1922 Encyclopædia Britannica/Bethmann Hollweg, Theobald von

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1922 Encyclopædia Britannica
Bethmann Hollweg, Theobald von
See also Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg on Wikipedia, and the disclaimer.

BETHMANN HOLLWEG, THEOBALD VON (1856-1921), Chancellor of the German Empire from July 1909 to July 1917, was born Nov. 29 1856 at Hohenfinow, the family property near Berlin, where he also died. He was descended from the Frankfurt banking family of Bethmann, which attained great prosperity in the 18th century, and a branch of which was founded by his great-grandfather Johann Jakob Hollweg, who had married a daughter of the house. The Chancellor's grandfather was Moritz August von Bethmann Hollweg, a Bonn professor of law, who was a leading member of the Prussian Diet from 1849 to 1855 and was Minister of Education under the Prince-Regent (afterwards William I.) from 1858 to 1862. It was to the Liberal and West-German as well as the commercial traditions of his family that Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg probably owed his appointment to the chancellorship in 1909 in a time of domestic and financial crisis. He had at the same time the qualification of a specifically Prussian career, having risen through the regular legal and official stages of promotion as Referendar, Assessor, Landrat, Government-President at Bromberg and Chief President of the province of Brandenburg. In 1905 he was appointed Prussian Minister of the Interior and in 1907 Secretary of State for the Imperial Home Office and Vice-president of the Prussian Ministry. At the time of Bethmann Hollweg's appointment to the chancellorship internal affairs, under his predecessor Prince Bülow, had reached a deadlock in the Reichstag owing to the revolt of a section of the Liberal-Conservative bloc against the proposal to establish death duties as part of the reform of the finances of the empire. The Catholic Centre, which had left the former parliamentary coalition before the dissolution of the Reichstag by Prince Bülow in 1907, was once more in alliance with the Conservatives, and the fiscal policy which these two parties had imposed upon the Government and the country had alienated the commercial classes and led to violent political conflicts. It was not until the general elections of 1912 had transformed the situation by bringing a great accession to the strength of the moderate National Liberals and the Left, especially the Social Democrats, that the Government was able to reckon upon a more amenable majority. In the interval Bethmann Hollweg endeavoured to conciliate the Catholic Centre by a policy of compromise in matters which had threatened to lead to a renewal of the Kulturkampf, such as the denunciation of the Reformation in the Papal Encyclical of 1910 and the Catholic demand for the modification of the Jesuit law. He secured the final abrogation of this law under stress of war conditions in April 1917. Bethmann Hollweg was likewise the sponsor of the new constitution for Alsace-Lorraine, which in 1911 established the government of that territory of the empire upon the basis of popular representation in a territorial assembly and admission, though without full state rights, to the Federal Council. He was less successful with the vexed question of the Prussian franchise, which in 1910 he attempted to solve by proposing a direct system of election while retaining in a modified form the local division of the electorate according to income-tax assessment into three classes. His bill was ultimately rejected by the reactionary Chamber of Deputies. This question was again to occupy him amid the stress of the war. Under the impression produced by the Russian Revolution of March 1917 he was constrained to inspire the “Easter message” of the Emperor as King of Prussia promising the abolition of the three-class system after the war, a proclamation which was followed in the same year by the edict of July 11 announcing that a bill would at once be introduced to enact equal direct and secret suffrage. This project of reform came too late to reconcile the revolutionary elements in the Prussian state. Bethmann Hollweg's political career ended immediately after the July edict, and, although a bill was introduced in the following Nov. by his successor, Count Hertling, the opposition of the Prussian Conservatives and other reactionary elements prevented it from passing before the revolution. He was equally unsuccessful in dealing with an outbreak of militarism in Nov. 1913 at Zabern in Alsace, where the population, exasperated by the truculence of a young officer, was subjected to the arbitrary exercise of martial law by the colonel in command of the garrison. Bethmann Hollweg's treatment of the incident satisfied neither the reactionaries nor the advanced parties, and, for the first time in the history of the Reichstag, a vote of censure was passed upon the Chancellor.

