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2013 - Is it 1913 Again? A Hundred Years Ago We Were on the Brink

15/03/2013 10:58 GMT | Updated 14/05/2013 10:12 BST

Luxembourg's Prime Minster is warning that Europe's demons of war may be coming back. It's a small country, but Jean-Claude Juncker has a big voice. Until January, he was President of the Eurogroup that manages political aspects of the single currency. Juncker is worried about the disintegration of the Euro and the bad blood growing between north and south (resentful Germans bailing out irate Greeks and so forth). He tells the German weekly Der Spiegel that he sees "conspicuous parallels" to 100 years ago, the year before World War I broke out.

Is 2013 a repeat of 1913?

1913 was certainly a fluid, turbulent moment.

There was excitement and a sense of progress a century ago. British scientist Harry Brearley was creating stainless steel. Ford Motor Company was introducing the assembly line. Womens' suffrage was becoming successful in Europe and the United States. New gadgets and innovations dominated headlines. The bra, the Brillo pad, the zipper and the modern x-ray tube were invented in 1913. Telephones were becoming commonplace.

But clouds were fast approaching. In Europe the Austro-Hungarian empire showed signs of pulling apart. Nationalism was on the rise. In the United States the trial of Leo Frank bitterly divided the nation. Frank was a well-to-do Jewish factory owner accused of raping and murdering an 11-year-old girl named Mary Phagan. The case pitted urban against rural, wealth against working class, blacks against whites and Gentiles against Jews. Civil War wounds were reopened. Frank was a yankee capitalist raised in New York. The crime was committed in Marietta, Georgia.

Leo Frank ended up kidnapped from prison and lynched by a mob.

The social and intellectual stress of 1913 manifested itself in countless ways. The premiere of Igor Stravinsky's modernist Rite of Spring actually provoked riots in Paris. You can smell some of the emerging turmoil in Thomas Mann's 1901 novel Buddenbrooks, the story of a German merchant family over four generations. Buddenbrooks is a tale of decadence and decline. Finances and ideals were disintegrating. Happiness was elusive. Meaning and purpose disappeared.

In 1914 war erupted.

Today, conflict (and bellicosity) certainly don't seem to let up. Syria has melted down. North Korea threatens South Korea and the United States. Iran will almost certainly acquire nuclear weapons and alter the balance of power in the Greater Middle East. The Balkans are not stable. Neither is Russia really. Nor nuclear Pakistan. And China, that vast, unwieldy, authoritarian state of 1.3 billion, is on the rise. Can Chinese Communist bureaucrats keep their great patchwork from tearing apart?

As for us in the West, it's hard not to see parallels to 1913. There's the adrenaline rush of entrepreneurship and innovation, on the one hand; the intoxicating explosion of social media and what appears to be a growing interdependence. There's the Euro and dreams of European unity.

On the other hand, there's tribalism, polarisation, and malaise. We've lost trust in our political leaders and governing institutions. We don't know what to do about our economic system. Religion and faith are on the defensive. And our celebrities, those ersatz heroes on whom we pinned (oh so unwisely) so many hopes. The Lance Armstrongs, the Jimmy Saviles?

There is a whiff of Thomas Mann in Jonathan Franzen's most recent novel Freedom, a story that explores the burden of marrying modern-day ambition and liberty with a measure of wisdom, restraint and responsibility.

So what now?

Mark Twain said history doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme. I like another quote by the American author and humorist: "It is not worthwhile to try to keep history from repeating itself, for man's character will always make the preventing of the repetitions impossible."

Maybe. But perhaps this is a useful clue for our rather large and complicated puzzle. In order that 1914 doesn't repeat itself, I suspect we first need a patient and tolerant debate about first principles. And a discerning eye on what's come before.