Theobald Theodor Friedrich Alfred von Bethmann-Hollweg (29 November 1856 – 1 January 1921) was a German politician who was the Chancellor of the German Empire from 1909 to 1917.
Bethmann-Hollweg was born in Hohenfinow, Brandenburg, the son of Prussian official Felix von Bethmann-Hollweg. His grandfather was August von Bethmann-Hollweg, who had been a prominent law scholar, president of Frederick William University in Berlin, and Prussian Minister of Culture. His great-grandfather was Johann Jakob Hollweg, who had married a daughter of the wealthy Frankfurt am Main banking family of Bethmann, founded in 1748.
He was educated at the boarding school of Schulpforta and at the Universities of Strasbourg, Leipzig and Berlin. Entering the Prussian administrative service in 1882, Bethmann-Hollweg rose to the position of the President of the Province of Brandenburg in 1899. He married Martha von Pfuel, the niece of Ernst von Pfuel, Prime Minister of Prussia. From 1905 to 1907, Bethmann-Hollweg served as Prussian Minister of the Interior and then as Imperial State Secretary for the Interior from 1907 to 1909. On the resignation of Chancellor Bernhard von Bülow in 1909, Bethmann-Hollweg was appointed to succeed him.
In foreign policy he pursued a policy of détente with Britain, hoping to come to some agreement that would put a halt to the two countries' ruinous naval arms race and give Germany a free hand to deal with France. The policy failed, largely from the opposition of German Naval Minister Alfred von Tirpitz. Despite the increase in tensions because of the Second Moroccan Crisis of 1911, Bethmann-Hollweg improved relations with Britain to some extent, working with British foreign secretary Sir Edward Grey to alleviate tensions during the Balkan Crises of 1912–1913. He did not learn of the Schlieffen Plan until December 1912, after he had received the Second Haldane Mission. He negotiated treaties over an eventual partition of the Portuguese colonies and the projected Berlin-Baghdad railway, the latter aimed in part at securing Balkan countries' support for a German-Ottoman alliance. The crisis came to a head on 5 July 1914 when the Count Hoyos Mission arrived in Berlin in response to Berchtold's plea for friendship. Bethmann-Hollweg was assured that Britain would not intervene in the frantic diplomatic rounds across the European powers. However, reliance on that assumption encouraged Austria to demand Serbian concessions. His main concern was Russian border manoeuvres, conveyed by his ambassadors at a time when Raymond Poincaré himself was preparing a secret mission to St Petersburg. He wrote to Count Sergey Sazonov:
Russian mobilisation measures would compel us to mobilise and that then European war could scarcely be prevented.
|Chancellor||Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg||14 July 1909 – 13 July 1917||None|
|Vice-Chancellor of Germany
Secretary for the Interior
|Clemens von Delbrück||14 July 1909 – 22 May 1916||None|
|Karl Helfferich||22 May 1916 – 23 October 1917||None|
|Secretary for the Foreign Affairs||Wilhelm von Schoen||7 October 1907 – 28 June 1910||None|
|Alfred von Kiderlen-Waechter||28 June 1910 – 30 December 1912||None|
|Gottlieb von Jagow||30 December 1912 – 22. November 1916||None|
|Arthur Zimmermann||22 November 1916 – 6 August 1917||None|
|Secretary for the Justice||Rudolf Arnold Nieberding||10 July 1893 – 25 October 1909||None|
|Hermann Lisco||25 October 1909 – 5 August 1917||None|
|Secretary for the Treasury||Adolf Wermuth||14 July 1909 – 16 March 1912||None|
|Hermann Kühn||16 March 1912 – 31 January 1915||None|
|Karl Helfferich||31 January 1915 – 22 May 1916||None|
|Siegfried von Roedern||22 May 1916 – 13 November 1918||None|
|Secretary for the Post||Reinhold Kraetke||6 May 1901 – 5 August 1917||None|
|Secretary for the Navy||Alfred von Tirpitz||18 June 1897 – 15 March 1916||None|
|Eduard von Capelle||15 March 1916 – 5 October 1918||None|
|Secretary for the Colonies||Bernhard Dernburg||17 May 1907 – 9 June 1910||None|
|Friedrich von Lindequist||10 June 1910 – 3 November 1911||None|
|Wilhelm Solf||20 November 1911 – 13 December 1918||None|
|Secretary for Food||Adolf Tortilowicz von Batocki-Friebe||26 May 1916 – 6 August 1917||None|
When War Minister Erich von Falkenhayn wanted to mobilise for war on 29 July, Bethmann was still against it but used his veto to prevent the Reichstag debating it. Pourtales telegram of 31 July was what Helmuth von Moltke the Younger, who declared a Zustand drohender Kriegsgefahr (state of imminent danger of war) wanted to hear; to Bethmann-Hollweg's dismay, the other powers had failed to communicate Russia's provocation.
