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1913: The World before the Great War [Paperback]

Charles Emmerson
4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (46 customer reviews)
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Book Description

6 Feb 2014

Forever in the shadow of the war which followed, 1913 is usually seen as little more than the antechamber to apocalypse. Our perspectives narrowed by hindsight, the world of that year is reduced to its most frivolous features – last summers in grand aristocratic residences, a flurry of extravagant social engagements – or its most destructive ones: the unresolved rivalries of the great European powers, the anxieties of a period of accelerated change, the social fear of revolution, the violence in the Balkans. Our images of the times are too often dominated by the faded pastels of upper-class indulgence or by the unmitigated blackness of a world rushing headlong into the abyss of an inevitable war.

1913: The World before the Great War proposes a strikingly different portrait, returning the world in that year to its contemporary freshness, its future still undecided, its outlook still open. Told through the stories of twenty-three cities – Europe’s capitals at the height of their global reach, the emerging metropolises of America, the imperial cities of Asia and Africa, the boomtowns of Australia and the Americas – Charles Emmerson presents a panoramic view of a world crackling with possibilities, from St Petersburg to Shanghai and from Los Angeles to Jerusalem.

What emerges is a rich and complex world, more familiar than we expect, connected as never before, on the threshold of events which would change the course of global history.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 544 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage (6 Feb 2014)
  • Language: Unknown
  • ISBN-10: 0099575787
  • ISBN-13: 978-0099575788
  • Product Dimensions: 19.6 x 13 x 4 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (46 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 29,239 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Charles Emmerson has suffered from a life-long addiction to maps, geopolitics and the power of history to illuminate the future. Born in Australia, Charles grew up and was educated in London. After graduating top of his class from Oxford University in modern history, he was awarded an Entente Cordiale scholarship to study politics and law in Paris. Since then he has worked for a variety of international organisations focusing on global issues, including the International Crisis Group and, latterly, as Associate Director of the World Economic Forum and head of their Global Risks' team. He now lives in London where he works as a writer and adviser on international affairs.

Product Description


"Every so often a book comes along that simply must be read. 1913 is such a work. Luminous and majestic, rich in detail and stunning in its depth of research, 1913 is a sweeping and haunting portrait of the world on the edge of the precipice… Read this book, but be prepared to stifle at the end of every page an urge to scream out a warning to those long since dead that they must take another road" (Wade Davis)

"Charles Emmerson explores an endlessly interesting question: How did the great glossy world of the European Empires come to grief in 1914? This is a most elegantly written book and should stand comparison with the much older classic, Barbara Tuchman’s The Proud Tower" (PROFESSOR NORMAN STONE, author of World War One: A Short History)

"A masterful, comprehensive portrait of the world at that last moment in its history…" (David Crane Spectator)

"If Downton Abbey still colours your impression of what Britain was like on the cusp of the First World War, 1913 could be a useful corrective" (David Robinson Scotsman)

"One of the great merits of Charles Emmerson’s global panorama is to show events in the months leading up to the summer of 1914 as something other than a precursor to mass slaughter" (Mark Damazer New Statesman)

Book Description

A portrait of a world on the precipice of war – and the brink of globalisation.

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
15 of 16 people found the following review helpful
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
We have an enduring fascination with the era just before the First Wold War. It is a vanished world, apparently full of people believing uncritically in human progress and how things could only continue getting better, and of course our knowledge of the catastrophe that was about to befall it makes its glitter and optimism so poignant. We can smile sadly at the views expressed in their media of how nations were coming together, that ties of trade and finance made war between the major nations unthinkable, and shake our heads at the conviction that the ideal of human brotherhood was becoming a reality. But we also know that there is no shortage of books covering this period, so is there really a need for another one? Is there something new to be said?

Well yes, and the newness here is in the approach taken: not a broad canvas but rather a collection of almost two dozen linked sketches. What the author does is tell us about key capital and major cities throughout the world, what they were like in 1913, the lives and hopes of the people living in them, the nature and activities of those governing them, where they seemed to fit into the order of things. And he does it very well. The research has been thorough and the information is there and in some detail, but it never threatens to overpower the reader or to make things dull. The style is very readable and there is a lightness of touch and an ability to take you to a place and immerse you in it. We get enough by way of regional overview and linking themes to stop the collection feeling disjointed but the cities are the main characters.

The combination of novel approach and readability make this a great read and also a very informative one. I certainly recommend it.
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46 of 51 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Unearthing a World on the Eve of Disaster 2 May 2013
By Lance Grundy TOP 1000 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Starting in July 2014 and continuing until 11 November 2018 the world will remember The Great War. During that period, right across the globe, numerous memorial services will take place, books will be published, documentaries will be aired and films will be shown as the world remembers the more than nine million, mostly young men, who lost their lives in that terrible conflict. However, because the events of the First World War were so appalling and overshadowed everything which came after, there is a tendency for us to overlook what came before. What was the world like just before the Great War? This perfectly-timed book, written by Charles Emmerson, a Senior Research Fellow at the Royal Institute for International Affairs, aims to provide the answer.

