Belfast Telegraph

A century on 1917 is a year that still has an enormous impact on world around us

Influential figures: clockwise from top left, Albert Einstein, Charlie Chaplin, Marie Curie and John Ford
Influential figures: clockwise from top left, Albert Einstein, Charlie Chaplin, Marie Curie and John Ford

By Mary Kenny

It was the year that ushered in the word "surrealism" - coined by the French poet Guillaume Apollinaire. It was the year when Benito Mussolini, recovering from a war-wound, developed a special theory of populism: "a country needs, at its head, a man who knows the people as a friend, but directs and guides them".

It was the year when a revolutionary young student began to publish his thoughts, sweeping aside the shadow of "tradition", be it king, religion or hierarchy: he was called Mao Tse-Tung.

Czar Nicolas II of All the Russias abdicated and was taken prisoner by the Bolsheviks. As he and his family were exiled to Siberia, they were accompanied by a staff of 44 people, including a doctor, tutors, cooks, valets, a hairdresser. When eventually executed, their closest servants choose to die alongside the Romanovs.

Yes, it was 1917, which the French chronicler Jean-Christophe Buisson has dubbed "the year that changed the world". One hundred years on, we could even say it was the year that brought about so much of the world we inherited.

It was the year that Marie Curie - double Nobel prize-winner for physics and chemistry - founded a ground-breaking anti-cancer centre in Paris. This pioneering woman scientist also started training young female medics in the study of cancer, previously restricted to male doctors and nurses.

It was the year that the United States, for the first time in its history, entered a European war: and thus ensured the Kaiser's eventual defeat.

It was the year when three child shepherds in Portugal saw a vision of the Virgin Mary at Fatima. No one at first believed their story and the anti-clerical mayor of the village even had them locked up in jail "for disturbing the peace". But the apparitions continued, and by October 13, 1917, some 50,000 people were present when Francesco (1908-1919), Jacinta (1910-1920) and Lucia (1907-2005) saw Mary, surrounded by the Holy Family: many witnessed these supernatural events.

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It was the year when Pope Benedict XV proposed a peace plan to bring the terrible First World War to a close. For this, he was denounced by the British and French as "pro-German" and even "pro-Hun". But the scientist Albert Einstein echoed Benedict's call to cease the carnage.

It was the year when exquisite impressionist painter Edgar Degas died aged 83. Failing eyesight had prevented him painting in old age, but in his studio, 5,000 paintings and sculptures are found.

It was the year that Marcel Duchamp made his sensational impact on the world of art with his sculpture of a urinal. Buffalo Bill (William Cody) died; as did the Red Baron, the famous German air ace Manfred von Richthofen, having chalked up 81 "kills".

The Dutch-born dancer and courtesan Margaretha MacLeod, known as Mata Hari, faced a trial for espionage in Paris. Both the prosecuting and defending lawyers, Andre Mornet and Edouard Clunet, were her former lovers. It didn't save her from a guilty verdict and the firing squad.

Jack Reynolds, said to be the only footballer who had simultaneously played both for Ireland and for England in internationals, died. Finland, historically dominated by Sweden and Russia, became independent. Initially, they searched around for a monarch to match the other Scandinavian kingdoms, but when none was forthcoming, they settled on becoming a Republic, headed by the remarkable Field Marshal Baron Carl Gustav Mannerheim.

The first jazz record was cut in the United States, and Ella Fitzgerald and Theolonius Monk were also born.

Arthur Balfour, British parliamentarian, signed the Balfour Declaration which laid the foundations for the state of Israel, for which he is still honoured by Jewish communities globally, and criticised by adherents of an Arab Palestine.

Sinn Fein gathered ever-increasing support in Ireland and Eamon de Valera emerged the leader, eclipsing Arthur Griffith.

The first American woman, Jeannette Rankin, was elected to the House of Representatives.

Charlie Chaplin shot his first short movie, The Emigrant, and John Ford began his film career.

The most popular opera was Madam Butterfly, and in the silent movies, Mary Pickford was Butterfly.

King George V of Great Britain and Ireland changed the family name from the too-German sounding Saxe-Cobourg-Gotha, to Windsor. The family members previously called Battenberg were renamed Mountbatten.

A young American poet was hailed as a significant voice in literature, when Thomas Stearns Eliot published The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock.

The painters taking the art world by storm were the German Paul Klee and the Russian Vassily Kandinsky. Abstract art had truly arrived, and seemed to mirror the confusion and apocalyptic mood prompted by revolution and mass war.

Many other extraordinary and amazing events occurred in 1917, which have so many echoes in our world today, from painting to politics, from religion to feminism, from science to cinema.

The past isn't over - it isn't even past.

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