The German Chancellor on the Prospect of War with the United States Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

This statement, issued while the United States Congress was considering declaring war on Germany, affirms Germany’s wish to avoid conflict with the United States and reiterates German justifications for unrestricted submarine warfare. Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg, the head of the German civilian government, claimed that German submarine warfare was justified as a response to the British naval blockade of Germany, a far greater war crime. He claims that Germany wants peace, whereas the Allies would only be content with Germany’s destruction. Germany had never attacked the United States, according to Bethmann-Hollweg, and the German policy of unrestricted submarine warfare, the principal bone of contention between the United States and Germany, had been instituted solely for the purpose of getting Britain to abandon its crippling blockade of Germany. He notes that American leaders, including President Woodrow Wilson, had previously condemned the blockade.

Summary Overview

This statement, issued while the United States Congress was considering declaring war on Germany, affirms Germany’s wish to avoid conflict with the United States and reiterates German justifications for unrestricted submarine warfare. Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg, the head of the German civilian government, claimed that German submarine warfare was justified as a response to the British naval blockade of Germany, a far greater war crime. He claims that Germany wants peace, whereas the Allies would only be content with Germany’s destruction. Germany had never attacked the United States, according to Bethmann-Hollweg, and the German policy of unrestricted submarine warfare, the principal bone of contention between the United States and Germany, had been instituted solely for the purpose of getting Britain to abandon its crippling blockade of Germany. He notes that American leaders, including President Woodrow Wilson, had previously condemned the blockade.

Defining Moment

The American declaration of war on Germany was the culmination of a long period of deteriorating relations between the two powers. A major problem facing Germany from the beginning of the war was the British blockade, which sought to deny Germany access to goods imported by sea, regardless of their use in the war effort, including food. Britain’s unmatched navy and control of the sea, which Germany never seriously sought to challenge during the war, made its blockade effective, and feeding the German population was growing increasingly difficult. The British blockade was widely viewed as extreme and inhumane, by some Americans as well as Germans.

Germany’s surface fleet had challenged the British Royal Navy at the Battle of Jutland, but failed to break the blockade or mount a meaningful challenge to British naval supremacy. Germany’s response to this failure was a renewed emphasis on the use of submarines to deny Britain, in turn, its own imports. Germany announced the resumption of “unrestricted submarine warfare”–the sinking of enemy ships, including commercial as well as naval vessels, and including neutral vessels carrying supplies to the enemy–to the US ambassador on January 31, 1917. Germany led the world in submarine technology at the time, and German naval leaders from the beginning of the war had heavily promoted the submarine as a so-called wonder weapon. Britain, as an island nation that imported much of its food supply, was vulnerable to this new weapon. Attacks without warning could lead to a high number of casualties and were frequently viewed as showing indifference to human life. Like other new weapons, the submarine also aroused a horror among people who were far more willing to accept casualties inflicted by traditional weapons.

The danger in unrestricted submarine warfare was its alienation of neutral shippers, and of these, by far the most important was the United States. The destruction of the British ocean liner Lusitania in May 1915, which resulted in the death of nearly 1,200 passengers, including over 100 Americans, had been particularly harmful to German-American relations, although the crisis had passed without American entry into the war. Woodrow Wilson actually campaigned for re-election in 1916 on that basis that he had kept the United States out of war. German advocates of unrestricted submarine warfare were aware of the risk of mobilizing the United States for war, but the submarines’ ability to strike the British made it seem worth the danger to naval and army leaders. Many civilian politicians also supported unrestricted submarine warfare. Advocates argued that a few months of the destruction of British shipping would force Britain to surrender. In February, the United States broke off diplomatic relations with Germany, and, following the sinking of several American vessels and Britain’s revelation of the intercepted Zimmerman Telegram, in which a German diplomat offered an alliance against the United States to Mexico, the United States moved toward war.

Author Biography

Theobald Theodor Friedrich Alfred von Bethmann-Hollweg (1856–1921) was a German diplomat of Prussian origin who served as chancellor of Germany, the head of government, from 1909 to 1917. Before the war, he supported a policy of diminishing tensions with Britain, but he became identified with a pro-war policy in 1914. Bethmann-Hollweg’s description of the neutrality of Belgium, which German troops invaded at the outset of the war, as a “scrap of paper” became particularly infamous in the United States.

