13/7/1917 Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg leaves the stage #1917Live

Germany’s politicians are restive. The dawning realisation that the U-boat campaign is not going to win the war has led to a rising dissatisfaction in the Reichstag. Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg is in an awkward position. He was never a supporter of the U-boat war but has been obliged to defend it on behalf of the army and navy. Now he tries to broker some kind of compromise between the parliamentarians and the regime. He suggests extreme political reforms to the Kaiser: extending the vote to all adult men and bringing Reichstag leaders into the government. But he is unable to convince the Kaiser and he is unable to bring the Reichstag into line, with it becoming apparent that the parliamentarians are about to pass a resolution calling for a compromise peace.

In France or Britain the prime ministers must retain the confidence of parliament to remain in office but in Germany the Chancellor serves at the pleasure of the Kaiser. Kaiser Wilhelm is now little more than a figurehead, with real power lying with Hindenburg and Ludendorff in the army. As far as they are concerned, Bethmann Hollweg has failed in his job of keeping the Reichstag in line. Therefore he has to go. He tenders his resignation. Another of the leaders at the war’s start leaves the stage.

Hindenburg and Ludendorff pick Bethmann Hollweg’s replacement. He is Georg Michaelis, a bureaucrat seen to have successfully administered food distribution in Prussia. He is Germany’s first Chancellor not to be drawn from the aristocracy.

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Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg (Wikipedia)

Hindenburg & Ludendorff (Wikipedia)

6/7/1917 The U-boat war denounced in the Reichstag #1917Live

Germany’s U-boat campaign was meant to bring the war to a swift end. Instead it has brought the USA into the war against Germany and shows no sign of starving Britain into submission. Now there is increasing disquiet and a sense that the U-boat campaign has been a terrible mistake. This disquiet has penetrated to the ranks of parliamentarians who had previously been supportive of the government. Speaking before the Reichstag’s Steering Committee, Matthias Erzberger of the Centre Party today argues that the navy and the government sold the country a pup with the U-boat campaign, underestimating Britain’s resilience in the face of submarine warfare and peddling the false notion that the U-boats could force Britain out of the war in six months.

Erzberger’s U-boat scepticism is significant. His party, which represents Catholic interests, had backed the U-boat war on the strength of the navy’s assurances. With the Centre Party swinging against the U-boats the government of Bethmann Hollweg is now in trouble. To make matters worse, the Centre Party is now lending its support to those parties calling for a compromise peace to end the war.

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Matthias Erzberger (Spartacus International)

23/4/1917 Scenting victory, German leaders prepare ambitious plans for post-war Europe

German leaders remain confident that the U-boat war will force Britain to its knees in a matter of months. With Russia looking increasingly chaotic that would leave France and Italy with no option but to make peace. This raises the question of what kind of peace this will be. German leaders meet at Kreuznach to discuss the future peace settlement. Chancerllor Bethmann Hollweg and Zimmermann, the foreign minister, are present, as are Hindenburg and Ludendorff.

The expectation of victory has inflamed German appetites. The meeting reaches some far reaching decisions on the reordering of Europe. Belgium is to remain under German occupation, with its intended future being that of a client state, though Li├Ęge and the coast will be permanently attached to Germany. Luxembourg will be absorbed into Germany, as will French mining regions. Germany will also gain territories in the east, with a Polish client state established beyond Germany’s expanded frontiers. Austria-Hungary will gain at the expense of Serbia, Albania and Romania.

Bethmann Hollweg would prefer a more flexible approach, so that the Russians could be lured into a separate peace by offering more generous terms. Although he states that he will not be bound by this agreement in the event of peace negotiations, the decisions at Kreuznach effectively preclude his pursuit of any kind of compromise peace.

3/2/1917 The United States severs diplomatic relations with Germany

Two days ago Germany’s Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg announced to the Reichstag that Germany has commenced a policy of unrestricted submarine warfare. The U-boats are now free to attack Allied merchant ships without warning. Neutral ships suspected of carrying goods to the Allies are also liable to attack. Bethmann Hollweg had opposed this policy with all his vigour, fearing that it would bring the United States into the war, but the rest of the German leadership had been won over by the navy’s promise that the U-boats can starve Britain into submission in a matter of months.

The new U-boat policy does indeed cause grave disquiet in Washington. President Wilson successfully campaigned for re-election under the slogan “He kept us out of the war”, but his response to the Germans is swift. Today he addresses Congress, announcing that his government is severing diplomatic relations with Germany. Count Bernstorff, the German ambassador, is to be expelled with immediate effect, while James Gerard, the American ambassador to Germany is to be recalled. Wilson still hopes that there will not be war with Germany, but he warns that there will be dire consequences if the U-boats sink American ships without warning.

Germany has a U-boat fleet of some 152 vessels. Since the recent decision to send them directly through the Channel, they are able to spend much longer patrolling where they are likely to find enemy ships.

Today U-53 encounters the Housatonic, an American ship carrying wheat to Britain. Despite the new U-boat regime, the Germans do not sink the Housatonic without warning, instead boarding and searching her. The ship’s crew are ordered to abandon ship before it is scuttled by the Germans (who first seize some soap, in short supply in Germany).

The attack on the Housatonic is thus carried out according to some approximation of the traditional prize rules governing naval warfare. However in the atmosphere of heightened tension between the United States and Germany, the attack causes a sensation.

