1913 – A Cautionary Tale

A European could survey the world in 1913 as the Greek gods might have surveyed it from the snowy heights of Mount Olympus: themselves above, the teeming earth below. To be a European, from this perspective, was to inhabit the highest stage of human development.

So begins Charles Emmerson’s 1913: In Search of the World Before the Great War .

1913 attempts to paint a picture of each of 20 world capitals in the year before the great war. How did they view the world? What were their expectations for the future? How did 1913 produce the guns of August? What happened to the promise held out by the previous years of the world’s first brush with globalization?

Europe is still, in 1913, the “Center of the Universe”: London, Paris, Berlin, Rome, Vienna, and St. Petersburg. These are the powerhouse cities, linked by history, culture, blood ties, and relatively easy access. Most importantly, they are linked by trade, exemplified by the 1913 Ghent (Belgium) World’s Fair. War, to these nations, was a practical impossibility. Why would anyone, they asked themselves, impede the march of progress?

It’s a sober reflection to read how much Americans of that time resemble us. For example, America in 1913 worried about the overweening power of a money trust of Wall Street squeezing out Main Street in favour of large companies controlled by the banks.

A few more illustrative quotes from American cities:
Washington, DC –

At a press conference in May, [President Woodrow} Wilson raised another familiar and related gripe. ‘This town is swarming with lobbyists,’ he complained, ‘so you can’t throw a brick in any direction without hitting one …

New York –

As America became more citified, observers worried, was it to become more dandified, more greedy and more individualistic – more like New York?

Los Angeles – A reader of the Los Angeles Record declared,

IF you question the EMPLOYERS regarding the continued changing in their staff they will tell you that Los Angeles has a ‘floating population’, apparently failing to realize that the population would be permanent if living wages were paid.

Winnepeg, Melbourne, Buenos Aires, Algiers, Bombay, Durban, Tehran, Jerusalem – all of them rising cities of the future in 1913. Constantinople, Peking, Shanghai, and Tokyo – old cities trying to adapt to the new century.

"We live in a time of suprises," wrote an American observer in 1913, "Turkey is reforming, China is waking up, the self-satisfied complacency of the white race has received a shock."

The next four years would see all of Europe standing with both feet in a water-filled trench and both hands clutching the lightning bolt of war. Nothing would ever be the same.

For if the Great War had shown one thing, was it not the European civilization, once hailed as the most progressive and most advanced in the world, was really nothing more than a thin veneer for barbarism? Chinese intellectual Yan Fu noted that "the European race’s last three hundred years of evolutionary progress have all come down to nothing but four words: selfishness, slaughter, shamelessness and corruption.”

On December 31, 1913, in London, Emmerson relates, the Daily Chronicle published its poem of the year:

I do not mourn your passing, shed no tear,
As you are whelmed in shadows of the past:
I only sigh and say – Please God next year
Will be more fruitful, fuller than the last …

From me no heavy burdens of farewells;
I turn to watch the year dawn that shall be.

At the stroke of midnight, 1913 died. The year was 1914.

How will our future look on December 31, 2016? What are the chances that another year, perhaps 2017, will resonate down the ages as the year when everything changed? Few in 1913 saw anything coming. And no one knew, no one was able to know, all that the future would hold.

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