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Honorable R. Holman Willis

Address to Graduating Class

Delivered by the Honorable R. Holman Willis, of Roanoke, May 27, 1918

My interest in V. P. I. came through my work in the General Assembly. I became convinced that for every dollar spent, the State comes nearer getting one hundred cents worth of education than from any other similar work to which she contributes. For your president, faculty, and board of visitors, I have the most unbounded admiration. Though limited in the means with which they are to work they have kept bravely on without a murmur. Each year they have come back and in straightforward direct language told the General Assembly what the State needs to carry on this work.

When, however, for causes which sometimes could not be understood, these appropriations were not made, there was no sulking, but always a readiness to accept the result like good sports and go to work like good soldiers to accomplish the most with the materials at hand. I am here to bear witness that no set of men have ever faced a trying situation with a more cheerful mien or more fixed determination to make the most of it.

During all this time the alumni have been the second line of attack. If any man needs a witness to the efficiency of this institution, then let him observe the undying loyalty of its alumni. No alma mater whose work was not of the best could have engendered such feeling in her sons. Time forbids that I should dwell on the testimony furnished by the work done by these men.

But I have been honored by a request to make the commencement address to the Class of 1918. Any audience cares to hear but one subject; any speaker cares to address himself to but one subject; there is but one subject to-day. Within that subject are embraced as many variations as there are chords in a great musical composition, but always the great theme to which it ever tends is that of crushing from this world the loathsome power of the Hun.

We are told, on every hand, of the outrages committed by the Boche, of the necessity of crushing him, but lest the false and empty proposals of peace should lead some of us astray, it is well that we should be firmly grounded in our knowledge of the issues. Every man should know the inherent difference between the Hun and a decent citizen of the world.

If I read history aright, the Hun has had ingrained into him one all-pervading idea, which renders him an unfit neighbor, so long as he retains it, and that is the belief that war is a profitable occupation. In the sixteenth century Sigismond gave to the Hohenzollern family the Margraviate of Brandenburg. Shortly thereafter the king of Poland gave to them certain rights in the province of Prussia. From that time to the time of the "Great Elector," and from the "Great Elector" to Frederick the Great, there was one succession of acquisitions of power. By acts of craft, which we denominate theft, and by acts of violence, which in law to-day would be robbery, this Hohenzollern family added to their power and domain.

But no matter how the pelf was gotten, the doctrine was preached to the Prussian people that "war pays." Insidiously there was whispered into the ear of the Prussian that his destiny was that of a professional warrior; that work was well enough for women and conquered nations, but for him the gods of war had ordained a universe from which he could look with disdain on such dull, drab shades of life.

Then arose Otto von Bismarck, the strong man of Prussia, and Von Moltke, his right arm. By an appeal to her pride he induced and cajoled Austria into joining with Prussia in a war against Denmark, as a result of which Schleswig and Holstein were raped from the little kingdom, and that largely by the loss of Austrian men. True to form, Prussia seized the fruit of the theft. The Hapsburgs accepted the challenge, as they were forced to do if they were to maintain their position as leaders among the German states.

The result is only too well known. To the amazement of the Austrian generals they found the Prussian army thoroughly equipped with the breech-loading rifle, known as the needle gun. A short decisive war lost to the House of Hapsburg forever the place of arbiter of German destinies, together with the South German provinces.

But the great outstanding fact of these two wars was that the Hohenzollerns were able to go back to the Prussians with the spoils in their hands, and say again, "War not only pays us in prestige and renown, but it yields great financial dividends. Our wars are short, decisive, and costly only to the enemy. It is so because we are a military nation, we are prepared; great is Hohenzollern preparedness!"

To the Prussian mind the crowning demonstration of the value of the plunder to be gained was in the Franco-Prussian war. Just twelve weeks from the firing of the first gun, Bismarck was collecting dividends from the bloody investment. Alsace and Lorraine were taken under claim of an ancient right. Without any claim except of sufficient bayonets to enforce the edict the boundaries of Lorraine were so "readjusted" as to take from France her vast deposits of iron. By this device Bismarck thought to transfer the iron industry of continental Europe to the Rhine cities. To provide working capital for the enterprise, a billion dollars of indemnity was wrung from prostrate France. William Hohenzollern was crowned Emperor of all the Germans in a French palace.

To the pomp and prestige of a victor was added the glamor of a successful robber. Again a Hohenzollern returned to Prussia and proclaimed the financial benefits to be derived from war. To the practical Teutonic mind the argument was without an answer. For had not war paid? Had not the Hohenzollern in each case returned laden with spoils and valuable concessions, almost before the phlegmatic subject knew that a war was on?