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Woodrow Wilson (firstworldwar.com)

9/1/1917 Germany decides on unrestricted submarine warfare

Germany is suffering from great hardships in this third winter of the war. Food shortages mean that many are reduced to eating turnips, normally used only for animal feed. German leaders fear that another repeat of this “Turnip Winter” would lead to a collapse in the country’s social cohesion. They are desperately looking for a way to bring the war to a satisfactory end this year.

Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg has proposed peace negotiations to the Allies. However their response has been dismissive. The war will have to be prosecuted until it ends in victory for one side or another. But military victory appears elusive. To the Germans, Russia appears to be able to take any level of losses and continue fighting (though to Russian leaders the situation might look different). Meanwhile the attempt last year to win the war by smashing France at Verdun turned into an attritional bloodbath that Hindenburg and Ludendorff have no desire to repeat. The Germans also have no appetite for a repeat of the Somme.

Is there any way that Germany can win the war? The navy say yes. Admiral Holtzendorff, the nayy’s chief of staff, has produced a memorandum analysing Britain’s dependence on foreign trade. The country can only be fed by importing considerable quantities of food. Holtzendorff argues that if Germany’s U-boats are allowed to attack shipping at will without warning then the British can be starved into submission in a matter of months.

Bethmann Hollweg is adamantly opposed to this kind of unrestricted submarine warfare. He fears that this breach of international law will bring the United States of America into the conflict against Germany. He has successfully opposed this policy before but now the tides have turned against him. Hindenburg and Ludendorff have changed their minds, mesmerised by Holtzendorff’s promise of a quick and easy victory against the Allies that would not require the expenditure of vast amounts of soldiers’ blood.

Bethmann Hollweg tries to resist but is finally vanquished by the revelation that the Kaiser too has decided in favour of U-boat war. The submarines will be set free, with the campaign to begin at the start of February.

The U-boat advocates are not blind to the likelihood that unrestricted submarine warfare will bring the United States into the war. However, they discount the seriousness of the problem. The USA has a small army. By the time it has built up sizeable land forces the U-boats will have forced Britain’s surrender. If America tries to transport an army to Europe, it will be destroyed by the U-boats before it arrives.

And in truth, many of the German leaders relish the prospect of having a crack at the Americans. President Wilson gives lofty speeches about peace and international law, but the country’s industries are supplying and arming the Allies. As far as the Germans are concerned, they are already in conflict with the Americans. Unleashing the U-boats will allow them to take the gloves off.

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Admiral Henning von Holtzendorff

22/12/1916 Germany thinks again about U-boats

Since replacing Falkenhayn, Hindenburg and Ludendorff have been pondering what strategic direction to take in 1917. To minimise Germany’s losses they are determined to remain on the defensive on the Western Front: there will be no repeat of the long battle of Verdun.

However, wars cannot be won by sitting on the defensive. Ludendorff is acutely aware that Germany cannot keep the war going indefinitely, so there must be some way of bringing it to a victorious end. One option remains a renewed U-boat campaign. At the moment, U-boats are fighting according to rules that prevent them from attacking merchant ships without warning or allowing them to evacuate before being sunk. This minimises civilian casualties but severely limits their effectiveness.

Senior figures in the German navy argue that if the U-boats are allowed to attack enemy shipping at will then the enemy will rapidly be brought to their knees. Britain is dependent on its overseas trade for not merely its prosperity but for the food its industrial workers eat. Now Henning von Holtzendorff, the navy’s chief of staff, issues a memorandum arguing that unrestricted U-boat warfare would starve Britain into submission by autumn 1917.

To Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg, such thinking is madness. He fears that U-boat warfare will bring the United States into the war against Germany, making the war unwinnable. But to Ludendorff, Holtzendorff’s memorandum is appealing, as it offers the prospect of victory without having to throw away the lives of soldiers on the battlefield. A final decision has yet to be made, but the tide is moving towards the U-boats.

12/12/1916 Bethmann Hollweg’s peace initiative

Today in a speech to the Reichstag, Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg reveals that he has just despatched a note to the Vatican, inviting Germany’s enemies to enter into negotiations to end the war. Noting that German forces have overrun Romania and continued to see off Russian and Franco-British offensives, Bethmann Hollweg presents his offer as the magnanimous gesture of an invincible power seeking to avoid senseless slaughter.

Bethman Hollweg does not outline German terms. His diplomatic effort is partly being made for internal consumption. The Social Democrats are still supporting the war but have grown suspicious that Germany’s leaders are engaged in a war of conquest. Bethmann Hollweg hopes that his offer of negotiations will reassure them that Germany remains a peace-loving nation that has been forced into conflict. He also hopes that if the Allies reject his offer then their populations might start to turn against their leaders for keeping the war going.

The United States of America looms large in the Chancellor’s thoughts. Relations with America have been fraught ever since the sinking of the Lusitania. With his peace initiative he hopes to improve Germany’s reputation in the United States. Above all else, Bethmann Hollweg fears a rupture with the Americans. Many senior figures in Germany are calling for a resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare, which the Chancellor fears will bring the Americans into the war on the Allied side. With his peace initiative he hopes to delay the U-boat lobby from pressing the issue.