In domestic politics, Bethmann-Hollweg's record was also mixed, and his compromising of socialists and liberals on the left and nationalists on the right alienated most of the German political establishment.
Following the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914, Bethmann-Hollweg and his foreign minister, Gottlieb von Jagow, were instrumental in assuring Austria-Hungary of Germany's unconditional support, regardless of Austria's actions against Serbia. While Grey was suggesting a mediation between Austria-Hungary and Serbia, Bethmann-Hollweg wanted Austria-Hungary to attack Serbia and so he tampered with the British message and deleted the last line of the letter:
"Also, the whole world here is convinced, and I hear from my colleagues that the key to the situation lies in Berlin, and that if Berlin seriously wants peace, it will prevent Vienna from following a foolhardy policy."
When Wilhelm arrived at the Potsdam station late in the evening of July 26, he was met by a pale, agitated, and somewhat fearful Chancellor. Bethmann-Hollweg's apprehension stemmed not from the dangers of the looming war, but rather from his fear of the Kaiser's wrath when the extent of his deceptions were revealed. The Kaiser's first words to him were suitably brusque: "How did it all happen?" Rather than attempt to explain, the Chancellor offered his resignation by way of apology. Wilhelm refused to accept it, muttering furiously, "You've made this stew, now you're going to eat it!"
Bethmann-Hollweg, much of whose foreign policy before the war had been guided by his desire to establish good relations with Britain, was particularly upset by Britain's declaration of war following the German violation of Belgium's neutrality during its invasion of France. He reportedly asked the departing British Ambassador Edward Goschen how Britain could go to war over "ein felzen Papier", which was the 1839 Treaty of London, which guaranteed Belgium's neutrality. This was translated by the British as 'a scrap of paper' but is not necessarily an accurate translation of the phrase.
A Published Interview Explaining the "Scrap of Paper" Phrase said by German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg [translation]
My conversation with Sir E. Goschen occurred on the 4th of August.
I had just declared in the Reichstag that only dire necessity, only the struggle for existence, compelled Germany to march through Belgium, but that Germany was ready to make compensation for the wrong committed.
When I spoke I already had certain indications, but no absolute proof, on which to base a public accusation that Belgium had long before abandoned its neutrality in its relations with England.
Nevertheless, I took Germany's responsibilities towards neutral States so seriously that I spoke frankly on the wrong committed by Germany.
What was the British attitude on the same question? The day before my conversation with the British Ambassador, Sir Edward Grey had delivered his well-known speech in Parliament, wherein, while he did not state expressly that England would take part in the war, he left the matter in little doubt.
One needs only to read this speech through carefully to learn the reason of England's intervention in the war. Amid all his beautiful phrases about England's honour and England's obligations we find it over and over again expressed that England's interests - its own interests - called for participation in war, for it was not in England's interests that a victorious, and therefore stronger, Germany should emerge from the war.
This old principle of England's policy - to take as the sole criterion of its actions its private interests regardless of right, reason, or considerations of humanity - is expressed in that speech of Gladstone's in 1870 on Belgian neutrality from which Sir Edward quoted.
Mr. Gladstone then declared that he was unable to subscribe to the doctrine that the simple fact of the existence of a guarantee is binding upon every party thereto, irrespective altogether of the particular position in which it may find itself at the time when the occasion for action on the guarantee arrives, and he referred to such English statesmen as Aberdeen and Palmerston as supporters of his views.
England drew the sword only because it believed its own interests demanded it. Just for Belgian neutrality it would never have entered the war. That is what I meant when I told Sir E. Goschen, in that last interview when we sat down to talk the matter over privately, that among the reasons which had impelled England into war the Belgian neutrality treaty had for England only the value of a scrap of paper.
I may have been a bit excited and aroused. Who would not have been at seeing the hopes and work of the whole period of my Chancellorship going for naught?
