1913: The World Before The Great War by Charles Emmerson

51wPxm+lqtL You can’t go into the kitchen for a flask of coffee and a sit down without falling over an eminent historian banging on about the First World War at the moment. They are everywhere, going through the causes, the effects, the whizz-bangs, the deserters and whether Michael Gove understands that Blackadder was not a documentary. What Charles Emmerson does is slightly different: in 1913 he looks at the major cities of the world and examines what was happening in them in the year before this hideous conflict broke out. This could be a desiccated round-up but Emmerson is a reader’s writer (not as common as it sounds) and seeks to aid understanding wherever he can – thus he points out that the horror in western minds at the memory of China’s Boxer Rebellion was as fresh in 1913 as that of 9/11 is today, for example. There are nuggets on every page. In Tehran, capital of what was then still Persia, ‘the Shah has done absolutely nothing except dawdling around eating sweets’, according to a British diplomatic despatch of the day. The British were not particularly concerned for the teenage boy’s teeth. But they were worried about what impact this indolence might have on Persia’s geopolitical position: it was, after all, scene of the most tremendous political, military and intelligence wheeling and dealing, as the British and Russian empires vied for regional supremacy. Emmerson scores heavily by the sheer breadth of what he chooses to include, explaining what was going on not just in Europe, but in Detroit, Los Angeles, Mexico City, Buenos Aires,  Algiers, Durban, Bombay, Tokyo, Melbourne and several more cities besides. Having Emmerson as a guide to those places is the closest you will get to entering an easy-to-operate passport-time machine. It’s worth the trip. Clearly visible is the creeping pre-eminence of the US and the demise of the British empire, even though the latter was still quite well masked. There were more obvious losers too: after the war, the Austro-Hungarian empire fell to pieces, for instance. ‘The grand imperial capital of Vienna began a new life as the over-sized capital of a small central European country.’ And it’s sentences like that which make 1913 such an elegant, illuminating read.

 

 

 

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