Divided into four parts and covering twenty-three of the world's major cities this fascinating book takes its reader on a whirlwind tour of the globe in 1913. Starting and finishing in London and crossing five continents in between, Emmerson uses contemporary sources [including newspaper reports, diaries, memoirs and extracts from Baedeker guides] to paint a vivid portrait of a world on the cusp of enormous change. While Europe still dominated much of the world in 1913 and monarchical and aristocratic government prevailed across most of the continent, the forces of change were on the march.

Further afield, new powers were rising and a new trend, 'globalisation', was beginning to deconstruct the existing order, unleashing enormous political, economic and social change in its wake.
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34 of 38 people found the following review helpful
Emmerson's book is a lesson in the fact that if history does not necessarily repeat itself, it certainly echoes through time. City-hopping through the key intellectual, commercial, and political centres of the age, Emmerson takes the reader on a world tour that at once illustrates, with well-researched detail, what daily life might have felt like, while also drawing comparisons between cities that serve to illustrate Emmerson's broader themes of a world on the brink of seismic shifts that have eerie parallels with the challenges we face today. That he manages to pack this tour d'horizon into just over 500 pages, that flows seamlessly on its global journey and is absorbing from start to finish, is a tribute to Emmerson's writing skill and absolute mastery of his subject. Highly recommended.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A View Of The World Prior To War 20 Nov 2013
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
An interesting look at the world prior to the Great War. Some might think it a long boring book but he was covering the world here and perhaps each continent deserves a book to itself. However there was interest on every page, I especially like the flavour it gave of the still frontier towns of America and Canada and this was only 100 years ago, my grandfather was 40 years old at this time and I knew him well. So it shows how close we were to an almost lawless society. We might not have progressed as much as we think.
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23 of 27 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent read 9 May 2013
I really enjoyed this book. It is wonderfully written, and really brings the world of 1913 to life for me. I found the global perspective of it particularly impressive - Emmerson covers a lot of ground, but as a reader I always felt I was being carried from one continent to the next with the characters and the narrative. My favourite cities were Constantinople and Jerusalem - two cities that I had known something about, but not at that time in history. And the way the book is written means that I could dip in and out at will. I would definitely recommend this - even to someone who is not necessarily a reader of big history books in general. Combining history, travelogue - and a profound reflection on a world where people didn't know what was about to happen to their world, and to their society - I thought this was a wonderful complement to all the books about World War I itself which I know will be coming out over the next few years.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars The World about to change
An interesting wide sweeping view of a World which unknown to its citizens was about to change forever
Published 1 month ago by JEH
4.0 out of 5 stars Enjoyable, easy read
A good angle for a development economist as many of the current challenges in the developing world echo those of 1913, from the corruption scandals of the UK to the breathless pace... Read more
Published 1 month ago by C. S. D. Robertson
5.0 out of 5 stars for people who are interested in the history of what ...
for people who are interested in the history of what happened and how folk survived without mobi;e phone ans had to just wait for news in the newspapers of the day or the pathe... Read more
Published 2 months ago by Mrs. Sheila Buchanan
5.0 out of 5 stars Lyrical
A wonderfully insightful read to the magnificent era that the Great War was about to disrupt, if not destroy, influence and kick into different directions and so never be the same... Read more
Published 2 months ago by Jonathan F. Vernon
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Published 2 months ago by Michelle
3.0 out of 5 stars A great idea that fails to deliver
Great idea, but sadly Charles Emmerson's 1913 world travelogue descends into a bit of a dull trudge by the end. Read more
Published 2 months ago by Ektor
3.0 out of 5 stars Somewhere lurking must surely be the definitive eve-of-war book. But...
Undeniably well-written, but ultimately unsatisfying. Presented here are a series of vignettes describing the great - and lesser - cities of the world on the brink of war, with... Read more
Published 2 months ago by Smst1
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating read
Excellent insight into pre-ww1 situation. It challenges many preconceived ideas about this period in a way not covered by books which deal specifically with the causes of ww1. Read more
Published 4 months ago by Evelyn Marsden
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating...seriously...
Having read a number of texts on WWI as well as the Edwardian and late Victorian eras I find it rare to come across a book that offers a truly different angle on the period;... Read more
Published 4 months ago by JR
5.0 out of 5 stars Historical Book
I bought this for my friend's daughter who is about to study as a history teacher. She is delighted with the gift.
Published 4 months ago by Elaine Hill
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