On June 20, 1914, the massive cruise ship to be named after Germany’s revered Otto von Bismarck loomed in Blohm and Voss ship yard in Hamburg. Bismarck’s granddaughter, Countess Hannah von Bismarck, and Kaiser Wilhelm stood nearby. The following day the New York Times reported what was likely an English translation of the Countess’s words: “By command of his majesty the Kaiser, I baptize thee Bismarck.”
After her declaration, the Countess smashed the traditional sacrificial bottle of champagne against the steel leviathan’s hull.
Nothing happened. The bottle was intact. It’s easy to imagine it spinning at the end of its decorative tether like a rude question followed by awkward silence.
Kaiser Wilhelm took action then, propelled by well-known maritime superstition. As reported by the Times, he “rushed forward, seized the bottle and, drawing it back over his right shoulder, sent it crashing against the side of the vessel,” whereupon it shattered. Those assembled must have felt the fate of the Bismarck was secure and the sailors in particular may have felt a bit of relief. As CruiseBrothers Travel News tells us, an unbroken dedicatory bottle of bubbly supposedly means “that bad luck will follow the ship.”
The crowd assembled for the launching celebrated by singing the German national anthem, intoning its characteristic refrain, “Deutschland, Deutschland über alles”–Germany, Germany above all.
The great Bismarck was the largest ship in the world at the time. It didn’t fall prey to any of the usual bad luck expected to follow vessels with questionable launching conditions. At least, not immediately. It remained the biggest boat around until the mid-1930s.
By the beginning of World War II, the Bismarck was called HMS Caledonia and it was part of the British Navy. It had been turned over to Great Britain at the end of World War I as part of the Treaty of Versailles.
On September 29, 1939, twenty-eight days after World War II began, the former Bismarck caught fire while docked and sank.
The day the Bismarck launched and the crowd sang it into the sea, a key member of the German royal family embarked on a journey. Over 430 miles from Hamburg, Archduke Franz-Ferdinand and his wife, Countess Sophie, left their official residence south of Prague.
The Archduke planned to inspect Austro-Hungarian troops stationed in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
In eight days, the Archduke and his Countess would be in Sarajevo.
One hundred years ago today, the world had just 10 days to go before the assassinations that would spark the Great War, World War I.
I’ve tossed around, even blogged about ideas such as daily blogging events of the day 100 years ago today, etc., but I’ve found that without the carrot of a paycheck, it’s sometimes hard to motivate myself to really work on a regular daily blog post or a series of posts.
But I still survey news from 100 years ago each day, using Newspapers.com (pay service) and the Library of Congress’s collection of historic newspapers, which is free for anyone to use. I pin or tweet some of the stranger, funnier things and have posts here about stories that were particularly interesting and begged more research.
What comes home again and again as I read–and I also check out English and various European publications where available–is this was a world unaware. Most books about World War I touch on this right away, how the conflagration that arose from bullets fired into Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz-Ferdinand and his wife Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg, quickly spiraled into a horrific wildfire.
Something about the prosaic nature of the news of 1914 prior to June 28 slams the point solidly home… though I’m sure none of it seemed prosaic at the time.
In London, the ongoing concern was women’s suffrage. English women seeking political franchise in the early 1900s were absolutely badass and took no prisoners in their drive to get the vote. In the first 6 months of 1914 they were regularly bombing, slashing, marching and beating their way into the public eye. On June 18th, English Prime Minister Asquith finally assented to a meeting with a deputation of protesters, in part to avert their leader’s hunger strike.
Just as the world’s eyes are on the World Cup today, American and English papers were paying close attention to the International Polo Cup. The English had just defeated the American team on June 15th, and the rivalry wasn’t all that friendly in print.
An English account of the victory made it sound as if all those polo grounds were missing was vuvuzelas.
The Telegraph also reported on a strange murder case in court in Berlin. Young Brunnhilde Wilden had become involved with two doctors at the same time, and from there, things had gotten weird:
A strange murder trial which involves difficult psychological problems was commenced at Elberfeld recently. The defendant, who is indicted on the actual capital crime, is Brunhilde Wilden, an attractive girl of 21 years, belonging to a substantial Dusseldorf family. By her side in the dock stands a medical practitioner, Dr. Nolten, her fellow-townsman, who is charged with having incited and abetted her.
