The highlight of our high school’s academic year was always the elite World History class(es) ‘Who Started WWI’ debate. The debate was a closed-door event, but we all waited breathlessly for daily updates and the final result. It was a major event. One could even say it was legendary. Year after year, the World History class battled it out.
Finally, we were seniors, and it was our turn at the event. Not everyone; just those of us who had the academic chops to be accepted into the World History class. Some years that group was small, and there was only one class. Other years, there could be two classes – but that was very, very rare.
When the day came to choose who would represent which country, the teacher read out the names of those students in his class whom he believed had the academic strength to lead teams into the debate. My name was one of the ones read out. The next step in the process was deciding who would represent which country. I was determined to be the one who would take Germany, going into the debate.
“Germany is going to be a hard position to represent,” the teacher advised us. He then continued, “I recommend a person like XYZ take it.”
XYZ was not me. Still, it was not the end. We were free to pick our countries, and I was going to defend Germany, come hell or high water.
Now we came the actual selections. Despite the teacher’s recommendation, XYZ went the easy route, and choose Britain. One by one, the countries were taken, and still no one picked Germany. At last, my chance to choose came along.
“I want Germany,” I said. The whole class broke into a sort of good-natured laughter. I was, after all, the only student in the class who was of actual German parentage. However, the issue still remained, was I strong enough to take a team in under the German flag? A mini-debate broke out about it. The teacher had recommended… but… who?… . I parried them all. One after another, I fielded the questions, and provided rebuttals. At last it was over. The matter was settled.
“If you can debate like,” said one of my classmates as they ceded the issue, “you really are the best one to represent Germany.”
I had won. I would take Germany into the famous World History class ‘Who Started WWI’ debate.
But, there was one last country to be selected. Russia had not yet found a champion. There was one last captain available, and he gladly took it on. He liked taking things nice and easy, and, well, had left his selection to fate.
The Next Hurdle
The next hurdle we faced was building our teams. As you can imagine, some teams were easier to build than others. When it came to building a team to represent Germany, it became almost impossible. No one wanted to be on what was presumed would be the losing team.
‘So, who cares?’ I told myself. ‘I will do all the work. I just need some bodies to fill the seats beside me, and I know how to get them.’
Yes, I knew. I would find out who had not yet been selected for one of the other teams, and offer them an enticing deal to come and join mine. The deal? ‘I’ll do all the work, you just have to sit there and play your role.’ So I started with the guy sitting next to me, a diminutive sort-of-once-upon-a-time-Jew. Yes, in those days he was hard to categorize. His mother had divorced and remarried a non-Jewish husband, and he had decided that this made him no longer Jewish. Just like that. From Jew to non-Jew overnight. At that moment in time, he was identifying as a non-Jew. His self-identification was still fluid in those days. But… .
He wanted more. What more could I offer? In desperation, I told him, ‘You can take the role of Kaiser Wilhelm’.
I now had the first member of my team, courtesy of bribery.
I still needed two more people, though. I approached another abandoned soul, another person of Jewish roots who had found herself without a ride for the debate, and added another member to the team.
There was still one spot, and I was determined to fill it. I consulted with Kaiser Wilhelm about the individual I had in mind. ‘Nah. She’s just tits and ass, and no f*cking brain,’ he opined. ‘Who cares?’ I advised, in my role as Chancellor Bismarck, ‘We just won’t let her do anything.’
The Kaiser acceded, and I recruited what I believe to be the third Jewish member of my team.
Now some of you may yelp about the fact that Chancellor Bismarck was part of the team representation. It was a special arrangement, given the official okay by our teacher. The lead debaters needed to assume the personas of actual historical figures, and even though Bismarck was no longer Chancellor at the end of World War 1, it was decided that he could rise once again in order to defend his nation’s honor.
We went into battle, and it was a hard-fought one. The other teams came at us with every accusation in the book, and we parried them all. The use of poison gas? Well, we weren’t the only ones. You guys used it on us, too. Invading Belgium? Hey, we DID send a message asking for permission to cross before we did it. We had the proof in the form of a copy of the wire-message that we sent. I reached for it from the stack of documents on the desk in front of me, pulled it out, and found out I had the wrong document. A search was quickly made for the missing message, but we could not find it! The teacher, thankfully, interceded and acknowledged the existence of the missive.
Then came the big one. The one that the Kaiser and I had discussed in our pre-debate meetings. The one question we could never find a suitable answer for: Why did Germany have a military-based economy?
The Kaiser stood up. He would field the question personally.
‘Sure Germany had a military-based economy; but that doesn’t mean it was meant for war,’ he stated boldly.
The class keeled over laughing. They laughed until they practically peed themselves. When they finished laughing, they’d all forgotten that we’d never answered the question. Seizing the opportunity, we moved the debate on to the next question. The Kaiser and I, in fact everyone on our team, patted each other on the back after class that day. We’d survived the A-bomb of debate questions thank to the Kaiser!
The debate ended, and the judges went into seclusion in order to discuss their findings. When they emerged, the results were read out: Britain was found to be the least responsible for starting the war. German was the second least responsible for starting the war, and it was a close second – in fact it had been a tie, which the rules did not permit. To declare a winner, they’d had to resort to the technicality of the missing telegram. Then, at the end of it came the country named as most responsible for starting the first world war: Russia!
The Russian team immediately stood up and bowed. They had come in last and were damned proud of it.
It is one of my best memories of high school. Who could forget the day when one German and three Jews cleared Germany of war-guilt! At a high school reunion twenty years later, I found out that one person could: the Kaiser!
‘Really? I don’t remember that,’ he said, ‘Hard to believe a Jewish kid like me would do that.’
Photo: public domain / Bain News Service – The Library of Congress – Kaiser Wilhelm (LOC) (pd).jpg
This is something that I uploaded to my Steemit (https://steemit.com/@ajdohmen) account today. Since no one reads it there, I’m sharing it here.