The foreign policy of Bethmann Hollweg was characterized by the indecision and half-heartedness which compromised his action in home politics. He shared the ambition of the Emperor and of the vast majority of his countrymen to set Germany at the head of Europe and to establish her influence throughout the world by the predominance of her commerce and industry and by the ubiquitous activity of her diplomacy supported by her preponderating military strength. In his speeches during the war the declaration “we must secure from the military and the political and also from the economic point of view the possibility of our expansion” is characteristic and recurs in various forms. In this sense he could truly have said “We could have got all we wanted without war,” i.e. by establishing Germany's power in Europe, on the seas and beyond them in a way that would make her unassailable whatever her policy and action might be. What he could not realize was that the creation and maintenance of vast armaments, combined with the aggressive behaviour of those sections of German opinion which always asserted their influence in public affairs and the truculent tone of the Emperor's frequent public utterances, compelled Germany's neighbours, including Great Britain, to concert measures for meeting the imminent eventuality of active German and Austro-Hungarian aggression. He maintained, like many of his countrymen, that the Triple Entente was the arbitrary and artificial creation of the personal policy of King Edward VII., acting in accord with the feelings of commercial and political jealousy with which Germany's successes were thought to have inspired the British people. He himself, however, had much to endure before and during the war from the intrigues of the military party, in particular from the hostility of the creator of the German navy, Admiral von Tirpitz, who was once and again put forward by the more aggressive chauvinists as their candidate for the chancellorship. But Bethmann Hollweg himself did not see that the influence of that powerful section of German opinion and its action in military and naval as in foreign policy furnished ample justification for such measures of precaution as the Western Powers and Russia concerted, measures which, indeed, proved hardly adequate to confront the first German onset in 1914.

The renewed conflict with France over Morocco in 1911, the dispatch of the gunboat “Panther” to Agadir, the consequent friction with Great Britain and the prolonged negotiations which led to the mutually unsatisfactory Franco-German Morocco agreement, mainly fell within the province of Bethmann Hollweg's able subordinate, Herr von Kiderlen-Waechter, who at that time was Secretary of State at the Foreign Office. Here, as on other occasions, the Chancellor was probably pacific in his intentions, but in the means which were adopted to secure Germany's objects he showed either lack of judgment or inability to control his political and military subordinates.

In his book Betrachtungen zum Weltkrieg (Reflections on the World War), written in his retirement at Hohenfinow after the collapse of Germany, he gives an account of the exchange of views which took place between him and Lord Haldane during the latter's visit to Berlin in Feb. 1912. This account ought to be read in conjunction with Lord Haldane's own report of his visit,[1] particularly with regard to the attempt of the two statesmen to find a formula for a treaty of mutual assurance calculated to allay apprehensions of war between Great Britain and Germany. Bethmann Hollweg wished to obtain an engagement from Great Britain to observe a benevolent neutrality in the event of Germany's becoming “entangled in a war with one or more other Powers,” or, as he finally formulated it, “if war should be forced upon Germany.” His conception of a war “forced upon Germany” was subsequently revealed by his defence of Germany's declarations of war upon Russia and France, accusing the one Power of having rendered war unavoidable by its precautionary measures of mobilization and the other of having opened hostilities by air raids which never took place. In the exchange of views regarding the German and British naval programmes Lord Haldane received the impression that Bethmann Hollweg was pursuing a different policy from that of Admiral Tirpitz, but that the latter had the support of a powerful and certainly active party in the country and was able to get his way. Indeed, Bethmann Hollweg himself says in his book that “when differences arose between the Admiralty and the civilian leadership public opinion was almost without exception on the side of the Admiralty.” There were from time to time evidences of a similar lack of continuous agreement and coordination between the policy of the Chancellor and that of the Secretaries of State in other departments, while the views of the Emperor William II. himself were notoriously liable to sudden and incalculable change. In a marginal note on one of the diplomatic documents of July 1914, the Emperor contemptuously referred to Bethmann Hollweg as the “civilian Chancellor,” as if policy were the business of the generals. Yet the Chancellor was in evident agreement with the Emperor's view that it was legitimate for Austria, backed by Germany, to alter the balance of power in the Balkans and to put an end to the traditional and national Russian policy of protecting the small Slav nations. Germany's “expansion” in the Near East was similarly to be promoted and her supremacy at Constantinople established at the expense of Russia's interests in a sphere that was vital for the Russian Empire.

The interview between the British ambassador, Sir Edward Goschen, and the German Chancellor, at their parting immediately before the declaration of war in 1914, when the latter in the course of “a harangue which lasted for about 20 minutes” spoke of the international treaty guaranteeing Belgium's neutrality as a “scrap of paper” and asked whether the British Government had considered “at what price that compact would have been kept,” furnishes the crowning evidence of Bethmann Hollweg's essentially Prussian conceptions of political morality. “In the moment of anger the true man stood revealed. . . . To break a treaty pledging the national honour seemed a natural thing to him, if to keep it involved sacrifice and danger . . . Herr von Bethmann Hollweg evidently thought that a plighted promise need not be kept, if the engagement involves momentous and unpleasant consequences. Not only does it throw the most unpleasant light upon his own notions of honour, but it makes the commentator ask whether it was possible to make any permanent settlement with a nation whose leading statesman obviously held the view that any treaty was only to be kept so long as it was profitable to the signatory parties.”[2]

