1913: The World Before the Great War Charles Emmerson

Bodley Head, pp.582, £25, ISBN: 9781847922267

In May 1913 a British delegation visited the United States to discuss plans for celebrating 100 years of Anglo-American peace. At their final meeting in New York’s Plaza Hotel, the representatives of both sides had just agreed on a five-minute silence to be observed across the English-speaking world on 17 February 1915, when Professor Hugo Munsterberg of Harvard interrupted proceedings. Did the delegates realise, he wanted to know, that there was widespread belief that Britain and America were

getting together to join a war against Germany? Charles Peabody, a member of the New York committee, quietened him down.  Neither country was contemplating war, he said. Indeed, he continued, all nations could be part of a universal bond of brotherhood which would abolish it. Everybody clapped.

There will come a time when commissioning editors, trawling through history for a spare year to hang a book on, will be reduced to a choice between the 1970s and a couple of dodgy years in the 1340s, but if 1913 is anything to go by there is life in the old annual yet. All the really obvious years have long since been taken up, but 1913 has a kind of negative appeal of its own, a year in which so little actually happened that it can equally well be deployed for a final, leisurely stocktaking of the Old World or an irony-laden trailer for the horrors to come.

So 1913 was the year in which the Titanic did not sink or Scott die on the way back from the Pole, in which terrorists did not blow up the Viceroy of India or Young Turks topple the sultan, in which the Meiji Era did not end nor the Manchu empire expire, the year in which a gunshot was not heard around the world.

But it is this absence of headline events that Charles Emmerson turns into a strength.  It was the year, admittedly, that did see the Paris première of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and the first performance in Algeria of Beethoven’s Ninth; but once Emmerson has done his duty by the title of the book, he is free to get on with his real object, and give us a masterful, comprehensive portrait of the world at that last moment in its history when Europe was incontrovertibly ‘the centre of the universe’ and, within it, London ‘the centre of the world’.

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The luxury and temptation of writing about this particular period is that you can say pretty well anything you like and there will be someone of whom it is true. In the years before 1914 the fear of war was everywhere in the air, but for every French revanchist brooding over Alsace and Lorraine or Kipling ranting against the German menace there was an international socialist or City financier ready to reassure the world that worker solidarity or globalisation had made war a practical impossibility.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, Dickens wrote of life on the brink of another great cataclysm in European history, and for the contrasting lights and shadows of human experience the years before the Great War bow to no period in history. If you were a Russian count migrating around Europe’s watering holes in 1913 things must have seemed about as good as they get; but even in 1913 nobody could quite make up their minds whether Paris was the cité-lumière or the Kaiser’s ‘whorehouse of the world’, whether Rome was the Eternal City or Marinetti’s ‘putrid molehill’ or Vienna a triumph of Jewish integration or a cess-pit of anti-Semitism.

This is no ‘swagger portrait’ of an age in the Barbara Tuchman tradition — Emmerson writes with the same dispassionate calm of the bougainvillea and magnolia of Algiers as he does the abattoirs of Buenos Aires — but ‘colour’ comes cheap and this is an immensely impressive book. There are times in the opening chapters when one feels that one is stuck on an interminable train journey with only Michael Portillo and his Bradshaw for company. But from the moment that we cross the Atlantic and stand with Woodrow Wilson at his inauguration there is a sense of new possibilities, new dangers, new alignments and — oddly — a new sense of familiarity and relevance that suddenly and terminally makes the world of Vienna’s coffee houses or Parisian flâneurs seem infinitely and irretrievably remote.

The Old World was not going to go quietly or go alone — the grateful Winnipegger who wrote ‘Thank God for Now!’ of 1913 was more prescient than he knew — but the real triumph of this book is that Emmerson never allows the looming tragedy of 1914 to blot out the prewar global landscape. In the first section on Europe he is understandably reluctant to pass over the River Somme on his journey from London to Paris without at least a nod to the future. But what he conclusively shows is that if we want to find the roots of a modern world dominated by questions of oil and globalisation, by the pre-eminence of America and the emergence of India and China as economic super-powers; by questions of race and religion, Islamism, the position of women, the stability of the Middle East, crippling national debts and the seismic shift of influence and moral authority away from Europe, the place to look to is not so much Lord Curzon’s imperial London or the Kaiser’s Berlin, but to Wilson’s Washington, Morgan’s New York, Ford’s Detroit, Gandhi’s Durban, to early Taisho Japan, to post-Manchu China, to late Ottoman Jerusalem and French Algiers.

There were those, too, who could see it then — by 2013, Britain, Chamberlain’s ‘weary Titan’, would be no more than a quaint but irrelevant tourist attraction, one prophet predicted. But what Emmerson is more concerned to show is the almost infinite range of possibilities still latent within the global cultural and political landscape of 1913. Nobody knew quite what lay ahead. Was the day of imperialism over or just beginning? How would only the second Democratic American president since the civil war deal with the appalling racial divisions of Washington? Was Buenos Aires, with its rampant nationalism and eyes on the Falklands, the future powerhouse of the southern hemisphere or a gilded sham? What would the segregationist policies of the new South Africa do to the Empire? In which direction would Canada face? How would Australia bed down with its Asian neighbours? What role would Zionism play in the decaying Ottoman Empire? What were the implications of California’s anti- Japanese legislation? Where, in fact, did Japan’s destiny lie — in Asia or in the West? And if in Asia, as partner or colonial power? And what did the slumbering giant, China, still smarting from its humiliation at western hands over the Boxer Rebellion, need — watery constitutionalism or, a ‘Lycurgus,  a Cromwell to carry out harsh rule, and with iron and fire to forge and temper our countrymen for 20, 30, even 50 years’?

It is these, and the myriad other questions that were floating about in the years immediately before the Great War, that have helped shape the history of the last 100 years and have not done with us yet. And it is this history that Charles Emmerson’s 1913 brilliantly rescues from the shadow of a war that would toll the end of the Old World and leave its survivors repining the loss of a Golden Age that had never been.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated