Germany’s Appeal to the Americans Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Shortly after the outbreak of the World War I in 1914, a group of leading Germans from different walks of life appealed to the United States not to take a hostile attitude toward Germany. They stressed the long history of peace and friendship between the two countries and the many contributions that Germany had made to their shared culture. In contradiction to the common stereotype of German militarism, they stressed the peaceful and economic productivity of the German people, treating German military preparedness as justified by the many threats posed to Germany and German culture, particularly by Russia. The authors also invoked German high culture, which they claimed was incompatible with the stereotype of a militaristic people. The authors stressed the honorable and defensive motives that caused Germany to enter the war, and they declared that the German people stood unified under the kaiser, who is portrayed as a symbol of the nation rather than a political and military leader.

Summary Overview

Shortly after the outbreak of the World War I in 1914, a group of leading Germans from different walks of life appealed to the United States not to take a hostile attitude toward Germany. They stressed the long history of peace and friendship between the two countries and the many contributions that Germany had made to their shared culture. In contradiction to the common stereotype of German militarism, they stressed the peaceful and economic productivity of the German people, treating German military preparedness as justified by the many threats posed to Germany and German culture, particularly by Russia. The authors also invoked German high culture, which they claimed was incompatible with the stereotype of a militaristic people. The authors stressed the honorable and defensive motives that caused Germany to enter the war, and they declared that the German people stood unified under the kaiser, who is portrayed as a symbol of the nation rather than a political and military leader.

Defining Moment

August 1914 was marked by the outbreak of World War I in Europe. The assassination of the heir to the Austrian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, by a Serbian nationalist in the Bosnian city of Sarajevo had drawn, with stunning speed, all the major European powers into conflict. The conflict began as one between Austria-Hungary and Serbia. Germany entered the war to support its traditional ally Austria-Hungary, although much of the German leadership had seen a European war as inevitable and planned to use it to make major territorial gains in Europe and possibly the colonial sphere as well. Russia supported Serbia, and France supported its ally Russia. Great Britain was allied with France, but formally entered the war as a result of Germany’s violation of Belgian neutrality.

Despite German ambitions, the initial situation faced by Germany was far from advantageous. With only Austria-Hungary as an ally, Germany was confronted on both its eastern and western flanks by the powerful coalition of France, Britain, and Russia. German forces were going to be heavily outnumbered, and Germany faced the difficult challenge of a two-front war, against France and Britain in the west and against Russia in the east, while facing British dominance of the sea as well. Despite the odds, a wide range of Germans from different economic classes and political and cultural positions looked forward to the war with enthusiasm. Many believed the war would unite the German people, divided until then on the basis of political party, class, religion, and region. (This belief, in war as a means to national unification, was not restricted to Germany; it was held in many of the other belligerent nations as well.)

From the beginning of the war, the Germans were concerned about keeping the United States, the one major world power not directly involved in the conflict, neutral. Adding the immensely wealthy and populous United States to the already formidable Allied coalition would render the odds against Germany nearly impossible to overcome. Although the United States had traditionally avoided involvement in European conflicts, the expansion of both Germany and the United States as world powers in the preceding decades had sometimes led to friction between the two. However, in the first year of the war, most Americans, regardless of their sympathy or lack thereof for Germany, were more than willing to stay out of it. Therefore, the American political elite, led by President Woodrow Wilson, promoted the idea of neutrality.

Author Biography

This statement was issued by a collective group of eminent Germans from government, business, and intellectual and cultural life. Signatories included the retired statesman Prince Bernhard von Bülow; the German-Jewish shipping magnate Albert Ballin, head of the Hamburg America Line; the Catholic politician Matthias Erzberger; Field Marshal Colmar Freiherr Von der Goltz, a well-known military theorist; and the naval officer Count Reventlow.

These well-known Germans–particularly people like Ballin, who already had connections with the United States through his transatlantic shipping line–added weight to the German declaration. However, the inclusion of military figures, such as Von der Goltz and Reventlow, undercut the document’s message of Germany’s love of peace. Several of the signatories, including civilians like Erzberger, had ambitious plans for German territorial annexations in Europe that belied the appeal’s claim that Germany had been forced into a purely defensive war.

