When It Happens Panel Get involved: send your photos, videos, news & views by texting 'OXFORD NEWS' to 80360 or email
Rhodes Scholarships in Oxford
The first Rhodes scholars to arrive in Oxford, in the year following the death of Cecil Rhodes himself, were three young Germans. In a book written in 1953 to commemorate the first 50 years of the scholarships, (The Rhodes Trust, published by Basil Blackwell) the Trust’s Oxford Secretary, Sir Francis Wylie, then in his eighties, remembers the occasion. “I came into the Lodge at Brasenose (where I was still living), and was met by the porter: ‘Three gentlemen to see you, Sir.’ “I turned, to find myself facing three immaculate young Germans, complete with top hats, frock coats and patent leather boots. They clicked their heels as one man, and bowed. The first Rhodes Scholars! Spotless too! And there was I, straight from golf on the old links above Hinksey, muddy and bedraggled. A disconcerting contrast.”
He added: “I carried them off and gave them tea: and that was the last I saw of the top hats.”
Rhodes loved Oxford, regarding it as the epitome of the civilisation whose values he sincerely believed he was bringing to Africa (“Wherever you look there is an Oxford man at the top of the tree,” he once said); but why were Germans included in his great plan of spreading ever further afield the ideals of Empire, and of the English speaking world in particular?
In a codicil to his will, which founded the scholarships, he explained: “Because an understanding between the three great powers will render war impossible.” (The ‘great powers’ at the time were the British Empire, the USA, and Germany). He added: “I note that the German Emperor has made instruction in English compulsory in German schools.”
Tragically, of course, no such understanding was brought about, and Wylie remembers the outbreak of war in 1914: “The summer term of 1914 drew to its close. There may have been those who saw what was coming; but, so far as I can recall, ‘Commem’ was as gay, Lord’s and Henley as crowded as ever.”
He added: “Then suddenly it was war. I was deluged with letters and telegrams asking for information or advice.”
In 1916 the Trustees promoted a Private Bill in Parliament to ‘revoke and annul’ the German scholarships and replace them with more from countries within the British Empire. In 1929, though, German scholarships were reinstated.
Pre-1914 German scholars were chosen by the Kaiser himself. Post-1929 scholars were chosen by a committee led by the wise Dr Schmidt-Ott.
There was a danger that the committee would be manipulated by the Nazis, but Wylie’s successor as Oxford secretary, Sir Carleton Allen, writing in the same book, said: “I do not think that any German Rhodes scholar of the second dispensation was a convinced or militant Nazi.”
Two former Rhodes scholars indeed – Albrecht von Bernsdorff and Adam von Trott – suffered horrible deaths at the hands of the Nazis for their parts in plotting against them.
Referring to Rhodes’ vision of a great tripartite bloc, Allen wrote: “The tragedy was that the jackboot twice trampled on the dream, which now lies in jagged fragments for posterity to sweep up.
‘To that extent the Founder’s ambitious aim has been frustrated; but so far as his individual German beneficiaries are concerned, I wholly agree with Wylie that Rhodes hopes have not been frustrated.”