Before the deluge
Stuart Millson enjoys a capital account of a world order on the brink
1913: The World before the Great War, Charles Emmerson,
Vintage Books, 2013, paperback, 528 pages, ISBN 978-0-099-57578-8, £9.99
“At Easter 1913 Tsar Nicholas ll gave his wife Alexandra a remarkable present: a golden Fabergé egg. Its exterior was sumptuously decorated with golden double-headed eagles, imperial crowns and eighteen exquisite miniature portraits of the Tsars and Tsarinas of the Romanov dynasty stretching back to Nicholas’ distant forebear Tsar Michael, who had become Russia’s leader exactly 300 years previously. But the egg’s true masterwork was on the inside. There, a globe of blued steel showed the frontiers of Muscovy in 1613, and those of the Russian Empire in 1913… For now, the double-headed eagle could be seen from the Baltic to the Pacific, from the Black Sea to Central Asia, from the borders of China to those of Prussia.”
So begins the chapter entitled: St. Petersburg, Eastern Colossus – just one part of the four great sections devoted to the capitals and cities of the world (and world empires) as they were on the eve of the Great War, in Charles Emmerson’s masterly study, 1913. Although the general unrest in the Balkans prompted thoughtful editorials in The Times and The Economist (the latter certainly believed that its readers had much to look forward to for the year 1914), it is not entirely clear – even, with superpower rivalry between the British and German navies – that the world believed it would soon be at war. The Tsar, with his Fabergé egg and ancient crown, clearly had no premonition of the horror that would await him in 1917; in Germany, the Kaiser and his subjects looked forward to opera galas, openings of technical exhibitions and parades of mediaeval guilds – although in Vienna, where (as one writer observed) “it was forever Sunday”, concern was expressed at the curious number of suicides – over 1,300 in 1912 – an indication perhaps of some sort of spiritual, psychological malaise.
Much discussed by reviewers, and food for thought on many book programmes (the author was even a guest for the week on BBC Radio 3’s Essential Classics), Emmerson’s immensely stimulating, flowing, readable, deeply-instructive portrait of a world on the brink of catastrophe is certainly one of the best of British publishers’ World War One offerings. He is clearly a man of wide interests, and broad tastes (with an excellent knowledge of classical music) often looking beyond what we might consider the purely “academic”. A graduate in Modern History from Oxford University, and now, Senior Research Fellow at Chatham House (the Royal Institute for International Affairs), Charles Emmerson writes as much for “everyman” as for the serious student.
Occasionally, history books and their writers can seem very fixed upon one idea, explaining and charting the course of events, and how things came to be, or could have been averted. For example, Robert K. Massie’s epic Dreadnought – the story of the making of Prussia, and the eventual maritime rivalry between Wilhelmine Germany and the England of Edward Vll and George V – is a lucid explanation of the road to war; a revelation of all the works of the Bismarcks, Tirpitzes, foreign ministries, inner cabals and military strategists who were the architects of what came to pass in 1914 – a brilliant work, and central to one’s understanding of it all.
And yet a clear sense of the colour, thoughts, and day-to-day essence of those times still eludes us to some extent – until now, with the publication of Emmerson’s vivid bringing-to-life of the people and boulevards of Paris; the industries, mass-markets, consumer goods of Berlin and Detroit; the imperial “heart-of-the-world” – the London of H.G. Wells’s Tono-Bungay (the city connected to her dominions of Melbourne and Winnipeg); and also, the surprising riches and wealth of Buenos Aires, very Anglo in those days.
The story of the emerging importance of Washington D.C. (world capital and American political centre, just 50 years on from its Civil War) is also told – yet we are also brought to an understanding of New York (its art-loving leading citizens felt that the “rough edges” of the country needed to be rounded off), with a stop on the West Coast at Los Angeles (a thirst for water and hunger for wealth), and the old New World of Mexico City. But what of the world’s other spheres of influences and races? The author takes us across the Pacific Ocean to Tokyo (the modernising, Westernising Japanese authorities determined, even since 1880, to rebuild their capital as “a grand city of ceremonial avenues”); but then turning his attention to the cities of ancient eras – Jerusalem, Constantinople, Tehran and Peking – the last Emperor locked inside the Forbidden City, whilst Yuan Shikai – half-President, half-Habsburg emperor – was driven through Peking by car. Usually, in our minds, the pre-First World War period is concentrated on happenings in London, Paris, Berlin, St. Peterburg: with Emmerson, you are given a truly global, and local view.
There is also an intriguing ending to the book, a touch of The Time Machine, perhaps…
“ ‘What will be the standing of the British Empire in AD 2013?’, asked the Evening Standard of its London readers in 1913. Certainly, it answered, it would not be an empire held together by force; rather it would be most probably a collection of ‘allied autonomous states under a common head. The Standard speculated that Canada would have a population of 100,000,000 and the federal capital of the Anglo-Saxon Federation would be along the Canadian border with the United States. India might be a self-governing entity by 2013 – but probably not. Britain itself might have become an agricultural country again, its home population having peaked in 1950.’ ”
What was interesting about this prediction of things to come was the absence of any mention of war or global conflict. Even a vaguely diminished Britain (in the mind of the Standard’s writer) would still have a presence in world affairs – the world itself resembling an Anglo-minded order, with countries benevolently encouraged toward a measure of independence. What might provoke some first-class counter-factual history and soul-searching is a projection of a Britain that lost the First World War – George V the unseated monarch, rather than Russia’s Nicholas or Germany’s Wilhelm; England as a type of Weimar Republic (although, of course, such a term would never have existed if Germany had won). But Emmerson deals in facts and reality, and rarely would you find a book so rich in evoking the life of the world, 100 or so years ago.
Stuart Millson is the classical music critic of QR