ANN: H-German Forum -- First World War -- Otte (December 2014)

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The Limits of the Possible: Some Reflections on Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg and the July Crisis of 1914

T.G. Otte, University of East Anglia

"Von der Parteien Gunst und Hass verwirrt,

Schwankt sein Charakterbild in der Geschichte."[1]

The wanderer who finds his way to the small village of Hohenfinow, some 33 miles North East of Berlin, may well stumble across the grave of Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg. If he does, and if that name means anything to him, he may well be tempted to contemplate the vicissitudes of nineteenth and twentieth-century history in the rural seclusion of this place, remote and unprepossessing even by the standards of the Mark Brandenburg. The black marble tomb slab, plain and unadorned if a little cracked and weatherworn now, bears Bethmann’s name and the inscription "Blessed are they who do hunger and thirst after righteousness."

The silence of the place and the funerary epigraph are symptomatic of the fate that has befallen Imperial Germany’s fifth chancellor. For
"[t]hings have grown quiet around Bethmann Hollweg," as Konrad H. Jarausch, his only Anglophone biographer, observed over a quarter of a century ago.[2] And so things have remained since. Even the current centenary year has done little to lift the veil of silence that has descended upon Bethmann.

Bethmann’s perplexing, often indeed inscrutable, personality proved to be a challenge as much for his contemporaries as for later historians. Even his three more recent biographers have, with varying degrees of emphasis, spoken of the "puzzle Bethmann Hollweg" or the "enigmatic chancellor."[3] Probably no other political figure in modern German history has been viewed in such starkly contrasting terms.[4] In this, as in so much else that is related to Europe’s "seminal catastrophe," political inclinations and scholarly analysis were all too often yoked together as an uneasy team.

History, opined one British obituarist, would "judge Bethmann Hollweg by his conduct of German affairs during the tragic days of July 1914, and during the first three years of the war." In the summer of 1914, he continued, the chancellor had "revealed in two phrases both his unfitness for the post he held and his quasi-philosophic tendency to conceal that unfitness under a mask of candour." His exhortation of "necessity" as legitimating Germany’s resort to military force and the dismissal of international obligations as merely "a scrap of paper" "had the semblance of honesty." But it was "little more than the weakness of a man who, confronted by a great emergency, fell back upon the founts of his own emotionalism. They were the apologies of a weak man trying to don strength of the mantle of truth." "Weakness in great places," the obituary concluded, "may escape exposure when the stream of world events runs smooth," but Bethmann, "weak and unready" had proved unable to navigate the raging currents of international politics in 1914: "It may well be doubted whether the verdict of posterity will be more merciful than that of his contemporaries."[5]

That verdict had been less than flattering already before the war. In 1913, a Berlin-based British journalist, though admitting Bethmann’s "thoroughly sincere and honest" character, found his chancellorship "uncommonly barren of promise," an "egregious mediocrity" and his four years at 77 Wilhelmstrasse "a quadrennium of the innocuous."[6] The charge of mediocrity and weakness was the one that stuck, especially so after July 1914. The unscrupulousness of the war party at Berlin was "equalled by the incompetence of the Chancellor," argued J.W. Headlam(-Morley), the historian-turned-Whitehall mandarin. Bethmann was "neither strong enough to oppose them [the military] nor consistent in abetting them."[7]

What was implicit in Headlam’s judgment was made explicit by his Cambridge colleague John Holland Rose, a scholar of Napoleonic Europe. Measured against the exacting standards of Bismarckian statecraft, Bethmann fell well short of what was required in a statesman. Bismarck's successor gave the impression of "a man who had lost his head and plunged feverishly into paths that he knows not, in company of masterful comrades who compel him to speak the jargon of the barracks." His loss of temper in his final interview with the British ambassador "bespeaks the man who lost his nerves .... Bismarck often spoke with passion; but the passion was under control of a masterful will and always served some political end." The later Germany represented by Bethmann and his "vain and touchy" Imperial master was, Rose concluded, "a signal reversal of Bismarck's notion of a quiet, dignified and conservative supremacy for Germany."[8] Such indictment, however, was nothing against the vitriol that was poured over Bethmann by the bucket-load in his own country, mostly by representatives of the Right. In the considered view of the leader of the Prussian Conservatives, Ernst Freiherr von Heydebrand und der Lasa, Bethmann was "markedly unreliable, unsteady, fearful."[9] The case for the extreme Right, fuelled by the inevitable wartime disappointments, was made by a hired gun of the pan-Germans. The chancellor's pre-war policy, which he dismissed as the "B-System," as well as his lackadaisical pursuit of war aims, had lacked the necessary will to power, a sense for "völkische" interests and, indeed, "desire for overlordship [Lust zum Herrenmenschentum]." Bethmann philosophised when he needed to act decisively and with purpose. The "B-System," based on a weak preference for compromise at the expense of German "prestige," allowed Britain and France to complete a ring of encirclement around the Reich. Bethmann also turned a blind eye to the intrigues of Russia in the Balkans which completed that ring. Never, so the charge, could any of this have occurred under Bismarck’s leadership: "When Bismarck negotiated with a foreign Power on Germany’s behalf, he could rest on two Powers: on Germany and on Bismarck. In such a position we do not find ourselves today, and it can no longer be regained." On the contrary, Bethmann was the "grave digger" of the Reich.[10]

