Reviewed: 1913 - the World Before the Great War by Charles Emmerson

In search of lost time.

1913: the World Before the Great War
Charles Emmerson
Bodley Head, 544pp, £25

Not many saw the bloodbath coming and it wasn’t inevitable. 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. You didn’t have to be quite as mistaken as the University of California president Benjamin Ide Wheeler, who in 1911 nominated Kaiser Wilhelm II for the Nobel Peace Prize, to think that things were going well enough.

The three kingly cousins who ruled a third of the world –Wilhelm II, Tsar Nicholas II and King George V –met in Berlin and the crowds cheered. A few years earlier, Britain and France had replaced their deeply entrenched rivalry with an entente cordiale. The Economist, never frightened of a bit of prediction, thought that it was “an expression of tendencies which are slowly but surely making war between the civilised communities of the world an impossibility”. Note the civilised world bit – because virtually nobody in power in Europe on the eve of a European-made war thought that the continent’s empires were anything other than a reflection of moral superiority, as well as military power.

Emmerson starts with a tour of Europe’s major cities but this is largely a device for a series of potted and fairly orthodox histories of each country, stretching back 50 years or so – Germany and Italy since their respective unifications, France under the Third Republic, the Habsburg empire since Hungary and Austria formed the dual monarchy, and so on. The obvious neuroses, as well as the complacencies, of the mighty are described and analysed. Britain, though still top dog, was weakening fast, enervated by the Irish Home Rule crisis and suffragette violence that posed a serious enough threat in 1913 to close many of London’s major tourist attractions. France, meanwhile, was obsessed with its declining population and Berlin’s modernity. Emmerson also points out that some of the more reactionary regimes – notably Russia and the Ottoman empire – were enjoying an economic boom. Their crises were born as much out of growth as political decrepitude.

Emmerson sprays his book with quotations, many of them too long. Some hit the mark, however, such as this from Walter Hines Page, the US ambassador to Britain, in a letter to Woodrow Wilson: “We are in the international game . . . in the inevitable way to leadership and to cheerful mastery in the future; and everybody knows that we are in it but us.” That is acute. Then there’s this from Lenin: “Capitalism has triumphed all over the world.” (Perhaps in the long term he had a point.)

There are other surprises. Argentina was seen by many as a new United States, with Buenos Aires a world city adored by City of London investors and brimming with artistic life; its engineers lectured around the Old World on the back of the construction of a spanking new underground system. Winnipeg, the largest grain centre in the Americas, was a cosmopolitan hub and similarly poised for greatness. By contrast, Tehran is described as a hellhole, in a much worse state than Bombay, Algiers or even Mexico City, then in the grip of civil war.

There is some attempt at discussing painting, literature and architecture but it’s a bit half-hearted: 1913 was the year of the riot in Paris on the opening night of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring but Emmerson barely mentions it. Proust published the first volume of À la recherche du temps perdu and Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams was translated into English. Yet we are none the wiser about their impact.

Emmerson, reasonably enough, does not peddle an overarching thesis to link his individual portraits of cities, states and empires but he is good on racial fears and tensions – and not only in the context of European colonialism. Wilson, who could do sanctimony on a grand scale, presided willingly over a deterioration of the position of African Americans in the federal government. Gandhi, who was still in South Africa, fought his first big successful campaign of passive resistance on behalf of the country’s Indians but was not much concerned with the plight of the black population, whose limited land rights were eroded even further in 1913.

In California, ethnic Japanese similarly found their property rights curtailed but, back in Tokyo, the Japanese were only too keen to insult, at the highest level, the Chinese or Mongolians.

Naturally, the shadow of 1914 is present much of the time – it could hardly be otherwise. Yet, occasionally, the world of 1913 throws up something satisfyingly contemporary – and none better than this from a French author arriving in New York who noted the questioning style of US customs and immigration. “Are you an anarchist? Are you a polygamist? Are you an idiot? Have you ever shown signs of mental alienation?” The war changed most things – but not everything.

Mark Damazer is the Master of St Peter’s College, Oxford and a former controller of BBC Radio 4

An "electric brougham" in Waterloo Place in London in 1913. Photograph: Getty Images

This article first appeared in the 12 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Centenary Special Issue

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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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