1919: A Decade Ends and an Age Begins


Hundreds of thousands of Berliners take to the streets in support of police chief Emil Eichhorn fired for refusing to use force to quash demonstrations in the wake of World War I. Rightwing mercenaries known as the Freikorps respond and the fray results in hundreds of deaths. On January 15, Freikorps abduct, torture, and kill activists Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, tossing Luxemburg’s body into the Landwehr Canal where it lies frozen in the ice until the end of May. Sometime this month, Fritz Lang drives to the studio through the rioting to direct his first feature, Habblut.

In Boston a faulty tank of molasses ruptures, sending an eight-foot wave of viscous brown liquid down Commercial Street at an estimated thirty-five miles per hour, killing twenty-one people. The president of Brazil dies from Spanish flu, a pandemic that had infected one-third of the world’s population.

Paris Peace Conference opens.

Sinn Fein holds its first congress in Dublin and declares independence from the Crown. Meanwhile rogue members of the IRA shoot two Royal constables dead, spurring an Irish poet to write the lines: “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, / Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”

The Battle of George Square erupts in Glasgow when police club workers striking for a forty-hour work week. The British military occupies the streets until mid-February.

Carl Th. Dreyer’s first film as director premieres in Stockholm. The President is about an upright judge in a small town who comes face to face with his own dubious past.

Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin, and D.W. Griffith become the first artists to own a major studio. Later in the year, United Artists releases Griffith’s Broken Blossoms and Fairbanks’s His Majesty, the American.

New York City welcomes home the Harlem Hellfighters with a parade. The all-black infantry that served under French commanders in WWI is led by James Reese Europe’s regiment band, playing a lively music that blends marches with blues and ragtime.

Oscar Micheaux’s first film The Homesteader, about a lone black farmer in rural South Dakota, premieres at Chicago’s Eighth Regiment Armory accompanied by the Bryon Bros. Orchestra. It marks the film debut of Evelyn Preer who remains Micheaux’s leading lady through 1927.

Grand Canyon becomes a national park by an act of Congress.

The March First Movement to end the Japanese occupation fills Pagoda Park in Seoul. Koreans are inspired by Woodrow Wilson’s February speech outlining the Fourteen Points that include the right to self-determination. Japan responds with violence. Seven days later, massive strikes paralyze Egypt after Britain exiles the leader of its independence movement, Saad Zaghlul, and by mid-summer eight-hundred Egyptians are killed.

The Comintern is founded by Vladimir Lenin to spread Communism.

The New York Times reports that short-sleeves from Paris are a good thing and a colorful smock under a woman’s waistcoat is “no longer merely a Greenwich Village eccentricity … It allows the freedom which she craves and she may be wise enough to cling to it.”

Benito Mussolini founds the Fasci di Combattimento paramilitary group in Milan.

The Polish Army then fighting both the Russians and Ukrainians executes thirty-five Jewish residents of Pinsk who were meeting to discuss distribution of Red Cross aid. The commander later claims they were Bolsheviks.

On Chowpatty Beach, forty-year-old lawyer Mahatma Gandhi, who had helped recruit his countrymen for Britain’s war effort, calls for widespread peaceful noncooperation in response to the Rowlatt Act, by which the British Raj could hold its subjects without charge for two years. A week later troops massacre one thousand at a Sikh festival in Amritsar.

Mexican revolutionary leader Emiliano Zapata, who sought to end landowners’ stranglehold on the country’s wealth, is killed in an ambush.

The French serial killer nicknamed “Bluebeard” for seducing widows in order to steal their assets is arrested. Henri Désiré Landru dismembered the bodies of ten women and one teenage boy and burned them in his kitchen oven. Police can only charge him with embezzlement until his private ledger tracking his aliases is uncovered a few years later.

J’Accuse, Abel Gance’s antiwar epic, which drew on soldiers’ letters home for its intertitles, is released in Paris. Walter Gropius releases his Bauhaus manifesto calling for craftsmen and artists to overcome their historical divisions and unite to build a new world.

