1913: In Search of the World Before the First World War by Charles Emmerson

The marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm defined the years between 1789 to 1914 as the ‘long nineteenth century’. Beginning with the French Revolution and concluding with the outbreak of the First World War. It was an era that saw the emergence of the nation state, the explosion of the industrial revolution and the age of Empire. A time when European civilisation was at its zenith as a force in the world.

Yet the 1914 outbreak of war and the horrors it would bestow, broke down the nineteenth century and ushered in the modern world. The so called ‘short twentieth century’ as Hobsbawm would classify it.

The horrors of trench warfare, the thousands of dead on the western front, remain ingrained in our minds as a nation. We commemorate the landing at Gallipoli as a pioneering moment in our national self-determination. We celebrate the sacrifice of those who fought for their country, even by those who disagree with the reasons for which they fought.

Charles Emmerson an Australian historian decided to go in search of the world before the first world war. He stepped back into 1913 and in a rather haunting exploration, gives a portrait of the economic, political and social realities of the time. The hopes, expectations and debates of the age come flowing through and showcase the quickly changing, globalising, industrialising world, more connected than ever before.

This is not a starry-eyed history though. The inequality, putrid working conditions, racial divide, political instability are all on display.

Most importantly, this isn’t a European history. It may begin in London and Paris, but it moves to Mexico City and Buenos Aires to Tokyo and Nanking. His is an attempt to showcase the world for what it was, not for what the prejudice of time has instilled. ‘Can we at least attempt to look at the world in 1913 as it might have looked through contemporary eyes’ He asks in the introduction. Well he does his best.

While it may not be a European history, the fingerprints of Europe encircle the world. The British Empire controls almost a quarter of the globe. Its Capital City London is the biggest in the world, with over 7 million inhabitants. It is rich and lavish in parts, poor and impoverished in others, ‘worse than the indian city of Madras’, according to one N. Ramunajaswami, a young Indian in London for the first time in 1913.

Europe was industrialising at a rapid rate. In the space of 40 years Berlin, the once backwater capital of a small Kingdom had become the capital of a significant Empire. Paris, remained the cultural capital of the world, enchanting visitors from all across the globe.

Thousands of German and French lived in London, and vice versa. Europe was becoming more and more ‘European’.  Europeans were beginning to see themselves ‘as a single entity, separated by national rivalries for sure, yet tangled by common bonds of culture and class, trade and travel.’ Free trade and the movements of people was bringing Europe closer and closer together. Many believed this rendered peace a certainty, war a so called ‘great illusion’. An illusion that became an all too awful reality. It was a telling observation considering the events of the past few days. 

For all of Europe’s prestige and affluence, many of its citizens did not share in the pomp. Europe was unequal, the working conditions of many of the working class were terrible. Unions and Labor parties were beginning to find a voice through democratic platforms. In Germany, the largest party in the Reichstag was the Social Democrats. In England the fight for female suffrage had turned violent as Parliament continually rejected the enfranchisement of woman for several different reasons.

Out of Europe and into to the ‘New World’. Woodrow Wilson was inaugurated President in 1913. Best known as the man behind the League of Nations and for bringing America into the First World War, in 1913 his focus was more on domestic issues. Ending corruption, taxation reform, reform of the financial system. Wilson told a friend before becoming President that it ‘would be an irony of fate if my administration had to deal chiefly with foreign problems’. It is one of many anecdotes in this book that are almost haunting when benefited by hindsight.

Further down the Americas in Mexico City the situation is precarious and dangerous. The Government had been overthrown in a revolution in 1911. The long-serving former President had fled the country and a new President Francisco Madero had been elected virtually unopposed. An eccentric man, rather than ‘launching himself into land reform, published a Spiritualist Manual based on the Sanskrit epic the Mahabharata’ It’s no wonder his presidency unravelled in just over a year, when the army moved against him and in what has become known as the decena tragica – the tragic ten days, a military dictatorship was established.

Across the Pacific in North Eastern Asia there are two divergent narratives being written. In 1913, Japan was a nation on the rise. In the 50 years since the Meiji Restoration the country had developed at a fastidious rate. It was growing not just as a nation but as an Empire, acquiring control of Korea. It had defeated the mighty Russians in 1905 and believed it deserved its place on the seat of the great powers. Yet there were still questions. ‘Would Japan prove a factor of stability and western order or would it be an expansionist force?’

To the south, China is in a state perpetual decline. In 1912 thousands of years of Imperial rule came to an end and a republic was established. Unfortunately as often happens in these situations, by 1913 the republic looked to be morphing into a dictatorship. China was a nation with many problems. The boxer rebellion had damaged its international standing, and the opium trade was causing social distress. Like Japan, China was on the precipice of a new era and it was uncertain the direction it would take.

There is much more to this book than the above mentioned chapters. Emmersen spends several chapters looking at the outreach of Empire, comparing the way Empire Day was celebrated in different sections of the British empire. From Bombay to Durban, Melbourne to Winnipeg.

This a wonderful book, not difficult to read and something to return to if you ever need an engaging overview of what the world looked like before the First World War.

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