As the war proceeded, Bethmann-Hollweg, like other German civilian leaders, found himself more and more marginalized by Germany’s military leadership, particularly Generals Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff, who eventually became the effective rulers of the country. Bethmann-Hollweg favored a conciliatory policy with the United States and feared that unrestricted submarine warfare would lead to its joining the Allies. This he estimated to be a disaster for any German hopes of victory. He fell from power in July 1917 due to opposition from the military and German conservatives.

Document Analysis

Bethmann-Hollweg’s diplomatic statement seeks to portray the impending American declaration of war on Germany as irrational and unfair. His audience was composed of both Germans, to whom he is justifying the risky policy of unrestricted submarine warfare the government had undertaken, and foreigners, to whom he was making the case for Germany as the innocent party as opposed to Britain. He does this by putting the German submarine campaign–which did more than anything else to bring the United States into the war against Germany–in the context of the British naval blockade of Germany, which he portrays as the real war crime. He points out that both President Wilson and Secretary of State Robert Lansing have been harshly critical of the British policy, describing it as both inhumane and illegal. The blockade was very broad, defining a wide range of goods as contraband of war and contributing to widespread hunger and malnutrition in Germany (although exactly how much the blockade contributed to the German food crisis and Allied victory remains a subject of dispute), and its legality was questionable. It also harmed American commerce with Europe, which contributed to American opposition to the blockade, as did longstanding American resentment of British claims to control the seas.

Bethmann-Hollweg presents the German tactic of unrestrained submarine warfare as solely a response to the British blockade. It was aimed, he asserts, at forcing Britain to drop the blockade. In fact, many German naval and land commanders saw unrestricted submarine warfare not just as a countermeasure to the blockade, but as offering the possibility of defeating Britain outright and winning the war.

In portraying Germany as the aggrieved party, Bethmann-Hollweg contrasts Germany’s peace offers with an alleged Allied desire to “annihilate” Germany and her allies. The annihilation of Germany was never an Allied war aim, and the leadership of Germany still hoped for outright victory rather than a compromise peace. Bethmann-Hollweg claims that Germany had never attacked the United States, passing over the fact that German submarines had sunk American vessels in the seas around the British Isles. He emphasizes the long history of friendly relations between the United States and the German people, claiming that Germans bore no hatred against the country. He ends on a note not of defiance, but resignation.

Essential Themes

The arguments made in this statement were vigorously opposed in an answering statement from British undersecretary for foreign affairs Lord Robert Cecil, who defended the blockade and charged the Germans with “excesses” both at sea and on land, including the invasion of Belgium, with which Bethmann-Hollweg was closely identified. If Bethmann-Hollweg seriously hoped that the United States would stay out of the war, he was to be disappointed. Shortly after his speech, the US Congress followed President Wilson’s desire by declaring war on Germany, and the United States entered the war as a member of the Allied coalition. Unrestricted submarine warfare was frequently invoked as a cause of the United States’ decision to take sides. Bethmann-Hollweg himself fell from power shortly thereafter.

Bethmann-Hollweg’s invocation of the historical friendship of Germany and the United States also proved fruitless. Whatever pro-German feelings the Americans had had at the beginning of the war had long since been dissipated by the horrors of submarine warfare and the atrocity propaganda that blackened the reputation of the German Army. The American entry to the war was accompanied by fulsome anti-German propaganda, in which unrestricted submarine warfare figured prominently as proof of German evil. Popular hostility to Germany and all things German soared in America. Allied victory was followed by the destruction of Germany’s submarine fleet and a prohibition against it building another, although, like other prohibitions in the peace settlement, it would be repudiated by the Germans, and German submarines proved even more effective in challenging Anglo-American shipping during World War II. Bethmann-Hollweg’s hope that the German people would endure the fresh disaster of American entry into the war also failed. German surrender was partially caused by the enormous weight of American resources being brought to bear against them, and far from displaying patient endurance, Germans in the last phases of the war were increasingly disgusted with their government’s bungling.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Craig, Gordon. 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.
  • Jarausch, Konrad. The Enigmatic Chancellor: Bethmann Hollweg and the Hubris of Imperial Germany. New Haven: Yale UP, 1973. Print.
  • “Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg on the Prospect of War with the US, April 1917.” FirstWorldWar.com. Michael Duffy, 22 Aug. 2009. Web. 26 Feb. 2014.
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