If extreme in its tone, the diatribe, replete with the obligatory allusions to unpatriotic Socialists, assorted un-German elements and, inevitably, "cosmopolitan Israelites," nevertheless set the parameters for the conservative-nationalist critique of Bethmann in the interwar years and beyond, both public and private. Hellmuth Lucius von Stoedten, in 1914 embassy councillor at St. Petersburg and in the 1920s envoy at The Hague, was damning in his judgment of Bethmann’s handling of the July crisis: "This business with Berchtold’s outrageous ultimatum ... Bülow would never have done it, but the measured Herr von Bethmann [did]."[11] Even a moderate such as Harry Graf Kessler concluded that "[o]ur side the basic facts in the situation were: in Berlin a weak central government in the person of Theobald Bethmann, a ‘leading’ statesman whose soul was a pawn for which London and Vienna were rivals."[12]

For reasons of space alone this is not the place for a detailed historiographic survey of the Bethmann-Problematik.[13] It will suffice here to note that much of the traditional scholarship identified the chancellor’s weak personality as one of the principal factors in Germany's catastrophic decision-making. Bethmann’s "feebleness and helplessness," Hans Herzfeld asserted in 1923, meant that Germany entered the "Schicksalskampf” ("fateful struggle") of 1914-1918 unprepared.[14] Even those who were more sympathetic to this so un-Bismarckian chancellor still found him wanting. Johannes Ziekursch, for instance, presented him as a tragic figure, well-intentioned and far-sighted, but "tormented by scruples and doubts": "This inner turmoil [Zerrissenheit] exacerbated the reluctance to decide [Entschluszschwere] of a man fully conscious of his great responsibilities. The furrowed face of this giant spoke of constant intellectual labour."[15] G.P. Gooch, the historian and editor of the official British pre-war documents – like so many a relic of Edwardian liberalism no Germanophobe – struck a similar tone: "The Hamlet of Germany found himself embroiled in a struggle with forces that he could not control."[16]

In essence, though drawing on a greater wealth of archival material, this was also the verdict of the Freiburg historian Gerhard Ritter, the doyen of the post-1945 conservative historians and great antagonist of Fritz Fischer. Indeed, his critique of the latter's work on German war aims – at any rate his public criticism – remained carefully confined to the biographical sphere.[17] The emphasis on the chancellor's noble character – in Klaus Epstein's trenchant comment, Ritter's obsession with "the condition of Bethmann Hollweg’s soul" – allowed him to present Bethmann as the tragic representative of the best in the Prusso-German tradition, in sharp contrast to the sinister figure of General Ludendorff.[18]

Nothing, of course, was further from Fischer's concerns than Bethmann's finer sensibilities. In his analysis of German foreign policy before 1914 the chancellor was little more than cipher, not so much because of his feeble and hesitant character but rather because of "Systemzwang," principally societal developments and socio-economic interests that compelled him to mediate between a multitude of forces and their divergent demands without being able to strike out along a line of his own. Even so, Fischer’s Bethmann marked merely one position, albeit a shifting one, on the spectrum of German expansionist designs. His run-ins, both before July 1914 and afterwards, with the Kaiser's military entourage and pan-German agitators were thus more of a tactical nature than of a substantive kind.[19] In almost a fit of absentmindedness Fischer had thus invested Bethmann with near-Machiavellian attributes, but had very purposely positioned him in a line of continuity somewhere mid-way between Bismarck and Hitler. Bethmann was yet another manifestation of Germany's "Sonderweg."

The emphasis on socio-economic forces was more pronounced in Fischer's later works, and more so still in those of his disciples. Fischer himself returned to the Bethmann puzzle in an essay that deserves greater attention than it has tended to attract. In it he reasserted the idea of "Systemzwang," but went further by suggesting that Bethmann was as much compelled by impersonal forces as by his "own conviction and choice."[20]

Between them, Ritter and Fischer established the broad parameters of later twentieth-century scholarly assessments of Bethmann Hollweg’s career. Von Vietsch’s often elegiac biography is principally concerned with his intellectual background and his psychological Befindlichkeit. Gutsche's treatment of the chancellor followed the furrow ploughed by Fischer, albeit with an orthodox East German Marxist orientation, while Jarausch adopted a mediating position between Fischer and Ritter, emphasising Bethmann's political concerns and the political and social context in which he had to operate.[21]

It cannot be the intention here to examine the extant literature on Bethmann. It is rather intended to offer some reflections on the interaction between structural constraints and individual intentions. Bethmann's role in the July crisis of 1914 affords an excellent opportunity for doing so.

Part of the Bethmann puzzle lies in his personality; part of the attraction that it has exerted over contemporaries and historians alike lies in the fact that the fifth Reich chancellor was very unlike so many other Wilhelminer. The tall, stooping Bethmann, quiet and a little professorial, could not have been more different from the brash and braying Prussian Junker-types in the Kaiser's entourage. Of middle-class descent - his family were Frankfurt bankers - and with a Franco-Swiss mother to boot, he was little attuned to the barrack braggadocio that prevailed around the emperor. The sphinx-like chancellor impressed many who met him. Friedrich Meinecke, a moderate national liberal and like many Bethmann supporters later a Vernunftrepublikaner who made his peace with the Weimar constitution, had "the impression of speaking not to the imperial chancellor but a highly educated patriot, who just happened at that moment to administer a high office."[22] That a Berlin professor might feel some affinity with Bethmann may not be all that surprising. An alumnus of the famous Saxon Landesschule at Schulpforta – Nietzsche's alma mater – cultured and widely read, well-versed in the classics and finding solace and relaxation in playing Beethoven sonatas, Bethmann Hollweg shared many of the traits of the nineteenth-century Bildungsbürger. If he belonged to the East Elbian gentry, "he differed from most members of his class because of the rich intellectual culture of a West German patrician family. The never resolved contradiction between nineteenth-century culture and Old Prussiandom ran right through his soul."[23] Others were impressed, too. Britain's Lord Chancellor, the German-educated lawyer-turned-politician and sometime philosopher Viscount Haldane, thought him the "Lincoln of Germany." Yet with Bethmann, thoughtfulness often gave way to melancholy introspection and quiet despair. His austere and aloof public persona made for much mirth among his detractors. To his critics on the right especially he was "Buss- und Bethmann" ("Repentance and Prayer-Man"); and given his reputation for ponderousness, the good-humoured Berlin crowds christened one of the star attractions at Berlin zoo, a giant tortoise, "Theobald."[24]

By training and instinct the chancellor was a bureaucrat, not a political leader. He had risen steadily in the Prussian civil service. A Landrat at thirty, he had become Oberpräsident of Brandenburg province at the age of forty-three. At forty-nine he was Prussian minister of the interior, which post he combined with the same at the Reich level two years later. As chancellor, he tended to execute the Kaiser's will; he rarely offered advice. Indeed, in Berlin court circles he was known as the "dancing bear" on account of his habit of nervously shifting from one foot to the other when addressing the Kaiser.[24]

Bethmann was the prototype of the diligent, educated and efficient technocrat, who sought to administer problems rather than attempt their solution – and this is relevant to the study of decision-making at Berlin in 1914. Here the events surrounding the "blank cheque" of 5 July were all of a piece with the disjointed nature of German politics. Bethmann had not been consulted prior to Wilhelm's meeting with the Habsburg ambassador, Count Laszlo Szögyény.[26] If Wilhelm had gone beyond what was constitutionally proper in offering Germany's unconditional support, Bethmann did not advise against it: "The views of the Kaiser were in accordance with my own thinking."[27]

The chancellor's later reflections on the interview in the park of the Neues Palais are suggestive of his motivations in early July 1914, but they offer no conclusive proof. Bethmann was certainly more apprehensive of the external and internal risks inherent in the current crisis than the Kaiser and his military entourage. With such complications in view, he diluted the assurances to Austria-Hungary somewhat in the instructions for the German ambassador at Vienna, but he did alter the substance of German policy.[28]

That Bethmann did not seek to retract the Kaiser's rash undertaking to Austria-Hungary was in keeping with his own brand of statecraft. But to no small degree it also reflected the manifold internal and external constraints under which German politics had to operate. The parallels between Bethmann’s domestic manoeuvres are worth noting.

He understood well enough that Germany was in the throes of major social and economic change, and that the case for political reform was unanswerable. The powers of the old elites needed to be curtailed and the Progressives and Social Democrats integrated in the Prusso-German state. At the same time he clung to the notion that its essence could be preserved and reforms be kept to the minimum necessary. A strong monarchy and nobility had to remain at the core of the German state. Even two years into war, when franchise reform in Prussia was well-nigh inevitable, he remained wedded to that belief. In his earlier career as a Landrat, he explained to a liberal journalist then employed in the Wilhelmstrasse, he had had "a good opportunity to get to know the Junker class. Its participation is indispensable, because its influence rests on a very real basis; it is not rooted in political conditions but social ones."[29] In this manner, he was ready to reach out to opposition groups on the left in his so-called "Politik der Diagonale" without, however, offering the kind of political reforms needed to satisfy their demands. The "worrisome descent into parliamentarianism, which threatened to occur," remained a constant in Bethmann's calculations.[30]

The 1913 Wehrbeitrag, a one-off super-tax introduced to finance the Army Bill, was enough to create a degree of financial wiggle room. But it did nothing to lift the fiscal ceiling, against which the arms races on land and at sea were inexorably pushing Reich finances. To place them on a sounder footing would have required far-reaching reforms that curtailed the rights of the federal states and diminished the privileges of the landed elites.[31]

In a similar manner, during the "Zabern Affair," the one constitutional crisis during Bethmann's peace-time chancellorship, he shielded the army against its critics in the Reichstag and the press, profoundly convinced of the indissoluble connection between the Prussian army and the state. He also appreciated the functional relationship between maintaining army morale and the monarch's confidence. And yet, as David Schoenbaum has rightly argued, it cannot be said that the civilian authorities did not get what they wanted. Indeed, the military withdrew in the face of likely defeat in the law courts. Zabern revealed the imperial regime as neither especially autocratic and repressive nor yet as capable of serious reform.[32] Germany had reached the limits of governability, and Bethmann sought to contain the latent crises of the Kaiserreich through a string of compromises.

There was another, more intangible aspect to Bethmann’s calculations. He had contemplated resignation in the summer of 1913, but given the fraught domestic situation after the compromise on the military budget in the spring of that year and the uncertain international situation, he considered himself to be inexpendable.[33] There was here, perhaps, in a milder form, a forerunner of the "Weizsäcker syndrome" that afflicted so many during the Nazi period, the notion that remaining in office would prevent greater misfortunes being perpetrated by whoever succeeded them.

The habit of administering problems so as to contain them also influenced Bethmann's response to the "blank cheque." His laconic post-war observation that the Kaiser's assurances of 5 July were in accordance with his own thinking remained the cornerstone of Bethmann's position in July 1914. It rested on concerns about Austria-Hungary's future stability and the further growth in Russian power. The two were linked, of course. For the past two years the chancellor's views on Russo-German relations had veered from profound pessimism to genuine optimism and back. In the summer of 1912, on his return from a visit to Russia, he was satisfied with the prospects for improved relations with St. Petersburg, even though he accepted that "Russia loves us no more than she loves any other Great Power. For that we are too strong, too much of a parvenu and just too disgusting."[34] At that time he thought a modus vivendi with Germany's Eastern neighbour a realistic proposition. Although Russia's recovery from defeat abroad and revolution at home in 1905 had been speedier than expected, her need for further financial consolidation and economic reform seemed to act as a constraint on its foreign policy. Financiers, such as Robert von Mendelssohn, advised Bethmann that the leading circles at St. Petersburg "fear major internal complications as a consequence of a war; their interest in the Balkans was not so great that they would want to run such an immeasurable risk."[35] Assumptions of Russia's latent fragility shaped German perceptions of their Eastern neighbour. "[E]ven if the current [domestic] tranquility may last for years", observed Bethmann's cousin, the ambassador at St. Petersburg, Friedrich Graf Pourtalès, "one has to reckon with the possibility of a new revolution breaking out."[36]

If fear of revolution was thought to act as a brake on Russian policy, there were, however, countervailing tendencies, the most significant being that of pan-Slavism. In the spring of 1913, Pourtalès had commented on the official toleration of the often strident tone of the pan-Slav papers as a sign of the regime's inherent weakness. Indeed, in the event of a Balkan conflict involving Austria-Hungary and Serbia, "nothing can be guaranteed", he warned. "Gefühlspolitik", an uncontrollable emotional sense of ethnic and other affinity would sweep away all caution. It would even "affect those circles that only yesterday made fun of the exaggerated sympathy with the Slav brethren."[37]

Russia's accelerated rearmament certainly weighed on Bethmann's mind in the summer of 1914. He had left Berlin, on 6 July, immediately after the meeting with Szögyény and Berchtold’s emissary, Alec Hoyos, to return to the quiet of Hohenfinow in the company of Kurt Riezler, his aide and confidant. Both men tended towards introspection and philosophical reflections. The loose casino tone amongst the Kaiser's entourage was quite alien to them. Riezler's diary entries captured something of the chancellor's gloomy disposition:


Yesterday with Reich chancellor. The old chateau, the wonderful enormous trees, the avenue like a vaulted gothic ceiling. Everywhere the deep impression of the wife's [Bethmann's] death. Melancholy and restraint in landscape and people.

In the evening on the verandah, under the night sky, long conversation of the situation. [...] Russia's military power growing rapidly; following strategic build-up of Poland situation untenable; Austria continually weakening and more immobile; the undermining [of Austria-Hungary] from North, South East far advanced. At any rate incapable of going to war for a German cause.


The conversation soon turned into a monologue, as was often the case when Bethmann felt free to touch on more serious issues. It was a conversational technique, used also to test arguments and to invite his interlocutors to contradict his statements. The chancellor spoke of "difficult decisions": "Official Serbia implicated. Austria wants to bestir herself. Franz Joseph's missive to Kaiser with enquiry about casus foederis." And he spoke of the danger of losing Austria-Hungary, "our last decent ally." The chancellor acknowledged the risk of escalation. Any European war would lead "to a revolution of existing conditions. The status quo has very much outlived itself, bereft of ideas. "Everything has grown very old." Pace his many vociferous critics among Prussia's conservatives, war would not rejuvenate the established order but overthrow it: "In general willful blindness all around, a thick fog over the people. [...] The future belongs to Russia, who grows and grows, and who becomes an ever more oppressive nightmare for us."[38]

In the wider debate on German policy during the July crisis, Riezler's diaries have played a significant role. A whole cottage industry has grown up around this material, the nature and scope of which fall outside the remit of this essay. Suffice to say that, while some of Riezler's notes bear traces of having been reworked in later years, their integrity has not been compromised.[39] Certainly, Bethmann's concern about Russia's growing military might is well documented. A little over a month before the chancellor delivered himself of his pessimistic soliloquy at Hohenfinow, he had discussed the continental armaments programmes with the Bavarian envoy at Berlin: "But no-one in France wants war. Russia was more dangerous. There the Slav enthusiasm could turn people's heads so that Russia would one day do something stupid."[40]

In mid-June an article in a St. Petersburg financial journal, inspired by the Russian war minister, added fuel to such worries.[41] Bethmann appreciated that the intended target of the article was Russia's French paymaster, but remained wary of the "bellicose tendencies of the Russian militarist party" it revealed. Until then, only raffish pan-German fringe figures had speculated about Russian plans for a war against Germany. Now, the chancellor noted, "even more sober-minded politicians were beginning to incline towards that view." Since the Kaiser had recently warmed to such ideas himself, the chancellor feared a fresh bout of "armaments fever" in the second half of 1914. In contrast to the sentiments attributed to him by Riezler in July, Bethmann was by no means prepared to accept bellicose articles in the Russian press as prima facie evidence of Russia's intentions: "Little as the uncertainty in Russian affairs makes it possible to discern the real aims of Russia with some confidence, and as much as, in our political dispositions, we have to take account of the fact that of all the European Great Powers Russia is the one most inclined to run the risk of military adventure, I still do not believe that Russia is planning a war against us soon." On the contrary, he speculated that Russia's recent and reinvigorated military build-up was largely a political tool to enable Russian diplomacy to interfere more forcefully in another round of Balkan crises that had to be expected. Nor, in fact, did the chancellor consider such ambitions illegitimate for a power such as Russia. The preservation of peace, however, depended entirely on the attitude of Germany and Great Britain: "If we [Britain and Germany] then firmly appear as guarantors of the European peace, as long as we pursue this aim from the start in accordance with a common plan - which neither the Dreibund nor the entente obligations prevent - then war can be avoided." Otherwise, he added ominously, "any minor odd clash of interest between Russia and Austria-Hungary may set alight the torch of war. A prudent policy has to keep this eventuality in view."[42] These were wise words, indeed; and Bethmann would have been wiser still had he adhered to his own prescription when the final Balkan crisis broke.

If the chancellor's tone was on the whole confident, his observations on the need for joint Anglo-German crisis management nevertheless touched on a critical point. Throughout the two recent Balkan conflicts, Berlin and London had joined forces to de-escalate the regional crisis. But now the German chancellor was no longer optimistic that cooperation with London was still to be had. He took, as Riezler recorded, "a serious view of Anglo-Russian negotiations on a naval conversation, amphibious landing in Pomerania, last link in the chain."[43]

Bethmann was not the first – nor the last - politician to be taken in by misleading or partial raw intelligence. In the context of July 1914 the "intelligence dimension" was of some significance. Through a well-placed source in the Russian embassy at London, the Wilhelmstrasse was aware of Russian attempts to secure a naval convention with Britain. Such desire was not at all reciprocated by the British foreign secretary.[44] But while Sir Edward Grey hoped to kick the matter into the diplomatic long grass, his replies to German enquiries appeared evasive and obfuscating when compared with the more decided language of the Russian dispatches seen at Berlin. The impact of such intelligence cannot, of course, be quantified, but Bethmann had certainly come to doubt Grey's reliability, indeed his honesty. He appreciated that London did not wish for war "and would not join a war instigated against Germany. But that would not prevent that, if it came to war, we would not find England on our side."[45]

No doubt, like any educated German of the period, the chancellor may have recalled that the Seven Years' War commenced with Frederick II’s pre-emptive strike after his spy in the Saxon chancellery had obtained a copy of a planned grand coalition against Prussia. If this made Bethmann more susceptible to suggestions of a preventive war, there is no conclusive evidence to suggest that he gave active consideration to such an option. If anything, the overall impression of the German chancellor's attitude is one of hesitation and resignation. Lack of trust in Grey, in turn, reinforced his concerns about maintaining the Habsburg empire as Germany's only reliable ally.[46] As he suggested to Riezler on 8 July: "A "fait accompli" and then friendly [attitude] towards the entente, that way the shock can be absorbed." He even speculated that "the entente grouping might yet be pulled apart."[47]

To an extent this last consideration represented an element of continuity in German diplomacy in general but also in Bethmann's policy, both of which had been aimed at driving a wedge between the other Powers. Even so, the chancellor's suggestions in this direction were based on vague hopes; they were not the product of clear political thinking. Bethmann's comments in the summer of 1914 reflected his concerns and his hopes; they reflected his general appreciation of the likely risks and his awareness of future potentialities. But they did not reflect coherent, strategic calculations. For the chancellor there was no "calculated risk", for he had no clearly defined political objectives; and in consequence he had no notion of a crisis strategy. There was an element of "bluff" in Bethmann's stance in the summer of 1914. On this point, it has sometimes been held that Riezler's writings provide an insight into the chancellor's behaviour. Andreas Hillgruber, for instance, made an ingenious attempt to construct out of the Grundzüge der Weltpolitik by Bethmann's amanuensis, published under the pseudonym "J.J. Ruedorffer," a coherent policy of a "calculated risk." Riezler, after all, had argued that Great Powers no longer fought wars, but calculated them, and that "bluff" was the principal instrument of international diplomacy.[48]

Elegant, neat and plausible, Hillgruber's interpretation is nevertheless not flawless. Perhaps its most problematic aspect is that it is based on somewhat willful reading of the Bethmann-Riezler relationship. It either diminishes Riezler's intellectual standing to the position of Bethmann's philosophical ghost-writer or else it assumes that the chancellor, twenty-six years his senior, accepted the younger man's ideas. Neither is ultimately convincing. Whatever the similarities of their backgrounds or their intellectual affinities, Riezler is of limited use as a guide to Bethmann's mind.[49] Their generational location was different, and the older man was much more the product of Humboldtian neo-Humanism, with its classicist, elitist and idealist bent, than Riezler was.[50]

The anfractuosities of Bethmann's mind, and the "unspoken assumptions" that underpinned his decisions, are nevertheless interesting subjects.[51] His habits of mind were characterised by his classicist preoccupations. Plato and Hegel were part of his intellectual equipment. It left Bethmann resigned to accept the fell blows of fortune. An en passant remark to Lord Haldane at the end of their interview in early 1912 offers a glimpse of this attitude: "[He] took me by the hand & held it & said the moment of his life he had longed for seemed to have come. If we failed it would be Destiny. But we had, he knew, done all that two men could [do]."[52] In reflecting these tendencies Riezler's diary notes prove their worth, but not as a practical guide to Bethmann's statecraft.

There was nevertheless an element of complacency in Bethmann's behaviour in July 1914. His role during the early phase of the crisis, moreover, was marginal rather than central. He spent much of the month at Hohenfinow.[53] Indeed, what is striking is the compartmentalisation of German decision-making. As chancellor, Bethmann was also the political head of the Auswärtiges Amt, where now Gottlieb von Jagow pulled the strings as State Secretary. From 6 July onwards, he was "on duty practically day and night all through the crisis."[54] Much of the decision-making at the Wilhelmstrasse, in fact, went through Jagow, aided by Wilhelm von Stumm and Arthur Zimmermann. They kept Bethmann in partial ignorance about developments, and consulted him only infrequently during the early stages of the crisis. There was thus no proper strategic deliberation in German foreign policy in July 1914. In the field of external affairs, too, Imperial Germany had reached the limits of governability. In all its aspects the Kaiserreich was, as Friedrich Stampfer, editor of the SPD-organ Vorwärts, quipped, the best administered country in the world, and the worst governed. Even the Schlieffen-Plan, "the only war plan after all we had", was an indication of the stalemate and paralysis that characterised German decision-making: "Offensive in the East and defensive in the West", Bethmann reflected in 1919, "would have meant conceding that we expected at the most a partie remise. With such a call to arms, no army and no people could be led into a struggle for existence."[55]

A final thought ought to be given to the poor craftsmanship of German foreign policy in 1914. If it sought to deploy "bluff" as a tool of policy, then this required the closest possible diplomatic and military coordination with Vienna. Nothing of the kind, however, happened. Decision-making in the two Zweibund capitals ran along parallel lines but remained separate. In the end, the notion that Austria-Hungary was Germany's only remaining ally, and that, more importantly, the Habsburg empire was sliding towards stasis (in the Thycidedian sense) and so to eventual disintegration, unless allowed to halt this process now, was another structural force of a different kind. It set the parameters of what Bethmann and others at Berlin thought was prudent and practically possible; and it set the scene for Berlin's fumbling during the later stages of the July crisis.

This reflection concludes in a paradox of sorts. Whatever Bethmann's intentions, the internal and external constraints under which German politics had to operate, made it impossible for him to pursue a coherent political strategy. Their combined effect was not, however, to drive Germany towards aggression. Rather it led to an abdication of policy. Unable to lead, the German leadership drifted into a war for which the country was not prepared. Bethmann's personal attributes and the poor political tradecraft of the German political elite mirrored and amplified the systemic failings of the Kaiserreich.


[1]. F. Schiller, "Wallensteins Lager," prologue, L. Bellermann (ed.), Schillers Werke (9 vols., Leipzig, s.a.) iv, 26.

[2]. K.H. Jarausch, "Revising German History: Bethmann Hollweg Revisited," Central European History xxi, 3 (1988), 224.

[3]. E. von Vietsch, Bethmann Hollweg: Staatsmann zwischen Macht und Ethos (Boppard a. Rh., 1969), 9-14; K.H. Jarausch, The Enigmatic Chancellor: Bethmann Hollweg and the Hubris of Imperial Germany (New Haven, CT, 1973), passim; W. Gutsche, Aufstieg und Fall eines kaiserlichen Reichskanzler. Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg, 1856-1921: Ein politisches Lebensbild (East Berlin, 1973), 87.

[4]. K. Hildebrand, "Der Kanzler zwischen den Fronten", Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 6 Mar. 1970; W.J. Mommsen, "Der Kanzler im Zweilicht: Bethmann Hollweg – Moralist oder Staatsmann?," Die Zeit, 10 Apr. 1970.

