1913: The World before the Great War, By Charles Emmerson

An analysis of a year in which the world stood on the brink of catastrophe – and globalisation

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The Independent Culture

As the centenary of the Great War approaches, Charles Emmerson has had the bright idea of depicting the world of 1913 as it appeared to contemporaries. With hindsight we see them teetering on the brink of Armageddon. But of course they didn't know what fate had in store, though many feared the worst. The arms race seemed bound to provoke conflict. "It requires no gift of prophecy," wrote a London journalist, "to foretell that this mad competition will end in disaster."

British jingoists, German militarists, French ultra-nationalists, Italian Futurists, Russian pan-Slavists and others even relished the prospect. Potential bloodshed was good for the circulation of newspapers. Lord Northcliffe believed that his readers liked "a good hate" and no press baron did more to stir up hostility to the Hun. In one scare-mongering serial in the Daily Mail, the German invasion route through England reflected Northcliffe's desire to boost sales in towns along the way.

Yet, as Emmerson points out, Northcliffe also printed articles about "Our German Cousins". Others were equally ambivalent: Henri Bergson said that war was "probable but impossible". And there was much to suggest an imminent reduction of international tension. In 1913, the Peace Palace opened in The Hague, housing a Permanent Court of Arbitration charged with resolving disputes between states by force of argument rather than force of arms.

The May meeting at a royal wedding in Berlin of three cousins who between them ruled over most of the world, Kaiser Wilhelm II, King George V and Tsar Nicholas II, seemed to promise amicable relations between the great powers. When such potentates gave rein to their natural affection, said the Daily Graphic, it was "legitimate to assume that the political horizon is clear". In the oft-repeated opinion of Norman Angell, Europe's growing financial and economic interdependence made war a "great illusion".

Despite national rivalries Europeans were, Emmerson argues, increasingly apt to regard their continent as a single entity. It was integrated by commerce, united by a common culture and linked by mechanised communication. By the same token, the world was entering "a period of unprecedented globalisation". As the historian GP Gooch said, "Civilisation had become international." This is the central theme of Emmerson's book, which is a portrait of the planet focussing on about a score of cities, including London, Rome, Algiers, Constantinople, Durban, Bombay, Peking, Tokyo, Melbourne, Winnipeg and Mexico City. What is striking about them, says Emmerson, is not only their cosmopolitanism but their relative modernity.

Thus in Paris in 1913 the cinemas were dominated by Fantomâs, a huge, spectral, masked criminal suggesting "the almost occult power of modernity". The Eiffel Tower was fitted with a radio mast which beamed a powerful time signal round the earth, making it the "watch of the universe". At his Highland Park plant in Detroit, Henry Ford inaugurated the first fully-fledged automobile assembly line, which produced a thousand Model Ts in a single shift. Michigan Central Station opened, indicating that the train was also a vehicle of the future. In Buenos Aires the first underground railway in the southern hemisphere was completed.

Jerusalem witnessed the landing of an aeroplane for the first time. Flying over St Petersburg, Russia's new aircraft, the four-engined Grand designed by Igor Sikorsky, made other planes seem no better than "air kayaks". Across the Atlantic, President Woodrow Wilson blew up the last obstacle in the way of the Panama Canal. In the same year Wilson read Louis Brandeis's incisive attack on America's financial system, entitled Other People's Money – and How the Bankers Use It. Brandeis showed how top bankers enriched themselves by investing their depositors' cash in predatory corporations on whose boards they sat. In an attempt to clean up Wall Street, overshadowed by JP Morgan until his death in 1913, Wilson passed the Federal Reserve Act. But the "banksters" found other means to satisfy their greed.

Emmerson makes a bit too much of the modernity of the pre-war metropolis. Goats still browsed in the Champs Elysées and, to quote the Berlin-born satirist Kurt Tucholsky, "the chickens cackle in Potsdam Square". Nevertheless, he does acknowledge the archaic quality of vast swathes of life before the First World War, which changed everything. In India and elsewhere most people were entirely preoccupied by their straitened local circumstances. On South African farms and Mexican haciendas labourers were reduced to serfdom.

 The dead hand of tradition gripped even cities which took pride in being progressive. An ossified court dominated Vienna, and the Hofburg Palace, at the Emperor Franz Joseph's insistence, was lit by kerosene lamps. Berlin rejoiced in the title Elektropolis but the Kaiser prohibited officers in uniform from dancing the tango. Parisians rioted when presented with Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. In Washington and Los Angeles race discrimination got worse. The Sears catalogue of 1913 advertised a "negro makeup outfit", complete with large teeth and thick lips, as a "great item for masquerades or Halloween".

Emmerson has done his homework. His book girdles the earth in an impressive fashion and conjures up a world we have lost. On the whole, however, 1913 is a disappointment. It lacks sparkle. It gives potted histories in the manner of Wikipedia and resembles a hasty travelogue, covering too much ground to permit exploration in depth. Moreover, the book comes to no very definite conclusion. Despite his emphasis on how modern and globalised the planet had become by 1913, Emmerson can't seem to decide how much truth there is in the view that the year was a golden coda to an age of innocence and order. "Rightly or wrongly," he says, we still visualise a pre-lapsarian "world bathed in the last rays of the dying sun."

Piers Brendon's books include 'Eminent Edwardians' and 'Eminent Elizabethans' (Jonathan Cape)