1921: pandemics, racism, inequality a hundred years on

Jul 22, 2021

Considering what was making news a hundred years ago, we seem to be plagued with the same issues. Race, wars, gender inequality, pandemics; self interest still seems to drive those in power, and although we have learned to use weasel words to hide our real intent, we are not improving much.

1921 is now a hundred years ago. Have we learned anything in the meantime? Have those who aspire to power or wealth learned anything? Has science improved our lives, or do we make the same selfish and stupid mistakes? Are the poor better off? Were there practices and customs which have stood the test of time, and which we still embrace?

The Great War ended in 1918, with all its suffering, privation and loss of life. It caused over 20 million deaths directly, and some consider World War Two as the inevitable continuation of that awful war. Conditions during 1914-1918 included hunger, disease, destruction of vital infrastructure, and civilian dislocation. It also killed off, or maimed, a generation of young men.

When the Spanish Flu arrived, Europe was vulnerable. Its people were exhausted by four years of war. Food production had not recovered. So the flu was virulent, the people were weakened, and the world was opening up for international travel. These were perfect conditions for the storm which hit humanity in the immediate years between 1918 – 1921.

In Berlin in 1921, one quarter of all the children in the city were found to be either suffering from disease, or from malnutrition. At the same time the German Government announced plans to build the world’s largest submarine. Albert Einstein stunned the scientific community by suggesting that the universe could be measured, and later in the year he won the Nobel Prize in Physics.

In Paris the Allies announced that the German Nation owed them 10 billion (British) pounds, in reparations, payable over 42 years. This decision, and the threats made to enforce the payments, contributed to German political instability, and a sense of grievance which would only grow.

In March, British, French and Belgian troops occupied parts of Germany, which had failed to respond to the demand for reparations in time. Coincidentally both Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini consolidated their political power, by taking control of their respective ‘personal’ political parties.

In other parts of Europe the year presented much to consider. In France the first tuberculosis vaccine was made, and given, and the first helicopter flew successfully. Sweden abolished the death penalty, while Finland’s Paavo Nurmi set a new 10,000m world record.

In Italy, the Fascist Party won 29 seats in the Italian general election. Spain was defeated by Moroccan rebels in a major early battle of the Rif War. The Rif War lasted until 1926, and the Spanish would later call in the French to assist in putting down the rebellion.

In January British tanks rolled into Dublin’s city streets, while the Irish War of Independence raged on. A truce was declared in July 1921. Partition between the North (Ulster) and the South (Irish Free State) would be completed by 1922.

Greece and Turkey continued their own side war, from 1919-1922, due to the Allies’ partitioning of the Ottoman Empire. Britain, through David Lloyd George, made secret territorial promises to the Greeks, which were all nullified by the time of the cease-fire. There was much loss of life on both sides. This conflict saw the emergence of Mustafa Kemal (Ataturk), who would go on to lead Turkey until 1938, as President.

Many reports from the United States for this year were either to do with women and their dress, or their behaviour. In Chicago, women found to be wearing short skirts, or showing bare arms, were liable to fines from $10 – $100. In Utah they could be jailed. New York appointed a State Commissioner who had the power to censor dances he thought were indecent. Washington fined women for smoking, although men were permitted.

Race was the other flash-point for Americans that year. At the end of May a black shoe-shine employee tripped, and while falling forward, grabbed the arm of a white female elevator operator. The incident was witnessed by an onlooker, who called the police.

The young woman was not injured, and she did not want to press charges. Clearly it was an accident, and definitely not an attempted rape. He was taken off and jailed, while rumours spread that he was going to be lynched. A white crowd surrounded the jail, and was met by a smaller, but determined group of black men, intent on stopping any lynching.

Violence erupted, with white crowds swamping Greenwood, the prosperous black section of Tulsa, Oklahoma. The rioting involved burning and looting, over 35 city blocks, and was eventually wound down by the National Guard. No reliable estimate of deaths was produced, with estimates ranging from less than 50, to up to 300. As many as 6,000 Blacks were interned in the aftermath.

Many left the city, but of those who stayed, both black and white residents kept silent. It was not until 75 years later, in 1996, that a Commission was set up to establish the truth of the matter.

In better news for the year, Canadian scientist Frederick Banting discovered insulin, which would revolutionise the treatment of diabetes, amongst other maladies.

In Australia in 1921, there was trouble at Wave Hill Station in the Northern Territory. The manager of the property, Tom Cahill, decided that he would ask his brother, Paddy Cahill, for help with the local Indigenous people, who were accused of killing cattle. Paddy Cahill shot over 30 ‘bush people’ by way of solving his brother’s cattle problem. He was ‘punished’ with an entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography, as a ‘Protector of Aborigines’.

Daisy Bates reported (falsely) that cannibalism was prevalent in Central Australia amongst the Indigenous people. In the same year, Prime Minister Billy Hughes banned flogging in New Guinea. Several junior officers were found to have committed the offence, but they were never charged.

It appears that Australia’s position on race was, and still is, confused. On a more positive note, Edith Cowan was elected to the West Australian Legislative Assembly. She was our first female parliamentarian.

Considering what was making news a hundred years ago, we seem to be plagued with the same issues. Race, wars, gender inequality, pandemics; self interest still seems to drive those in power, and although we have learned to use weasel words to hide our real intent, we are not improving much.

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