It was believed Brun(n)hilde had become involved with Dr. Nolten but maintained her relationship with the other doctor, whom she was accused of killing.
Meanwhile, in Russia, someone had attempted to kill the Czar, which wasn’t prosaic at all. The Associated Press reported it thusly:
So the world was cranking on, as it will do. As it does today. There were skirmishes and battles elsewhere, in the Balkans, in Greece. In the United States, the constant slow boil of conflict with a turbulent Mexico to the south seemed to be sorting itself out… but no one was sure, yet. Depending on the paper and its editorial bent, war with Mexico was either still imminent or the threat was finally on the wane.
There were rumblings and explosions and murmurs and rumors, but no one knew the white-hot burst of fury to come.
I am perhaps too obsessed with the concept of history not precisely repeating, but rhyming. That’s why I’m so drawn to examining events a century ago and sometimes finding parallels. Or, where there are no direct parallels, at least asking the question: are we unwittingly closing in on some kind of flashpoint, as well? It would be too bizarre for it to happen precisely 100 years later; no one can believe that and be entirely sane. Yet sometimes I wonder if we’re both living in a world with that potential and if there’s some unexpected place where it will occur.
Interesting as some of the things dominating the news 100 years ago today might have been, there were no portents. The world was humming along in a certain rhythm. There was mayhem, murder and calumny, but no one smelled the blood, mud and gunpowder to come.
If history does rhyme at all, even slant rhyme, this should keep us on our toes today. It might be okay to be a little bit nervous.
I like plucking little known but fascinating people from the pages of newspapers published 100 years ago, and damned if Dr. Edward W. Ryan, of Scranton, PA, isn’t one of the most interesting I’ve read about. Dr. Ryan was a fearless and manic physician and he was everywhere in the 1910s. He may have first arrived in the public consciousness on today’s date, May 1, 1914. That’s when several American papers published notice that he was about to executed in Mexico, as a spy.
The Mexican Revolution was in full swing in May, 1914, and it seemed like America might join in the fray at any moment to make it a full shooting war between our nations as well, because why not? After all, President William Howard Taft’s secretary of state, Henry Lane Wilson, had colluded with the Mexicans to bring about a coup in 1913, overthrowing Mexican president Francisco Madero and installing Victoriano Huerta in his place. Of course America screwed it up, because Huerta ended up being a brutal dictator. By this time in 1914 troops loyal to him had come face-to-face with American warships at Veracruz and there were prisoners being taken and people getting killed on both sides. U.S. newspapers were in a froth about the whole thing, each day. Events in Mexico were a complete obsession–at least for the media. Like the Spanish Inquisition, no one expected the Great War to come, elsewhere.
So–Dr. Edward Ryan’s arrest wasn’t particularly surprising, given everything going on at the time,
but nothing could stop an early 20th Century American newsman from finding drama. So it was reported on May 1 that “The government is today endeavoring to learn the truth concerning Dr. Edward Ryan, an American, who is reported to be in danger of execution as a spy. It is admitted that Ryan has been acting as an agent of the state department as well as a Red Cross representative, but It is said that not the slightest effort has been made to conceal the fact, so there are no grounds for treating him as a spy.”
This is the section about Dr. Ryan’s time in Mexico:
Ryan’s quiet life as a New York City doctor came to an abrupt end in 1913. When the U.S. Department of State went looking for volunteers to help evacuate American citizens caught up in the ongoing Mexican revolution, Dr. Ryan answered the call to adventure. After working in various parts of Mexico, Dr. Ryan ended up in the city of Torreón in the state of Coahuila.Everything went well until the day when Dr. Ryan was captured by a rebel leader from the neighboring state of Zacatecas and declared a spy and prisoner of war. And so began Dr. Ryan’s first near death adventure.
