With the 1% of the 1% due to engorge Davos with their high-thinking centrally-planned solutions to the world’s oh-so-foreseeable problems, the FT takes a look back at a “world above it all” from 1914. Then too, Margaret McMillan notes, they would have been puzzling over how to cope with their fast-changing, troubled world. They would have worried – as they do today – about the future; concerned that the pattern of economic boom and bust was dangerously unstable; and warning that society might splinter as inequality grew and the middle classes were squeezed. One thing that would not have troubled Davos that January 100 years ago was the possibility of a major war. Europe had just come through two dangerous wars in the Balkans, which surely showed that the international order could cope with crises. And so they would have gone their separate ways confident that they would all meet again in 1915.
The crowds promenading on the main streets or jamming into the cafés and restaurants of the small resort town are elegant. No jogging pants or puffy jackets but women wearing huge fur hats, ankle-length skirts and wonderful wraps; or men in plus fours carrying skates or skis. The occasional emaciated passer-by is not a supermodel or fitness guru but one of the consumptives seeking a cure in the healing mountain air. Welcome to the World Economic Forum – as it might have been in the Davos of January 1914.
Then too they would have been puzzling over how to cope with their fast-changing, troubled world. The lovely wife of the Russian chief of staff might have swept by, ignoring unkind whispers that her besotted husband had helped himself to state funds to keep her in those sables. English lords, Austrian grand dukes, Hungarian landowners, American tycoons, German generals, Japanese diplomats, Indian maharajas, Brazilian mining magnates – Davos then, as now, was host to the world’s rich and powerful.
John Pierpont Morgan, the titan of Wall Street; British newspaper proprietor Lord Northcliffe (already showing signs of mental instability); Hugo Stinnes, the great German industrialist who was warning his own government against its belligerent foreign policy – they would all have wanted to be there. So, too, would the men representing new, world-changing technologies: Thomas Edison, busy promoting the many uses of electricity; Guglielmo Marconi, whose wireless was transforming international communications; or perhaps Graf von Zeppelin, whose airships were already carrying passengers.
For amusement, they might have had the leading learned men of the time. Perhaps the US Captain Alfred Mahan, who had done so much to persuade world leaders that history showed sea power was the key to a nation’s greatness; or H G Wells, who predicted a future including airships and armoured vehicles powered by the new internal combustion engines. Australian opera singer Nellie Melba might have performed for them in the evenings or Nijinsky repeated the scandal of his premiere the previous year of “The Rite of Spring”. They may also have spotted the formidable German novelist Thomas Mann, whose wife, Katia, sought treatment for tuberculosis in a sanatorium that later became the elegant Waldhotel, and for whom Davos was his Magic Mountain.
Sir Edward Grey, the British foreign secretary, would not have come for he disliked foreign parts and most foreigners. Winston Churchill, first lord of the admiralty, would not have missed the excitement of a big international meeting. Henry Asquith, UK prime minister, would have come but only reluctantly because of the domestic situation: home rule for Ireland was dividing the nation; and he missed the young Venetia Stanley, to whom he daily wrote passionate letters.
Everyone would have been very civilised, of course, but keen observers – such as obscure Russian journalist Lev Trotsky – would have noticed that Raymond Poincaré, the nationalist French president, frowned when finance minister Joseph Caillaux was too friendly to the Germans. Caillaux’s adorable wife kept him company, her hands tucked into a fur muff. (Two months later she would pull a revolver out of the same muff and shoot the editor of Figaro for threatening her husband.) Poincaré would have preferred to spend his time with the Russians, France’s most important ally; or the British, whom he hoped would give him a military alliance.
The Russian tsar was unlikely to be in Davos – he did not like to leave his family and his ailing heir – but the German kaiser was bound to be there. Wilhelm loved to parade on the world’s stage, telling everyone how he worked ceaselessly for peace. His insistence might have carried more weight had he not just increased the size of his army and navy. While his chief of staff took the cure back home, Friedrich von Bernhardi, another German general, was bound to cause a stir in Davos, having just penned a bestseller extolling the virtues of war.
Radicals or revolutionaries would not have disturbed the mountain tranquillity – the Swiss police would have seen to that – and militants such as suffragettes could threaten hunger strikes all they liked. So our imaginary delegates could eat their cakes and sip their tea in peace.
Yet still they would have worried – as they do today – about the future. Montagu Norman of the Bank of England was only one of those warning that the pattern of economic boom and bust was dangerously unstable. The papers were full of stories of labour unrest and violent strikes. Social reformers such as new US president Woodrow Wilson were warning that society might splinter as inequality grew and the middle classes were squeezed.
One thing that would not have troubled Davos that January 100 years ago was the possibility of a major war. Europe had just come through two dangerous wars in the Balkans, which surely showed that the international order could cope with crises. And so they would have gone their separate ways confident that they would all meet again in 1915.
It seems, as is the case now, much self-congratulatory back-slapping and little action is (and was) the order of the day in Davos each year… and yet we, the great unwashed, will be treated to minute-by-minute coverage of every fart and frown from the fraus and frauleins as they share with the people, the plan for our future.