methods of natural science had been lately perfected and were being triumphantly applied to the investigation of the physical world.” (Collingwood, 1946) What I have noticed most in the book “The Guns of August” was that Barbara Tuchman followed what Collingwood said above in narrating the story.
Barbara Tuchman is quite brilliant to describe one’s mind. I could see that she is able to view the situations in relations to characters’ state of minds. As I read the book, I felt like I became the one of the charters in the book. In the book she was able to explain the situation and how the tension had been made in 1910’s by describing personal state of mind of the leaders of European countries. In the first chapter, “A Funeral”, I was able to see many statements by which what the charters in the book feel and conceive were clearly shown. And that exactly fit to the situations. Base on my observation how Tuchman begin and describe the story, I would say that she uses the priori imagination and she through the story, encourages us to be one of the characters and to feel what he/she feels in the story. By using a priori imagination, Tuchman would believe that the readers will be able to have better understanding about the situation and background of the First World War. She has almost perfectly reenacted the setting of that period and described even quite details by using priori imagination base on historical document and her own understanding in relation with historical context of that time.
What is great about Tuchman’s work is that imagination and documentary support (in order word “fact”) are balanced. A common error found in most of historical writing is unbalance of imagination and fact. In historical writing, the balance of fact and imagination (or let’s say narration) is quite important. Historical writing without imagination (I am talking about the imagination based on historical fact) but only historical documents are just “ideal chronicle” which is like recorder of all events ever happened but which cannot give any significance of the events according to Danto. And historical writing with too much imagination is just a fiction. So it is quite important to achieve balance among those.
For that reason, I would want to say that Tuchman’s work is great in terms of historical writing. She has made great narrative based on her imagination with support of historical facts and documents. “The Guns of August” is neither just fiction of a lady nor listing tedious historical facts. Rather it is a great story which is written with well collected historical facts and documents. Therefore, I would consider “The Guns of August” as the complete work of incomplete history.
Barbara W. Tuchman (1962). The Guns of August New York: Macmillan
Collingwood, R. G. (1946). The idea of history. Oxford: Oxford University Press, Pp.
Danto, A.C. (1985). Narration and knowledge. Columbia University.
The Guns of August (October 29, 2009). In Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia Retrieved 00:17 October 29, 2009 from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Guns_of_August