1913: In Search Of The World Before The Great War

Book by Charles Emmerson

1913: In Search Of The World Before The Great War
by Charles Emmerson

No one seriously doubts that the First World War was a great rupture in Western and world history, even if we do have contradictory ideas of whether we should look at the lost pre-war world with nostalgia or relief. The jury will be forever out on that, but what Emmerson has added to the mix is an eye-opening demonstration of just how modern the supposedly premodern world was. A senior research fellow at Britain’s Royal Institute for International Affairs, Emmerson begins, like Barbara Tuchman in her 1966 classic The Proud Tower, with a tour of European capitals. But he doesn’t stop there, because he’s not seeking the causes of the war, a valid historical inquiry that nonetheless distorts the actions and thoughts of people who had no idea of what was coming.

Instead the author carries on around the globe, to Buenos Aires, a city as bursting with immigrants, money and worldwide fame as New York; Tehran, a backwater emerging into geostrategic importance now that Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, had decreed the Royal Navy would run on oil, not coal; and the Canadian boomtown of Winnipeg. It’s a world linked by a level of globalization not to be matched again until the 1990s. Bad news about the Canadian wheat harvest causes an immediate slump in the London stock market, while Persian scarves made in Manchester sell in the capital of the Ottoman Empire.

And it is a world obsessed with speed, in fast cars and in airplanes, still a newfangled toy and not the lethal military tool of the 20th century: The French air corps, with 36 planes, was larger than that of every other future Great War belligerent combined. People poured from the countryside into rapidly expanding, wondrously electrified cities, leading lives as different from those they left behind as China’s new urban dwellers do from those in its ancient villages. The entire world was pulsing with possibilities in a way strangely like our own. Then a man was assassinated in Sarajevo, dominoes fell over, and everything changed.

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