Theobold von Bethmann-Hollweg

Theobold von Bethmann-Hollweg

Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg was born in Howenfinow, Brandenburg. After studying law he served as Prussian minister for the Interior. When Bernhard von Bulow left office in 1909, Kaiser Wilhelm II appointed Bethmann-Hollweg as Imperial Chancellor. Inexperienced in foreign affairs, he was unable to achieve conciliation with England and France.

The economic strain of expansion and rearmament encouraged discontent. The 1912 Reichstag elections returned 110 socialist deputies and this made it difficult for Bethmann-Hollweg to achieve right-wing legislation.

After hearing Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg speak in the Reichstag where he introduced a bill increasing the German Army by two army corps Raymond Gram Swing wrote an article of several thousand words predicting the outbreak of war in Europe. He later recalled: "I waited for the four or five weeks to pass which it would take to deliver my solemn and warning article to Chicago and for it to appear on page one and be delivered to Berlin. Four weeks passed, then five and six, and finally eight. And then I was to discover an article of mine on an inside page, with von Bethmann-Hollweg's speech omitted, along with all reference to the danger of war... Subsequently I was told that Charles Dennis, the managing editor, had said he was not going to put up with any nonsense about the danger of war from his youngsters in the European bureaus."

By 1914 Bethmann-Hollweg was deeply unpopular in Germany. He became convinced that only a successful war could divert opposition to his economic policies. He hoped and expected a short, limited war. He encouraged Austro-Hungarian aggression after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Bethmann-Hollweg changed his mind after it became clear that it might escalate into a world war. However, he lacked the political authority to halt the Schlieffen Plan.

Bethmann-Hollweg: So at last the course will be Bismarck's! Well, we'll see what will come of it!Kladderadatsch (12th July, 1914)
Bethmann-Hollweg: So at last the course will be Bismarck's! Well, we'll see what will come of it!
Kladderadatsch (12th July, 1914)

Raymond Gram Swing was asked by Bethmann-Hollweg to go to London to pass a message to Sir Edward Grey, the British foreign secretary. Bethmann-Hollweg warned him: "I must caution you... not a word of this in the newspapers. If it is published, I shall have to say I never said it." Swing wrote about his meeting in his autobiography, Good Evening (1964): "I had little firsthand knowledge of the British at that time. I knew how the Germans regarded them, Sir Edward Grey in particular. He was considered the arch-conspirator, the passionless builder of Germany's ring of enemies, and especially dangerous because of his ability to speak hypocritically about moral virtues - while acting in farsighted national interest. The Sir Edward Grey I met was a revelation. He had the personal appearance of a shaggy ascetic. He was tall, erect, slender, with thin but untidy hair. His clothes were not well pressed. At the time, I knew nothing about Sir Edward Grey, the naturalist, of the breed of Englishmen he represented -sensitive, shy, and complex - or that he was one of the best-educated men in the world. I delivered my message from Herr von Bethmann-Hollweg and ended with the instructions I had received to return to him and repeat what Sir Edward had to say in reply. Sir Edward's face turned crimson when I spoke the word "indemnity." I thought of Baroness von Schroeder's explanation of it and almost blurted it out. But Sir Edward gave me no time to blurt out anything. He ignored what I said about no annexations in Belgium and Belgian independence. He struck at the word "indemnity" with a kind of high moral fury, and launched into one of the finest speeches I had heard. Did not Herr von Bethmann-Holhweg know what must come from the war? It must be a world of international law where treaties were observed, where men welcomed conferences and did not scheme for war. I was to tell Herr von Bethmann-Holhveg that his suggestion of an indemnity was an insult and that Great Britain was fighting for a new basis for foreign relations, a new international morality."

Bethmann-Hollweg still hoped for a negotiated peace and was a strong opponent of those like Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz who wanted unrestricted submarine warfare. By the summer of 1917, Bethmann-Hollweg was disliked by both the conservatives and liberals in the Reichstag, and on 13th July was forced to resign from office. His book, Reflections on the World War , was published in 1920.

Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg died in 1921.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Raymond Gram Swing, Good Evening (1964)

As the year 1914 progressed, my attention turned more and more to world affairs, and I made one major effort to interest the Chicago Daily News in the mounting danger of war. This was when Chancellor von Bethmann-Hollweg, as a countermove to France's adoption of the three-year military service, introduced a bill increasing the German army by two army corps. I attended the session of the Reichstag when the bill was introduced and listened attentively to the Chancellor's speech. I realized that war might well be an imminent possibility. And while I had to write my report of this event and its possible significance for the Daily News to be sent by mail, I was sure that for once I would have a story on page one. I wrote several thousand words; I quoted von Bethmann-Hollweg at length, explained the power struggle that dominated Europe, and frankly foresaw the possibility of war. I waited for the four or five weeks to pass which it would take to deliver my solemn and warning article to Chicago and for it to appear on page one and be delivered to Berlin. Four weeks passed, then five and six, and finally eight. And then I was to discover an article of mine on an inside page, with von Bethmann-Hollweg's speech omitted, along with all reference to the danger of war. It carried a headline about "a picture of the German Reichstag when the government brings in a bill." Subsequently I was told that Charles Dennis, the managing editor, had said he was not going to put up with any nonsense about the danger of war from his "youngsters" in the European bureaus. But August came, and brought the outbreak of war. A few weeks were to pass before the Daily News changed from mail stories to cables, and I was later given a relay man in Holland to whom I sent my telegrams for forwarding to London and reforwarding to Chicago, and also authorized to send messages via wireless to New York.

In the immediate days before the war, I tried to send cables to Chicago, cables about mobilization, about declarations of war, about passports being given departing ambassadors. All of these efforts to report the early days of crisis in August were fruitless. Not a dispatch of mine arrived in Chicago. I paid out countless German marks for sending them. I don't know where they were held up. They simply vanished. It was three or four weeks before a by-line of mine appeared over cable or wireless dispatches from Berlin.

(2) Helmuth von Moltke, memorandum sent to Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg (July 1914)

Unless Germany means to break her word and allow her ally to succumb to Russian superior strength, she must also mobilize. That will lead to the mobilization of the remaining Russian military districts. Russia will then be able to say, "I am being attacked by Germany" and that will make her sure of the support of France who is bound by treaty to go to war if her ally Russia is attacked. The Franco-Russian agreement, so often praised as a purely defensive alliance brought about only to meet German plans of aggression, comes thereby into operation and the civilized states of Europe will begin to tear one another to pieces.

Germany does not want to bring about this terrible war. But the German Government knows that it would fatally wound the deeply rooted sentiment of allied loyalty, one of the finest traits of the German spirit, and place itself at variance with all the feelings of its people, if it were unwilling to go the help of its ally at a moment which must decide that ally's fate, Germany therefore, if the clash between Austria and Russia is inevitable, must mobilize and prepare to wage war on two fronts.

(3) Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg, telegram to the Austrian government (29th July 1914)

Thus, if Austria rejects all mediation, we are on the brink of a conflagration in which England would be against us, Italy and Roumania by all appearances not with us, and we should be two against four Great Powers. Germany, as the result of England's hostility, would have to bear the brunt of the fighting. The political prestige of Austria, the military honour of her army and her just demands on Serbia could be adequately safeguarded by the occupation of Belgrade or other places. In these circumstances we most urgently and emphatically recommend to the consideration of the Vienna Cabinet the acceptance of mediation on the honourable terms indicated. The responsibility for the consequences that would otherwise arise would be a very heavy one for Austria and ourselves.

(4) Raymond Gram Swing, Good Evening (1964)

Among the acquaintances I made at this time was Baroness von Schroeder, wife of a Junker nobleman of wealth and station. She was known as "the American Baroness," though she was a native of Canada. She was tall, had sloping shoulders, an upturned nose, wide-apart bright blue eves, a retreating chin, and a flair for politics. She was a socialite supporting the moderate von Bethmann-Hollweg against army extremists. She gave dinners to which the Chancellor and his friends were pleased to come. She repeatedly told me that von Bethmann was a moderate, opposed to any annexations after the war. I said that if that were true, he should tell me and let me repeat it to Sir Edward Grey, for the British certainly had a different view of him. And that was precisely what she brought to pass.

I was received by the Chancellor in the somber palace where his office was situated. I was invited to sit in the ample chair at the side of his huge desk, and there I was told, without any preliminary conversation, just what I was to repeat to Sir Edward Grey. Germany would not annex any Belgian territory after the war and would guarantee Belgium's independence. But he added a fateful phrase. I also was to tell Sir Edward that Germany would want an indemnity for having been forced into the war.