Adherents of immigrant and anarchist Luigi Galleani send boxes of dynamite disguised as packages from Gimbels to thirty-six government officials who support the U.S. Anarchist Exclusion Act of 1918. Most are intercepted but one explodes, blowing off the hands of a senator’s housekeeper and injuring his wife. In Java, Indonesia, Mount Kelud erupts, expelling an entire lake of hot mud that spews out for twenty-fives miles killing five thousand people.

12 MAY
An exhausted Aurora Mardiganian makes her final appearance in Buffalo, NY, on a five-month roadshow for Ravished Armenia based on her first-hand account of the Armenian Genocide and in which she stars as herself. Several Armenian-American organizations express concern that Mardiganian, a teenager only recently escaped from Ottoman Turkey, is being exploited by do-gooders and seven impersonators take her place. She later successfully sues producers for uncollected income, which she uses to bring over a surviving sister.

15 MAY
Fearing a repeat of the atrocities carried out under the cover of WWI, the Greek Navy lands in Smyrna to protect the Greek population as the Ottoman Empire collapses. Violence erupts and three hundred Turks and one hundred Greeks are killed.

28 MAY
Different from the Others premieres in Berlin. Featuring Conrad Veidt in one of nineteen screen roles this year, the landmark film is written with Magnus Hirschfeld whose Institute of Sex Research officially opens in July primarily for the study of homosexuality and transgender identities but also provides birth control for women.

The New York Times announces that drama critic Alexander Woollcott and Harold Ross (future founder of The New Yorker) have returned from the war. This same month, the first lunch of the Algonquin Round Table takes place and its members’ barbed witticisms begin to circulate like Twitter memes. Many of its members will write for the movies.

The U.S. Congress approves the 19th Amendment to the Constitution enfranchising women and sends it to the states for ratification. 

The Treaty of Versailles is signed in Paris. By November, four other major treaties are signed, mapping out new countries worldwide.

Responding to widespread lynching and violence against African Americans, Claude McKay’s “If We Must Die” is published. It ends: “What though before us lies the open grave? / Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack, / Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!” Poet Jessie Fauset becomes literary editor of the NAACP’s influential magazine, The Crisis. Langston Hughes later calls Fauset “one of the midwives of the Harlem Renaissance.”

Ballets Russes debuts its Spanish-themed ballet The Three-Cornered Hat with costumes and sets by Pablo Picasso. The renowned Cubist is among many artists to embrace classical forms of representation in what is called a “return to order”—an attempt to make the world whole again after the war.

Named for the blood spilled around the U.S. as racism overheated into violence, Red Summer had already claimed lives in Charleston, Washington, and Longview (Texas) when thirty-eight more are killed in Chicago during five straight days of shootings, stabbings, beatings, arson attacks, and looting. It begins on this Sunday after a white man causes a black teenager to drown in segregated waters and is not arrested. The deadliest episode takes place October 1 in Arkansas, when whites in Elaine become suspicious over black sharecroppers organizing and lynch an untold number of black citizens.

The Southern Syncopated Orchestra, led by Will Marion Cook and featuring an innovative clarinetist named Sidney Bechet, gives a private concert in the gardens of Buckingham Palace for George V and his family. Brought to London by impresario André Charlot, the orchestra tours the Continent for years. In October 1921, thirty-six members drown when the S.S. Rowan sinks off the coast of Ireland.

Germany adopts a new constitution, which guarantees women’s suffrage, protections for foreigners and workers, free public school, and national healthcare. The Weimar era begins.

Union organizer Fannie Sellins intervenes when Allegheny Coal and Coke company guards beat a picketing miner. Deputies shoot Sellins four times, and one smashes in her skull with a cudgel then puts on her hat and dances. A coroner’s jury later rules her death a justifiable homicide.

Russia nationalizes its film industry. As the Civil War rages on remaking parts of eastern Europe along the way, director Lev Kuleshov and cameraman Eduard Tisse film the Red Army in action and later combine the footage with acted scenes for 1920’s On the Red Front. Josef Ermoliev and his troupe of filmmakers that includes actor Ivan Mosjoukine flee the Bolsheviks for Yalta, Odessa, Constantinople, and finally Paris where they will finish The Harrowing Adventure and set up shop in Montreuil, making the films that will reinvigorate French cinema.

