1913: In Search of the World Before the Great War

1913: In Search of the World Before the Great War

by Charles Emmerson

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Today, 1913 is inevitably viewed through the lens of 1914: as the last year before a war that would shatter the global economic order and tear Europe apart, undermining its global pre-eminence. Our perspectives narrowed by hindsight, the world of that year is reduced to its most frivolous features—last summers in grand aristocratic residences—or its…  See more details below


Today, 1913 is inevitably viewed through the lens of 1914: as the last year before a war that would shatter the global economic order and tear Europe apart, undermining its global pre-eminence. Our perspectives narrowed by hindsight, the world of that year is reduced to its most frivolous features—last summers in grand aristocratic residences—or its most destructive ones: the unresolved rivalries of the great European powers, the fear of revolution, violence in the Balkans.

In this illuminating history, Charles Emmerson liberates the world of 1913 from this “prelude to war” narrative, and explores it as it was, in all its richness and complexity. Traveling from Europe’s capitals, then at the height of their global reach, to the emerging metropolises of Canada and the United States, the imperial cities of Asia and Africa, and the boomtowns of Australia and South America, he provides a panoramic view of a world crackling with possibilities, its future still undecided, its outlook still open.

The world in 1913 was more modern than we remember, more similar to our own times than we expect, more globalized than ever before. The Gold Standard underpinned global flows of goods and money, while mass migration reshaped the world’s human geography. Steamships and sub-sea cables encircled the earth, along with new technologies and new ideas. Ford’s first assembly line cranked to life in 1913 in Detroit. The Woolworth Building went up in New York. While Mexico was in the midst of bloody revolution, Winnipeg and Buenos Aires boomed. An era of petro-geopolitics opened in Iran. China appeared to be awaking from its imperial slumber. Paris celebrated itself as the city of light—Berlin as the city of electricity.

Full of fascinating characters, stories, and insights, 1913: In Search of the World before the Great War brings a lost world vividly back to life, with provocative implications for how we understand our past and how we think about our future.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Two decades into the 21st century what could possibly be left to say about the 20th? Emmerson, a fellow at the Royal Institute for International Affairs has reached back 100 years and found plenty. His engrossing book profiles world cities who will play pivotal roles in the century's narrative arc, from "Old World" European powers through Asia's "Twilight Powers". This historical time is unique in being the moment the globe was finally completely discovered and claimed, as well as interconnected via telegraph wires, railway lines, and shipping routes, creating what has become the globalization we presently take for granted. Emmerson's best chapters lay foundations for the global issues on the horizon like race and diplomacy in America, and oil and religious differences in the Middle East; lesser-known personal and institutional stories laying the groundwork for enriched understandings of world events to come. By staying so tightly focused on this single year, Emmerson is able to reveal causal mechanisms while simultaneously making readers wonder what could have been. No reader will leave this work without ever again looking at current events as clues, a living history of powers to come and go with all the possible advancements and catastrophes that will follow. (June)
From the Publisher

Wall Street Journal
“[Emmerson draws] upon an impressive range of contemporary source material, ranging from travel guides and memoirs to unpublished diaries, newspaper reports and diplomatic memos. They give a vivid portrait of the rapid changes occurring in daily life around the globe….Charles Emmerson captures all the world's hope and excitement as it experienced an economic El Dorado. ‘1913’ is history without hindsight at its best.”

Washington Post
“In each city the author vividly surveys the political, economic and cultural scenes. The effect is transporting; 1913 is both passport and time machine… The centenary of the Great War will no doubt see the publication of many fine histories of the conflict, but few are likely to paint so alluring a portrait of the world that was consumed by it — and that helped bring it about.”

Daily Beast
“With the looming 100th anniversary of World War I, a spate of books about the not-so-Great War have begun to emerge. Emmerson's effort stands out for several reasons. First, Emmerson ranges widely, from Germany to Paris, from Bombay to Tokyo. Second, he is a sparkling writer, his narrative rarely flags and he has amassed a startling amount of detail.”

The Economist
“[Emmerson] aims not to explain what caused or was lost to the war, but to retrieve from the partial glare of hindsight the world in which it erupted. This is no modest undertaking. Mr Emmerson draws from a wide range of sources, including memoirs, billboards and newspapers, to recreate a year that was fairly uneventful. … Not unlike Marcel Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time”, the first instalments of which were published in 1913, his narrative finds coherence in the unremarkable… [W]hat emerges is a rich portrait and an important set of ideas.”

Financial Times
“Emmerson offers an impressive sweep that marshals much detail along the way, though at times there is a sense of being on a historical package tour (Baedeker is, indeed, a frequently cited source) in which some city breaks are better rendered than others. But there are some gems. In the patchwork Austro-Hungarian empire, one could drive on both sides of the road and there were 10 official languages but no translators in parliament. Does anyone wonder that it fell apart?”

“An eye-opening demonstration of just how modern the supposedly premodern world was”

Cleveland Plain Dealer
“Marvelous… Emmerson, a scholar at Chatham House, a renowned London think tank, brilliantly avoids the inevitability trap in ‘1913.’ His panoramic depiction of the last year before the Great War permits us to see the world ‘as it might have looked through contemporary eyes, in its full colour and complexity, with a sense of the future's openness’…Emmerson is a superb guide and companion, whether inviting us to take a seat next to him in ‘a favourite corner’ of a Viennese cafe or to survey tout Paris from the Eiffel Tower. In many ways, his book works as a ‘time-travelogue’; indeed, it frequently quotes contemporary tourist literature and travelers' accounts.”

Christian Science Monitor
“Emmerson’s project would not be as compelling if he had simply focused on Europe, or on England and her colonies. The Great War was truly a global war, and the world of 1913 was truly a global society. In his book, Emmerson gives fair weight to societies around the world rather than presenting the year from a Eurocentric point of view.”

“Portraying the European capitals of the next year’s belligerent countries, Emmerson strikes a cosmopolitan tone by noting social interconnections linking London to Paris to Berlin to Constantinople.…Including stops in Tehran, Mexico City, Jerusalem, several U.S. cities, Shanghai, and Tokyo, Emmerson’s historical world tour emotively captures the civilization soon to vanish in WWI.”

Library Journal, STARRED review
“A fascinating bird’s-eye view of a landscape seen in what was the dying light of empire and on the brink of tragedy…An imaginatively conceived, thoroughly researched, and outstandingly written perspective that is highly recommended for both academic and general readers.”

“Charles Emmerson has written a book that contains much in the way of wistfulness, hope, bitterness, discord, assassinations, technological advancement, and enmity between nations and peoples… We may not ever fully know the reasons or reasoning behind the urge for war, and Charles Emmerson wisely does not bring them all out, but in 1913 his synthesis of the nervousness, striving, and strains in specific parts of the world give us a better understanding of the upheavals that led to the First World War.”

Galveston Daily News
“The book reveals a world both different from today’s world, yet still familiar in many ways. It captures the year of 1913 in a way that is fascinating and revealing.”

Shepherd Express (Wisconsin)
“Witty and knowledgeable, Emmerson packs his account with telling anecdotes.”

The Spectator (UK)
“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’…Charles Emmerson’s 1913 brilliantly rescues [history] 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.”

The Guardian
“An ambitious, subtle account of the way the world was going until the first world war changed everything.” 

Daily Mail (UK)
“This ambitious panorama of a world on the brink throws up comparisons which are constantly provocative and fascinating.”

The Express (UK)
“Where Emmerson really scores is in the nuggets of detail and contemporary quotes that sparkle from these essays.”

The Scotsman
“It is an epic, sprawling panorama of a book, intended to show the moving world as it was, to bring the past to life in order to clarify the present. It’s a monumentally ambitious aim. The remarkable thing is, he pulls it off.”

The Guardian (UK)
1913 has narrative verve and insight”

The Times (UK)
“The old empires were starting to implode and the centres could no longer hold.  In an ambitious book, Emmerson catches their last vital sparks in the year before darkness fell.”

New Statesman (UK)
“One of the great merits of Charles Emmerson’s global panorama is to show events in the months leading up to the summer of 1914 as something other than a precursor to mass slaughter.”

The Independent (UK)
“Emmerson has done his homework. His book girdles the earth in an impressive fashion and conjures up a world we have lost.”

Sunday Business Post (Ireland)
“Emmerson's book is an ambitious effort…But there is so much that captivates, particularly the entertaining social detail and anecdote, such as the fact it took three years to assess JP Morgan's gargantuan estate, which included 138 watches in one of his houses in London.”

“A broad picture that, while centered in Europe, contains a welcome international dimension… a revealing picture of life before the catastrophe of 1914.”

Kirkus Reviews
Most books about the year 1913 deal with the run-up to World War I. Emmerson (The Future History of the Arctic, 2010), fellow of the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London, casts his net more widely, depicting life in two dozen great cities on the eve of the event that either ushered in the modern world or didn't (historians still debate this). The author has little new to say but says it well, and the further he travels from Europe, the more he illuminates areas unfamiliar to even educated readers. Parallels between eras a century apart are not in short supply. Observers in 1913 were already extolling a globalized planet, knit together by dazzling advances in technology. Democracy and capitalism seemed the wave of the future despite the disturbing spread of terrorist movements. The reigning superpower, Britain, was in relative decline, with Asia re-awakening and other rising powers flexing their muscles. In five chapters, Emmerson examines European capitals on a continent that took for granted that it was the center of the world, barely aware that the United States (four particular cities) was poised to take over that role. The hinterlands (Buenos Aires, Tehran, Jerusalem and others), colonies (Winnipeg, Bombay, Algiers and others) and Asian metropolises complete Emmerson's world tour. Although ostensibly about cities, the author also describes the country involved, often emphasizing a major figure--e.g., Woodrow Wilson in Washington, Gandhi in Durban, South Africa. Emmerson largely confines himself to history and national concerns with only a passing look at international politics on the verge of the Great War, but this is an intelligent picture of our world exactly 100 years ago.
Library Journal
★ 11/15/2013
In 1914, the world went to war. Called "the war to end all wars," the conflict set the stage for many wars that followed. Was a global conflagration inevitable? Could it have been avoided? While historians have argued these questions for decades, Emmerson (senior research fellow, Royal Inst. for Intl. Affairs, London; The Future History of the Arctic) takes a different approach. Instead of reexamining all the classic causal explanations that came after the first shot was fired, he looks at the world (not just Europe) in the year before the war. Through the lens of contemporary travelers, journalists, politicians, heads of state, and writers from 20 cities, readers get a very real sense of the political, social, and economic events and mood of the period. Beginning and ending with London and including Paris, New York, Bombay, Buenos Aires, Constantinople, and Tokyo, this is a fascinating bird's-eye view of a landscape seen in what was the dying light of empire and on the brink of tragedy. The mood of the time reads as both sadly sensing doom and being naively hopeful. VERDICT An imaginatively conceived, thoroughly researched, and outstandingly written perspective that is highly recommended for both academic and general readers.—Linda Frederiksen, Washington State Univ. Lib., Vancouver

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6.10(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.90(d)

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