November 20, 2013 in History Content
In May 1913 three kings met in Berlin – Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, King George V of the United Kingdom, Tsar Nicholas II of Russia – to celebrate a wedding, that of the Kaiser’s daughter. It was the last time these three – all cousins – would ever meet.
A little over a year later, in the late summer of 1914, Europe was at war. By the time that ended in 1918 the German Empire had become a Republic, Russia was in the midst of a civil war with Bolsheviks struggling to establish Communism, American troops were on European soil for the first (but not the last) time, a generation of European youth had been wiped out, and the old certainties of the world of 1913 were smashed into dust.
The Great War was the seminal catastrophe of the twentieth century. Millions died. But how did the world look before the cataclysm? How did the future look – not only in London or Paris or Berlin, but in Los Angeles, Bombay or Shanghai? Can we write the history of these times without hindsight? Can we see the world as contemporaries saw it? Not trying to explain a war which was not inevitable, but searching out how the world really was: a mix of hopes and fears, dreams and ideas. The world of 1913 was, in so many respects, like our own. It was globalised. It was dynamic and modern, with new communications technologies girdling the earth, aeroplanes in the sky, and with new movements in music and the visual arts already in full swing. Many people assumed that progress, modernity, and globalisation were the irreversible trends of history.
Europe was at the centre of this world. London was where the world made its money; Paris was where the world spent it. In Vienna, a failed artist (Adolf Hitler) shared the streets with a Bolshevik agitator and bank-thief (Josef Stalin). Across the Atlantic, the United States was rising fast, half-way in its ascent from a country of small towns and parochial politics to a nation of cities and skyscrapers. Henry Ford’s production line was just beginning to crank up in Detroit. But American nation-building was not complete. It was only fifty years since the Battle of Gettysburg. In July 1913 fifty thousand veterans of the Civil War gathered again in those Pennsylvania fields. In 1913 Americans railed against Wall Street, debated the merits of immigration, and wondered about how to use their growing power in the world – themes in American politics which would return and return. But few thought America would be dragged into a European war – a step on the road to becoming the world’s policeman. In the wider world, an era of petro-geopolitics was beginning in southern Iran. Japan strode forcefully onto the stage of east Asian politics, caught between Western models of modernity and its older traditions. And China, after a generation during which Western powers took concession after concession – a period still remembered today in China as a sorry period of unequal treaties and Western high-handedness – was changing. A republic was forming. Its first democratically-elected parliament gathered in 1913. We live in the shadows of the Great War, in the shadows of the world of 1913, in the shadows of history – and in the shadows of what might have been. Searching out the global history of the world of a hundred years ago can help us understand where we are today. Order a Copy of 1913!