Recently I went through a box of loose coins from my coin collection: coins I hadn’t had time to sort or organize up until that moment. One of the coins I chanced upon was a 1913 10 pfennig piece from Germany. It’s in Very Fine condition—VF-35 or so, for those readers who might be numismatists. Not worth very much. I found several examples of the same coin, with the same date and in similar condition going for about a dollar on EBay.
What fascinated me about the coin, however, was not its rarity or lack thereof, but rather the moment in time it represented. Germany had become a unified nation barely four decades earlier, in 1871, when Bismarck had finally succeeded in unifying, sometimes by force of arms, the majority of the German states. Within a year of this 10 pfennig coin being issued, Germany would start the First World War—a war that would destroy it and a world.
The world that existed when this coin appeared was radically different from the one that existed barely a year later on the July 28, 1914 when World War I began. Most intellectuals and leaders believed that war was no longer even possible, that the complex economic relationships between the nations, the rule of law, the advancement of technology had all rendered war obsolete. Jack Kegon wrote that just before war broke out, “Europe in the summer of 1914 enjoyed a peaceful productivity so dependent on international exchange and co-operation that a belief in the impossibility of a general war seemed the most conventional of wisdoms. In 1910 an analysis of prevailing economic interdependence, The Great Illusion, had become a best-seller; its author Norman Angell had demonstrated, to the satisfaction of almost all informed opinion, that the disruption of international credit inevitably to be caused by war would either deter its outbreak or bring it speedily to an end.” The world of 1913 was a marvelous place: prosperous, full of wonderful new technologies. Telegraph cables stretching across the oceans meant instant communication anywhere on the planet. The radio was making ocean travel safer; soon news and entertainment would be available anywhere day or night. The telephone allowed people on opposite sides of the country to converse as easily as if they were sitting side by side. The airplane, ten years old in 1913, was a wonder whose effect on the world could only be imagined.
The future seemed bright. Everything seemed possible. The Europeans were colonizing the world, bringing the benefits of modern life to the people of Asia and Africa. It seemed that nothing stood in the way of everlasting wealth and ever better lives: everyone would live in peace and harmony.
But within a year of the coin being issued, World War I brought the deaths of more than sixteen million people, military and civilian. It represented a loss of nearly two percent of the world’s population between 1914 and 1918. Between June 1917 and December 1920, somewhere between 50 and 100 million others would die from an influenza pandemic known as the Spanish Flu—one of the deadliest natural disasters in history. At least three percent of the human race died from the illness, while over twenty-eight percent of the world’s population was infected by it.
Eugenics, the belief that “undesirables” should be bread out of the human population went mainstream, leading to the forced sterilizations of those deemed physically or mentally imperfect in both the United States and Europe. Anti-Semitism was promoted by such luminaries as Henry Ford, while it was regularly preached on the radio. A worldwide depression hit starting in 1929, with the collapse of the American stock market. Runaway inflation devastated Germany; within months a postage stamp that went for a fraction of a German Mark cost more than a million. The Nazis and other extremist parties seemed reasonable options to the desperate population seeking to solve its economic disaster.
A bit over a century has passed since that ten pfennig coin was minted in the German Empire. The people who used that coin have all long since died. The hopes and dreams of those who carried it in their pockets have long since turned to ash. Their future was nothing at all like they imagined or wanted.
On the other hand, their future was not all bleak. The century that saw two devastating world wars, also saw women gaining the right to vote in the United States. It saw the rise of the civil rights movement, the marginalization of racism and the discrediting of notions of eugenics. It saw technological marvels that the people of 1913 couldn’t even have imagined, from improvements in transportation and communication, to medical advances, and revolutions in agriculture that have made food so cheap and abundant that the biggest problem facing people today is obesity rather than hunger. Barely five decades passed before people were walking on the moon. The motion pictures that were silent and in black and white had become colorful and full of sound—and were being watched in the comfort of our living rooms.
So how do we expect our new century to unfold? As we hold a coin from 2015, how naïve are our hopes and fears about the next century? There will be wonders we can’t imagine, and probably—given history as our guide—horrors we can only dread. As Charles Dickens wrote in his tale about the French Revolution, A Tale of Two Cities, “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” His words apply to every era.