May 7, 1915: A German U-boat sinks the RMS Lusitania.
The sinking of the British ocean liner Lusitania was one of the most infamous events of World War I, carried out by the SM U-20 as part of Germany’s policy of unrestricted submarine warfare against Great Britain and its allies. The event, which took the lives of nearly 1,200 people (including 128 American citizens), enraged the British and Americans, provided the basis for effective war and recruitment propaganda in the future, and turned public opinion in the United States against Germany so quickly that the country’s carefully preserved neutrality threatened to collapse. It did not, at least not until 1917, when Germany declared its intention to resume its practice of unrestricted submarine warfare, which reignited Americans’ lingering anger over the Lusitania.
At the time of its sinking, the Lusitania had officially been carrying as cargo war materials (ammunition, fuses, artillery shells), making it, in the eyes of the Germans, a legitimate military target, despite the fact that the ship was also at the time carrying 1,959 people. Of that number, 1,198 died when the ship was torpedoed off the coast of Ireland. The ship sank in 18 minutes, as opposed to the 2 hours 40 minutes it took for Lusitania’s White Star Line Rival, RMS Titanic, to sink, but like with Titanic, most of the deaths probably resulted from hypothermia, as survivors of the initial torpedoing awaited rescue floating for hours in the waters of the North Atlantic. In addition, the manner in which the Lusitania sank rendered most of its lifeboats unusable. The commander of the German U-boat, Walther Schwieger, was labeled by some a war criminal, although despite sparking outrage in the United States, the attack was not on its own enough to bring the country into the war. Three days later President Wilson made this comment in a speech:
There is such a thing as a man being too proud to fight. There is such a thing as a nation being so right that it does not need to convince others by force that it is right.
March 15, 1917: Tsar Nicholas II abdicates.
Crowned in 1894, Nicholas II led Russia through a disastrous and embarrassing war against Japan, a period of widespread political and social unrest, a world war in which millions of Russians were killed, and finally, the last Russian Revolution before the Tsar’s abdication. Violence and riots erupted as a result of the hardship - famine, inflation, military defeat, all-around misery - caused by the first World War, and especially the Tsar and his government’s handling of the war. In Petrograd, then the Russian capital, thousands of people converged to protest and condemn the Tsar, his disastrous policies, and the old imperial government. the Tsar attempted to use military force to put down the rebellion, but it was too late; thousands of soldiers joined the rebellion in protest as well. On March 15, 1917, Tsar Nicholas II abdicated as Emperor of All the Russias, and because he was the last to officially rule (his designated successor, Grand Duke Michael Alexandrovich, never reigned), his abdication also brought an end to the Romanov dynasty, which had ruled Russia for over three hundred years.
The Tsar signed his own decree of abdication in the afternoon, and his issued statement called for the people of Russia “to obey the Tsar in the heavy moment of national trials”, but the Russian Empire was dissolved that year with the proclamation of the Russian Republic and the creation of Soviet Russia following the October Revolution. Nicholas and his family (his wife, four daughters, and son) went into exile and were subsequently executed together in July of 1918.
March 1, 1914: Ralph Ellison is born.
Ralph Ellison, named for Ralph Waldo Emerson, was born in Oklahoma City. As a student, he studied music at Tuskegee University for three years before moving to New York City, where he came into contact with Richard Wright - author of Native Son (1940) and Black Boy (1945), and one of the most influential African-American authors of the 20th century, along with Ellison himself. Ellison’s experiences at Tuskegee and in New York and his affiliation and eventual disillusionment with American communist groups heavily influenced his most famous work, Invisible Man (1952). Originally conceived as a short novel, Invisible Man ended up nearly 600 pages long, all of which had been handwritten by Ellison and transferred to type by his wife; within those hundreds of pages, Ellison addressed a wide variety of topics - all centered around personal identity and the role and identity of African-Americans like the novel’s young and naive protagonist in modern American society.
Invisible Man won the 1953 National Book Award for Fiction just as the African-American Civil Rights Movement was emerging as a fully-realized, national movement. In his acceptance speech, Ellison spoke on what he believed was the significance of his novel, as a piece of fiction:
To see America with an awareness of its rich diversity and its almost magical fluidity and freedom I was forced to conceive of a novel unburdened by the narrow naturalism which has led after so many triumphs to the final and unrelieved despair which marks so much of our current fiction. I was to dream of a prose which was flexible, and swift as American change is swift, confronting the inequalities and brutalities of our society forthrightly, but yet thrusting forth its images of hope, human fraternity, and individual self-realization… Despite my personal failures there must be possible a fiction which , leaving sociology and case histories to the scientists, can arrive at the truth about the human condition, here and now, with all the bright magic of the fairy tale.
In addition to Invisible Man, Ellison wrote two other novels - Juneteenth and Three Days Before the Shooting…, both published posthumously, along with several essays.
February 24, 1920: The Nazi Party is founded.
The original Nazi Party was founded in 1919 as the German Workers’ Party (DAP), shortly after the end of the first World War. Initial membership was only a few dozen, and the party was one of many many parties across the political spectrum seeking to gain influence in post-World War I Germany; each group offered its own solution, and the solution offered up by Anton Drexler’s nationalist group was only one of, again, many. In late 1919, Adolf Hitler was sent to spy on a party meeting, but he was afterwards invited to become a member himself after Drexler witnessed firsthand Hitler’s raw oratory skill. Adolf Hitler, member #55, rose quickly within the ranks of the party.
On February 24, 1920, the German Workers’ Party went public and issued its “National Socialist Program” or the 25-point Programme, the political agenda upon which the DAP and the future NSDAP were based. It promoted points of both socialist and nationalist ideals, including the termination of the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, equal rights for citizens, restricted immigration, freedom of religion, the nationalization of industry, no citizenship for Jews, racial purity and other points. Soon after Adolf Hitler delivered the program, the German Workers’ Party became the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei) - or Nazi Party, for short. Nationalism and socialism were both popular philosophies in the unstable environment of post-World War I Germany, and the addition of both terms to the party name (despite Hitler’s hostility toward certain socialist ideals) maximized its appeal to the masses. The German Workers’ Party ran on an antisemitic agenda; its founder was an antisemite; its new chairman (Hitler) was an antisemite; and so the new National Socialist German Workers’ Party, despite its points on equal rights, was explicitly antisemtiic to the core. National socialism sought to eliminate class conflict by achieving solidarity as a nation and unity against a common enemy - “international Jewry” and “Jewish Bolshevism”.
The once tiny German Workers’ Party, under its new leader, blossomed; within a decade, it was the second-largest party in the Reichstag. In 1933, Adolf Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany and initiated his party’s complete takeover of the German government.
Health inspector examines an immigrant at Angel Island, c. 1917.
Between 1910 and 1940, inspectors at the “Ellis Island of the West” detained, examined, and processed around a million immigrants, mostly from Asia (many of these immigrants were from China).
The Hall of Mirrors before and during the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, 1919.