Primary Documents - The Scrap of Paper, 4 August 1914

German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg Reproduced below is the text of a published interview with the German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg.

The interview conducted during wartime, Bethmann-Hollweg seized the opportunity to explain - and justify - his controversial description of Britain's treaty with Belgium - which guaranteed her neutrality - as "a scrap of paper".

The German Chancellor had so described the treaty in his final meeting with the British ambassador to Germany, Sir Edward Goschen, on 4 August 1914.  Within hours Britain declared herself at war with Germany.

A Published Interview Explaining the "Scrap of Paper" Phrase
by German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg

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 she believed her own interests demanded it.  Just for Belgian neutrality she 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 man to man, that among the reasons which had impelled England into war the Belgian neutrality treaty had for her 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

"Lance corporal bacon" was the name used by Anzac soldiers to describe very fatty bacon with a sliver of lean meat running through it.

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