A new book about the last full year of peace before the start of the Great War offers a fascinating account of a complacent society about to be engulfed, reports Rebecca Wallersteiner

Florian Illies' new book, 1913

Florian Illies’ new book, 1913

German journalist and writer Florian Illies, who has previously written Generation Golf, a critical look at the lack of idealism and style-fixation of his own 1980s’ generation, has delved further back into the past to produced a fascinating historical account in his book 1913.

The work tells the story of the year through a series of intriguing snippets, recorded month by month and fashioned into a diary of Europe. This was the momentous year in which Charlie Chaplin signed his first movie contract; a love-sick Kafka had just finished writing the classic Metamorphosis and Franz Wedekind’s Lulu was banned.

Elsewhere, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring caused a riot in Paris; a cat crept into Sigmund Freud’s studio and the first aerobatic loop-the-loop was flown.

Illies firmly believes that Vienna, with its largely Jewish intelligentsia, was the European capital of ideas in 1913 – with Freud, Schnitzler, Zweig, Wittgenstein, Klimt and Kokoschka all swapping ideas, and often muses, in the city’s hundreds of cafés.

Also in Vienna, the 23-year-old Adolf Hitler, rejected from art school, spent his days painting quaint watercolours and wandering around the park of the Schonbrunn Palace.

Illies even speculates that Hitler may well have tipped his hat to future Russian tyrant Joseph Stalin, who also liked to wander around the park.

In many ways, the year 1913 was remarkably similar to 2013. The world was newly linked by the telephone, making instant communication possible, while capitalism and international trade were flourishing, with London already Europe’s financial centre.

Ludwig Meidner's Apocalyptic Landscape was an eerie portrayal of the chaos set to engulf Europe

Ludwig Meidner’s Apocalyptic Landscape was an eerie portrayal of the chaos set to engulf Europe

Modern art and jazz were shocking the critics and motor vehicles were taking over Europe’s roads.

Given the carefree atmosphere, it is perhaps surprising many had premonitions of ruin. The composer Arnold Schoenberg, born on 13 September, was so superstitious about the number 13 that he went to great lengths to avoid it, even as a page number, but ended up dying on Friday, 13 July, 1951.

Meanwhile, 1913 did prove a lucky year for the writer Thomas Mann, whose new novel Death in Venice was acclaimed, but Mussolini’s favourite poet, Gabriele D’Annunzio, wrote the date 1912+1 throughout the year to avoid the omnipresent unlucky number 13.

In February 1913, Stalin met Trotsky for the first time – and in the very same month, in Barcelona, a man was born who would later murder Trotsky on Stalin’s orders. So perhaps 1913 was an unlucky year after all.

It was also the year of torrid love affairs – with artists and writers around Europe living as if there was no tomorrow.

Kafka, finding himself going mad with love in Prague, made a marriage proposal; D H Lawrence published Sons and Lovers, then ran off with mother-of-three Frieda von Richthofen; Oskar Kokoschka bought a canvas as big as the bed of his lover, the widow Alma Mahler, and painted them both.

When it became a masterpiece, but not before, Alma wanted to marry him. They fought for much of the year.

Sigmund Freud walking with his daughter  (Courtesy of Ullstein-bild-Imagno)

Sigmund Freud walking with his daughter (Courtesy of Ullstein-bild-Imagno)

Although Illies’ book is light in tone, it creates a mood of impending catastrophe. We know in hindsight that it is only a few months until Archduke Franz Ferdinand will be assassinated in Sarajevo and the vast cosmopolitan Austro-Hungarian Empire, which had enabled Jews and other minorities to flourish for generations, is about to crumble.

By 1918, the political map of Europe was unrecognisable; the German, Habsburg, Russian and Ottoman empires had collapsed and more than 35 million people had been killed or wounded by the deadliest carnage in modern history.

Writing of the vanished world of pre-war Vienna, Stefan Zweig wrote: “All the bridges between our today and our yesterday and our yesteryears have been burnt.”

It may seem long ago, but it is actually quite recent – and continuing with the theme, there are actually 13,000 people still alive in the UK today who were alive in 1913.

Already a surprise international bestseller, this is one of the most fascinating and original historical books I have come across.

• 1913 – The Year before the Storm, by Florian Illies, published by The Clerkenwell Press, is priced £14.99. Available now.