‘The world went to war in 1914,” begins the epilogue of this haunting, poignant history of the previous year, jolting the reader with the sudden reminder. The year before World War I was long remembered as a European idyll, but to Charles Emmerson, senior research fellow at Chatham House in London, it was a summit of human development, when much of the globe was linked in a benign web of trade and technology. And yet the great, teeming forces powering this glittering age were soon put to the business of destruction and death. The splendor was on the surface — and cities were the most splendid places of all.

So vast was the struggle of 1914-18, and so profound its effects, that life before it can be difficult to envision. The trenches that scarred the soil between the Belgian coast and the Swiss border were chasms into which civilization itself seemed to topple. But relatively few people spent 1913 oppressed by visions of epic warfare. Many were busy making money or traveling to far-flung locales only recently made accessible. Still more were flexing their political muscles in street protest and at the ballot box. “The world of 1913 risks becoming viewed as nothing more than an antechamber to the Great War,” Emmerson writes, and though he foreshadows the conflict to come, it is a cosmopolitan world of peaceful strivers that commands his attention. And in its interconnectedness, vexation over immigration and worship of commerce, “the world of a hundred years ago was in many respects decidedly modern.”

Emmerson is a boosterish tour guide, with a busy itinerary of 23 cities around the globe. Six are the capitals of the great powers of Europe, “Centre of the Universe”; four are in the United States; and the rest are scattered elsewhere. Many of the latter places would rise with the passing of the years and command the world’s attention, among them Tehran and Bombay, Tokyo and Peking. In each city the author vividly surveys the political, economic and cultural scenes. The effect is transporting; 1913 is both passport and time machine.

At the heart of this gorgeous mosaic is the sprawling, imperial city of London. Under the Liberal government of Prime Minister Herbert Asquith, the British economic engine hummed merrily along, while bankers and businessmen deprecated talk of war. The empire was vast, though many of its former colonies had already assumed commonwealth status, bowing to the crown but governing themselves. Winnipeg and Melbourne, both on Emmerson’s grand tour, were British outposts coming into their own, festooned with Union Jacks but forging separate identities. Yet when war came, Canadians and Australians flew the colors and shed their blood on the Somme and at Gallipoli.

Millions were soon to die on the fields of France, but in 1913 Paris was “the quintessential city of seduction, sensation and spectacle.” President Raymond Poincare still brooded over the German conquest of his native Lorraine in 1870, but his fellow Parisians were more exercised about the riotous premiere of Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring.” This modernist masterpiece seemed a harbinger of things to come, as a lusher and more ornate past ceded to a harsher but more dynamic present.

‘1913: In Search of the World Before the Great War’ by Charles Emmerson (Public Affairs)

If London was a smug clubman and Paris a flirtatious coquette, Berlin was a brash “parvenu.” Capital of a nation born only four decades before, it thrust itself forward in a blur of modern, mass-produced architecture. Its unlovely vistas were in stark contrast to the splendors of Vienna, seat of Emperor Franz Joseph, whose rule over the ramshackle Austro-Hungarian Empire had lasted 60 years. It was in Vienna, home to Freud and birthplace of psychoanalysis, that ministers were to hatch their revenge plot against Serbia, and in Berlin that Kaiser Wilhelm II (nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize two years before) was to issue the famous “blank check” to his aggressive Austrian allies. But outside the halls of power, art, culture and music added to the dizzying ferment of life.

Across the Atlantic another capital confidently began to assert itself. By 1913, Washington had begun to emerge from the swampy somnolence of its 19th-century beginnings. Vast marble temples appeared along wide boulevards, and the city became a vision in white, set against a lush green backdrop. Other contrasts were just as sharp but far less benign: Lining the alleys of the city were the shanties of the poor, most of them African Americans. Under the new Democratic president, Woodrow Wilson, a son of the South and a self-styled progressive, racial segregation was introduced in federal agencies, making middle-class black Washingtonians feel second-class after all. But this evidently did the capital’s tourist appeal no harm: “Honeymooners were now as likely to go to Washington as to go to Niagara Falls.”

Emmerson gives us a vision of “a world bathed in the last rays of a dying sun, a world of order and security,” but tempers the nostalgia with a plea “to take stock of our past and consider our future, not as a foregone conclusion, not as a pre-determined set of events, but as a future we have yet to build.” Thus may we revel in the achievements of a glorious civilization while working to ensure that our own meets a happier fate.

The centenary of the Great War will no doubt see the publication of many fine histories of the conflict, but few are likely to paint so alluring a portrait of the world that was consumed by it — and that helped bring it about.

Michael F. Bishop has held several posts on Capitol Hill and in the White House and is the former executive director of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission.


In Search of the World

Before the Great War

By Charles Emmerson

PublicAffairs. 526 pp. $30