Most books about the year 1913 deal with the run-up to World War I. Emmerson (The Future History of the Arctic, 2010), fellow of the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London, casts his net more widely, depicting life in two dozen great cities on the eve of the event that either ushered in the modern world or didn’t (historians still debate this).
The author has little new to say but says it well, and the further he travels from Europe, the more he illuminates areas unfamiliar to even educated readers. Parallels between eras a century apart are not in short supply. Observers in 1913 were already extolling a globalized planet, knit together by dazzling advances in technology. Democracy and capitalism seemed the wave of the future despite the disturbing spread of terrorist movements. The reigning superpower, Britain, was in relative decline, with Asia re-awakening and other rising powers flexing their muscles. In five chapters, Emmerson examines European capitals on a continent that took for granted that it was the center of the world, barely aware that the United States (four particular cities) was poised to take over that role. The hinterlands (Buenos Aires, Tehran, Jerusalem and others), colonies (Winnipeg, Bombay, Algiers and others) and Asian metropolises complete Emmerson’s world tour. Although ostensibly about cities, the author also describes the country involved, often emphasizing a major figure—e.g., Woodrow Wilson in Washington, Gandhi in Durban, South Africa.
Emmerson largely confines himself to history and national concerns with only a passing look at international politics on the verge of the Great War, but this is an intelligent picture of our world exactly 100 years ago.