Who's Who - Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg

Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg (1856-1921) served as Chancellor of Germany from 1909-17, a period which included much of World War One, and during which he fought to maintain social and political coherency as the increasingly vocal liberal elite clashed with reactionary forces typified by the German military machine and monarchist state.

Bethmann-Hollweg was born in Howenfinow, Brandenburg on 29 November 1856.  He studied law at Strasbourg, Leipzig and Berlin before entering the Prussian civil service.

He was appointed in 1905 Prussian Minister of the Interior, followed two years later as state secretary in the Imperial Office of the Interior.  He became German Chancellor, succeeding Prince Bernhard von Bulow, following the latter's resignation on 14 July 1909.

Adopting a political outlook somewhat liberal for the time, Bethmann-Hollweg was nevertheless continually confronted by political extremes, left and right, and demonstrated an unfortunate predilection for swinging from one to the other in his ongoing efforts to govern by compromise.

In particular he was viewed with great suspicion by ultra-reactionary forces within the military High Command.  Time and again Bethmann-Hollweg found his carefully crafted political compromises rendered nought by the determined stubbornness of Germany's military machine.

For example, having concluded what he believed to be a workable solution with the British in 1912 to reduce the escalation in naval armaments (following three years of painstaking negotiation), he found implacable opposition in the form of his naval minister, Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz.  Tirpitz won out through the deciding support of the Kaiser, Wilhelm II.

Nevertheless, prior to the outbreak of general war in August 1914 Bethmann-Hollweg did enjoy notable diplomatic success.  Having suffered the diplomatic uncertainties of possible war with Britain and France in the wake of the Second Moroccan Crisis of 1911, Bethmann-Hollweg successfully liaised with the British Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, to prevent the expansion of the Balkan Wars into a broader conflict.  This remained his greatest foreign affairs achievement.

While working at home to increase the size of Germany's armed forces in preparation for a potential 'Great War' (the name had been decided long before hostilities actually began), Bethmann-Hollweg nevertheless strived to appease the nation's more liberal elements.  The 1912 Reichstag elections had resulted in the return of 110 socialist deputies that needed henceforth to be taken into political consideration.

He became convinced in the inevitability of a democratic monarchy based upon a Reichstag majority; a belief that merely served to further alienate support in the increasingly influential High Command, although Bethmann-Hollweg retained the crucial support of the Kaiser.  Ironically Bethmann-Hollweg was never an enthusiast of parliamentary government, despite his reputation to the contrary - perhaps explaining in part the decidedly half-hearted nature of his electoral reforms.

Although not personally keen on going to war in the summer of 1914, it was nevertheless Bethmann-Hollweg's action in handing Austria-Hungary the 'blank cheque' during the July Crisis (which effectively gave Austria-Hungary an open hand in determining how to punish Serbia for the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, while promising German backing) that tipped the balance in favour of war.

Yet Bethmann-Hollweg's part in bringing about war appears contradictory; despite his known reluctance for war there is evidence that he saw war as the only means of staving off wide scale civil unrest at home.  War with France and Russia would undoubtedly prove popular; he could only hope for a brief, limited military engagement in order to restore stability at home.

However once it became clear to him that the coming war was likely to take on a global scale he vainly attempted to reverse the military tide; entirely without success.  He lacked the political authority to bring about any pause in the military machinery once the Schlieffen Plan was set in motion.  Even the Kaiser, panicked at the last by the actual likelihood of war, found his High Command (led by Moltke) unwilling to stop what had they started.

Bethmann-Hollweg's defence of the German invasion of neutral Belgium quickly gained notoriety.  In response to British protests that she (Britain) was obliged to protect Belgium by treaty, he dismissed the document as "a scrap of paper".  This statement was subsequently put to effective propaganda use by the British.

With war underway Bethmann-Hollweg's influence markedly declined: the German General Staff took to effectively dictating policy, aided (sometimes reluctantly) by Wilhelm.  This arrangement was greatly extended (and formalised) with the creation of the Third Supreme Command in August 1916, which created an effective military dictatorship led by Hindenburg and Ludendorff.

Bethmann-Hollweg himself spoke out in favour of a negotiated settlement to the war, a policy regarded with contempt by the High Command.  Ignoring such opposition he attempted to secure U.S. mediation in 1916.  Well aware that U.S. entry into the war would practically ensure an Allied victory, he consistently against the German adoption of unrestricted submarine warfare (sponsored by Tirpitz), a policy that would assuredly draw the U.S. into the fray.

Disregarding Bethmann-Hollweg's views Tirpitz got his way, backed by Wilhelm.  A fresh policy of unrestricted submarine warfare was adopted in February 1917.  Tirpitz was well aware of its likely consequence in drawing America into the war, but (incorrectly) gambled that Germany could knock Britain out of the war before U.S. aid could arrive.  (Click here to read Bethmann-Hollweg's reaction to news that U.S. President Woodrow Wilson intended to address Congress on 2 April 1917 to seek authorisation for war with Germany.)

Two months later, and responding to civil unrest, Bethmann-Hollweg promised electoral reforms on 7 April 1917.  Although buying him time with left-wing activists in the Reichstag it proved the straw that finally broke the camel's back in terms of military and conservative support.

During a series of debates on the peace resolution in the Reichstag in July 1917, Bethmann-Hollweg was obliged to tender his resignation when conservatives and socialists alike conspired against him (notably Kuno von Westarp and Max Bauer).  He was replaced by Georg Michaelis on 13 July 1917.

Retired from politics Bethmann-Hollweg wrote his memoirs following the war, published in two volumes as Reflections on the World War, from 1919-21.

He died on New Year's Day, 1921, at the age of 64.

Click here to read Bethmann-Hollweg's reaction to Italy's entry to the war; click here to read his statement following Romania's entry to the war; to the so-called 'Scrap of Paper' (here and here); click here to read his war speech to the Reichstag in 1914; click here to read his speech before the Reichstag in January 1917 regarding the re-introduction of the policy of unrestricted submarine warfare.

A "dogfight" signified air combat at close quarters.

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