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Grand Vizier Assassinated, Serbia and Bulgaria Prepare for War

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that killed millions and set the continent of Europe on the path to further calamity two decades later. But it didn’t come out of nowhere. With the centennial of the outbreak of hostilities coming up in 2014, Erik Sass will be looking back at the lead-up to the war, when seemingly minor moments of friction accumulated until the situation was ready to explode. He'll be covering those events 100 years after they occurred. This is the 73rd installment in the series.

June 11-13, 1913: Grand Vizier Assassinated, Serbia and Bulgaria Prepare for War

On Wednesday, June 11, 1913, Mahmud Shevket Pasha, who was serving as both Grand Vizier (akin to prime minister) and Minister of War for the Ottoman Empire, was on his way to the War Ministry in Constantinople when his car broke down on the busy Divan Yolu avenue running through the old city center. After the driver pulled over to make repairs, another open-topped car—one of just 100 in use in the city at that time—pulled up alongside Shevket Pasha’s car and two men, each holding revolvers in both hands, stood up and unleashed a fusillade which hit both the Grand Vizier and his aide, Ibrahim Bey. The audacious assassins then jumped out of their car, approached the Grand Vizier’s car, and fired ten more shots before driving off. Shevket Pasha’s supposed last words were suitably dramatic: “My country; alas, my country!”

Judging by newspaper coverage, the brazen murder of the Ottoman Empire’s elder statesman (Shevket Pasha had played a key role in establishing constitutional government) elicited expressions of sympathy in Europe – but not much surprise. Political murders were all too common in the years leading up to the First World War, as demonstrated by the assassination of Greece’s King George by an anarchist just a few months before, and there was a long tradition of Ottoman Grand Viziers coming to bad ends. It was widely believed that Shevket Pasha’s assassination was revenge for the murder of the previous War Minister, Nazim Pasha, in the coup in January 1913, with one newspaper noting: “It has been generally believed that ever since Nazim Pasha’s murder Shefket Pasha has been virtually under sentence of death.”

The circumstances of the crime were obviously suspicious, beginning with the alleged breakdown and the fact that Shevket Pasha’s driver apparently escaped unharmed. Equally suspicious was the fact that the third passenger, Echref Bey, “escaped as if by a miracle” and then had not one but two pistols misfire when he tried to shoot back at the assassins. In their haste to escape the attackers left one assassin behind, a “lame innkeeper” who conveniently implicated a group of known gangsters and bookies. On June 24, 1913, the innkeeper and eleven other “real or alleged plotters” were found guilty and promptly hanged.

Whoever killed Shevket Pasha, his demise was viewed as a blow against the Committee of Union and Progress, or Young Turks, who supposedly relied on his reputation and prestige to govern; it was also seen as a major setback for the Ottoman Empire’s efforts to reform its military following its humiliating defeat in the First Balkan War.

In fact, both of these contemporary analyses turned out to be wrong. After Shevket Pasha’s death the Young Turk triumvirate – Enver Pasha, Taalat Pasha, and Djemal Pasha – simply appointed a weak-willed Egyptian member of the CUP, Said Halim Pasha, as a figurehead Grand Vizier, and consolidated power in their own hands. Shortly afterwards, in January 1914, the energetic, charismatic Enver Pasha took the reins as Minister of War and pushed military reforms at an even faster pace, including a purge of old officers who were no longer fit to command, a new structure for Turkish divisions based on the cutting-edge Germany model, and new, more efficient plans for conscription and mobilization. As a result of all these reforms the Ottoman Empire, viewed by Europeans as a negligible quantity after the First Balkan War, presented a much greater threat than any of its opponents realized in the coming conflict.

Serbia and Bulgaria Agree to Arbitration, But Prepare for War

In spring 1913, tensions between Serbia and Bulgaria reached a boiling point, as the former allies turned on each other over the spoils of the First Balkan War. By June 1913, the situation was so alarming that the indecisive Russian foreign minister, Sergei Sazonov, felt compelled to use Russia’s traditional role as patron of the Slavic states to force a peaceful resolution on its feuding client kingdoms. On June 12, 1913, Russia demanded that Serbia and Bulgaria agree to submit to arbitration by Russia over the division of conquered Turkish territory in Macedonia. Both sides naturally agreed – one didn’t just say “no” to Russia – but as usual Sazonov’s efforts were too little, too late.

The rival claims of Serbia and Bulgaria were simply irreconcilable: their attachment to Macedonian territory was emotional, dating back to the medieval period, and neither Serbia’s King Peter nor Bulgaria’s Tsar Ferdinand could afford to be seen as weak by their own subjects.  Thus even as they agreed to submit to Russian arbitration, Serbian and Bulgarian armies continued to concentrate near their shared border; meanwhile Serbian diplomats cemented a military alliance with Greece directed against Bulgaria, and Serbian officers organized paramilitary units in Bulgarian-controlled territory to sow chaos once fighting began. The Second Balkan War was less than three weeks away.

U.S. Senate Committee Recommends Women’s Suffrage

The years before the First World War were a time of political and social upheaval in the New and Old Worlds alike. In the U.S., the main causes of turmoil were the shifting balance of power between rural and urban areas, industrial labor unrest, and a huge influx of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe. But the U.S., like Britain, was also divided by the issue of women’s suffrage.

Women on both sides of the Atlantic had been demanding more legal rights, including the right to vote, since the mid-19th century, if not before (Abigail Adams was advocating women’s rights as early as 1776 in private letters to her husband). In Britain, the women’s suffrage movement developed as part of the broader push to eliminate property requirements and extend the franchise to the working class; in the U.S., it was closely connected with the abolitionist movement, with female Quakers and evangelical Christians (many from New England) playing a key role in advancing both causes. Notable events in the U.S. included the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848, while in Britain the London Society for Women’s Suffrage was formed in 1867.

After the Civil War, the American suffrage movement received new impetus from the Progressive Movement as well as from trailblazing Western states and territories. Those granting women the right to vote in local and state elections included Wyoming in 1869, Utah in 1870 (later repealed), Colorado in 1893, and Idaho in 1896; they would later be joined by Kansas (1910); California (1911), Oregon and Arizona (1912), and Alaska (1913). But most states still denied women the right to vote, and women’s suffrage advocates turned to Congress in hopes of a federal amendment.

On March 3, 1913, the day before Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration, suffragists paraded in Washington, D.C., where they were harassed by angry mobs. They convened on the capitol again on April 7 to present petitions demanding a women’s suffrage amendment: the “Anthony Amendment,” after Susan B. Anthony. This goal seemed even more plausible after the 17th Amendment, providing for direct election of the U.S. Senate, was formally adopted May 31, 1913. Democracy was in the air; maybe it would now include women as well.

The prize seemed within reach on June 13, 1913, when the U.S. Senate’s Select Committee on Women’s Suffrage published a report that recommended giving women the right to vote. The report noted that women already owned property and paid taxes, highlighting the embarrassing fact of taxation without representation. The Senate also recommended creating a parallel committee on women’s suffrage in the House of Representatives, which would remove the issue from the purview of the House Judiciary Committee which had “tabled” (ignored) several earlier suffrage laws.  

It wasn’t going to be that easy, however. In addition to their traditional prejudices, Congressmen were simply leery of granting such a huge expansion of the franchise, which would force them to take into account the needs and desires of a vast new constituency. Thus the Anthony Amendment ran into the political sands in 1913 and 1914, when America’s attention turned to cataclysmic events unfolding overseas. Women’s suffrage would also be delayed on the other side of the Atlantic, as the British House of Commons voted down a law which would have given women the right to vote on May 7, 1913. 

But the struggle was far from over, and suffrage advocates were increasingly militant. On June 4, 1913, the radical suffragist Emily Wilding Davison was trampled after trying to block a horse owned by King George V at the Epsom Derby; her death on June 8 made her a martyr for women’s rights, and her funeral procession on June 14 attracted tens of thousands of mourners. In the end it would take the destructive upheaval of the Great War, which laid bare the bankruptcy of all the old political arrangements, to break men’s resistance to women’s suffrage in the U.S., Britain, and Europe.

See the previous installment or all entries.

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History
The Secret World War II History Hidden in London's Fences

In South London, the remains of the UK’s World War II history are visible in an unlikely place—one that you might pass by regularly and never take a second look at. In a significant number of housing estates, the fences around the perimeter are actually upcycled medical stretchers from the war, as the design podcast 99% Invisible reports.

During the Blitz of 1940 and 1941, the UK’s Air Raid Precautions department worked to protect civilians from the bombings. The organization built 60,000 steel stretchers to carry injured people during attacks. The metal structures were designed to be easy to disinfect in case of a gas attack, but that design ended up making them perfect for reuse after the war.

Many London housing developments at the time had to remove their fences so that the metal could be used in the war effort, and once the war was over, they were looking to replace them. The London County Council came up with a solution that would benefit everyone: They repurposed the excess stretchers that the city no longer needed into residential railings.

You can tell a stretcher railing from a regular fence because of the curves in the poles at the top and bottom of the fence. They’re hand-holds, designed to make it easier to carry it.

Unfortunately, decades of being exposed to the elements have left some of these historic artifacts in poor shape, and some housing estates have removed them due to high levels of degradation. The Stretcher Railing Society is currently working to preserve these heritage pieces of London infrastructure.

As of right now, though, there are plenty of stretchers you can still find on the streets. If you're in the London area, this handy Google map shows where you can find the historic fencing.

[h/t 99% Invisible]

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Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
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A.C. Gilbert, the Toymaker Who (Actually) Saved Christmas 
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Alfred Carlton Gilbert was told he had 15 minutes to convince the United States government not to cancel Christmas.

