Seek, and Ye Shall Find Your Selves: A Review of 1913 by Charles Emmerson

1913: In Search of the World Before the Great War (Public Affairs), 547 pp.  by Charles Emmerson


It is an axiom of writing history that you always begin with a question:  why did such and such a thing happen, and at this particular moment, etc.  It is also the case that such questions are usually prompted by some sort of burning desire to address issues or questions we have about our world in the present, and it is inevitable that such concerns will color our view of the past.  The key for a good historian is to be conscious about such concerns, as with his assumptions and beliefs, and that he or she try to be as forthright as can be expected with their readers, so that they can make their own judgments on what they have written.

Recently, I have taken to reading books about the First World War, this being the centenary of the start of the Great War, and having listened to a podcast with the author, I recently finished reading 1913: In Search of the World Before the Great War, by Charles Emmerson.  I wanted to read it because it sounded like a genuine attempt to try to capture some of what was going on around the globe just before the Great War altered life in Europe forever.   In his book, Emmerson set out to paint a portrait of what life was like in both the major cities of Europe and America before WWI but also in great capitals and cities around the globe, such as Shanghai, Tokyo, and Buenos Aires.   Part of Emmerson’s goal was to make the pre-war era more familiar to readers, but also to stress how similar civilization was in 1913 to what it is today; in particular, he wants to stress the already globalized nature of civilizations across the globe.

Emmerson’s book is written for a general audience, I presume, and if one is seeking an very generic introduction to the relative political position occupied by Western and other nations vis-a-vis each other in 1913, one will find the book more or less meets that standard.  Utilizing mostly newspaper and journal accounts, mixed in with some secondary sources, the book is made up mostly of vignettes from those sources, without any other real attempt at a unifying theme or argument. Mostly, it simply tries to offer a brief snapshot of the basic political and social situation in a variety of places around the globe.

However, if you are looking for more than this, you will be disappointed.  The book does not offer any reflections on the various peoples and nations that it catalogues, nor does it seek to connect any of the events that it relates leading up and including 1913 with events that occur afterward.  For example, Emmerson’s chapter on Peking and Shanghai goes into detail on the Boxer Rebellion, and the end of the Quing dynasty but fails to link this to Communist Revolution.  Perhaps this was done for the sake of brevity (the book itself is 547 pages long, including footnotes) but it was disappointing, in a book claiming to make clear how similar the world of 1913 is to that of 2013, that he almost never makes any explicit comparisons between them.

Also troubling to me were certain factual errors and omissions that I noticed in the book.  For example, in his chapter on Vienna, Emmerson claims that the Viennese made a habit of leaving their great composers destitute in the 19th century at their deaths citing Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert as examples with Strauss being the only counter example:  “the city had an unerring tradition of celebrating its greatest composers after it had allowed them to die in poverty—Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert.  The only exception to this was Johann Strauss, the waltz king.”  (115) Never mind the fact that Beethoven did not die in poverty, or that it is absurd to say the Viennese “let” Mozart and Schubert die in poverty.  More importantly, the list omits Hydyn, Brahms, and Bruckner, all of whom enjoyed success in Vienna,  and none of whom died in poverty.

Pointing out a seemingly minor mistake like this might seem like a quibble, but Emmerson made several other errors, most notably on religious subjects, that stood out to me, and quite frankly made me question his competence, or at least his editor’s competence.  One was his description of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem as the “site from which Jesus was said to have risen into Heaven.”  (336)  Actually, the gospel of Luke specifies that it was Bethany where Jesus ascended into Heaven; there is a chapel dedicated to the Ascenscion there to this day that marks the spot.  The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, on the other hand, is supposed to be built over the tomb where Jesus was buried, and resurrected from.   (Presumably, he simply confused Jesus’ resurrection from the dead with his ascension into heaven, but it is hard to tell.) In another example in his chapter on Rome, Emmerson refers to the  “spiritual infallibility” of the Pope as a reason for continuing enmity with the new Italian kingdom, whereas the actual Catholic teaching on the Pope’s infallibility refers to doctrinal matters, namely that he cannot teach serious error regarding faith or morals when teaching with the full authority of his office. (97)  Nor does Emmerson seem any more well versed on the subject of Islam either; he refers to “Islamic clergy” in Algeria in 1913, presumably referring to imams, but this is confusing, since the Sunni Islam predominant in North Africa (as in most Muslim countries) does not make any special status among its adherents that is equivalent to the “clergy” in Christianity, though it is a different matter with the Shia.  (286)  Lastly, he seems to think of the Caliphate as having combined a sort of religious and political authority, like the medieval popes, in his discussion of Istanbul, but doesn’t seem to realize that the Caliphs had no real authority in religious matters, which were the province of religious scholars in Islamic societies.  (365)  What is disturbing about all of this to me is that all of these facts can be ascertained from reliable  sources using a quick Google search, and Emmerson seems to have thought they did not matter much in a book purporting to be about “the world.”