Herr von Bethmann-Hollweg may have noted my disappointment at hearing this. "Can I trust you?" he asked. "Not a word of this must be published in the newspapers. You understand that?" "Of course," I said. "And you are able to deliver the message to Sir Edward Grey in person, for it must go to no one else in London." I said I was confident the London office of my newspaper could assure this. "Then come back and tell me what he says." The Chancellor, a tall figure of a man, with gaunt cheeks above his short beard, rose from his desk. "I must caution you again," he said, "not a word of this in the newspapers. If it is published, I shall have to say I never said it." I repeated that I understood, and he held out his hand gravely.

My mind raced with dissociated ideas. I realized that I was in the office of Bismarck and von Bulow, where the modern German empire had been blueprinted, and that here the issue of the European war and the European peace was to be shaped. I was astonished to be there, and that I should be there undertaking to bear a message to London. I also was disconcerted by the sentence about an indemnity. I knew it made the mission to Sir Edward Grey futile.

I so confessed to Baroness von Schroeder, to whom I at once reported. "Don't be so stupid," she said. "The Chancellor was simply protecting himself. He has to do that. If the army hears he has been talking peace with Sir Edward Grey, he can point to the demand for an indemnity. After all, he has to take precautions. This is a risky step for him. Sir Edward need only say that an indemnity is out of the question, but that he is interested in the proposal about Belgium. He will be smart enough to see why the indemnity has to be mentioned."

This reassured me. That night I was on the train for Holland and a day later walked into the London office of the Chicago Daily News. Edward Price Bell, who was in charge, was astonished, but when I told him why I had come, he lifted the telephone and it was at once arranged that I should be received by Sir Edward Grey late that afternoon. It was faster work than would have been possible in Berlin.

I had little firsthand knowledge of the British at that time. I knew how the Germans regarded them, Sir Edward Grey in particular. He was considered the arch-conspirator, the passionless builder of Germany's ring of enemies, and especially dangerous because of his ability to speak hypocritically about moral virtues - while acting in farsighted national interest. The Sir Edward Grey I met was a revelation. He had the personal appearance of a shaggy ascetic. He was tall, erect, slender, with thin but untidy hair. His clothes were not well pressed. At the time, I knew nothing about Sir Edward Grey, the naturalist, of the breed of Englishmen he represented -sensitive, shy, and complex - or that he was one of the best-educated men in the world.

I delivered my message from Herr von Bethmann-Hollweg and ended with the instructions I had received to return to him and repeat what Sir Edward had to say in reply. Sir Edward's face turned crimson when I spoke the word "indemnity." I thought of Baroness von Schroeder's explanation of it and almost blurted it out. But Sir Edward gave me no time to blurt out anything. He ignored what I said about no annexations in Belgium and Belgian independence. He struck at the word "indemnity" with a kind of high moral fury, and launched into one of the finest speeches I had heard. Did not Herr von Bethmann-Holhweg know what must come from the war? It must be a world of international law where treaties were observed, where men welcomed conferences and did not scheme for war. I was to tell Herr von Bethmann-Holhveg that his suggestion of an indemnity was an insult and that Great Britain was fighting for a new basis for foreign relations, a new international morality.

Whether I might have saved something from this interview and the efforts behind it is a question I still am not able to answer. If I had been ten years older, I should have asked Sir Edward to let me tell him a little about the political situation in Berlin, and in doing so would have explained that the mention of an indemnity had undoubtedly been a kind of escape clause for the Chancellor, in the event that the army learned that he was talking about peace with the British Foreign Secretary, through an American intermediary. I should have impressed upon Sir Edward that the message in which the Chancellor was interested was the pledge of no annexations and the guarantee of Belgian independence after the war. I should have pointed out that Sir Edward had it in his power to encourage quietly the moderates in the German guvornrnent, but that a blank refusal even to give one word on the promise about Belgium might weaken, not strengthen, the very influences he must wish to see reinforced. I said none of these of these things and should have said all of them. But I am not sure that if I had it would have made any difference. Sir Edward's whole case for going to war rested on the German violation of the guaranteed neutrality of Belgium. A promise not to violate it further or again would not have impressed him. Sir Edward, in his memoirs, wrote that early in the war an American correspondent had come from the German Chancellor with a message that Germany would expect an indemnity for having been forced into the war, and did not even mention the promise against annexation and the guarantee of Belgian independence. That was all he remembered from my visit. If I had carried out my mission with more sophistication, perhaps he would have remembered the real purpose of it.

