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

Ellie Foreman-Peck for the New Statesman
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The rise of Raheem Kassam, Nigel Farage’s back-room boy

The former conservative blogger is mounting a bid for the Ukip leadership. But can he do enough to convince the most right-wing of Britain’s leading parties to back him?

It is a mark of how close the UK Independence Party has moved to the heart of the British establishment that one of the three main candidates for its leadership has ascended from the so-called spadocracy.

Nigel Farage used to castigate David Cameron and Ed Miliband for having worked as special advisers and little else, but Raheem Kassam – said to be his preferred choice as his latest successor – was his aide for several years and sometimes styled himself as Farage’s “chief of staff”. His only other substantial jobs have been in the right-wing blogosphere.

Kassam has one big advantage going into the election on 28 November: the support of Ukip’s mega-donor, Arron Banks. He will stand against the party’s former deputy chairwoman Suzanne Evans – who is backed by its only MP, Douglas Carswell – and the former deputy leader Paul Nuttall, who has declared himself the “unity candidate”.

Kassam, 30, was born in Hillingdon, west London,
to Tanzanian parents of Gujarati descent. They are practising Muslims but their son says he has not followed the faith for a decade.

Like Evans, he came into politics through the Conservative Party, and sat on the board of its youth wing. Although his political colours have changed since then, his allegiance has always been to the far right: he once listed Barry Goldwater, the Republican senator who voted against the Civil Rights Act and was defeated by Lyndon Johnson in the 1964 US presidential race, as a hero.

Kassam worked for the Commentator, a right-wing blogging platform, but left on bad terms with Robin Shepherd, the site’s founder and editor. Subsequent articles on the Commentator attest to the acrimony. One brands Kassam “weird”, and the latest mention of him appears under the headline “Ukip leadership contender Raheem Kassam is a criminal, and we can prove it”.

His time there did, however, earn him the approval of the conservative polemicist James Delingpole. In 2014, Delingpole brought Kassam on board as managing editor when he set up the British outpost of Breitbart News, the right-wing website whose US executive chairman Steve Bannon became Donald Trump’s campaign manager in August. Breitbart sees itself as the house journal of the “alt right”, hardline on immigration and invested in denying climate change. Recent articles from its London bureau have carried headlines such as “British peer: polygamy ‘commonplace’ within Muslim communities in Britain” and “Green politico: it’s time to learn Arabic and stop worrying about migration”.

Given his hardline views (he addressed the first UK rally of the far-right group Pegida), it is not surprising that Kassam felt more at home in Farage’s Ukip than David Cameron’s modernising Conservatives. In 2014 he officially switched from blue to purple, joining Farage’s office later that year.

There, he was soon at the centre of the tensions between the Ukip leader and Carswell, who had defected from the Tories to Ukip that year. From the start, Carswell and Farage were at odds over strategy, with the former concerned that his leader’s anti-immigration rhetoric would imperil the EU referendum result.

Carswell tried to oust Farage after the 2015 election, in which Ukip polled 3.9 million votes but won just one Commons seat. Then as now, Carswell’s preferred candidate was Suzanne Evans. She is not only a close ally, but an employee in his parliamentary office.

Such is Evans’s proximity to Carswell that Farage and his allies will do their utmost to prevent her from becoming leader. Although Farage now has his eye on a lucrative new career as a pundit on Donald Trump’s long-rumoured television network, the knowledge that Ukip had fallen into the hands of his old enemy would sour his retirement.

Farage, like Arron Banks, had settled on a preferred replacement: Steven Woolfe, formerly a Ukip MEP and now sitting as an independent. But Woolfe’s candidacy was beset by problems from the outset – culminating in a brawl that ended with him in hospital. On recovering, he announced not only the end of his leadership bid, but also his association with Ukip, which he now regards as “ungovernable”.

That left Kassam as the most plausible anti-Evans candidate. But can he do it? Kassam has two obstacles in his path. The first is his own record of combative public pronouncements – he has asked if Angela Eagle has “special needs”, called for Nicola Sturgeon to have her mouth taped shut so she couldn’t speak, and added “and her legs, so she can’t reproduce”. The second is his name, coupled with his skin colour and Gujarati heritage.

As a conservative blogger, Kassam will be familiar with the rumour, peddled by Breitbart and others on the alt right, that Barack Obama is a secret Muslim. So his campaign website is liberally dotted with photos of him sipping a pint (he lists Whitstable Bay as his preferred poison). Will that be enough to convince the most right-wing of Britain’s leading parties to back him? 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage