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'1913': Leads A Tour Of The World A Century Ago


When the First World War broke out in 1914, it unleashed unimaginable carnage and upheaval. By the time that war ended, four years later, almost 40 million lives had been lost, dynasties had collapsed, and the global political order was shaken to its core. And yet was the world fundamentally changed?

That was the question on the mind of our next guest, author Charles Emmerson. For his new book, "1913: In Search for the World Before the Great War," Emmerson takes us on a tour of the world as it was a century ago.

Charles Emmerson, welcome to the program.

CHARLES EMMERSON: Thank you very much.

GREENE: There's a quote that struck me in the book - an Austrian writer, Stefan Zweig, talking about the destruction that World War I caused. He says: All the bridges between our today and our yesterday and our yesteryears have been burnt. You kind of feel that's not the case.

EMMERSON: Well, he was of course writing in 1940 - a long time after the end of the First World War. So Zweig, looking back, sees the time before the war, as I think we tend to see it, as this halcyon golden age. And what I want to bring to contemporary understanding of the year 1913 is the extent to which actually that time was modern, it was dynamic, it was very highly globalized.

GREENE: Highly globalized. And perhaps the most important power at the time, in 1913, was the British Empire.

EMMERSON: Without a doubt.

GREENE: But you find some evidence that there's starting to be some cracks, in terms of looking towards Britain's future.

EMMERSON: Yeah, I think that's right. I mean London is still very much the center of the world. It's the center of global finance. Britains are by far the largest investors in the world and the empire is, you know, covers a huge extent of the Earth's surface. But there are more question marks, and increasingly insistent question marks, about whether this whole extraordinary empire, whether that can really all hold together when you have these other rising powers: Germany, the United States, and indeed, of course, in Asia.

So there are question marks abroad. But there also question marks at home. It's the year of union militancy. It's the year of suffragette militancy. This is a year where there's a bomb placed under the throne of the Bishop of London in St. Paul's Cathedral. And it's a year where actually the idea of a civil war over home rule for Ireland is considered a very, very real possibility.

GREENE: So interesting because I feel like when we think about history and World War I, we think of the wars in many ways being responsible for, you know, Britain's fall. I mean you had the cream of a generation killed off in the trenches of France. But you were starting to see signs earlier than that.

EMMERSON: Well, I think the tectonic plates are already shifting before the war. What the war does, of course, is accelerate a lot of changes. And I think there is a sense around the world that Europe, which is the unquestioned supreme civilization in 1913, by 1918 - at the end of the war - that really is no longer the case.

GREENE: Let's move, if we can, to the United States of America, as you said, in 1913, kind of emerging. And you describe Washington, the U.S. capital, this new reform-minded Democratic president, Woodrow Wilson, gets elected. He's talking about a new vision. He's talking about change. He's doing this at a time when money is increasingly playing role in politics. I mean this all sounds kind of familiar.

EMMERSON: It kind of does. I mean it's sort of terrifying when you read it, actually. The struggle between Wall Street and Main Street, for example, comes through again and again and again in 1913, in the election of Woodrow Wilson - or in the first year of his presidency. And that does sound terribly familiar.

And I think the really key thing and fascinating thing about Woodrow Wilson is that he wants his presidency very much to be about nation-building. The man who's going to sort of stitch America back together. And of course now when we look at his presidency, we think, you know, he's mostly a foreign policy president. And I think that certainly has resonance today.

GREENE: Talking about kind of these eerie comparisons maybe between 1913 and 2013 in the United States, I mean it brings to mind a quote that you've talked about from Mark Twain, that history doesn't repeat itself but it does rhyme.

EMMERSON: Yeah, I think it's a danger for any historian mulling on contemporary affairs to say, you know, what happened a hundred years ago, well, exactly the same thing is going to happen now. But I think you can learn some things from history.

One lesson which I would learn, or try to take from 1913, is that even at a time where the world seems to be going in the direction of being more globalized, more integrated, something can go wrong. I think there's a tendency to imagine, well, you know, the Internet, technology is pulling the world ever closer together. It's just totally impossible and inconceivable that this world could stop, that it could begin to fall apart, that it could disintegrate.

And of course that's what lots of people thought in 1913. They thought, OK yes, people talk about war. And yes, it's not entirely impossible that there will be a war, though pretty much no one thought that it would be the kind of war which happened or that it would have the kind of consequences which it had.

So people can be very wrong about what they expect the future to be. And I think that's an important lesson in humility, frankly.

GREENE: The lesson being: Be careful with our assumptions.

EMMERSON: Be very careful with our assumptions and, you know, don't let history happen to you. Be part of history. Try and make the history that you want to live in.

GREENE: You had a quote in an article that you wrote in Foreign Policy magazine: A world economy is interconnected as never before by flows of money, trade, people. A global society, perhaps even a global moral consciousness, is emerging as a result. Small-town America rails at the excessive power of Wall Street. Asia is rising once again. And yes, there's trouble in the Middle East.

It really does sound familiar to what we know today.

EMMERSON: If you went out onto the streets of a big city in 1913, what would you see? You'd see planes, trains and automobiles. You'd see advertising. You'd electric lights. You'd see skyscrapers. You'd see cinemas. So this time, which we often think of as being a black and white - you know, "Downton Abbey" presents it as being really all about class and garden parties and people in uniform. And actually what I wanted to do in sort of providing this tour of the world with not just the European cities and the American cities, but also the cities in Asia - Shanghai, Tokyo, et cetera - is to give a real sense of people's horizons, which were at that time very global.

Remember, this is an age of tremendous immigration. It's also an era of great financial globalization. You have the gold standard. So I really wanted to push that message of modernity, globalization, and fundamentally this idea that in 1913 - for most people - the war was not inevitable.

GREENE: Well, Charles Emmerson, thanks for taking us on this tour.

EMMERSON: Thank you.

GREENE: We've been talking to historian Charles Emmerson. His new book is "1913: In Search for the World Before the Great War."

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.