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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Politics doesn't just connect us to the past and the future – it's what makes us human

To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

I have long been haunted by a scene in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith, the hero, is forced to watch propaganda films depicting acts of war and destruction. He is moved by something he sees: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets but she embraces him all the same – before, as Orwell writes, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.”

For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in an unforgiving world. Scenes such as this we now witness daily in footage from the besieged eastern Aleppo and other Syrian towns, people in extreme situations showing extraordinary dignity and kindness.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time in late adolescence. I’d dropped out of sixth-form college without completing my A-levels and was commuting on a coach from my parents’ house in Hertfordshire to London, where I worked as a junior clerk for the Electricity Council. During this long daily journey – sometimes two hours each way – I started to read seriously for the first time in my life.

I was just getting interested in politics – this was the high tide of the Thatcher years – and Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian future in which Britain (renamed “Airstrip One”) had become a Soviet-style totalitarian state was bleakly fascinating. Fundamentally the book seemed to me to be about the deep ­human yearning for political change – about the never-ending dream of conserving or creating a better society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, aged 46), at a time of rationing and austerity in Britain – but also of renewal. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition, the Labour government was laying the foundations of what became the postwar settlement.

The National Health Service and the welfare state were created. Essential industries such as the railways were nationalised. The Town and Country Planning Act was passed, opening the way for the redevelopment of tracts of land. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was commissioned. New towns were established – such as Harlow in Essex, where I was born and brought up.

To grow up in Harlow, I now understand, was to be part of a grand experiment. Many of the families I knew there had escaped the bomb-ruined streets of the East End of London. Our lives were socially engineered. Everything we needed was provided by the state – housing, education, health care, libraries, recreational facilities. (One friend described it to me as being like East Ger­many without the Stasi.)

This hadn’t happened by accident. As my father used to say, we owed the quality of our lives to the struggles of those who came before us. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – and I find this idea of an intergenerational social contract persuasive.

Progress, however, isn’t inevitable. There is no guarantee that things will keep getting better. History isn’t linear, but contingent and discontinuous. And these are dark and turbulent new times in which we are living.

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than five years, transforming much of the Middle East into a theatre of great-power rivalry. Europe has been destabilised by economic and refugee crises and by the emergence of insurgent parties, from the radical left and the radical right. The liberal world order is crumbling. Many millions feel locked out or left behind by globalisation and rapid change.

But we shouldn’t despair. To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

And part of what it means to be human is to believe in politics and the change that politics can bring, for better and worse.

What, after all, led so many Americans to vote for an anti-establishment populist such as Donald Trump? He has promised to “make America great again” – and enough people believed him or, at least, wanted to believe him to carry him all the way to the White House. They want to believe in something different, something better, in anything better – which, of course, Trump may never deliver.

So politics matters.

The decisions we take collectively as ­humans have consequences. We are social creatures and rational agents, yet we can be dangerously irrational. This is why long-established institutions, as well as the accumulated wisdom of past generations, are so valuable, as Burke understood.

Politics makes us human. It changes our world and ultimately affects who we are and how we live, not just in the here and now, but long into the future.

An edited version of this essay was broadcast as part of the “What Makes Us Human?” series on BBC Radio 2’s “Jeremy Vine” show

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage