Bethmann Hollweg, Theobald von

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BETHMANN HOLLWEG, THEOBALD VON (1856–1921), German statesman, served as imperial chancellor, 1909–1917.

Often called the "Hamlet" of German politics, Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg combined a legalistic and bureaucratic mind with inner doubt and misgiving. He was appointed Prussian minister of the interior in 1905 and German state secretary of the interior two years later. In 1909 he replaced the unctuous Bernhard Heinrich Martin Karl von Bülow (1849–1929) as German chancellor. Bethmann Hollweg's peacetime accomplishments were modest: in 1911 he promulgated a more liberal constitution for Alsace-Lorraine, but in December 1912 he suffered the first-ever vote of no-confidence in the German parliament over his inept handling of a civil-military confrontation at Zabern, Alsace. In January 1914 the Prussian Upper House censured him for failing to uphold conservative principles; most critically, he was unable to master the Reich's chaotic fiscal situation caused by Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz's (1849–1930) fleet building against Britain.

Bethmann Hollweg came to the Chancery with no diplomatic experience, yet his career would be defined by four diplomatic-military crises. In July 1914 it fell to him to manage the crisis evinced by the assassination of Archduke Francis Ferdinand (1863–1914) at Sarajevo. His mindset was pessimistic and fatalistic. He feared the growing power of Russia; he saw the coming war as a racial contest between Slavs and Teutons; and yet he orchestrated what he called "a leap into the dark." For Bethmann Hollweg had developed the rationale of a calculated risk: he would escalate the July Crisis up to the point of breaking the "iron ring" of the Anglo-French-Russian entente either by diplomacy or war—and then fall back on the last-minute mediation of a more disinterested power, Britain. When that failed to eventuate on 29–30 July, he took Germany into war.

Bethmann Hollweg's second major diplomatic step came on 9 September 1914, when he drafted the September Program, a war-aims program designed to make Germany master of Central Europe "for all imaginable time." France was to be permanently reduced to the rank of a secondary power. Russia was to be thrust back as far as possible from Europe and its domination over non-Russians ended. Luxembourg was to become a federal German state, Belgium a German vassal state. The Netherlands were to be forced into closer relationship with the German Empire, and Central Europe tied economically to Germany. Finally, a continuous Central African colonial empire was to be carved from the holdings of other European colonial powers.

The collapse of the Schlieffen plan east of Paris and the resulting bloodbath in Flanders prompted the chief of the German General Staff, Erich Georg Anton Sebastian von Falkenhayn (1861–1922), on 18–19 November 1914 to inform Bethmann Hollweg that victory was no longer attainable, and recommended that a separate peace be negotiated first with Russia ("war indemnities but no major territorial concessions") and then, he hoped, with France. The chancellor refused this advice. A return to the status quo of before the war after his September Program would constitute a major political defeat. Germany's "incredible sacrifice" (700,000 casualties) demanded rewards in the form of vast territorial annexations. Bethmann Hollweg was prepared to fight to the bitter end.

Bethmann Hollweg's fourth great diplomatic act was to endorse unrestricted submarine warfare as a military necessity at a critical meeting of Germany's political and military elite at Pless on 9 January 1917. The submarine campaign, he stated, was Germany's last card in pursuing a victorious peace. He deemed its prospects to be very favorable. Promising to try to keep America out of the war, the chancellor cast the decisive vote by assuring Kaiser William II (1859–1941) that if the military deemed this step necessary, "I am not in a position to speak against it." The United States declared war on Germany on 6 April 1916. The military forced Bethmann Hollweg from office in July 1917. He died a broken man in January 1921.

See alsoAlsace-Lorraine; Germany; Military Tactics.


Fischer, Fritz. Germany's Aims in the First World War. London, 1967. The classic statement of Bethmann Hollweg's prewar and wartime role, and especially of his war-aims program.

Herwig, Holger H. "Germany." In The Origins of World War I, edited by Richard F. Hamilton and Holger H. Herwig, 150–187. Cambridge, U.K., 2003. A reassessment of Bethmann Hollweg's role in the July Crisis of 1914.

Jarausch, Konrad H. The Enigmatic Chancellor: Bethmann Hollweg and the Hubris of Imperial Germany. New Haven, Conn., 1972. A spirited defense of Bethmann Hollweg as a "moderate" war leader.

Holger H. Herwig

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