I recalled to the Ambassador my efforts for years to bring about an understanding between England and Germany, an understanding which, I reminded him, would have made a general European war impossible, and have absolutely guaranteed the peace of Europe.
Such understanding would have formed the basis on which we could have approached the United States as a third partner.
But England had not taken up this plan, and through its entry into the war had destroyed forever the hope of its fulfilment.
In comparison with such momentous consequences, was the treaty not a scrap of paper?
Source: Source Records of the Great War, Vol. I, ed. Charles F. Horne, National Alumni 1923
Bethmann-Hollweg had made some plans in the event Britain came into the war and was involved closely in the plans to destabilise Britain's colonies, most notably the Hindu–German Conspiracy.
A tall, gaunt, sombre, well-trimmed aristocratic figure, Bethmann-Hollweg sought approval from a declaration of war. His civilian colleagues pleaded for him to register some febrile protest, but he was frequently outflanked by the military leaders, who played an increasingly important role in the direction of all German policy. However, historian Fritz Fischer, in the 1960s, showed that Bethmann-Hollweg made more concessions to the nationalist right than had previously been thought. He supported the ethnic cleansing of Poles from the Polish Border Strip as well as Germanisation of Polish territories by settlement of German colonists.
Bethmann presented the Septemberprogramm, which was a survey of ideas from the Elite should Germany win the war. After Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff replaced Falkenhayn at the General Staff in the summer of 1916, his hopes for US President Woodrow Wilson's mediation at the end of 1916 came to nothing. Over Bethmann-Hollweg's objections, Hindenburg and Ludendorff forced the adoption of unrestricted submarine warfare in March 1917, adopted as a result of Henning von Holtzendorff's memorandum. Bethmann-Hollweg had been a reluctant participant and opposed it in cabinet. The US entered the war in April 1917, perhaps the inevitability that they had wished to avoid.
Bethmann-Hollweg, now all credibility and power lost, had originally conspired with Ludendorff and Hindenburg for an Eastern Offensive over Falkenhayn's head. They had then succeeded in securing his replacement by Ludendorff as supreme commander on the Western Front. Bethmann-Hollweg remained in office until July 1917, when a Reichstag revolt resulted in the passage of the Social Democrat Matthias Erzberger's Peace Resolution by an alliance of the Social Democratic, Progressive, and Centre Parties, which forced his resignation and replacement by a relatively unknown figure, Georg Michaelis.
During 1918, German support for the war was increasingly challenged by strikes and political agitation. In October sailors in the German Imperial Navy mutinied when ordered to set sail for a final confrontation with the British Navy. The Kiel Mutiny sparked off the November Revolution which brought the war to an end. Bethmann-Hollweg tried to persuade the Reichstag to opt for moderate for peace.
His plan to dominate European hegemony through Pan-Germanism in the east and Mitteleuropa in the west disintegrated at the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. It signalled a long-term development of racially expansive policies of Germanification that presaged the conflict 30 years later.
Intellectual supporters of the policy in Berlin, Arnold Wahnschaffe (1865–1941), undersecretary in the chancellery, and Arthur Zimmermann, were his closest and ablest colleagues. Bethmann-Hollweg was directly responsible for devising the Flamenpolitik on the Western Front carried out in the Schlieffen Plan, yet this strategy's ultimate failure as a mode of occupation brought economic collapse and military defeat, as was clearly identified by the Bryce Report. The Chancellor's justification lay in the refrain that Germany was fighting a war of national survival.
Bethmann-Hollweg received prominent attention throughout the world in June 1919, when he formally asked the Allied and the Associated Powers to place him on trial instead of the Kaiser. The Supreme War Council decided to ignore his request. He was often mentioned as among those who might be tried by Allies for political offences in connection with the origin of the war.
In 1919, reports from Geneva said he was credited in diplomatic circles there as leading the monarchists for both the Hohenzollerns and the Habsburgs, the nucleus of which was said to be located in Switzerland.
The ex-Chancellor spent the short remainder of his life in retirement, writing his memoirs. A little after Christmas 1920, he caught a cold, which developed into acute pneumonia from which he died on 1 January 1921. His wife had died in 1914, and he had lost his eldest son in the war.
Bethmann-Hollweg is buried in Hohenfinow.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Bethmann-Hollweg.|
|Wikisource has original text related to this article:|
|Chancellor of Germany
|Prime Minister of Prussia
Arthur von Posadowsky-Wehner
|Vice Chancellor of Germany
Clemens von Delbrück