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Monday, February 17, 2014

1913: The World Before the Great War by Charles Emmerson – review

Winston Churchill and Kaiser Wilhelm at Military Review Kaiser Willhelm II with Winston Churchill at Lowther Castle, north-west England, 1906: were the signs of the conflict to come self-evident? Photograph: Corbis

Did you read the writing on the wall in 2012? Could you tell that a third world war would start in 2013 when Russia and Iran responded to the American attack on Syria? If a lack of restraint had pitched us into global conflict last year, historians would have woven narratives to show the signs we missed (I was preparing my own version).

The inevitability of the first world war is usually traced in a similar way, back through events of 1913 and before, and several excellent books have looked at how the world went to war, notably Christopher Clark's excellent The Sleepwalkers. Emmerson's 1913 tries hard to ignore what follows and mostly it succeeds.

This is not an attempt to explain how the war started but more to show what was lost, what it felt like to be alive in that unlucky-number year. If you were European, particularly British, it felt very good indeed. The British empire was not what it was, damaged as much close to home by suffragettes and Irish nationalists as it was threatened by the growing challenges from the US, China and restless colonies. Emmerson presents this world through portraits of its great cities, which seems appropriate as many of them were linked up in a way we would recognise as global: the modernity of some aspects of city life a century ago is striking, with the startup of global brands such as Gucci and Ford, although there were still sheep cropping Hyde Park.

Many of the choices of cities are obvious, divided into groups such as Europe's imperial capitals, some key American cities, a scattering of others – Algiers, Bombay, Tehran – and a handful of cities belonging to "twilight powers", although in the absence of a compelling argument, some choices can seem random. To capture a year of the world in a single snapshot is, of course, impossible, but Emmerson provides a real sense of 1913 by combining details of individual lives with sweeping international trends: one of the great pleasures of this book is to see parallels between then and now.

Yet he clings to the view that the world in 1913 was one of innocence, security and mutual understanding, epitomised, perhaps, by the ball in Berlin in May 1913, attended by the British king-emperor, the German kaiser and the Russian tsar. Not unlike the after party of the G20 summit in St Petersburg last year, and therefore hardly a reliable measure of international relations.

View the original article here