Review: 1913, The Year Before the Storm, By Florian Illies (Trs by Shaun Whiteside and Jamie Lee Searle)

Scenes from the brink of catastrophe

As the long 19th century was finally drawing to a close and another war was brewing, cultural life in 1913, and in Europe in particular, was busy and vibrant. Illies, a German journalist and writer, has gathered diverse fragments of information from the year and fashioned them into a diary of a world embracing new ideas in art, science and psychiatry. He contrasts grand public events, such as the Armory Show in New York and the Paris premiere of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, with small, private moments such as Matisse bringing the convalescing Picasso a bunch of flowers.

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Vienna is the capital of the new thinking with Freud, Schnitzler, Klimt, Loos, Wittgenstein, Tito, Trotsky and Kokoschka all in residence. So too are Josef Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili, better known as Josef Stalin, and a 23-year-old artist called Adolf Hitler. The two men liked to walk in the park of the Schönbrunn Palace and Illies speculates that the two future tyrants may have tipped their hats to each other, the closest they would ever come to meeting.

Love is a constant theme throughout the year, with torrid affairs abounding such as those between Alma Mahler, Gustav's widow, and Oskar Kokoschka, and D H Lawrence and Frieda von Richthofen. Perhaps the saddest and most tortuous relationship is that of Franz Kafka in Prague and Felice Bauer in Berlin, his letters revealing a man who longs for love as much as he is afraid of it.

There is a wry humour in many of Illies's entries; he juxtaposes the founding of Vanity Fair in New York with the more prosaic opening of the prototype for the first Aldi supermarket in Essen. His lightness of touch does not diminish the impact of occasional signposts to the coming conflict, such as the Reichstag passing a bill in June approving the increase of peace-time troops from 117,267 to 661,478. Rather, these instances are sobering reminders that while the artistic and scientific communities are rushing headlong towards Modernism and progress, hereditary rulers and politicians seem unable to stop the march towards conflict. While not a comprehensive history of the year before the First World War, this is nonetheless an entertaining and illuminating study of a particular moment in time.