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1913: The World Before the Great War

1913: The World Before the Great War

Charles Emmerson


A rounded tour of the horizons of the year before the Great War.

Emmerson structures his history around the great cities of the world: London, New York, Paris, St Petersburg, and Berlin, all obviously, but also Mexico City, Durban. Winnipeg, Melbourne, Detroit, and others. He uses them as nuclei around which to describe the core events and factors driving the populations. That they are universally unaware of the catastrophe that is bearing down on them only reinforces the strange nature of the Great War, that its origins seem to defy credible explanation.

It's impossible to read this book without being reminded of The Proud Tower : A Portrait of the World Before the War, 1890-1914, Barbara Tuchman's portrait of Europe in the same period. And if Emmerson lack something of Tuchman's elegance, it's only a matter of degree: he has the same eye for anecdote, the same beautiful turns of phrase. He also favours wider-ranging sociology over Tuchman's considerations of art and politics. IN many ways to two books make useful companion pieces.

The overriding impression for a modern reader is the almost universal acceptance of racist and sexist foundations for societies, extending both to the rulers and to the ruled. Gandhi fights for the rights of Indians in South Africa without concerning himself about the rights of Africans; Irish Nationalists struggle for independence but deplore votes for women. The ability to rationalise clearly hasn't changed over the years.

4/5. Finished 27 June 2015.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

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