For decades to come, Professor Bernadotte Schmidt would remember that August at his family home at White and 13th, the week his life changed. The first news came from the morning paper that landed each morning on the Schmitt’s elegant front porch.
Schmitt later told the Chicago Literary Club about that August day: “I was awakened prematurely by the thud of the Sunday paper as it was thrown on the porch, and rushed out to get it. The front-page headline, in huge letters, read: ‘EUROPEAN WAR IS ON!’”
That was indeed the banner headline in the Knoxville Journal & Tribune that Aug. 2, 1914. “Finally on Tuesday evening, 4 August, I went into town to learn the latest news,”—in those days before radio, newspapers posted public bulletins between editions, at a spot on the corner of Gay Street at Church—and Schmitt learned that Great Britain had declared war on Germany. “These incidents are indelibly engraved on my memory,” he recalled in that Chicago talk, later to be printed in Schmitt’s 1960 book, The Fashion & Future of History. Scholar Ted Lollis loaned me his copy.
He would mull over that complex, baffling, and horribly significant war for decades to come. He was in his 30s during the war when he did a stint in the service, but probably didn’t see combat. He might have remained an academic, studying Europe in America, reading historians’ papers about other historians’ papers.
In 1928, curiosity got the best of him, and the professor went back to Europe. In a journey that could have been a premise for one of Hitchcock’s early spy thrillers, Schmitt crisscrossed the continent talking to people about 1914. Like a foreign correspondent, he interviewed key witnesses to the war that ended a decade earlier. Several major players had died. But in person and at length, he talked to King Alexander of Yugoslavia, who would be assassinated a few years later. He found German Gen. Hans von Haeften; Austro-Hungarian diplomats Count Alexander Hoyos and Count Leopold Berchtold; England’s former foreign secretary Lord Edward Grey. In Paris, he snagged an interview with French Prime Minister Raymond Poincare, who chose to meet with Schmitt at the Louvre.
After giving a speech in Berlin, Schmitt got an unexpected invitation to meet with one World War I celebrity he didn’t expect to be in a talking mood. In August, 1928, he got off the train at the station at Utrecht, and, following instructions, climbed into an unmarked gray limousine. The professor from White Avenue found himself on the way to the manor of Kaiser Wilhelm himself.
“I was ushered into a suite of rooms decorated with paintings, photographs, and other memorials of the old regime, and was served the usual Dutch breakfast,” wrote Schmitt. “I would be received by the Empress at 11 and by the Emperor at noon, and for the rest, whatever circumstance might suggest; I was asked to wear a dark suit.
“The Empress ... is rather a plump woman, motherly and devoted to her present husband. She talked first of Woodrow Wilson, toward whom she seemed to feel rather bitter ... Finally she came to speak of the Emperor. She explained that he kept himself from growing morose and despondent by omnivorous reading ... It was hard to believe I was about to meet the person who has probably been the most excoriated person of our time. But before I could give myself over to meditation, the door opened and in walked Willliam II of Hohenzollern, once German Emperor and King of Prussia. Dressed in a gray suit with a pink tie adorned with a pin of the Prussian order pour le Merite, brown shoes, white spats, and a straw hat, his eyes flashed as he came forward with outstretched hand to say, ‘How do you do, professor? I am very glad to see you.”
The Kaiser was still healthy at 69, even keeping his famously assertive mustache upturned at the ends. Schmitt explained his interest in the origins of the war. “The answer is very simple,” Kaiser Wilhelm responded. “Cecil Rhodes made the war.” Although he’d died back in 1902, the powerful British businessman got some blame for the imperialist stress in Africa and elsewhere that had led to schisms in Europe.
“Germany stood in the way of [Rhodes’] African ambitions,” Schmitt explained. “Whether His Majesty knew that I had been a Rhodes Scholar did not come out. He declared that Edward VII (his own uncle) and Edward Grey were merely the instruments of Rhodes…” For Schmitt’s benefit, Kaiser Wilhelm laid out a complex series of conspiracy theories in which his Germany was the victim.
“To these astonishing theories I really have no answer,” Schmitt later wrote.
The deposed despot presented Schmitt with an autographed portrait of himself, on which he’d written, “Nothing is too improbable to be true. Every once in a while all the circumstantial evidence in the world seems to get mobilized to down an innocent man.”
Kaiser Wilhelm did not like the book Schmitt wrote. A lot of people didn’t. It ran counter to then then-fashionable opinion that German aggression wasn’t to blame. But The Coming of War, 1914 won the Pulitzer Prize for history.
I don’t know anyone who’s ever read it. It’s 1,054 pages long, and unlike Schmitt’s later first-person stories about researching it, pretty dry. I’ve seen only one copy of it, the one that stands quietly on the shelves at UT’s Hodges Library every day.
But it caused a stir in 1930, and it’s still a meticulously thorough account of the beginning of one of history’s great unnecessary disasters. Kaiser Wilhelm gets most of the blame.
The house where Schmitt grew up, and where he first learned of the Great War, is still standing, in excellent shape, at the southwest corner of White Avenue and 13th. The other day, girls were playing on that porch.
UT still boasts of its Rhodes scholars and Pulitzer winners, and the one man who was both. But in UT’s master plan to build a classroom building at White and 13th, the Schmitt house is gone.