1913: The Year Before The Storm

19131913: The Year before the Storm, Florian Illies

Here at The Company of Books we don’t recommend something until we have read every last line. As the previous recommendation was back in March, it might appear as though we have been slacking off, but no, it’s simply that while many were read, none were chosen. These include at least one tome that made it to the top summer reads list of a respected British Sunday newspaper. However, the despair is at an end. We don’t recommend something until every last line has been read – until now.

In the midst of the current tide of books about the period immediately before the First World War, Florian Illies’ 1913: The Year before the Storm is an informative and highly engaging addition to the flow. Taking the year month by month it offers snippets, from a single line to a couple of pages, with little details about the people or events that made up the tapestry of 1913. The big names from politics and the arts are there, of course. So too are the seeds of future impacts:

“Two national myths are founded: in New York the first edition of Vanity Fair is published. In Essen, Karl and Theo Albrecht’s mother opens the prototype of the first Aldi supermarket.”

“The drug ‘ecstasy’ has been synthesised for the first time; the patent application drags on through 1913. Then it’s completely forgotten about for several decades.”

There have been one or two other books in the past couple of years that attempted this type of thing about other pivotal years in European history, but there was something a little lifeless about them. Illies’ book avoids becoming mere catalogue both by his clever mix of details large and lesser, and his infusion of a quirky speculative vein. In January of 1913, for example, according to their separate friends, two young men liked to walk in the park at the Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna. One, we already know from previous references, is Stalin. He

“walks through the park, thinking . . . Another walker comes towards him . . . a failed painter who’s been turned down by the Academy . . . He is waiting, like Stalin, for his big break. His name is Adolf Hitler . . . The two men may have greeted one another politely and tipped their hats as they made their way through the boundless park . . . Even when Hitler and Stalin sealed their fatal ‘pact’ in 1939, they never met. So they were never closer than they were on one of those bitterly cold January afternoons in the park of Schönbrunn Palace.”

A book to dip into, to read from cover to cover, to re-read (since you won’t remember it all the first time around, so fizzy is it with little nuggets), a book for anyone interested in that particular period, or in history generally, a book for people who like collecting bits and pieces of information useful to varying degrees (and, remember, anything might be useful in a pub quiz). In short – and though the last line has not yet been gained – the most diverting book of the year so far.