When I returned to Berlin, I was again received by Chancellor von Bethmann-Hollweg and repeated to him what Sir Edward Grey had said. He listened without comment, then thanked me for my report. He could not have been surprised. His government had made a public promise of no annexations with no effect on the British. I do not believe it dawned on him that everything Sir Edward had said was stirred by the sinister word "indemnity," which he himself had used. And I am sure that Baroness von Schroeder was able to solace him at the next dinner he attended at her house on the ground that my visit had demonstrated that he alone was a man of peace.

(5) Sir Edward Grey, Twenty-Five Years (1925).

I really felt angry with von Bethmann-Hollweg and von Jagow. They had given us to understand that they had not seen the terms of the Austrian ultimatum to Serbia before it was sent; they had been critical of it when they saw it. Von Jagow had said that, as a diplomatic document, it left something to be desired, and contained some demands that Serbia could not comply with. By their own admission they had allowed their weaker Ally to handle a situation on which the peace of Europe might depend, without asking beforehand what she was going to say and without apparently lifting a finger to moderate her, when she had delivered an ultimatum of the terms of which they did not entirely approve. Now they vetoed the only certain means of peaceful settlement without, as far as I knew, even referring it to Austria at all. The complacency with which they had let Austria launch the ultimatum on Serbia was deplorable, and to me unaccountable; the blocking of a Conference was still worse.

(6) Sir E. Goschen, British Ambassador to Germany, letter to Sir Edward Grey (29th July, 1914)

I was asked to call upon the Chancellor tonight. His Excellency had just returned from Potsdam. He said that, should Austria be attacked by Russia, a European conflagration might, he feared, become inevitable, owing to Germany's obligations as Austria's Ally, in spite of his continued efforts to maintain peace. He then proceeded to make the following strong bid for British neutrality. He said that it was clear, so far as he was able to judge the main principle which governed British policy, that Great Britain would never stand by and allow France to be crushed in any conflict there might be. That, however, was not the object at which Germany aimed. Provided that neutrality of Great Britain were certain, every assurance would be given to the British Government that the Imperial Government aimed at no territorial acquisition at the expense of France, should they prove victorious in any war that might ensue.

His Excellency ended by saying that ever since he had been Chancellor the object of his policy had been, as you were aware, to bring about an understanding with England; he trusted that these assurances might form the basis of that understanding which he so much desired. He had in mind a general neutrality agreement between England and Germany, though it was of course at the present moment too early to discuss details, and an assurance of British neutrality in the conflict which present crisis might possibly produce would enable him to look forward to realization of his desire.

(7) Sir Edward Grey, letter to Sir E. Goschen, British Ambassador to Germany (30th July, 1914)

His Majesty's Government cannot for a moment entertain the Chancellor's proposal that they should bind themselves to neutrality on such terms.

What he asks us, in effect, is to engage to stand by while French colonies are taken and France is beaten so long as Germany does not take French territory as distinct from the colonies.

From the material point of view such a proposal is unacceptable, for France, without further territory in Europe being taken from her, could be so crushed as to lose her position as a Great Power, and become subordinate to German policy.

Altogether apart from that, it would be a disgrace for us to make this bargain with Germany at the expense of France - a disgrace from which the good name of this country would never recover.

The Chancellor also, in effect, asks us to bargain away whatever obligation or interest we have as regards the neutrality of Belgium. We could not entertain that bargain either.

Having said so much, it is unnecessary to examine whether the prospect of a future general neutrality agreement between England and Germany offered positive advantages sufficient to compensate us for tying our hands now. We must preserve our full freedom to act as circumstances may seem to us to require in any such unfavourable and regrettable development of the present crisis as the Chancellor contemplates.

(8) Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg speech in the Reichstag on the sinking of the Lusitania (19th August, 1915)

For our and other peoples' protection we must gain the freedom of the seas, not as England did, to rule over them, but that they should serve equally all peoples. We will be and will remain the shield of peace and freedom of big and small nations.