As 2013 draws to a close, I keep thinking about the world of 1913, exactly one hundred years ago.
Exactly a century ago, globalization was all the rage. The West was dominant, though it was western Europe, not the US, that dominated everything. The great European empires had been a stabilizing factor in Europe for centuries. It had been almost a hundred years since there was a major threat to world peace, Napoleon.
Yes, other wars had happened (no century in history has been without its wars). The United States was engulfed in civil war for four years in the 1860’s. The Germans and the French had fought a particularly bad war in 1870, the British and Russians a few years earlier. There had been minor wars in the Balkans. At the turn of the century, the British Empire was at war with the Boers in South Africa. But essentially the world had enjoyed a century of peace under the Pax Britannica.
So, in 1913, the future looked rosy.
That year, the Romanovs celebrated the tercentenary of their dynasty. Their tour across Russia brought out millions of loyal subjects, joyously celebrating peace and growing prosperity. Lenin wrote to his wife in Geneva that the revolution would not happen in his lifetime, such was the popularity of the Romanovs. Four years later, the empire and the dynasty collapsed; within a few months, Lenin was the new Bolshevik leader. After seventy years of communism, the country still has not recovered from the fall of the czars.
In Germany, wealthy shoppers on the Under den Linden in Berlin, were enjoying the great prosperity that had come with Germany’s rapid growth rate since the unification of the country forty years earlier under the Prussian Hohenzollerns. Nobody would have predicted the collapse of both empire and dynasty within five years.
Next door, the Habsburg dynasty continued to bask in the peaceful reign of the Emperor Franz Joseph, Europe’s longest serving monarch. If anything happened to him, there were plenty of other Habsburg princes and grand dukes to take his place. Vienna, too, was enjoying the greatest prosperity, even though the Austro-Hungarian Empire did not have overseas colonies. Again, nobody would have guessed they only had five more years.
On the Avenue Champs Elysees in Paris, the city’s wealthy citizens enjoyed spending their increasing wealth. France’s overseas empire was second only to Britain’s and, finally, after more than a century of political upheavals, the country had achieved stability under the Third Republic. The republic was to last until 1940, but the events that led to its eventual demise were about to be set in motion.
London was the financial capital of the world, at the head of the greatest empire in history. The British Empire was impregnable and money deposited in the country was “as safe as the Bank of England.” The royal family had been on the throne for two centuries. The country seemed as secure and stable as any country could be.
Six months after 1913 ended, an assassination in Sarajevo was to lead to the greatest conflict in history, World War One. The world would never be the same again. Wars and rumors of wars have replaced the old world order. The ripples can still be seen, the never-ending consequences of “the war to end all wars.” Afghanistan and Iraq are two recent examples.
On Monday, November 11th, it will be exactly 95 years since the guns of World War One fell silent. A time to remember. Time to pause and reflect. In my childhood, wherever we were, we paused for two minutes at 11am, the exact time the fighting stopped – a token of respect for those who had paid the ultimate price. In the United States November 11th is Veterans Day, in the United Kingdom, Remembrance Day. On Sunday, the Queen will lay a wreath at the Cenotaph in London, to honor troops from all the Commonwealth countries that fought in the war from beginning to end.
But we should also pause and reflect to remember how quickly the world changed, how suddenly the peace and prosperity came to an end, how radically different the world of 1914 was from the world of 1913.
Could it happen again? Of course it could.
Until then, the world will continue as it is.
It brings to mind the words of Jesus Christ in Matthew 24:37-39: “But as the days of Noah were, so shall also the coming of the Son of man be. For as in the days that were before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noah entered into the ark, And knew not until the flood came, and took them all away; so shall also the coming of the Son of man be.”
Something to reflect on over this Remembrance Day /Veterans Day weekend.