Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, October 5, 2021

1913: In Search of the World Before the Great War

By Charles Emmerson
Public Affairs, 2013
Courtland Jindra, Reviewer

Brandenburg Gate and Unter den Linden  Berlin, 1913

When one picks up a book that tries to illuminate the time just prior to the First World War, it's nearly always filled to the brim with ominous foreboding chapters on rivalries and quotes about how Machiavellian this or that ruler or general was. You'd likely believe that was all the various countries could think about. Charles Emmerson does a funny little thing in his book—he throws it out the window. Instead, he paints a picture of the planet, a complicated one (resembling ours in numerous ways), that has many potential destines. That's filled with politicians, diplomats, and industrialists trying to make the world a better place. It's a fascinating tome that I enjoyed immensely.

Composition 6, Wassily Kandinsky, 1913

1913 is a travelogue of sorts as Emmerson takes the reader to 23 cities around the globe. He begins with Europe, "The Centre of the Universe." As he states:

A European could survey the world in 1913 as the Greek gods might have surveyed it from the snowy heights of Mount Olympus: themselves above, the teeming earth below.

It's a magisterial opening and—as he shows in tours through London, Paris, Berlin, Rome, and St. Petersburg—arguably correct. Europe is shown at the height of its powers and influence. New technologies seemed to be invented monthly. Globalization was bringing the continent together and through their colonies (because basically all European powers had colonies, even so called "lesser nations" like Belgium and the Netherlands) the planet. To travel to London was to see the first true world city as people from all of the empire came to its capital to attend university or be employed in the financial industry. Banking, mostly gravitated toward London but extending throughout Europe, kept commerce the world over chained to the continent. A despondent Vladimir Lenin, living in Austria, would say "Capitalism has triumphed all over the world." The Kaiser, bellicose as he was, was often seen as a peacemaker. All over Europe a building boom had been taking place as the various cities were becoming more visually pleasing. True, some new "modern" arts were seeping in that are usually associated with the disillusion of post war Europe (Igor Stravinsky's Rite of Spring famously caused a riot after a performance in Paris) but generally speaking perfection of the traditional and classical held the day.  As for politics, sure,  there were rivalries throughout the continent, but the interdependence they all had with one another seemed to indicate war was more than not unlikely.

The book then moves to the "Old New World"—mostly United States cities (Washington DC, New York, Detroit, Los Angeles) and Mexico City. These chapters delve into how up-and-coming and full of vitality this new world was. The United States had been powerful since Vanderbilt's Railroads, Carnegie Steel and Rockefeller Oil—but was now really starting to really emerge as a true rival to European hegemony. Wilson coming to power is shown, the Fed's creation, Wall Street starting to pull on the gravity of London's financial district, Henry Ford's Model T, and the real genesis of Detroit's manufacturing empire was getting started in this era. It was also a time when people complained bitterly about lobbyists, which were then a fairly new feature (Wilson stated "This town [DC] is swarming with lobbyists, so you can't throw bricks in any direction without hitting one—much inclined as you are to throw bricks.). Los Angeles was a total boomtown with oil and the new-fangled motion picture industry that was just starting to get on its feet. At the same time echoes to the debates between Wall Street and Main Street are talked about as income equality in 1913 was roughly equal to what it is today. Mexico's problems with revolutionary elements and corruption as well as the American preoccupation with those problems are explored.

Suffragette Suicide, Epson Downs, 1913

Emmerson then explores "The World Beyond" (Winnipeg, Melbourne, Buenos Aires, Algiers, Bombay, Durban, Tehran, and Jerusalem). We see the expectations of those living in the white British Empire cities, the budding Paris of South America (Teddy Roosevelt told the citizens of Buenos Aires in November 1913 that "You need no protection, you are fit to be the champion of your own Monroe Doctrine"). The lovely Frenchified Algiers in all its conflict between the European influences and its traditions (not to mention the wealth disparity between citizens and the French living there) which mirrors issues at play in both Bombay and Durban as the local population heavily outnumbered the British governments on the ground. Gandhi got his start advocating for Indians to strike for more rights in in South Africa before taking what he learned to his homeland. Persia with all its inward issues and new complexity as the strategic asset of oil (and proximity to India) makes it key to how Britain sees the future world developing.  We also travel to the Holy City that seems more peaceful than today with many faiths appearing to live, if not in harmony, then at least at peace.  The current troubles between Jews and Palestinians were amazingly not yet in view.

Finally Emmerson takes us to what he calls the "Twilight Powers" (Constantinople, Peking, Shanghai, Tokyo and London once more) as he profiles these cities and makes it apparent it was unclear if they were destined for decline or stagnation. China was little more than a decade after the Boxer Rebellion still felt humiliated (and the great powers used the fallen country at will). The Turks had been in a decline for generations, Japan seemed on the rise (especially after defeating Russia eight years previous), but questions remained about what kind of country they would be with their emperor's death in 1912. Would they have a setback? And likewise, though this was the height of British influence there were questions about the future of John Bull. The coming years seemed as open to the possibility of Britons falling off their perch as center of the world as a continued Pax Britannica.

March 1913, Woodrow Wilson Inaugurated President 

Reading this book, about a world without the knowledge of war, one sees all the hopes and possibilities (and problems) that abounded. It was a time much like now of ever faster connectivity and global trade (as pointed out in the text, the world would not again see as much global trade as a percentage of the economy until the 1980s). They were also dealing with recent history that one often doesn't consider much. As he writes very perceptibly that "we tend to mentally compress time when it falls within our own lives, and extend it when it falls on the lives of past generations. And yet for those alive in 1913, the 1880s and 1890s were no more distant than the 1980s and 1990s are to us," which is altogether true in my experience. The book is an excellent portal to the world that was, the world that ended in July of 1914, lost forever. 

Courtland Jindra


  1. Great review, Courtland. This sounds very exciting.

  2. Sounds like an extremely comprehensive view of the world before the war. Thank you!

  3. Bravo, Courtland! A terrific review of a terrific book. Emmerson’s masterpiece is must reading for anyone interested in the prelude to the Great War.

  4. Wonder if 'Suffragette Suicide' is the proper caption for the photograph.
    Emily Davison put herself in harms way to make a grand, worthwhile political statement not with the intention of killing herself.