[5]. "Bethmann Hollweg Dead. The “Scrap of Paper” Chancellor," Daily Telegraph, 3 Jan. 1921

[6]. F.W. Wile, Men Around the Kaiser: The Makers of Modern Germany (London, repr. 1914 [1st 1913]), 19 and 20. Wile worked for the Daily Mail, not now noted for its purple prose.

[7]. J.W. Headlam, The German Chancellor and the Outbreak of the War (London, 1917), 39; also id., The History of the Twelve Days: July 24th to August 4th, 1914 (London, 1915), 359 and 387.

[8]. J.H. Rose, "Bismarck and Bethmann Hollweg: A Contrast," North American Review ccv, 737 (Apr. 1917), 541.

[9]. Heydebrand to Westarp, 20 Dec. 1913, as quoted in D. Groh, Negative Integration und revolutionärer Attentismus: Die deutsche Sozialdemokratie am Vorabend des Ersten Weltkrieges (Frankfurt, 1973), 519; see also G. Eley, "The German Right: How It Changed", R.J. Evans (ed.), Society and Politics in Wilhelmine Germany (London, 1978), 128-129.

[10]. H. Freiherr von Liebig, Die Politik von Bethmann Hollweg: Eine Studie (2 parts, Munich, 1919), 23, 34-5, 152-3, 212, 228 and 293. In press in 1915, this work had been suppressed by the censor, see ibid., 5; also K.H. Jarausch, "Die Alldeutschen und die Regierung Bethmann Hollweg: Eine Denkschrift Kurt Riezlers", Vierteljahreshefte für Zeitgeschichte xxi, 4 (1973), 435-468.

[11]. Lucius to Thimme [?], 2 May 1927 (TS copy), Nachlass Lucius, The National Archive (Public Record Office), Kew, GFM 25/11.

[12]. Kessler diary, 24 June 1919, C. Kessler (ed.), Count Harry Kessler: The Diaries of a Cosmopolitan, 1918-1937 (London, 1999), 104. For an attempt to defend Bethmann see his would-be biographer F. Thimme, "Bülow und Bethmann Hollweg," id. (ed.), Front wider Bülow: Staatsmänner, Diplomaten und Forscher zu seinen Denkwürdigkeiten (Munich, 1931), 194-209.

[13]. For this see K. Hildebrand, Bethmann Hollweg, der Kanzler ohne Eigenschaften?: Urteile der Geschichtsschreibung. Eine kritische Bibliographie (Düsseldorf, 2nd ed. 1970); Jarausch, Enigmatic Chancellor, 5-9; Gutsche, Aufstieg und Fall, 7-12.

[14]. H. Herzfeld, Die deutsche Rüstungspolitik vor dem Weltkriege (Bonn, 1923), 148-9. After 1945, Herzfeld changed his tune, see id., Der erste Weltkrieg (Munich, 1968), 29-31.

[15]. J. Ziekursch, Politische Geschichte des neuen deutschen Kaiserreichs, iii, Das Zeitalter Wihelms II (Frankfurt, 1930), 218-9.

[16]. G.P. Gooch, Before the War: Studies in Diplomacy (2 vols., London, 1938) ii, 284.

[17]. For his clandestine manoeuvres against see, e.g. Ritter to Schröder [West German foreign minister], 17 Jan. 1964, K. Schwabe and R. Reinhardt (eds.), Gerhard Ritter: Ein politischer Historiker in seinen Briefen (Boppard am Rhein, 1984), no. 249.

[18]. K. Epstein, "Gerhard Ritter and the First World War", Journal of Contemporary History i, 3 (1966), 210; for Ritter"s views see especially his Staatskunst und Kriegshandwerk: Das Problem des Militarismus in Deutschland, iii, Die Tragödie der Staatskunst: Bethmann Hollweg als Kriegskanzler (Munich, 1964), and "Eine neue Kriegsschuldthese?: Zu Fritz Fischer’s Buch "Griff nach der Weltmacht"", Historische Zeitschrift cxciv, 4 (1962), 646—668; also K.D. Erdmann, "Zur Beurteilung Bethmann Hollwegs, W.J. Schieder (ed.), Erster Weltkrieg: Ursachen, Entstehung, Kriegsziele (Cologne, 1969), 205-221.

[19]. F. Fischer, Krieg der Illusionen: Die deutsche Politik von 1911 bis 1914 (Düsseldorf, 1969).

[20]. F. Fischer, "Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg (1856-1921): Der rätselhafte Kanzler", W. von Sternburg (ed.), Die deutschen Kanzler: Von Bismarck bis Schmidt (Frankfurt, 1987), 109.

[21]. See also his "Statesmen versus Structures: Germany’s Role in the Outbreak of World War One", Laurentian University Review v, 3 (1973), 133-160.

[22]. F. Meinecke, Strassburg, Freiburg, Berlin, 1901-1919: Erinnerungen (Stuttgart, 1949), 214.

[23]. Ziekursch, Politische Geschichte iii, 218. For some further insights into Bethmann"s schooling and background see the quasi-biography by his school friend H. Kötzsche, Unser Reichskanzler: Sein Leben und Werk (Berlin, 1916), 18-20.

[24]. H. Graf Lerchenfeld-Koefering, Erinnerungen und Denkwürdigkeiten (Berlin, 1935), 392.