For hours, he paced the outer hall, awaiting his turn before the Council of National Defense. With him were the tools of his trade: toy submarines, air rifles, and colorful picture books. As government personnel walked by, Gilbert, bashful about his cache of kid things, tried hiding them behind a leather satchel.

Finally, his name was called. It was 1918, the U.S. was embroiled in World War I, and the Council had made an open issue about their deliberation over whether to halt all production of toys indefinitely, turning factories into ammunition centers and even discouraging giving or receiving gifts that holiday season. Instead of toys, they argued, citizens should be spending money on war bonds. Playthings had become inconsequential.

Frantic toymakers persuaded Gilbert, founder of the A.C. Gilbert Company and creator of the popular Erector construction sets, to speak on their behalf. Toys in hand, he faced his own personal firing squad of military generals, policy advisors, and the Secretary of War.

Gilbert held up an air rifle and began to talk. What he’d say next would determine the fate of the entire toy industry.

Even if he had never had to testify on behalf of Christmas toys, A.C. Gilbert would still be remembered for living a remarkable life. Born in Oregon in 1884, Gilbert excelled at athletics, once holding the world record for consecutive chin-ups (39) and earning an Olympic gold medal in the pole vault during the 1908 Games. In 1909, he graduated from Yale School of Medicine with designs on remaining in sports as a health advisor.

But medicine wasn’t where Gilbert found his passion. A lifelong performer of magic, he set his sights on opening a business selling illusionist kits. The Mysto Manufacturing Company didn’t last long, but it proved to Gilbert that he had what it took to own and operate a small shingle. In 1916, three years after introducing the Erector sets, he renamed Mysto the A.C. Gilbert Company.

Erector was a big hit in the burgeoning American toy market, which had typically been fueled by imported toys from Germany. Kids could take the steel beams and make scaffolding, bridges, and other small-development projects. With the toy flying off shelves, Gilbert’s factory in New Haven, Connecticut grew so prosperous that he could afford to offer his employees benefits that were uncommon at the time, like maternity leave and partial medical insurance.

Gilbert’s reputation for being fair and level-headed led the growing toy industry to elect him their president for the newly created Toy Manufacturers of America, an assignment he readily accepted. But almost immediately, his position became something other than ceremonial: His peers began to grow concerned about the country’s involvement in the war and the growing belief that toys were a dispensable effort.

President Woodrow Wilson had appointed a Council of National Defense to debate these kinds of matters. The men were so preoccupied with the consequences of the U.S. marching into a European conflict that something as trivial as a pull-string toy or chemistry set seemed almost insulting to contemplate. Several toy companies agreed to convert to munitions factories, as did Gilbert. But when the Council began discussing a blanket prohibition on toymaking and even gift-giving, Gilbert was given an opportunity to defend his industry.

Before Gilbert was allowed into the Council’s chambers, a Naval guard inspected each toy for any sign of sabotage. Satisfied, he allowed Gilbert in. Among the officials sitting opposite him were Secretary of War Newton Baker and Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels.

“The greatest influences in the life of a boy are his toys,” Gilbert said. “Yet through the toys American manufacturers are turning out, he gets both fun and an education. The American boy is a genuine boy and wants genuine toys."

He drew an air rifle, showing the committee members how a child wielding less-than-lethal weapons could make for a better marksman when he was old enough to become a soldier. He insisted construction toys—like the A.C. Gilbert Erector Set—fostered creative thinking. He told the men that toys provided a valuable escape from the horror stories coming out of combat.

Armed with play objects, a boy’s life could be directed toward “construction, not destruction,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert then laid out his toys for the board to examine. Secretary Daniels grew absorbed with a toy submarine, marveling at the detail and asking Gilbert if it could be bought anywhere in the country. Other officials examined children’s books; one began pushing a train around the table.

The word didn’t come immediately, but the expressions on the faces of the officials told the story: Gilbert had won them over. There would be no toy or gift embargo that year.

Naturally, Gilbert still devoted his work floors to the production efforts for both the first and second world wars. By the 1950s, the A.C. Gilbert Company was dominating the toy business with products that demanded kids be engaged and attentive. Notoriously, he issued a U-238 Atomic Energy Lab, which came complete with four types of uranium ore. “Completely safe and harmless!” the box promised. A Geiger counter was included. At $50 each, Gilbert lost money on it, though his decision to produce it would earn him a certain infamy in toy circles.

“It was not suitable for the same age groups as our simpler chemistry and microscope sets, for instance,” he once said, “and you could not manufacture such a thing as a beginner’s atomic energy lab.”

Gilbert’s company reached an astounding $20 million in sales in 1953. By the mid-1960s, just a few years after Gilbert's death in 1961, it was gone, driven out of business by the apathy of new investors. No one, it seemed, had quite the same passion for play as Gilbert, who had spent over half a century providing fun and educational fare that kids were ecstatic to see under their trees.

When news of the Council’s 1918 decision reached the media, The Boston Globe's front page copy summed up Gilbert’s contribution perfectly: “The Man Who Saved Christmas.”

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