x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Before the catastrophe: Charles Emmerson on the world of 1913

Charles Emmerson tries to see the world of 1913 as the people who lived then would have done, without viewing it through the prism of global war and devastation.

Charles Emmerson - 1913: In Search of the World Before the Great War
Charles Emmerson - 1913: In Search of the World Before the Great War

1913: In Search of the World Before the Great War

Charles Emmerson

Bodley Head


In the opening pages of The Economic Consequences of the Peace, the economist John Maynard Keynes outlined the contours of an ever-improving world in 1914. His vantage point was the great capital of an imperial power reaching its apogee. Prosperity, security and peace prevailed: for a certain kind of person, the world, quite literally, was there for the taking.

“The inhabitant of London,” Keynes wrote, “could order by telephone, sipping his morning tea in the bed, the various products of the whole earth, in such quantity as he might see fit, and reasonably expect their early delivery upon his doorstep … he could secure forthwith, if he wished, cheap and comfortable means of transit to any country or climate without passport or other formality.

“The projects and politics of militarism and imperialism, of racial and cultural rivalries, of monopolies, restrictions and exclusion, which were to play the serpent to this paradise, were little more than amusements of his daily newspaper, and appeared to exercise almost no influence at all on the ordinary course of social and economic life, the internationalisation of which was nearly complete in practice.”

Written in the wake of the First World War, Keynes’s words have a special, even biting, poignance. The era he describes was blown away by a conflict that killed and maimed a generation of young men, destroyed several empires, and steered the world onto a path of economic volatility and depression. The internationalisation of social and economic life, which seemed so solid, real and permanent in a metropolis like London, did nothing to prevent the rush to war.

What caused this calamity – those amusements of the daily newspaper, nationalism, militarism, take your pick, have all been cited in accounts of the war’s root causes – still keeps historians locked into vigorous debates, and as the 100th anniversary of the war approaches, the debate once again is being renewed.

Charles Emmerson’s 1913: In Search of the World Before the Great War is an unusual contribution to the literature of the conflict. In fact, he has very little to say at all on how Europe went to war in August 1914. For Emmerson, all roads do not lead to the mud of Flanders; in his version, the past is not prologue. To reduce what came before to the question of why war came about, Emmerson writes, is a failure of the imagination, and “risks making everything else a piece of evidence to be used or discarded according to its utility in providing an answer to that question. The world of 1913 risks becoming viewed as nothing more than an antechamber to the Great War, rather than looked at on its own terms …” It is hard to get out from the shadow of 1914-1918, but Emmerson’s endeavour in this book is to try to describe that world without the looming conflagration occluding our view.

This is history with the pause button on. For Emmerson, a senior research fellow at the Royal Institute for International Affairs, “1913 was a year of possibility not predestination”. War was just one of many possible outcomes.

In an account that takes us on a world tour of imperial cities and provincial hubs – Vienna, Berlin, Winnipeg, Melbourne, Washington DC, Los Angeles – it is fitting that Emmerson starts off with London, “the metropolis of the largest empire the world has ever seen, the fulcrum of global order and the core of global finance”. Here was the global nexus Keynes described with such pungency.

Emmerson fans out across Europe, alighting in Rome and other familiar capitals. Yet in these sections, the author promises more than he can deliver. His conceit is richly suggestive; yet his account often feels like around the world in 20 cities. Do we really need another description of Paris as the “cité-lumière, the metropolis of light: a beacon to humanity”? There is a Baedeker-like quality to this journey. It is certainly refreshing to leave the causes of the First World War to the side, and simply try to describe the year 1913. But Emmerson goes down too many familiar paths on his tour of Europe.

When he ventures outside of the continent, his book begins to suggest interesting angles of vision. Mexico City and Buenos Aires take equal billing with Europe’s great capitals. Mexico was racked with revolution and social upheaval. For the US president Woodrow Wilson, summing up his first year in office, it was the land to his south, not Europe, that posed a challenge to American stability. “There is but one cloud upon our horizon,” Wilson mused. “That has shown itself to the south of us and hangs over Mexico.” Wilson’s Washington DC was the capital of a burgeoning world power, but it also bore the scars of America’s race problem. Beyond the confines of stately facades were poor black neighbourhoods whose conditions shocked observers. Wilson, a product of the American South, could not transcend the limitations of his background. He was sympathetic “to the plight of the black population”, Emmerson writes. “but he was never prepared to stick his neck out even one inch in a cause he felt best taken care of by the passage of time”.

Across the globe, other race problems also persisted. One of Emmerson’s most interesting chapters yokes Bombay with Durban in South Africa. The British were secure in their rule of their most prized possession; but there were rumblings of discontent. The viceroy was nearly killed when a bomb went off near his procession in Delhi. Yet it was Bombay, “representative of a practical, commercial, modern, businesslike India: the India of the future, confident and outgoing”, that was “the centre of a wider Indian world”.

Indians, linked by family ties, looked with concern to Durban, in the province of Natal, where there was significant South Asian presence. Here, a young lawyer named Mohandas Gandhi “made himself an unfailingly polite nuisance to the authorities”, agitating for the rights of Indian South Africans with passive resistance campaigns that eased some of the official sanctions against Natal’s Indians. But solidarity extended only so far. “At the end of 1913,” Emmerson writes, “Indians in South Africa had reason to celebrate. However, a much larger group of South Africans, black Africans, looked deeper into a well of despair. Gandhi’s success brought no respite for them.”

Describing such outlying regions in a book set on the eve of the First World War has the effect of making Europe an almost minor presence in the history of 1913. Certainly, its influence extended around the globe, but Emmerson is determined to give other places equal consideration. His approach is striking at times, but the world did go to war in 1914. Great Britain, Russia and France did declare war against Germany and Austria-Hungary.

It is helpful to be reminded that other issues absorbed Britons in 1913. Britain contended with suffragette disturbances that year – in June, the activist Emily Davison threw herself in front of King George V’s horse at the Epsom Derby and later died from her injuries – and the seemingly insoluble problem of Irish Home Rule. The idea that European civilisation would descend into a bloodbath didn’t seem very likely; indeed, citizens did not have the imagination to conjure up the ghastly reality of trench warfare.

The continent had been at peace for decades; it had solved diplomatic crises without recourse to all-out war. Even the Balkan wars of 1912-1913 were contained without setting off a wider war, a seeming refutation of Bismark’s comment in 1888 that “one day the great European War will come out of some damned foolish thing in the Balkans”. But the war did come, and it is still the duty of historians to ponder and debate why it did.

Matthew Price’s writing has been published in Bookforum, the Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe and the Financial Times.