Jane Ridley

On the Precipice

1913: The World before the Great War


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Charles Emmerson has set himself an exceptionally difficult task. Global history is fashionable, but it is very hard to do well. Like a soufflé, which won’t rise without whipped egg whites, global history falls flat without a thesis or polemic. At its best – in the hands of historians at the top of their game, such as Paul Kennedy or Christopher Bayly – this sort of history is mind-blowingly good. Done badly, without an overarching argument or strong narrative, it is disappointingly bland.

Nor are books about single years easy to write. A year does not form a narrative arc: you need strong architecture to make the thing stand up. There have been plenty of books about years, but there has to be a good reason for choosing the year. The only distinction, it seems to me, of 1913 is that it came before 1914. Oh, and perhaps no one has done it before.

You can imagine the conversation with the publisher. The hundredth anniversary of 1914 is going to be huge – we can anticipate an avalanche of books and television documentaries on that year alone. The government has earmarked £50 million for commemorating the centenary of the start of the Great War – though political correctness forbids us from being nasty about the Germans, so lots of coverage will be given to the football match that broke out on Christmas Day 1914, a few minutes’ interlude in four years of some of the worst slaughter known to mankind. A book on 1913 would be different and come out ahead of the curve. The Great War was essentially a European event. A global history would give it a new twist.

Emmerson has made the decision not to examine the causes of the First World War, and that is probably right. There are already enough books on the war’s origins to fill several libraries, and we can expect many more to appear over the next few months. Instead, he gives us a survey of the world as it was in 1913. His intention is to present 1913 not as the prelude to what happened afterwards, but on its own terms. Ignoring the provinces and the countryside, the book is organised around cities, and divided into sections on the ‘Centre of the Universe’ (Europe), the ‘Old/New World’ (the United States), the ‘World Beyond’ (from Winnipeg to Jerusalem) and the ‘Twilight Powers’ (Constantinople to London). If the book has a theme, it is that the decline of Europe, and especially the British Empire, was already on the cards in 1913.

Nothing was quite as it seemed, however. Using contemporary Baedeker guides to take the reader on tours of his cities, Emmerson points to the contradictions. Britain’s economy was in decline, yet the City of London was the centre of international finance. Although Paris was the world city of
culture, it was tawdry and overrun by tourists. Berlin seemed remorselessly militaristic, yet the Kaiser was celebrated as a peacemaker. Vienna was a hotchpotch of paradoxes and anachronisms, but in spite of internal crises the Austro-Hungarian Empire appeared healthy. New York was the city of liberty, but Wall Street brought greed and corruption, and immigrants were contaminated with the degeneracy of the Old World.

Emmerson writes nicely and the text is sprinkled with anecdotes, but the book is very loosely focused. At times he seems unsure whom he is writing for and how much he needs to explain. But the real difficulty is that the project is flawed – 1913 lacks a thesis to tie together the global history and the history of a single year.

No doubt Emmerson is right and there was nothing inevitable about the collapse of the pre-1914 world. But showing the past ‘as it really was’ has always been a bit of an illusion, if only because it is a philosophical impossibility. As long ago as 1935, George Dangerfield argued in The Strange Death of Liberal England that pre-1914 England was a society in which liberal values had already crumbled. The First World War accelerated this process but didn’t cause it. Dangerfield’s book has given rise to a historical debate about the pathology of Europe before the Great War that might have provided Emmerson with a conceptual framework. However, in his account of England’s troubles – suffragette violence and trade union militancy – Charles Emmerson chooses to ignore this discussion. Showing the past as it really was turns out to be a euphemism for ignoring what historians have written about it. Instead the reader is taken on a perfectly pleasant but ultimately vapid tour of the big cities of the world in 1913. And at over five hundred pages, the book is too long.


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