In a year when automobile sales doubled, the Transcontinental Motor Convoy completes its 3,251-mile trek from Washington, DC, to San Francisco, CA. Expedition leader Dwight D. Eisenhower uses the findings to develop the U.S. interstate highway system during his presidency.

Poet, war hero, and bombast Gabriele D’Annunzio marches twenty-six hundred Italian war veterans into Fiume—recently ceded to the Kingdom of Serbia, Croats, and Slovenes at the Paris Peace Conference—and expels Allied forces, later declaring himself duce. In Munich, Adolf Hitler sways the German Workers’ Party against the succession of Prussia.

Ernst Lubitsch’s epic spectacle about the French Revolution, Madame Dubarry, inaugurates Ufa’s new Palast-am-Zoo theater in Berlin.

Eight White Sox teammates meet in a hotel room to discuss throwing the World Series at the behest of organized crime.

Sir Arne’s Treasure premieres in Stockholm. A Swedish review calls the ghost scenes in Mauritz Stiller’s film “small masterpieces of photographic technique.” In the U.S., steelworkers begin a massive nationwide strike to protest company harassment of union organizers. Owners use racist and anti-Communist rhetoric to turn public opinion against the workers.

Woodrow Wilson has a debilitating stroke and his wife Edith runs a months-long “bedside government” delegating to Cabinet members.  

Without warrants or charges, U.S. Attorney General Michael Palmer orders the arrest of more than ten thousand suspected communists and anarchists, mostly immigrants, in twenty-three different cities. The Palmer Raids are orchestrated by J. Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI’s “Radical” Division, and spur the formation of the American Civil Liberties Union early the next year. Sometime this month, film director Alexander Korda is detained following the overthrow of the short-lived Hungarian Democratic Republic. After his release, he leaves his native Hungary never to return.

Four hundred thousand coalminers, who had agreed to a wage freeze through the end of WWI, walk off the job demanding a share of the industry’s wartime boon. By the end of the year four million Americans participate in labor strikes.

Native Americans who had served in the war could now apply for U.S. citizenship with proof of an honorable discharge. Not until 1924 is citizenship their legal birthright.

In Feline Follies, Master Tom romances Kitty by the ashcan while the mice have their way in the kitchen. By the end of the year, Master Tom becomes Felix the Cat and a cartoon star is born.

At the first annual Armistice Day Parade in Centralia, Washington, American Legionnaires—mostly former lumberjacks—break from the line and invade the Industrial Workers of the World union hall. Four legionnaires die when union members fight back. WWI veteran and leader of the local “Wobblies” Wesley Everest is charged with the murders and hanged by a mob later that night.

Gabriel Capone dies of a heart attack in Brooklyn and his son Alphonse leaves a legitimate bookkeeping job in Baltimore to return home. Sometime the following year he settles in Chicago.

American expatriate Sylvia Beach opens her Shakespeare and Company bookstore in Paris. She later publishes Irish writer James Joyce’s modernist novel Ulysses, which runs serialized throughout 1919.

Director Frank Hurley begins an Australian tour of his film, In the Grip of the Polar Pack Ice, later retitled South: Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Glorious Epic of the Antarctic.

The second performance of the Dada-Matinée takes place in Berlin. Participants include Hannah Höch, whose 1919 photomontage Cut with a Kitchen Knife Dada through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch of Germany features cutouts of Pola Negri as Carmen and Asta Nielsen as Hamlet.

E.C. Segar’s Thimble Theatre comic strip debuts as a parody of show business. “From Cabaret to Country” stars Olive Oyl as Lizzie Lampshade doing the shimmy so well she churns butter.

Stripped of her American citizenship Jewish immigrant Emma Goldman boards the “Soviet Ark” tasked with deporting 248 other so-called radicals to Russia. In 1924 the decommissioned ship becomes the set for Buster Keaton’s The Navigator.

Americans ring in the last New Year before Prohibition takes effect. In October, the U.S. Congress passed the Volstead Act over Woodrow Wilson’s veto, setting the stage for bootleggers, crime bosses, speakeasies, and flappers to populate the movies for years to come.