Serving professional journalism since 1912

Magazine of the Chartered Institute of Journalists

1913 – The World before the Great War

“At Easter 1913 Tsar Nicholas ll gave his wife Alexandra a remarkable present: a golden Fabergé egg. Its exterior was sumptuously decorated with golden double-headed eagles, imperial crowns and eighteen exquisite miniature portraits of the Tsars and Tsarinas of the Romanov dynasty stretching back to Nicholas’ distant forebear Tsar Michael, who had become Russia’s leader exactly 300 years previously. But the egg’s true masterwork was on the inside. There, a globe of blued steel showed the frontiers of Muscovy in 1613, and those of the Russian Empire in 1913… For now, the double-headed eagle could be seen from the Baltic to the Pacific, from the Black Sea to Central Asia, from the borders of China to those of Prussia.”

So begins the chapter entitled: St. Petersburg, Eastern Colossus – just one part of the four great sections devoted to the capitals and cities of the world (and world empires) as they were on the eve of the Great War, in Charles Emmerson’s masterly study, 1913. Although the general unrest in the Balkans prompted thoughtful editorials in The Times and The Economist (the latter certainly believed that its readers had much to look forward to for the year 1914), it is not entirely clear – even, with superpower rivalry between the British and German navies – that the world believed it would soon be at war. The Tsar, with his Fabergé egg and ancient crown, clearly had no premonition of the horror that would await him in 1917; in Germany, the Kaiser and his subjects looked forward to opera galas, openings of technical exhibitions and parades of mediaeval guilds – although in Vienna, where (as one writer observed) “it was forever Sunday”, concern was expressed at the curious number of suicides – over 1,300 in 1912 – an indication of some sort of spiritual, psychological malaise.

Yet it is not just the “old world” that interests the author: the story is also told of the emerging importance of Washington D.C. (world capital and American political centre, just 50 years on from its Civil War) – yet we are also brought to an understanding of New York (its art-loving leading citizens felt that the “rough edges” of the country needed to be rounded off), with a stop on the West Coast at Los Angeles (a thirst for water and hunger for wealth), and the old New World of Mexico City. But what of the world’s other spheres of influences and races? The author takes us across the Pacific Ocean to Tokyo (the modernising, Westernising Japanese authorities determined, even since 1880, to rebuild their capital as “a grand city of ceremonial avenues”); but then turning his attention to the cities of ancient eras – Jerusalem, Constantinople, Tehran and Peking – the last Emperor locked inside the Forbidden City, whilst Yuan Shikai – half-President, half-Habsburg emperor – was driven through Peking by car. Usually, in our minds, the pre-First World War period is concentrated on happenings in London, Paris, Berlin, St. Peterburg: with Emmerson, you are given a truly global, and local view.

There is also an intriguing ending to the book, a touch of The Time Machine, perhaps…

“ ‘What will be the standing of the British Empire in AD 2013?’, asked the Evening Standard of its London readers in 1913. Certainly, it answered, it would not be an empire held together by force; rather it would be most probably a collection of ‘allied autonomous states under a common head. The Standard speculated that Canada would have a population of 100,000,000 and the federal capital of the Anglo-Saxon Federation would be along the Canadian border with the United States. India might be a self-governing entity by 2013 – but probably not. Britain itself might have become an agricultural country again, its home population having peaked in 1950.’ ”

But Emmerson deals in facts and reality, and rarely would you find a book so rich in evoking the life of the world, 100 or so years ago.

Stuart Millson

Charles Emmerson, Vintage Books, paperback, 528 pages,

ISBN 978-0-099-57578-8 £9.99