The Scholar and the Kaiser: Bernadotte Schmitt and the Onset of World War I


This summer marks the centennial of the beginning of World War I. You might not assume that was of much concern to Knoxville, considering the United States was neutral and would stay out of the war for three more years. In 1914, Europe was none of America’s business. Knoxville, which seemed to have arrived as a substantial progressive city with all the modern amenities—streetcar, baseball, movies, and a small but growing university—was happy to regard the war as another old-world oddity, a chance for the old men at the Cumberland Club to show off what they knew, to talk about a Henry Adams book or a trip to Vienna 30 years ago.

To one Knoxvillian, though, the European war was a subject of some urgency. In bigger cities, this scholar had given controversial lectures about the dangers of what Germany was up to. For decades to come, he would remember the day the newspaper headlines about it arrived on the porch of his home on White Avenue. That news would change his life.

Within a few years, Knoxville would become preoccupied with the war. Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II would be burned in effigy on Gay Street. Knoxville’s antipathy toward the Kaiser was apparently behind the abrupt change of a century-old street name. Because Kaiser Wilhelm was a prince, downtown’s Prince Street would thereafter be known as Market Street.

Years later still, the man who grew up on White Avenue would write a very long book that would win the Pulitzer Prize and provoke the anger of the former emperor of Germany.


Named for one of Napoleon’s commanders who battled the Prussians and later became King of Sweden, Bernadotte Schmitt grew up in Fort Sanders when it was still known as West Knoxville. His father, Cooper Schmitt, a mathematician but also a renaissance man with a lively interest in everything, was one of the University of Tennessee’s most beloved professors. Honored with a series of appointments, he became Dean of the College, a post second only to that of the president. The Schmitts originally lived on 11th Street, but about the time Berna’s younger brother, Ralph, was born in 1894, they moved around the corner into a larger, comfortably Victorian house, at the southwest corner of White Avenue and 13th, at what might have seemed a place of honor directly opposite the Hill. 

Young Berna attended the Baker-Himel school, the palatial four-story Victorian private prep school that stood in brick and stone at the corner of Highland and 12th, and distinguished himself in grammar. He was 12 when Knoxville was swarming with soldiers, serving as a training base during the Spanish-American War.

A brilliant kid, Berna enrolled at UT at age 15 and majored in chemistry. Science seemed his obvious destiny, though he was also known for his English skills and won prizes for his essays. 

He lived with his parents and probably didn’t have much to complain about. The big house at 1302 White was “a center of genuine refinement and hospitality,” according to family friend George Mellen, the newspaper columnist and well-traveled professor of Greek and history. It was a house full of books, not just math and science books but poetry books and novels. The kid learned a lot at home. Upon graduation, he became UT’s first Rhodes Scholar. The international honor was only three years old. Schmitt was, for many years, also cited as the youngest Rhodes Scholar in history.

At the time he earned the scholarship, Bernadotte had received all his formal and informal education within four blocks on either side of his home at White and 13th. Having spent almost all of his life in one neighborhood, the 19-year-old spent his next three years in Edwardian England, attending Oxford University’s Merton College. 

The aspiring chemist surprised his family by choosing as his concentration the one subject he hadn’t studied at UT. He devoted his Oxford years, and his life, to European history.

He got to know London, on one occasion witnessing King Edward VII opening Parliament. In 1906, he took an extended trip into Germany, unsettled by the country’s military obsessions. “I was disagreeably impressed with the omnipotence of the army,” he later wrote, “especially after I was pushed off the sidewalk in Berlin by a strutting officer.”

For Schmitt—his family was of Swiss ancestry—it was the beginning of a lifelong suspicion of Germany. He was always quick to say he liked some Germans personally. 

He earned his Ph.D. in history at the University of Wisconsin and had found work as an instructor at Western Reserve University when his father died suddenly, at home. Cooper Schmitt was the subject of a year’s worth of memorial honors, including a permanent plaque on the Hill.

Bernadotte Schmitt became known in Cleveland as a speaker, an expert on untangling the confusing situation in Europe—and as a controversial critic of Kaiser Wilhelm, who was popular with many of Ohio’s German Americans.

Unmarried, Schmitt spent much of his spare time, including summers, back in the big corner house on White Avenue, tending to his widowed mother, Rose. He happened to be on White Avenue when he read in the morning paper about the certainty of war.

“As though it were only yesterday,” he told the Chicago Literary Club in 1930, “I remember sitting on the veranda of my old home in Knoxville, Tennessee, on Friday, July 24, 1914, and reading on an inside page of the morning paper a dispatch from Vienna summarizing the Austria-Hungarian ultimatum to Serbia. My instant reaction, inspired by my studies of European diplomacy and Balkan politics for some years, was, ‘It is the great war at last.’”

The war that started that summer would preoccupy Schmitt for the rest of his life. Fourteen summers after he read the Knoxville Journal’s news of a new kind of war, the chemistry major from White Avenue would find himself spending an unexpectedly pleasant day with Kaiser Wilhelm himself.  

[to be continued...]

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