EIBF Chapter 1: Calm Before the Storm

And we’re off! The gates of EIBF 2013 opeed at 9.30am and I arrived at Charlotte Square having just missed the big opening with a samba band and dancers. I can’t say I was too disappointed, as it was a little early for festivities, but it seems they went down well.

I wandered around, welcomed by the ducks that guard the press tent, and met fellow former Scotsman employee Stuart Kelly — now a bit of a rising media star and one of this year’s Booker judges, who is hosting events this year — before having a nose around the bookshop, which is as well-stocked as ever, particularly the comics section.

My first event this year was at 11am in the Pepper Theatre, Charles Emmerson talking about his book 1913: The World Before the Great War, chaired by Sheena McDonald. After I had climbed over a few people who had chosen to sit by the aisle, who like their counterparts in every row seemed repeatedly surprised thereafter that many other people might also might need to come in, the room filled almost to capacity.

Emmerson began with a swift recap of the argument of his book, which is a pretty hefty volume, and outlined his overriding desire, which was that “When we look at 1913 in general, now we look with the knowledge of what happened in 1914 … we look at the causes of the First World War and ask ‘How did it happen? Why did it happen?’ … I wanted to give 1913 back to the generation of 1913 rather than using it to explain how the First World War happened.”

His book is a study of the world – the whole world, not just Europe, on which we usually concentrate owing to the scale of the carnage on the Western Front – in that year, starting in Europe, then moving to the Americas and round to Asia.

The events in the years before 1914 are usually framed as a series of steps that would inevitably lead to war, but his thrust is to show how the opposite could well have happened.

He says we usually think of it as “the last summer of peace” before an “inevitable war for a “doomed generation”, and our field of vision – focusing on the war’s effect on families, villages and even Downton Abbey – “narrows from the global to a much smaller focus”. This is because “grief is familial, and local, later perhaps it becomes national, but it’s certainly not global”.

Secondly, because of all we know that arose from the conflict – the Russian revolution, the redrawing of Europe, the Second World War and The Holocaust – it is “the seminal catastrophe of the 20th century”.

However, in a series of readings, he gave us a taste of what else was going on in the world, noting: “The course of history seemed to be pulling the world together, not apart… There was a rise in nationalism, but also a rise in internationalism.”

As a striking counterfactual, he asked what might have happened had Song Jiaren not been assassinated, a thought prompted by visiting a small memorial in Shanghai. Asking the room who had heard of him, not a hand was raised. The first and only democratically elected president of China, but killed in 1913, Song might have averted the later need for Maoist revolution, changing the future of the Far East.

Though it’s easy to throw out examples of what might have been in history, they’re rarely useful, so this was more a way of drawing attention to the bigger picture: paralleling Archduke Ferdinand’s famous assassination, that schoolchildren for so long were taught was the pivotal moment, with one none of us had ever heard of, in order to pull back to a global perspective.

He stressed that even though the war has “an aura of inevitability” with hindsight, it was not how the world appeared in 1913. There hadn’t been an all-out war in Europe for a century, and though war had always been a threat, it was not necessarily taken seriously. National economies were so interdependent, and the royal families so closely linked, that war was almost unthinkable.

As evidence he read from Rudyard Kipling’s poem The Deep Sea Cables, culminating in a line to show how an age of rationalism and technological progress was bringing peoples together in harmony:

And a new Word runs between:  whispering, “Let us be one!”

I do wonder, though, that in quoting Kipling he might actually have betrayed an admiration for a beneficent Empire that was trying to unite the world through colonisation, and served the capitalist cause that would soon profit hugely from the upcoming slaughter. That might be unfair, though Kipling seems an odd choice.

Emmerson then ran through a series of excerpts from his book, including: a glittering celebration in St Petersburg; a Sears mail-order catalogue from the 48 United States of America; and an amusing description of the factions trying to prove to the newly arrived governor of Jerusalem that they were all his new best friend.

Audience questions ranged from how the international suffrage movement might have changed history to why young men were so keen so sign up.

All were fascinating glimpses into a wider world we have been cut off from any knowledge of, and it’s a very welcome perspective. Even though reading the book promises to be a serious undertaking, it is likely to be a very rewarding one.

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