1913: The Year Before the Storm, by Florian Illies, translated by Shaun Whiteside and Jamie Lee Searle, Clekenwell Press, RRP£14.99, 272 pages

1913: The World Before the Great War, by Charles Emmerson, Bodley Head RRP£25/Public Affairs RRP$30, 544 pages

As the centenary of the outbreak of the first world war nears, brace yourselves: battalions of historians and editors have been preparing for it for years. The horrors of Flanders, Gallipoli and Galicia, always a mainstay of publishing, are about to get a whole lot more familiar.

For those seeking to beat the Great War rush, two young authors – one German, one British – offer a different perspective. Both have chosen to survey the world as it was during 1913, the last full year of peace.

Neither Florian Illies nor Charles Emmerson sets out to explain the descent into war. There are no studies of railway timetables or arms races to be found here. Rather, they seek to bring to life a world that was about to be wiped away, the final year of the “long” 19th century, when Europe was in its pomp but already the forces of change were palpable.

They set about their task in very different ways. Illies takes a decidedly literary approach – not surprising given his pedigree as a star of the German “Feuilleton”, the cultural and arts pages that are the (often self-regarding) top table of the country’s media.

Dispensing with a traditional narrative structure, he presents 1913 as a series of fragments of original source material – a diary entry here, a newspaper cutting there – interleaved with his own retelling or imagination of particular events. Organised month by month, the result is a vivid, richly textured book that chronicles a world crackling with talent, energy and foreboding.

The pace and scale of activity is at times breathtaking. Henry Ford is about to introduce conveyor belt production in his car factory; Louis Armstrong picks up a trumpet for the first time; Arnold Schönberg is rewriting the rules of harmony; ecstasy and the ozone layer are discovered. Thomas Mann is working on The Magic Mountain; Oswald Spengler embarks on The Decline of the West; Marcel Proust goes in search of lost time. Pablo Picasso, Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt are busy consigning the old artistic order to its grave. The first Coco Chanel and Prada shops are opened. Technology advances, new flying records are set and science-fiction writers imagine tunnels under the Atlantic.

‘Supper at the Savoy’ (1913)
‘Supper at the Savoy’ (1913) © Lordprice Collection/Alamy

Back on terra firma, Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung have fallen out; Franz Kafka is in the grip of a messed-up love affair. Much of Vienna, it seems, has succumbed to the debilitating morbidity of neurasthenia. Whether this has affected four of the inhabitants of the imperial Austro-Hungarian capital in 1913 – Messrs Hitler, Stalin, Trotsky and Tito – is not known. Nor do we have any evidence that they ever met; although that does not stop Illies from floating a tantalising “what if”. All the while it is largely business as usual for Europe’s ruling classes – there are royal weddings and society hunts on an epic scale, bringing together peers and relatives who within months will be at each other’s throats.

Illies’ talent is to weave all this together in a way that, while occasionally almost too lavish, keeps the reader with him. His focus is unashamedly European – and continental European at that – and cultural. This is where the cutting edge of the modern world was. And it is the great dramas of the arts that command much of his passion, sometimes a little too much as he veers towards the territory of specialist interest.

Emmerson offers a more conventional, grounded perspective. He delivers the big politics and the telling details of social, economic and technological events and tensions. As the subtitle promises, it is a global, not just European, view. In a series of 20-page chunks, he takes us through 23 cities, from London – the “world city”, the centre of the universe – to Algiers, Shanghai, New York.

This is a world in the first flush of globalisation. Many decades would pass before it became as integrated and international as it was in 1913. In some respects we are still playing catch-up, and there are many modern parallels: the City of London as the global financial centre; the admiration for the German model; the boom in China – and the view that France might be past its prime.

Emmerson offers an impressive sweep that marshals much detail along the way, though at times there is a sense of being on a historical package tour (Baedeker is, indeed, a frequently cited source) in which some city breaks are better rendered than others. But there are some gems. In the patchwork Austro-Hungarian empire, one could drive on both sides of the road and there were 10 official languages but no translators in parliament. Does anyone wonder that it fell apart?

And yet, the gap in perception remains: this is a world that is obscured as well as revealed by our knowledge of what happened next. While there were some who saw trouble ahead, most seemed surprisingly sanguine. As 1913 drew to a close, the London papers looked ahead to better times. The Evening Standard took the long view, asking itself what the British empire would look like in 2013. The answer, Emmerson notes, was a “Britannic theme park” – an empire intact but recast as an Anglo-Saxon Federation with its capital along the US-Canadian border. Events turned out differently – in the long and the short term.


Frederick Studemann is the FT’s comment and analysis editor

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