The Philosopher F.C.S. Schiller on Predictions of the First World War
It was psychologically to be expected that the terrific strain of the most terrible of wars should produce widespread emotional disturbance in the populations subjected to it, and that this, again, should lead to an apparent recrudescence of many primitive beliefs and practices.
So began F.C.S. Schiller’s confident denunciation and dismissal of the great wave of alleged prophecies that had preceded and continued into the First World War. While such a view might have been expected of an Oxford don, Schiller was also a past President of the Society for Psychical Research and still an active and important member.
Born in Germany in 1864, Schiller had been educated at Rugby School and studied at Balliol College, Oxford. From 1897 he was a fellow and tutor at Corpus Christi, Oxford. In 1914, he was elected President of the Society for Psychical Research.
The Society for Psychical Research Rakes the Rubbish Heaps of Science
Schiller takes a sweepingly dismissive view right from the beginning. The ‘ordinary sociologist,’ he asserts, would throw out all the war prophecies as ‘unworthy of scientific attention’. Schiller stoops to take an interest only because ‘our Society [for Psychical Research] exists for the express purpose of raking over the rubbish-heaps of orthodox science.’ It was not a promising start.
Schiller was not at all happy with the material he had to investigate. ‘It must be confessed,’ he said, ‘that the evidence was so bad that it did not seem to warrant further investigation.’ Most of it he called ‘irresponsible, unauthenticated, unverifiable, and often anonymous, hearsay.’ Still, he troubles himself to consider 6 cases.
1. Wilhelm I and Numerology
According to the story, young Prince Wilhelm of Prussia (not yet the Kaiser Wilhelm I) was travelling incognito through the Rhineland in 1849 and on reaching Mainz was suddenly addressed by a gipsy as ‘Imperial Majesty’. At the time, Wilhelm held little prospect of becoming Emperor, so, in a jesting spirit, he asked the gipsy when he would accede to the title. The gipsy took the year 1849 and added it to the numbers of that year (1849+(1+8+4+9)) to give 1871. When asked how long he would reign, the gipsy did the same with 1871 – 1871+(1+8+7+1) – to give 1888. The gipsy also foretold that the German Empire would end in 1913 (1888 – 1888+(1+8+8+8)).
Wilhelm I did in fact become Emperor in 1871 and reigned until his death in 1888, although Schiller quibbles about where Wilhelm was in 1849 to rule out the possibility of his having been in Mainz or thereabouts. Most damningly for the prophecy, the German Empire did not end in 1913. Schiller added triumphantly that ‘even in 1914 it had to be explained that the Kaiser craftily put off the beginning of the war in order to defeat (at any rate) the prophetic gipsy: by 1916 even the most credulous must have become sceptical about the correctness of the terminal date.’
2. The Prophecy of Lehnin
The Prophecy of Lehnin ‘prefiguring the rise and fall of the Prussian despotism of Germany’, according to the English translation by Sepharial, was supposedly written by Arminius, Prior of Lehnin Monastery in Brandenburg, around the year 1240. In true donnish fashion, Schiller finds the style of the hundred Latin verses of the prophecy to be ‘shockingly bad’. Worse, still it can only be traced back to the seventeenth century when it was concocted by Canon Andreas Fromm, circa 1684. Schiller gives the whole thing such a thorough shake that it falls soundly apart.
3. The Prophecy of Mayence
This was a mid-nineteenth-century prophecy concerning a final great ‘Battle of the Birch Tree’ in the vicinity of Werl, Westphalia, made by someone in a convent of St Hildegaard near Mainz. For Schiller it is another house of card and he has no trouble in blowing the whole thing over and from his analysis it is not entirely clear what the thing was about except some war between European states (Prussia, Russia, Austria and France were all contenders).
4. The Prophecy of Brother John
This prophecy appeared in Le Figaro and Schiller loses not time in throwing it out as ‘wholly unauthenticated’. He does not even bother to say what it is before rushing on to attack Madame de Thèbes.
5. The Prophecies of Madame de Thèbes
Madame de Thèbes, ‘like all prophets,’ Schiller acidly observes, ‘is fond of predicting wars and catastrophes.’ Given the political situation in Europe from 1911 onwards ‘it would have been remarkable if she had refrained from doing so’. However, it is not that she was unremarkable in predicting war, but that she was frequently wrong:
She also makes a considerable number of egregious blunders. For example, both in the 1911 and 1912 issues she predicted the outbreak of the Great War in 1913 (p. 28 and p. 25), and the downfall of Germany and the disappearance of her emperor (p. 36 and pp. 37, 44). In the 1912 issue she predicts also an earthquake and a scarcity of milk in France (pp. 25-6), an attack by Italy on France (p. 36), the success of the Duchess of Hohenberg’s l plans (p. 37), a civil war in Belgium (predicted also in 1909), which might well set Europe ablaze, a multitude of violent deaths and a possible collapse of monarchy in England, and revolutions in Japan. The 1914 issue contains inter alia the following obvious failures: the French army on the frontiers by the 20th March, 1914, the discovery of great mineral wealth in Western France and its transformation into an industrial district (p. 53), again a war with Italy (p. 54), the extinction of the Belgian monarchy and the subjection of Belgium (p. 58), external and internal war in England, with the greatest danger of a complete overthrow (p. 59). On the other hand, the prediction of a new Pope (p. 54) would be a palpable hit, if it had not been known how precarious the health of Pius X. had been getting. The issue for 1915 predicts a (victorious) end to the war by June 1915 (p. 37), a revolution in Germany and the Kaiser’s disappearance (p. 53), the death of the ‘ sinister old man,’ the Emperor of Austria (a very probable prediction, seeing how often the newspapers have prepared the public mind for it!) (p. 54), the destruction of Turkey (p. 65), and an apology to Belgium for having suspected the court and the Flemings of siding with Germany. There are no clear successes in this issue at all; for it was obvious that “valiant Servia is not at an end of its warlike destiny” and probable enough that Bulgaria would be involved (side not stated).
6. Old Moore’s Almanack
Old Moore’s Almanack, a venerable yearly catalogue of predictions, comes in for the worst drubbing from Schiller, quite understandably in view of the fact that Old Moore entirely overlooked to mention the outbreak of a world war in the 1914 edition. Schiller generously allows him this oversight, but reels with mock horror to discover that Old Moore still had not caught up with the situation in 1915:
To our astonishment, however, we find nothing at all that can be interpreted as a recognition by the astral powers of the troubles of the terrestrial merely conventional remarks that at such and such a time “the safety of the Tsar will give grave reason for anxiety to his best friends” in the police!
Old Moore’s Almanack for 1915, looking to get in as many sales as possible, had gone to press before July 1914, or so it was rumoured.
Finally, in 1916 ‘Old Moore does discover the war’ and the Almanack is full of nothing but ‘disasters, victories, defeats, strikes and revolution’. Schiller finds Old Moore too pessimistic in seeing the war still going strong on 31 December and, with a twinkle in his eye, suggests that the Almanack ‘ought to be suppressed for prejudicing recruiting’. For a happier outlook, Schiller recommends Zadkiel’s Almanack for 1916 in which the war will end by March – Schiller’s articles was published in the June edition of the SPR’s Journal.
Defend One’s Fatherland
Schiller does not stop at getting one last laugh, he has another, but ends on a patriotic note:
In view of all this material, it certainly does not become easier to believe that the human race is growing in enlightenment and increasing in critical intelligence. We still have no reply to traffickers in omens and dealers in prophecy better than that which Homer of old put into the mouth of Hector “One omen is best, to defend one’s fatherland.”
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