(Translation of memorandum of the Imperial German Government on the treatment of armed merchantmen: Memorandum of Imperial Chancelor v. Bethmann-Hollweg: Berlin, February 29, 1916.)
Berlin, February 29, 1916.
The announcement of the U-boat war carried on in conformity with the desires of the Admiralty Staff, that is, torpedoing freight steamers and passenger steamers without distinction and without warning, whether sailing under a neutral or hostile flag, would certainly result in the entrance of the United States into the war on the side of our enemies… . the navy expects that, as the result of its policy, England will be eliminated as a belligerent within a period of from six to eight months. The Supreme High Command has announced its opinion to the effect that, since Austria-Hungary’s power of endurance will hardly extend beyond the year 1916, every available means ought to be used to bring the war to an end before that time.
Assuming that these premises are correct, the issue to be decided is whether or not we should adopt the policy of unrestricted U-boat warfare; and hence the following questions must be considered:
1. Is it certain that the new U-boat war will bring about a shrinkage in the cargo capacity of the English fleet as it now exists, by approximating 4 million tons, within the period set out above … ?
2. Can we assume with certainty that the hoped-for losses to the English merchant marine will force England to sue for peace?
3. What results will the expected entrance of the neutrals, and in particular that of the United States, have upon the war? …
That the break with America will come if we announce and carry on the U-boat war in accordance with the plans now under consideration, is beyond question, in view of the attitude which the Union has maintained up to this time and the stand that she takes on the question of armed merchant ships. Negotiations with the United States with regard to the details of carrying on such a war by us are out of the question because no decision would be reached concerning them, if at all, until months would have passed. We would have to reject the protests which we have every reason to expect from America as the result of our announcement. The moment that we rejected them would be the moment of the break.
The break with America will have the following results:
1. The cause of our enemies will receive a new and enormous moral support through America’s public entrance into the enemy’s camp. The confidence in a victorious termination of the war would be revived, and the will to endure would be strengthened. Strong points of difference existing in inner circles of the Entente, as is now publicly known, would vanish in a flash, and the hope that even now predominates with regard to the attitude of France and Russia – that a war of exhaustion will be carried through, will be realized almost to the point of certainty if the one existing world Power that still remains neutral unites its interests with theirs.
2. The irritation of the neutral States against the arbitrary attitude of England is on the constant increase, but it will be dissipated at that moment when England, certain of American support, needs no longer exercise restraint in applying its oppressive measures.
3. The impression which the entrance of the United States into the war would be bound to make upon our allies is a matter entitled to the most earnest consideration. Baron Burian has stated again and again that we should not so conduct the U-boat war in the Mediterranean as to bring about a break with the United States. He has now even gone so far as to postpone the war against armed enemy merchant vessels as the result of American protests. Unless we can prove to the exclusion of all doubt on the part of the Vienna Cabinet that we can look forward to the overthrow of England, we shall have to consider as an element of our calculations the fact that they will object to the resumption of a U-boat war of such a nature as to bring about a break with the United States – a war which we as faithful allies would have to announce previously to Vienna. At the very least, Austria’s war spirit, which is beginning to be sated after the overthrow of Serbia and Montenegro, and which even today gives evidence of a strong pro-English feeling, will not be heightened as the result of a break with the United States.
The Turkish Minister, too, has already expressed his earnest solicitude about the possible results of a break with the United States.
These objections naturally apply to Bulgaria as well.
Even the moral effects of the break with the United States upon our allies and our opponents the neutrals must not be underestimated. The longer the war lasts, so much clearer does it become that he will win the war who keeps his nerves under best control. History teaches us that in coalition wars which cannot be brought to a termination by decisive strokes of the military arm, the end is usually brought about by differences between the allies themselves. It is a dangerous gamble to disregard these differences if one is not assured of success
Then, again, the morale in Germany is not to be judged merely by the articles of the pan-German press. The overwhelming preponderance of our enemies has prevented us up to the present time from bringing the war to a triumphant termination. People will ask whether the increase of the number of our enemies could not have been avoided, and the entrance of the United States into the war will have a discouraging and depressing effect in broad circles of the German people.
The break with America will have the following practical consequences:
1. The attempts made by the Allies up to the present time to obtain money from the United States have only had a very mediocre result. If America breaks with us, then, driven on as a matter of prestige and in deference to its own material interests, it will exert all of its resources to the end that the war shall be rapidly terminated in favor of the Entente. All of its financial resources will be put at the disposal of the Entente, and England will gladly include in the bargain the results of its financial dependence on the United States which, as it is, has already come to pass, if she can only succeed in cementing together the entire Anglo-Saxon world in one military brotherhood, united for the purpose of our destruction. Even if money alone cannot determine the outcome of the war, the financial aid proffered by the United States will constitute a very material increase of our opponents’ resources.
The assertion which is made so often, that financial assistance afforded by America will avail England nothing if England is cut off from the outer world through the U-boat war, and as a result would be unable to make any use of American gold, is based upon the premise that England will be separated from the rest of the world as if by an iron curtain as the result of the U-boat war. This assumption is inaccurate and is not entertained by the Admiralty Staff….
3. Military assistance on the part of the United States gives our military authorities very little concern; but it can scarcely be doubted that participation by the United States in this war would necessarily bring about the supplying of our opponents with further war material, particularly of such a kind as that on which the United States, at least outwardly up to this time and on grounds of international law, has imposed limitations, such, for instance, as the direct delivery of U-boats. Moreover, no one who is acquainted with American conditions will entertain any doubt that the American sporting spirit, based upon its English prototype, would result in bringing over to our opponents volunteer contingents which one can surely venture to estimate at a few hundred thousands.
4. [Comments about the European neutrals follow]….
So the question comes down to this, whether our position is so desperate that we are bound to play a win-all lose-all game in which our existence as a world Power and our whole future as a nation would be at stake, whereas the chances of winning, that is, the prospect of crushing England by next fall, are uncertain. This question is to be answered unqualifiedly in the negative.
The Supreme High Command of the Army denies the possibility of bringing the war to an end through crushing blows delivered by our land forces. That body entertains the belief that a termination of the war is in any event only possible after England or we ourselves have been crushed to the ground. No human being can state with absolute certainty that this point of view is erroneous…. But just as impossible is it for us to deny, with the certainty of being correct, the possibility of ending the war even without the application of the unrestricted U-boat warfare in the course of the year 1916. It is certainly reasonable to argue that our military successes in the west, the failure of the great and long-heralded enemy offensives in the spring, the increasing financial straits of the Entente, and the absence of all prospects of starving us out in the current year, will so increase the general recognition of the fact in England that the prolongation of the war is a bad business, even from the standpoint of British interests, as to make England desist from attempting to carry on the war to the point of our exhaustion. We are cutting ourselves off from the benefits of all these possibilities if, through the adoption of unrestricted U-boat warfare, we drive the United States, and with the United States still other neutral Powers, into making war upon us. Only then will a state of affairs come into being, for which we alone are responsible, on account of which there will be no alternative but to fight the war through to the bitter end, come what may. Therefore there devolves upon us the task of carrying on the U-boat war in such a way as to make it possible to avoid the break with the United States. In this case, we shall be able to list as pure profit all the injuries which we inflict upon England. That these injuries are not inconsiderable is evidenced by the results of the restricted U-boat war carried on since the summer of 1915. The increased number of U-boats which are now at our disposal would increase results many times over….