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August 2nd, 2019

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1913, by Charles Emmerson

Second paragraph of third chapter:
Visitors to Berlin, over a million of them in 1913, found a city full of nervous, unchannelled energy; a city that wrapped itself in the mantle of the German Reich but which was, inside, still the provincial capital of Prussia; a city which was reckoned the most modern in Europe, an industrial powerhouse and a capital of science; a city on parade. Their reactions were mixed. Some saw a metropolis more suggestive of the future than any other, more urban and more modern, the very expression of the global economic force which the German Empire had become. But other visitors found a parvenu, blaring its new-found prosperity but with no finer sensibilities, an ugly and uncouth city. Many found both.
The author worked alongside me in the International Crisis Group back in the early years of this century, and went on to greater thinktanky things; in this book, he looks at 1913, the last year before the first world war, from the perspective of twenty-three great cities, starting and ending with London, but visiting the Americas, Asia, Africa, Australia and the rest of Europe en route. It's a masterly synthesis of what was going on in global politics, pulling together loads of primary sources - newspapers, diaries, etc - to build a clear picture of human politics as it was experienced by the people of the day. It was particularly interesting to get the perspective of cities from outside the European cultural space, such as Bombay, Peking, Shanghai, Tokyo, Tehran. It's quite a long book but a refreshingly quick read.

The concentration on individual cities does mean that two aspects of the world in 1913 are underplayed. First, most obviously, the countryside is seen only in relation to the city. Sure, the cities were where change was taking pace most quickly, but the politics of land ownership and agricultural technology are also fairly crucial drivers and are largely not included. Second, of course you can only pick so many cities; Brussels is not listed in the index, though there are a couple of paragraphs on the World's Fair in Ghent; Ireland's impact on England is described, but not from Ireland's pint of view; we hear from Algiers and Durban, but little from the continent they fringe. And third, there is little space for transnational phenomena - for instance, there is a throwaway remark about the meeting of the International Women's Suffrage Alliance in Budapest, which the Persian delegation was unable to attend; Lenin and Stalin pop up very briefly in the chapter on Vienna, as does Adolf Hitler.

But I guess you have to take your framing devices where you can find them, and I must admit I liked this a lot more than the last such book I read (1688, not counting 1434). It's fluent and engaging. You can get it here.

This was my top unread book acquired in 2014. Next on that pile is Two Brothers, by Ben Elton.

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