Why did it all go wrong? Was it inevitable? And does the collapse of peace and economic interdependence, at a historical moment when you didn’t even need a passport to visit a neighboring European country, suggest any lessons for our own age?
In 1913: In Search of the World Before the Great War, Charles Emmerson offers a close look at the year before the war broke out. With the looming 100th anniversary of World War I, a spate of books about the not-so-Great War have begun to emerge. Emmerson’s effort stands out for several reasons. First, Emmerson ranges widely, from Germany to Paris, from Bombay to Tokyo. Second, he is a sparkling writer, his narrative rarely flags, and he has amassed a startling amount of detail. His aim is to show that while there were latent tensions in 1913, it would be wrong to suppose that government officials or citizens assumed that conflict was inevitable. It was a year of possibilities, not predestination. Still, the lurch into war does provide a reminder that comity and financial interdependence between nations can quickly devolve into war, particularly countries that are boisterously seeking, as China does today, their place in the sun, as Wilhelmine Germany once did. But once the bellicosities were initiated””triggered by the assassination of Austrian Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo by a Serbian nationalist named Gavrilo Princip””all bets were off. The Austrian novelist Stefan Zweig recalled, “All the bridges between our today and our yesterday and our yesteryears have been burnt.” The “golden age of security,” he lamented, “was gone.”