Well, after reading one excellent book about the year 1913 why not read another? As soon as I discovered my public library had an available copy of Charles Emmerson’s 1913: In Search of the World Before the Great War I immediately grabbed it. And why not? When life gives you the opportunity read the perfect follow-up to a book you jump on it. So I did.
While Illies took an almost exclusively Continental European focus when he looked at the year 1913, Emmerson’s 1913 takes a more sweeping global approach. Yes, the goings on in great European cities like London, Vienna, Berlin and Paris are all here. But unlike Illies, Emmerson widens his lens to include New World cities like New York, Washington and Los Angeles, not to mention up and coming places like Winnipeg, Detroit and Buenos Aires. Mexico City, plagued by civil war and general anarchy, was more akin to present-day Somalia and not the sophisticated Latin American capital it is today.
Also in his book, Emmerson divides the globe into the declining world, touring Istanbul, Peking, Shanghai, Durban, Bombay (beside being British Empire have their own connection. Hint: think Gandhi) and the up and coming part of the world like vibrant Tokyo. 1913 concludes with another look at London, which in Emmerson’s estimation may or may not be on the decline. Yes, London is the capital of one the world’s richest and most powerful nations on earth. However, on the international stage the nation’s been badly bruised by the brief but costly Boer War. Domestically, labor unrest grips Britain while women battle in the streets for the right to vote. Economically, the nation that was once considered the world’s leading powerhouse has slipped to second place with America taking the lead. And Germany is closing fast.
Reading his 1913, it’s hard to believe that World War I is around the corner. Just like with Illes book, the world of 1913 seems as interconnected as today. Thousands of German men are working in Great Britain while Russian and Germany are major trade partners. It was also the golden age of international travel, thanks to steamships, railways, widespread travel guides and professional travel agencies like Britain’s Thomas Cooke. Countless artists, both visual and literary prefer to live as expats far from the nations of their birth, embracing a kind of early post-modern cosmopolitanism.
Not only is this a great “how the world became modern” kind of books but also one that shows how the fortunes of nations rise and fall, or at least wax and wane. According to Emmerson, in 1913 Detroit was on the brink of being a world-class industrial powerhouse while on the opposite side of the world Shanghai was poor, broken and decrepit. Today the fortunes of those two cities have completely reversed. After two devastating World Wars Berlin, St. Petersburg and Tokyo and risen and fallen and then risen back again.
Emmerson’s 1913 is a very good book. Of course, if you can read both 1913 books back to back I doubt you’ll be disappointed. I had a good time doing so and my guess is you will too.