As The [Scranton, PA] Republican described it in his obituary, “the conventional order to ‘be shot at sunrise’ became a serious reality for Dr. Ryan, and the next morning, he was lead out to the post where he was to meet his death. His sentence of death was read to him, but he listened to it with such calm contempt and stoic demeanor that his enemies – especially the rebel chief – abandoned their plans for his immediate death. Better to say that they postponed their plans, for the performance was repeated the next day – and for thirteen consecutive days. Then, through some whim of their captors, Dr. Ryan and a few associates who had been taken prisoner with him were set scot-free and went soon on their way back to Mexico City. The local physician later denied the statements of his associates that he had been ‘stoical’ under the harrowing experience in the rebel camp, rather explaining that after the first few sunrises he began to get rather hopeful, and finally got used to it. The State Department of this country interested itself in having Dr. Ryan released and overnight he became a national figure.” While Dr. Ryan seldom talked about any of his own adventures, others – awed by his complete lack of fear – did that for him. And so the Ryan legend was born.
The dude was the real deal. No one wants to die, but a lot of people probably like to think that if it death becomes inevitable, they’ll greet it with that kind of stoic calm–on the surface, anyway.
You’d think that for many, nearly getting shot by Mexican revolutionaries might put the kibosh on further adventuring, but then you’re evidently not thinking like an Edward Ryan. As the State Dept. document goes on to explain, when the Great War erupted across Europe in August, 1914, the Red Cross sent physicians to do work in some of the worst places on the continent. That’s how, in 1915, Dr. Ryan ended up in Serbia. And it may have been the American media’s tendency at the time (and let’s face it, they still do this) to puff up our positive contributions to anything, but in January, 1915, the New York Times published an article, complete with interviews, positing the idea that Dr. Ryan’s actions in Belgrade may have saved Serbia. The Grey Lady quoted Mrs. Slavko Grouitch, an American who’d ended up the wife of the Serbian Under Secretary of Foreign Affairs. She quoted letters from her husband, who wrote that “Dr. Ryan had saved Belgrade and its remaining population when the Austrians captured the place, and … in the presence of the American Minister and other high officials, Dr. Ryan had been thanked by the Crown Prince for the great services he had rendered the [Serbians].”
Dr. Ryan, who specialized in treating “fevers”–illnesses like typhus, for example–was himself killed by malaria while in Tehran on September 18, 1923. He was just 39, and due to work he did throughout the Great War as lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army, responsible for the American Red Cross commission to Western Russia and the Baltic, he was a decorated hero. As the Scranton Times-Tribune reported in December, 2012, Serbia eventually awarded Dr. Ryan “commander of the White Eagle and commander of the Order of St. Sava” in addition to “the Charity Cross and the Red Cross.” His service in Estonia after the war led to that nation awarding Dr. Ryan “Officer First Class of the Order of Liberty.” According to the Scranton paper, he received similar awards from France, Russia and Greece, to name a few.
It’s great that his hometown papers remember him, as does the State Department, but Dr. Edward Ryan sounds like the kind of guy who deserves a little more. He packed a lot into 39 years, made all of it count. He was gone when my grandpa was still in short pants, but he has all my respect.
Sometimes the neatness with which a minor historical moment lines up with today’s world is hard to ignore. The article on the left is a throwaway item from the front page of the Sunday New York Times, published April 12, 1914. It was probably more appropriate to a society page, but editors have always scrambled to fill space with meaningless content. This particular meaningless filler came from an American who’d apparently married into nobility (see Downton Abbey for a noted fictional example of the same) but still wasn’t above finding a way to brag about meeting Pope Pius X and discussing with him the favorite obsession of moral scolds of the day, the dastardly dance craze known as The Tango. As you see in the article, the Pope noted that the Church had banned the dance and that it was a “children’s craze” that would fade away. Like heelies and blinking lights on shoes, or The Marijuana, I guess. Pope Pius X would soon die and be replaced by Benedict XV. The tango, which had been around since the 1890s, would endure and become a beloved part of South America’s cultural heritage, particularly in Uruguay and Argentina–which is, funny enough, where the current Pope, Francis, was born, in 1936.
Easily one of my favorite things about scanning old newspapers is happening on odd items like this, which was published in St. Paul, Minnesota’s The Appeal on March 28, 1914. Often it’s something mysterious or weird, but this is just funny. I could probably search further than this item to find out more about Mr. Matheson’s unique approach to boldly destroying evidence in court, but I kind of like just leaving this as is.