What I’m Reading: 1913: In Search of the World Before the Great War

Charles Emmerson’s book about 1913 is exactly what the title promises: an exploration of the world on the eve of World War I. Rather than proceeding according to, say, a calendar of the year, or a survey of personalities or events, Emmerson has chosen a really ingenious organizing principle. Each chapter is devoted to a city, categorized into four broad sections: cities at the center of empires and Great Powers (London, Paris, Berlin, et al.), rising cities in North America (New York, Washington, Detroit, LA, Mexico City), cities in the world beyond (Melbourne, Algiers, Bombay, Jerusalem, et al.), and finally, cities in declining powers (Tehran, Constantinople, Shanghai, et al.).

Each chapter explains how the city and country fit into the world in 1913, gives a look at the layout and atmosphere of the city, and then goes into the political and social situation and what prospects the city seemed to have at the time.

It’s hard for me to narrow down what’s most interesting. I’m a sucker for books about cities, and this is about almost all of them, and at a key historical time, though a period that’s often overlooked. I think maybe my favorite chapter was about Los Angeles, which as of the 1910 census had passed San Francisco as California’s most populous city. But what was fueling LA’s explosive growth? Not Hollywood–the movie industry was still in its infancy, although growing fast. No, LA’s original industry was oil. After western Pennsylvania, greater LA was the largest producer of oil in the US at the time (and actually, most people don’t realize, it’s still a major oil center). With all the cars rolling off the new assembly lines at Ford Motors in Detroit (another chapter, also interesting), the demand for oil was growing every year, bringing wealth and workers to southern California. All the rest–the movie industry, the aerospace industry, tourism and shipping and everything else–were either nascent or still to come altogether.

Another fascinating chapter (although they all are!) is about Jerusalem. In 1913, Jerusalem, the only real city at the time in the Ottoman province that roughly corresponds to modern Israel, was about half Jewish, one-quarter Muslim, and one quarter Christian. In turn, each of these communities were finely variegated, with their constituents not always friendly with each other. So, for example, the older Jewish families who had always been in the city might not have a lot in common with the newer Zionist arrivals from Europe, an Armenian Christians might argue with his Greek Orthodox neighbor, and city residents of all religions might resent the tourists and pilgrims, whose numbers had been increasing dramatically in recent decades due to the transportation improvements in the late nineteenth century. But it seems that the city under its Ottoman governor was more harmonious than it is today, with Emmerson providing quotes from inhabitants about how living so closely with so many neighbors of other religions meant that they were all familiar with and had a certain respect for each other’s holidays and other traditions. There was even a fair amount of cross-sectarian celebration, so that a Christian might visit a Muslim friend to help celebrate the end of Ramadan. The period was certainly not without its problems, but on the whole, Jerusalem sounds a lot sleepier but also peaceful than the city it grew into.

I have the urge to keep going about how in Buenos Aires, the British ran everything commercial, and about the activities of a young lawyer named Mohandas Gandhi in defending the rights of the Indian community in Durban, South Africa, and the French experience in Algiers, and… well, you get the idea. There’s something new and interesting on every page.

One thing that struck me repeatedly is that for a world on the brink of what remains the deadliest war in history, and that European countries seemed to slip into so easily, so many at the time neither thought a war likely nor desired one. Perhaps it’s merely selective quoting on Emmerson’s part, but I don’t think so. People in 1913 truly believed that the increasing commercial, communications, and tourist connections among the Europeans had made war impossible. How could a war take place, when it would mean such a setback to profits, such a disruption to business? To be sure, there were exceptions–the artists of the Futurist movement in Italy thought war would be a way to bring glory and meaning to a banal age, for example. But most observers in France, Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Britain, hardly expected or wished for a worldwide conflict.

1913: In Search of the World Before the Great War is so interesting, so informative, that it wins one of my Shortcuts to Smartness awards–the first one awarded since 2019! This coveted award goes to books that are so packed full of interesting and useful information on a variety of subjects that reading one is like taking a college course in and of itself. I highly recommend it to any history buffs, city fans, or simply anyone who wants a really interesting read.

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