Primary Documents - Spain's Reaction to Germany's Policy of Unrestricted Submarine Warfare, 6 February 1917

Spanish King Alfonso XIII Reproduced below is the text of the diplomatic note sent by the Spanish government to its German counterpart regarding Germany's newly reintroduced policy of unrestricted submarine warfare.  This policy in effect set in place a blockade of Britain and her European allies, to be applied to belligerent and neutral shipping alike.

The German government argued that such a policy was implemented only as an aggressive form of defence.  It was announced in a letter from the German Ambassador to the U.S., Count Johann von Bernstorff, to the U.S. Secretary of State, Robert Lansing.

In the note the Bernstorff announced a re-opened German policy of unrestricted submarine warfare (initially introduced and then rapidly abandoned in 1916 owing to U.S. protests), to take effect the day following the date of the note (i.e. 1 February 1917).  The German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg spoke before the Reichstag on the same day to explain the reasons for the policy.

Reaction to the policy was rapid; the Allied powers inevitably decried its aggression, as did the U.S. government, which broke off diplomatic relations on 3 February 1917.  On the same day President Woodrow Wilson appeared before Congress to announce his reasons, receiving virtually unanimous support in doing so.

Reaction among other neutrals was similarly one of dismay; click here to read Brazil's reaction; click here to read Chile's response.

Spanish Prime Minister Count Ramanones' Diplomatic Protest to Germany

6 February 1917

His Majesty's Government has attentively examined the note which your Serene Highness was good enough to remit to me January 31st, in which is set forth the German Government's resolute intention to interrupt as from the following day all sea traffic, without further notice, and by no matter what arms, around Great Britain, France, Italy and in the Eastern Mediterranean.

I must say that the note caused a very painful impression on the Spanish Government.  The attitude of strict neutrality which Spain adopted from the beginning and has maintained with loyalty and unshakable firmness gives her the right to expect that the lives of her subjects engaged in sea trade should not be placed in such grave peril.

It also gives her the right to expect that that trade should not be troubled nor diminished by such an increase in the extent of the zones in which the Imperial Government insists that, in order to attain its ends, it must use all weapons and suppress all limitations which it has hitherto imposed upon its methods of naval warfare.

Even before the Imperial Government had set aside these restrictions his Majesty's Government had protested, holding them insufficient to comply with the prescriptions of national maritime law.  But the methods of war announced by Germany are being carried to such an unexpected and unprecedented extreme that the Spanish Government, considering its rights and the requirements of its neutrality, must with still more reason protest calmly but firmly to the Imperial Government, and must make at the same time the necessary reserves, imposed by the legitimate presumption of ineluctable responsibility, which the Imperial Government assumes, principally in view of the loss of life which its attitude may cause.

His Majesty's Government bases its protest on the fact that the decision to close completely the road to certain seas by substituting for the indisputable right of capture in certain cases a pretended right of destruction in all cases is outside the legal principles of international life.

Above all and beyond all it considers that the extension, in the form announced, of this pretended right of destruction to the lives of non-combatants and the subjects of neutral nations such as Spain, is contrary to the principles observed by all nations even in moments of the greatest violence.

If the German Government, as it says, expects that the Spanish people and Government will not close their ears to the reasons which have caused its decision, and hopes that they will cooperate to avoid further calamities and sacrifices of human life, it will also understand that the Spanish Government, while disposed to lend at the proper time its initiative and support to everything that could contribute to the advent of a peace, more and more wished for, cannot admit the legality of exceptional methods in warfare.

These methods, indeed, notwithstanding Spain's right as a neutral and her scrupulous fulfilment of the duties incumbent on her as such, make more difficult and even stop altogether her sea trade, compromising her economic life and threatening with grave dangers the lives of her subjects.

His Majesty's Government, supported more firmly than ever by the justice of its position, does not doubt that the Imperial Government, inspired by the sentiments of friendship which unite the two countries, will find, notwithstanding the severe exigencies of this terrible war, means of giving satisfaction to Spain's claims.  These claims are based on the inexorable duty which binds a Government to protect the lives of its subjects and maintain the integrity of its sovereignty so that the course of national existence be not interrupted.

For the reasons set out his Majesty's Government feels itself fully sustained in its position by reason and law.

Source: Source Records of the Great War, Vol. V, ed. Charles F. Horne, National Alumni 1923

A "listening post" was an advanced post, usually in no-man's land, where soldiers tried to find out information about the enemy.

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