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The uninevitable

  • Jun 24, 2014
Cataclysmic events like the Great War cause us to see the history of the time immediately preceding only in the light of the events that followed.  This historical hindsight can blind us to the true perceptions and important events as seen by the contemporaries of the time.  Emmerson attempts to remedy this by looking at the major cities, societies, nations, and empires as they were in 1913, not as they would be perceived later as key participants in the war, but as they saw themselves in the present of 1913.

For example, even something as simple as the name for an event shapes our perception of it.  The Great War only became "World War I" after history threw a second great worldwide war in our path a generation later, but the participants and the societies touched by that first war knew nothing of another to come that would make the Great War into the first of a series.

Emmerson's approach is a valid and valuable antidote to this hyperactive and sometimes incorrect attribution of portents and causes to people, places, and events when these building blocks of history in fact had no intention or awareness of their role in the unfolding cataclysm.  This is not to say that Emmerson writes with a blind eye to the war we all know was coming, but it is go say that not everyone saw the war coming in 1913.  In fact, he makes a good case from his historical research that most of the world did NOT see the war coming; despite some potential clouds (the Ottoman Empire in collapse, cracks in the massive monolith of the British Empire, expanding navies in Germany and Japan) there were valid and generally accepted causes for optimism.

The book is organized geographically into four sections:  Europe, the Americas (intriguingly titled "the Old New World"), the emerging regions (he labels them the "The World Beyond," but might have appropriately used the title "The New New World"), and finally "Twilight Powers".  In the first three sections he surveys the news, population, politics, arts, and mood of the major cities in each region as they were reported, discussed and lived in 1913.  It is a world more modern than we tend to think from our supposedly superior position a century later.  The major transportation (cars, trains, and  steamships) and communication technologies (telephone, telegraph, and movies) are already in place and starting to shrink the globe and spreading the globalization we arrogantly claim as a distinctive for our current generation.

In the final section he visits or revisits empires in transit to or from their position of strength.  The collapsing Ottoman, the possibly eclipsing British, the shattered Chinese, and the rising Japanese offer perhaps for the first time the portents for the future we are used to reading in the manifold studies on the origins and root causes of World War I.  But even here the tea leaves are only suggestive and not universal in predicting the inevitability of a coming great war.

By peeling away this layer of interpretation, Emmerson is able to show us a world that is more dimensional and complete in its strengths and flaws than the usual recitation of "Since...Therefore" constructs that a single minded search for causation leads us towards.  The picture is recognizable as a real world where people lived, died, hoped, and feared.  Sure there were fears of war that might come, but hopes of peace and prosperity as well.  Emmerson's account provides a background that helps us place the coming war in context and contrast to the world that was in 1913.

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June 24, 2014
Very interesting historical observations!
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Todd Stockslager ()
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I love reading and writing about what I have read, making the connections and marking the comparisons and contrasts. God has given man the amazing power to invent language and the means to record it which … more
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