Then it was that the Prussian beast began to crouch for its final spring at the throat of the world. With consummate skill combined with force Bismarck drew the Germanic states together into the zolverein, or tariff union, by which Prussia held not alone the military power but the purse strings of Germany. This was beyond question the master stroke of Bismarck's career.

Nietzsche and his disciple, Treitschke, preached the doctrine that the world and the good things thereof are for those with the will and the strength to take it. The epitome of German philosophy came to be "the will to power," by which was meant largely the equivalent of the American slang "willing to cash in." The German officer was willing to cash in his honor, his solemn word, his signed treaty, and if need be his own brother, in return for world domination, with the attendant right to rob the world. Von Bernhardi then wrote his doctrine of blood and iron. The world read it and thought it to be the child of a disordered mind. The German secret service filled the world with spies and plots and schemes. They stirred up hatred against all nations other than Germany and her confederates. These things came to the chancelleries of the allied countries, they were reported to their governments, but the nations refused to believe that Germany had deliberately chosen to become an outlaw nation; it seemed incredible that any ruler in the twentieth century would solemnly make his choice and choose the life of a robber. With the open mind of one who intends no evil they suspected none and actually paid millions for the dyes which were a by-product of Germany's munition factories; we paid the bill for the powder that would murder the finest of our young manhood. Italy, burdened with poverty and a debt inherited from poverty-stricken ancestors, slept on. England—business, humdrum old England—pursued her business. And France—gay, debonair, chivalrous France—danced in the shadow of her doom.

When the Hohenzollern had encompassed the earth with the slimy tentacles of his system of espionage, when his generals reported to him that the last soldier was ready to the last cartridge, then he gathered together the captains and the kings of the finances of Germany. He gathered them at Potsdam and showed them the world spread out before them. To one he was to give the exclusive privilege of trading in iron and steel in India, to another the wool industry of Australia, and thus he parcelled out the utmost part of the earth. The price was to be that they should finance the royal pirate's venture; that they should fall down and worship at the shrine of the god of war.

These things are not mere imaginings. They are all set forth in the revelations of August Thysson, the German merchant prince, who was there and took his part of the supposed pelf. With true Teutonic exactness it was all written down, and the promises were to be fulfilled not later than December, 1915.

Then the storm broke. We know as well as the human tongue can tell, as well as the human mind can grasp, the sickening, bloody, tragic story since August, 1914.

We have been told of the anguish of the Belgians, who stand today as they did two thousand years ago—the bravest of them all. We know the agony of La Belle France. We know of the mothers who saw the last morsel of food taken from them and in frantic desperation saw their helpless little broods about them crying for food, but knew that those little ones who were nearer to them than life would starve before their eyes. We know of the miles of road in Poland along which sat children dull and sick with starvation. The whole anguishing picture has been shown us again and again.

But I would turn from the horrid picture and look for a moment on a brighter side.

A certain measure of success has attended me in the practice of the profession I love, but I would rather be one of you men, starting out to-day with a training in the applied sciences, than to be where I am. For the man who can look into the future, there is a world where the weaker nations have been freed from the intolerable peril of a bullying force, where the sinister German influence will have been withdrawn. To you the waste places of the earth will be open. Mountains of iron and manganese will be taken from the mines of South America and converted into steel products by American engineers. The limitless plains, covered with grass, will be bought by men from V. P. I. to produce beef for the world. Tractors, made in America, will draw plows across fields many miles in length. And American wares will supply the demand for manufactured goods. Indeed it is a golden day for the young man who knows how to produce.

President Wilson has said:—"To-day our young men sail across a sea strewn with the white up-turned faces of the dead, not for glory, nor spoils, nor pelf, but that the world may be a better and happier place in which to live. To-morrow they will come back, empty handed, except that their hands will be filled with their dead and wounded, but on that morrow we will look on a new world and all men shall say that the gain was worth the price."


From the Bulletin of the Virginia Polytechnic Institute -- The State Agricultural and Mechanical College, Commencement Number, Vol. 11, No. 4, October 1918, pp. 6-10.

Russell Holman Willis was a Roanoke attorney and banker, a member of the Virginia General Assembly, representing the City of Roanoke as a delegate from 1914-1923. He was president of Rockydale Quarries Corporation from the 1930s until his death. He was born in Marshall, MO. on January 12, 1880, and died on August 9, 1954.