Document Analysis

The document is addressed to the American people. In line with much German propaganda throughout the war, it attempts to portray Germany as a fundamentally peace-loving country on which war has been forced. The authors faced a challenge in that German culture was frequently stereotyped as being militaristic, so they emphasize the non-warlike activities that Germans engage in and paint a picture of German “national character” that emphasizes peacefulness.

The document begins with an idyllic picture of a peaceful and productive Germany on the eve of war. Readers are told, somewhat improbably, that no one in the country was thinking of war. The authors allude to the fact that, since the founding of the German Empire in 1871, Germany had not engaged in a war in Europe (although the founding of the empire itself was the result of a series of wars). Although Germany had engaged in bloody colonial conflicts in Africa and elsewhere, they go unmentioned–perhaps because Europeans and Americans regarded colonial conflict, particularly against peoples of color, as being in a different category from European war.

The author refers to Germany’s accomplishments in the fields of high culture, invoking the hallowed names of poet and novelist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and philosopher Immanuel Kant. In addition to appealing to these prestigious German figures (perhaps less well-known in the United States than the authors realized) to influence Americans favorably toward Germany, they reinforce a theme common to much World War I German propaganda–the defense of German high culture, or Kultur, against Anglo-French materialism and Russian barbarian despotism. The author also invokes German technical innovation and creativity. German economic growth is attributed to hard work rather than bold, adventurous strokes. The authors refer to the large American population of German descent as evidence of the peaceful and hardworking nature of the German people.

The appeal treats German military power as fundamentally defensive. According to the authors, the creation of armies and fortresses was forced upon the Germans because of their uniquely vulnerable position in the center of Europe, exposed to attack from the west and east. However, Germany now stands resolute and united under the leadership of the kaiser.

In their analysis of the outbreak of the war, the authors focus on the villainy of autocratic Russia, while treating relatively democratic Britain and France as misled rather than malevolent in their posture toward Germany. This position might appeal more to Americans, sympathetic to democracies, particularly France, and paints Germany as a relatively “progressive” country in contrast to Russia, “the enemy of European thought and culture.” Russian atrocities, such as the pogroms against the Jews, are invoked to further darken the Russian name. The Austrian reaction to the Serbian nationalist assassination of the archduke is treated as required by the demands of honor.

Essential Themes

The arguments made in this open letter for Germany’s love of peace proved ultimately unconvincing, and the opposing portrayal of Germany as a militaristic country constantly seeking to profit from the difficulties of its neighbors were a staple of Allied propaganda, both international and domestic. Britain, in particular, carried out an active propaganda campaign in the United States, emphasizing German atrocities and portraying Germany as a menace to not only the Allies, but also the entire civilized world. Although some Americans began the war sympathetic to the German cause, or at least neutral in a conflict largely perceived as outside the realm of US national interest, public opinion shifted as the conflict wore on. The combination of Allied propaganda and the eventual German attacks on American and Allied shipping, along with diplomatic blunders, such as the Zimmerman telegram (which offered Mexico an alliance against the United States), alienated Americans from Germany. Germans were increasingly portrayed in American writing and journalism as militaristic fanatics driven by the need to dominate.

The German high culture that the authors hoped would be a bond between Germany and the United States came increasingly under suspicion as the American cultural climate became more hostile to Germany and Germans. Even the German language, still spoken widely in parts of the United States at the time, came under suspicion. The German immigrants and German Americans to whom the authors refer were suspected of disloyalty and were referred to sneeringly as “hyphenated Americans.” Nor were the document’s optimistic predictions regarding Germany itself justified by reality. The vaunted German unity of which the document boasts did not last for the duration of the war, as many Germans became discontented with the failures of their government.

Ironically, the claims made in the appeal would become more credible a few years after the war, when the American reaction against the war and resentment of its erstwhile allies, France and Great Britain, would lead some to reconsider the German case. “Revisionist” historians, like Harry Elmer Barnes, would accept much of the German case, although their work did not become the dominant interpretation of the war and its origins.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Craig, Gordon A. Germany 1866–1945. New York: Oxford UP, 1978. Print.
  • Doenecke, Justus. Nothing Less than War: A New History of America’s Entry into World War I. Lexington: UP of Kentucky, 2011. Print.
  • Hastings, Max. Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War. New York: Knopf, 2013. Print.
  • Tuchman, Barbara. The Guns of August & The Proud Tower. 1962, 1966. New York: Library of America, 2012. Print.
Categories: History Content