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So Long Ago, And Yet So Close!,
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This review is from: 1913: In Search of the World Before the Great War (Hardcover)
I chose that title for my review because it came to my mind repeatedly while I was reading this excellent history. Because World War I was such a turning point we often tend to think of the years just before its outbreak as almost ancient history, far removed from our own time. Charles Emmerson reminds us that this is not the case in a variety of ways, one obvious one being that there are still thousands of living people today who were born in or before 1913. But more importantly, Emmerson also draws many parallels between 1913 and 2013 that are well worth pondering: the effects of globalization, the pressures of nationalism, the rapid development of some regions and the gradual decline of others, the demands of colonized peoples for greater independence, and the continuing challenges of industrialization and economic change, among many others.
Emmerson surveys 1913 by taking us on a world tour of major cities. He begins with the center of the world at the time, Europe, and gives us short but fascinating chapters about London, Paris, Berlin, Rome, Vienna, and St. Petersburg. The next section deals with the New World and covers Washington, New York, Detroit, Los Angeles, and Mexico City. The third section is The World Beyond and covers Winnipeg-Melbourne (in order to discuss the British world wide emigration), Buenos Aires, Algiers, Bombay-Durban (where nationalism and anti-colonialism were beginning to stir), Tehran, and Jerusalem. The final section is Twilight Powers, dealing with Constantinople, Peking-Shanghai, Tokyo, and finishing with London once again as a city which wondered if it was facing the beginnings of its own decline. A short Epilogue deals with the after effects of World War I, an event which upended the seemingly secure world of 1913 and altered it almost beyond recognition.
This was a thoroughly enjoyable book, filled with fascinating anecdotes and vignettes which really help to recapture the atmosphere of 1913. Emmerson says in his Epilogue that he intends for us to look at 1913 as a sort of parallel to our own times, not intending to predict that we are on the threshold of some catastrophe like World War I, but rather "to take stock of our past and consider our future." Of course any history book will make a similar claim, but in this particular case I think Emmerson has an excellent point: 2013 seems to echo 1913 in so many ways that it would be foolhardy not to pay attention to them.