May 2013

Jeff Bursey


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

In 1913: In Search of the World Before the Great War, Charles Emmerson has written a book that contains much in the way of wistfulness, hope, bitterness, discord, assassinations, technological advancement, and enmity between nations and peoples. We may look back at The Great War as a violent rupture ending the long nineteenth century, but smaller wars replete with viciousness preceded it and continued after the armistice of November 1918, especially in the Balkans. If a kind of blindness makes us think that there were tensions but that pre-1914 generally was a quiet time, it would be a mistake. Emmerson shows, in a panoptic view of capital cities at the center of things as well as at the margins, that people, countries, and empires were balanced on the edge of decline or advancement, or simply about to become new entities not yet imagined.

1913 is Janus-faced. Emmerson quotes liberally from those present at the time as they looked ahead with optimism, pessimism, ignorance, fear, and hope to an unclear future, but we read from the height one hundred years affords. A historian has to battle hindsight bias (in which events of the past look like they could have taken only the course they took) while also not giving too much credence to the more fanciful or desperate hopes of agents of change like politicians, emperors, anarchists, leaders of coups, inventors, and military personnel. As well, from 2013 we place in a different context a statement such as "Confidence in Detroit's future was written in its skyline." We can't help being wistful ourselves when we read that, or of a shared kindness between Arabs and Jews in Jerusalem, though we feel such good acts must occur today, even if we don't hear about them.

The frame of the book is meant to accommodate continents and cultures. Emmerson begins and ends in London, in 1913 the center of the British Empire. Things looked good at the time, but yet there was uneasiness, for the movement of money from "the core of global finance" outward to other markets meant that such things as manufactured items, agricultural produce, industries that relied on what came from the earth and the sea, were in the process of being displaced as the nation's primary products. London wanted to be the conduit of funds, "a friend to all... in a world at fractious peace." At least today we can look with sharper eyes at that city's reputation as a responsible and honest handler of finance, or, indeed, at any other stock exchange such as those in New York, Tokyo, Toronto, and Frankfurt.

The book is set out in four parts: "Centre of the Universe" focuses on London, Paris, Berlin, Rome, Vienna, and St. Petersburg (or, the British Empire, the French Third Republic, the German Empire, Italy, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the Russian Empire); "Old/New World" discusses Washington, D.C., New York, Detroit, Los Angeles, and Mexico City; "The World Beyond" looks to the margins -- Winnipeg, Melbourne, Buenos Aires, Algiers, Bombay, Durban, Tehran, and Jerusalem; and "Twilight Powers" concentrates on fading powers, such as Constantinople (once more commonly referred to as The Sick Old Man of Europe), Peking, and Shanghai (the end of the Qing dynasty, and the beginning of the chaotic and fragmented Chinese Republic), Tokyo and, in conclusion, London. Much is made of the globalization of the time, and the fact that goods, messages and people by 1913 could travel anywhere, whereas before it took much arduous work to get to one place from another. Easier travel means armies and navies can also be shipped or transported to places faster than before. The airplane and the automobile increase in importance, as does the arrival in Japan of its new purchase, "the super-dreadnought Kongo, the most powerful warship anywhere in the world... from the shipyards of Vickers Ltd, Barrow-in-Furness, England."

There are benefits and drawbacks to this setup. The drawbacks include a broad view that, by definition, can't zero in on details. In this panoptic survey, there is scant room for in-depth analysis or exploration of the systems behind. To give three examples: the role anarchism played in several countries; the sale of vessels, vehicles, cannons, shells, and poison gas; and the money behind wars. This book easily could be expanded into three volumes. As another historian, Christopher Clark, said in last year's The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, anyone writing on the First World War "confronts several problems. The first and most obvious is an over-supply of sources." Apart from sources, there are countless individuals who claim attention, as, for instance, in the United Mexican States, where, between 1911 and 1913, control of the country shifted from President Porfirio Díaz to, among others, Francisco Madero, Francisco "Pancho" Villa, and Emiliano Zapata. The same occurs in the Ottoman Empire, where the old guard and the Young Turks battle for supremacy. At the same time, in each area there is interference from beyond the borders: in the United States, "it would be the natural continuation of manifest destiny" for Mexico to be incorporated into its northern neighbor, while the Russians, British, Greeks, and Bulgarians all wanted to either prop up the Ottoman Empire or tear parts of it away. We get the large picture of nations contesting each other as represented by the efforts of this or that strongman (the suffragettes of Britain aside). In short, men of action are represented, but philosophers are not; and this has its equivalent in events being shown at the expense of greater detail.

The primary benefit of Emmerson's approach is that in one work, written in accessible language -- with photos but, unfortunately, without maps -- we are presented with a view of the world as it was before January 1914. Often in histories of the First World War the main theatre of interest is Europe, but in 1913 there is welcome attention paid to Japan, China, and South Africa. (Neutral nations are left out.) The tensions that erupted in China's Boxer Rebellion, which brought foreign powers into the Forbidden City, and the emergence of Japan as a war power in the First Sino-Japanese War and, especially, the Russo-Japanese War of 1905, when it crippled the Russian navy and damaged Russian pride, are explained quickly and clearly. Emmerson ends his section on China, as he does in other parts, with a fraught statement of affairs as they stood at the end of the year: "But now, the Qing mantle of power had passed. Yuan Shikai, its inheritor, was driven around the city in an automobile. China, a once and future great power, had begun to wake from her centuries-long slumber." We may dispute the prognosis of China's future, considering Mao's reign, but the image of the new ruler being taken around in an automobile is meant to bring Detroit back to mind. Then as now, the automobile is a symbol pregnant with possibilities for China (and India, and for global warming), and emblematic of the reach of the growing power of the United States.

Thanks to Emmerson's portrait of the new U.S. president inaugurated in March 1913, Woodrow Wilson, some may be reminded of John Dos Passos's U.S.A. trilogy and the depiction in it of "Meester Veelson," a man who had said the United States would not be drawn into the First World War before eventually committing the entire nation to it. Emmerson has some sharp things to say about the president who could never get around to doing anything much about rectifying the status of blacks. "When directly challenged on race issues Wilson lost his cool, vigorously reproaching his accusers for their impertinence." In a book filled with hypocrites, thieves, and murders in charge of countries and empires, Emmerson criticizes Wilson more pointedly than he does most other public figures.

Although Dos Passos is not quoted, Emmerson does occasionally rely on figures such as Theodore Dreiser in Berlin, Robert Musil on the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the "ubiquitous Pierre Loti," who shows up in Peking, Tokyo, and Constantinople, to supply a snapshot of this or that city.

At the end of 1913 we have witnessed a sad parade of empires and countries taking a tortuous route to a war that some wanted, others feared might come, and still others were unprepared for. Their peoples' desires for a good future largely did not include deaths on the ground, at sea, and in the air of roughly 20 million soldiers and civilians. We may not ever fully know the reasons or reasoning behind the urge for war, and Charles Emmerson wisely does not bring them all out, but in 1913 his synthesis of the nervousness, striving, and strains in specific parts of the world give us a better understanding of the upheavals that led to the First World War.

1913: In Search of the World Before the Great War by Charles Emmerson
ISBN: 978-1610392563
544 pages