There is evidence that at the time when Germany broke the peace Bethmann Hollweg was in a state of extreme nervous tension, due probably as much to the sense of the moral quicksands on which Germany's case was based as to the collapse of all his calculations regarding the effect of his policy upon the other Great Powers. In the case of Great Britain his disillusionment was complete and confessed. In the case of Russia he had apparently hoped that a display of firmness would bring about the same public renunciation of Russian policy which Germany had been able to secure by the “bluff” of 1908-9 in connexion with the Austrian annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Austro-Hungarian ambassador Count Szögyeny's report of his interview with William II. on July 5 is to the effect that in the event of action against Serbia the Emperor Francis Joseph could rely upon Germany's support and “he had not the slightest doubt that Bethmann Hollweg would entirely agree with this view. . . . Russia's attitude would be hostile, but William II. had for years been prepared for this war, and, should it ever come to war between Austria and Russia, we could be convinced that Germany with her customary loyalty to the Alliance would stand at our side.” In subsequent conversation with Bethmann Hollweg Count Szögyeny “ascertained that the Imperial Chancellor, just like the Emperor William, regards immediate action against Serbia as the most radical and best solution of our difficulties in the Balkans. From the international standpoint he considers the present moment more favourable than later and agrees that we shall inform neither Rumania nor Italy [both allies] beforehand of our eventual action.”

Admiral von Tirpitz[3] testifies that upon his mind the ultimatum to Russia and the declaration of war produced the impression of being ill-considered and due to a want of management. “Bethmann Hollweg was throughout those days so excited and irritable that it was impossible to converse with him. I can still hear him as with uplifted arms he repeatedly emphasized the absolute necessity of the declaration of war and put an end to all further discussion.” He told Tirpitz that war must be declared because the Germans wished to send patrols across the frontier at once. Moltke, on the other hand, informed Tirpitz that there was no such intention and that “from his point of view a declaration of war was of no importance.”[4]

During the war period of Bethmann Hollweg's chancellorship (Aug. 1914-July 1917) his public speeches were designed to create the impression of Germany's invincibility. He was accused by his political adversaries of having all the time entertained the secret hope of coming to a separate understanding with Great Britain and of having influenced military and naval policy through the Emperor with this object in view. In reality he never approximated to the elementary conditions of peace terms with the Allies, and in respect both of Belgium and France constantly referred to guarantees in the shape of an extension of power (Machtgrundlagen) which would be a neces- sary condition of a settlement. “History,” he said, “knows no instance of the status quo ante after such tremendous events” (speech of April 5 1916). On the question of unrestricted submarine warfare he ultimately divested himself of responsibility, having declared to the Emperor in Jan. 1917: “I can give Your Majesty neither my assent to the unrestricted U-boat warfare nor my refusal. I submit to Your Majesty's decision”[5] which was that of the General Staff and the Admiralty. He must have given his explicit assent to the monstrous note addressed on Jan. 19 1917 by his Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Zimmermann, to Mexico inviting her to attack the United States in the hope of annexing New Mexico, Texas and Arizona and to try to detach Japan from the Allied cause. His alleged high principles did not prevent him from associating himself with this scheme for a treacherous assault upon a Power with whom Germany was then at peace.

By the middle of July 1917 Bethmann Hollweg had lost all support in the Reichstag. The Conservatives and National Liberals were alienated by his Prussian franchise policy and his conflicts with the higher command. The Left and the Catholic Centre in which Erzberger with his so-called Peace Resolution (adopted by the Reichstag on July 19) had acquired the upper hand were convinced that the Allied and Associated Powers would place no confidence in the overtures of men with the past of Bethmann Hollweg and Zimmermann. Finally, on the morrow of the publication of the second Prussian Franchise Edict, on July 14 1917, Hindenburg and Ludendorff came to Berlin in order to hold conferences with the chiefs of political parties regarding the terms of the “Peace Resolution.” The Chancellor could not tolerate this military interference with his own department, and the Emperor, confronted with an ultimatum from his two indispensable military leaders, accepted the Chancellor's resignation. Bethmann Hollweg retired to Hohenfinow and took no further part in politics beyond writing his Reflections on the World War (vol. i. 1919). He died, at Hohenfinow on Jan. 1 1921, after a brief illness. (G. S.)


  1. See Before the War, by Visct. Haldane (1920).
  2. The Outbreak of the War of 1914-1918, C. Oman.
  3. Tirpitz, Erinnerungen, pp. 240-1.
  4. ibidem.
  5. Scheidemann, Der Zusammenbruch, p. 74.