Emmerson, Charles. 1913: In Search of the World Before the Great War. Public Affairs. 2013. 544p. illus. notes. bibliog. index. ISBN 9781610392563. $30; ebk. ISBN 9781610392570. HIST
In 1914, the world went to war. Called “the war to end all wars,” the conflict set the stage for many wars that followed. Was a global conflagration inevitable? Could it have been avoided? While historians have argued these questions for decades, Emmerson (senior research fellow, Royal Inst. for Intl. Affairs, London; The Future History of the Arctic) takes a different approach. Instead of reexamining all the classic causal explanations that came after the first shot was fired, he looks at the world (not just Europe) in the year before the war. Through the lens of contemporary travelers, journalists, politicians, heads of state, and writers from 20 cities, readers get a very real sense of the political, social, and economic events and mood of the period. Beginning and ending with London and including Paris, New York, Bombay, Buenos Aires, Constantinople, and Tokyo, this is a fascinating bird’s-eye view of a landscape seen in what was the dying light of empire and on the brink of tragedy. The mood of the time reads as both sadly sensing doom and being naively hopeful. VERDICT An imaginatively conceived, thoroughly researched, and outstandingly written perspective that is highly recommended for both academic and general readers.
Illies, Florian. 1913: The Year Before the Storm. Melville House. Nov. 2013. 272p. tr. from German by Shaun Whiteside & Jamie Lee Searle. illus. bibliog. ISBN 9781612193519. $25.95. HIST
Although some in Europe were superstitious that 1913 would be an unlucky year, it proved to be one of change, possibility, and progress. German journalist Illies vividly re-creates Western society before the war by constructing a month-by-month narrative made up of quirky snippets about happenings of all sorts—cultural, technological, biographical. In some ways it was a world brimming with newness and optimism—modern art was emerging, geothermia was being discovered, a drug later nicknamed “ecstasy” was synthesized, Detroit rolled out its first assembly line, and the Federal Reserve was founded. Geniuses abounded: Marcel Proust, Virginia Woolf, Rainer Maria Rilke, Sigmund Freud, and D.H. Lawrence. Albert Schweitzer was planning to visit Africa. While culture takes center stage in this microhistory, readers are also alerted to portents of political trouble: Stalin was in Vienna, soon to meet Trotsky, while Hitler was painting watercolors and looking for his big break. Some, such as Rudolf Steiner, felt that “the war keeps threatening to come.” Others were sure it could not happen. The rich range of subjects, the vibrancy of the writing, here translated by Whiteside and Searle, and the intimate details of the biographies all make this a fast-paced and engrossing read. VERDICT For general readers interested in history, art, culture, and literature. Highly recommended.