Back Story: Book examines last peacetime year before outbreak of World War I

In his recently published "1913: The Year Before The Storm," German journalist Florian Illies compiles a fascinating and exhaustively researched month-by-month compendium of the events, personalities, culture, politics, technology and fashions that shaped the year 1913, the last peacetime year before the outbreak of World War I.

The period of 1900 to 1914 could be "called the Confident Years, the Buoyant Years, the Spirited Years … or perhaps named after some bright, hopeful color, like the Golden Years," Walter Lord wrote in his 1960 book "The Good Years."


While Illies' book is primarily European-centered, he includes plenty of material that will amuse American readers. For example, the highest temperature ever recorded in Death Valley, Calif., came that year on July 7 when the mercury reached 134 degrees.

Superstition surrounds the year 1913, which some, because of superstitious fear of the number 13, tried not to write. Gabriele D'Annunzio, for one, when signing a copy of his "Martyrdom of St. Sebastian" to a friend, noted the year as "1912 + 1."


Composer Arnold Schonberg, who was born on Sept. 13, also feared the number 13 and was "terrified at the idea of dying on Friday the 13th," writes Illies. When he realized that his opera about Moses and Aaron contained 13 letters, he struck out the second A from Aaron and retitled it "Moses and Aron."

Another musician whose life would be forever changed by the year 1913 was Louis Armstrong.

Seconds into the New Year, writes Illies, a 12-year-old Armstrong, who was living in New Orleans, fired a stolen revolver to celebrate the arrival of 1913 and not long afterward was arrested by police.

Sent to the Colored Waifs Home for Boys, Armstrong was so disruptive that the home's director, Peter Davis, pressed a trumpet into his hands in an attempt to calm the young boy, who suddenly fell quiet.

He "picks up the instrument almost tenderly, and his fingers, which had been playing with the trigger of the revolver the previous night, feel the cold metal once again, except that now, still in the director's office, rather than a gunshot, he produces his first warm, wild notes from the trumpet," writes Illies.

Who knew that the drug Ecstasy was created in 1913 by Anton Kollisch, a Merck chemist? After it was patented that year, it faded for decades until it came to be used recreationally in the 1970s.

Illies also points out that "in the first months of 1913, Stalin, Hitler and Tito, two of the 20th century's greatest tyrants and one of the most evil dictators, were, for a brief moment, all in Vienna at the same time."

At the end of January 1913, writer Gertrude Stein, who had already lived in Paris for a decade, sat in her cold flat at 27 Rue des Fleurs staring at her Picassos and Cezannes and dreaming of the spring. She picked up a pen and wrote a small poem: "A rose is a rose is a rose."

The birth of modern art came that year on Feb. 17, with the famed Armory Show in New York that introduced the world to abstract artist Pablo Picasso and Marcel Duchamp's "Nude Descending a Staircase," as well as sculptures by Brancusi and paintings by Francis Picabia.

"America is beaming," writes Illies, after President Woodrow Wilson pressed a button in the White House that illuminated 80,000 light bulbs on the newly completed Woolworth Building in New York, then the tallest structure in the world.

On Aug. 16, Henry Ford installed the first moving assembly line in his Detroit factory, and by year's end, 264,972 cars had rolled off the line.

In September, actor Charlie Chaplin signed his first movie contract with Keystone Studios for $150 a week.


Also in 1913, two household words in the name of clothing, Coco Chanel and Prada, opened dress shops.

Perhaps one of the biggest stories that year was the discovery of the "Mona Lisa," which had been stolen two years earlier from the Louvre.

The year ended with author Arthur Schnitzler confiding in his diary Dec. 31 that he had read "The Great War in Germany" and was "Very nervous during the day."

Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated on June 28, 1914, in Bosnia. Within five weeks, all of Europe was at war.

"The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime," observed Sir Edward Grey, the British foreign secretary.

Recommended on Baltimore Sun