Emmerson’s tin ear for the nuances of two great world religions is symptomatic of a deeper issue in his book, however.   It appears that his view of the “world” is that of a secular, liberal, Westerner, but is never announced as such.  This shows up not only the factual details he was apparently not interested in getting right, but also in omissions from his book.  For example, in his chapter on Los Angeles, Emmerson dutifully notes the first inklings of what will become Hollywood in the era just prior to 1913, but never mentions that one of the most important religious movements in the world today began in Los Angeles in 1905, namely the modern Pentecostal movement, which had its origins in the Asuza Street revival which began that year in L.A.  Notice the distinction:  for Emmerson, Hollywood is part of the “world” deserving of treatment; Pentecostalism is not.  As is, one suspects, religion generally speaking, perhaps because he thinks it is not sufficiently “modern” enough to be part of the “world.”

A similar distinction arises in regards to his discussion of the Ottoman Empire.  In his discussion on the Young Turks who forced constitutional changes in the Ottoman state in 1908, he informs us that in 1908 “10,000 Armenians had died in inter-communal violence” in Istanbul.  (365) What does he mean by inter-communal violence, you ask?  I had to look it up on the internet to find out.  He was referencing the Adana massacre of 1909, in which, according to most accounts, not 10 but 20-30,000 Armenian were killed, and which was precipitated by a counter coup against the Young Turks.  I note this because Emmerson makes the Young Turks, with their modernizing political program and drive toward nationalism, the main protagonist in his narrative on the Ottoman Empire.  Nor does he link this violence against the Armenians in 1909 with the genocide of Armenians in 1915, even though he mentions it in passing in the epilogue. (457)  In fact, he seems to laud them as being progressive, modernizing; he characterizes Ottoman society thus:  “To be an Ottoman, in the fullest and most political sense of the word, was to understand and celebrate these different religions and cultures as part of a whole, whatever one’s own background.” (365) Somehow I’m not sure the Armenians would agree.  Compare this description with the way he talks about the Austro-Hungarian empire, another declining power in 1913, but whose government was not quite progressive enough, it seems, to suit Emmerson’s tastes.  In discussing the term “Imperial and Royal” which the Austrians used to describe their system of government which gave the Hungarians autonomy as a kingdom yet still within the empire, Emmerson comments thus:  “empire and kingdom were indeed separate, and yet part of the same body, a concept which no doubt made sense to those brought up with the mysteries of the Holy Trinity.”  (104)  Emmerson’s narrative clearly favors one empire over the other, as his Gibbon-like barb at Christian belief makes clear, but he never really tells us why he believes this is the case.

All of this brings up the most important omission of all in Emmerson’s book.  He writes as if he is merely giving a description of the world as it is by describing a few global patterns in some major cities, and not a historical snapshot which presumes a very particular world view.   Now, some superficiality in a book like this is inevitable, as are some minor errors of fact given the limitations all of us have in terms of our knowledge.  But reading 1913 left me with the impression that this was not merely a matter of missing a few details but a matter of avoiding the real question which his work raises but never answers, primarily because Emmerson thinks he knows the answer already.  Emmerson says in the introduction that “in 1913, our world was alive and kicking”; my immediate response upon reading this passage was, “who is ‘we’?”   Emmerson seems to presume an answer to this question, but never makes it explicit:  “we” are the wealthy, progressive, secular Western elites who, for good or ill, still govern much of the institutions that shape civilizations.   And rather than write a genuine history of how this came to be, and how the world before the War plays into this, he simply reads his the world view he knows and is familiar with back into several of those civilizations in 1913, and finds it there.   Emmerson ends the book by saying it was meant as a spur for his readers to “consider our future, not as a foregone conclusion, not as a pre-determined course of events, but as a future we have yet to build.” (463)  This must be comforting, I suppose, to people already share his beliefs, but to those don’t, it might give one pause to consider questions that Emmerson simply ignores.





Alypius Minor

~ by Alypius on May 13, 2014.

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