[25]. For Bethmann's sphinx-like character see Hildebrand, Kanzler ohne Eigenschaften?, 64; for some further thoughts on the civil service ethos, see P.-C. Witt, "The Prussian Landrat as Tax Official, 1891-1918: Observations on the Political and Social Function of the German Civil Service", G. Iggers (ed.), The Social History of PoliticsL Critical Perspectives in West German History (Leamington Spa, 1985), 137-54; also L.W. Muncy, The Junker in the Prussian Administration under William II, 1888-1914 (Providence, RI, 1944).

[26]. A. Zimmermann, "Fürst Bülows Kritik am Auswärtigen Amt," Thimme (ed.), Front wider Bülow, 231; W. von Rheinbaben, Kaiser, Kanzler, Präsidenten (Mainz, 1968) 108-9.

[27]. T. von Bethmann Hollweg, Betrachtungen zum Weltkriege  (2 vols., 1919-22) i, 125; see also F. Stern, "Bethmann Hollweg and the War: The Limits of Responsibility," id. and L. Krieger (eds.), The Responsibility of Power: Historical Essays in Honor of Hajo Holborn (New York, 1967), 252-285.

[28]. See K. Kautsky, M. Montgelas and W. Schücking (eds.), Die Deutschen Dokumente zum Kriegsausbruch (4 vols., Berlin, 1919) i, no. 15, n. 5.

[29]. Guttmann diary, 19 Aug. 1916, B. Guttmann, Schattenriss einer Generation, 1888-1919 (Stuttgart, 1950), 121.

[30]. Bethmann Hollweg to Eisendecher, 4 June 1911, Nachlass Eisendecher, TNA (PRO), GFM 25/10; see also W.J. Mommsen, "Die Regierung Bethmann Hollweg und die öffentliche Meinung, 1914-1917," Vierteljahreshefte für Zeitgeschichte xvii, 2 (1969), 117-159.

[31]. See P.-C. Witt, Die Finanzpolitik des Deutschen Reiches von 1903 bis 1913: Eine Studie zur Innenpolitik des Wilhelminischen Deutschland (Lübeck, 1970), 303-5. Between 1900 and 1912-13, Reich debt had more than doubled; most of the princely states, though not the three Hanseatic city-states, were equally indebted, see Statistisches Jahrbuch für das Deutsche Reich 1913 (Berlin, 1913), 343 and 346.

[32]. D. Schoenbaum, Zabern 1913: Consensus Politics in Imperial Germany (London, 1982), 179-181; H.-G. Zmarzlik, Bethmann Hollweg als Reichskanzler, 1909-1914: Studien zu Möglichkeiten und Grenzen seiner innenpolitischen Machtstellung (Düsseldorf, 1957), 130-139; for a more critical view see H.-U. Wehler, "Der Fall Zabern von 1913-14 als eine Verfassungskrise des Wilhelminischen Kaiserreiches," id., Krisenherde des Kaiserreichs (Göttingen, 1970), esp. 72.

[33]. Suggestive Bethmann Hollweg to Haldane, 26 Sept. 1913, Haldane MSS, National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh, MS 6109 (I); for his plans to resign see Schoenbaum, Zabern, 127.

[34]. Bethmann Hollweg to Pourtalès, 30 July 1912, Nachlass Pourtalès, TNA (PRO), GFM 25/3; Jarausch, "Illusion of Limited War," 52-3.

[35]. Mendelssohn to Bethmann Hollweg (private), 10 Apr. 1913, Politsches Archiv Auswärtiges Amt, Berlin, Russland 61, Allgemeine Anglegenheiten, Bd. 121; for his hopes of a modus vivendi see Rathenau diary, 25 July 1912, H. Pogge-von Strandmann (ed.), Walther Rathenau: Tagebücher, 1907-1922 (Düsseldorf, 1967), 168-9.

[36]. Pourtalès to Bethmann Hollweg (no. 34), 31 Jan. 1914, PAAA Russland 61, Allgemeine Angelegenheiten, Bd. 121; see also T.G. Otte, ""A Formidable Factor in European Politics": Views of Russia in 1914," J.S. Levy and J.A. Vasquez (eds.), The Outbreak of the First World War: Structure, Politics, and Decision-Making (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 87-114.

[37]. Pourtalès to Jagow, 6 Feb. 1913, Nachlass Pourtalès, TNA (PRO), GFM 25/3; also Pourtalès to Bethmann Hollweg (no. 118), 12 Apr. 1913, PAAA Russland 61, Allgemeine Anglegenheiten, Bd. 120.

[38]. Riezler diary, 7 July 1914, K.D. Erdmann (ed.), Kurt Riezler: Tagebücher, Aufsätze, Dokumente (Göttingen, 1972), 181-3. Bethmann had made very similar comments to the Bavarian envoy in early June, Lerchenfeld to Hertling (no. 328), 4 June 1914, P. Dirr (ed.), Bayerische Dokumente zum Kriegsausbruch (Munich, 1922) no. 1. For Riezler see L. Strauss, "Kurt Riezler, 1882-1955," Sociological Review xviii, 1 (1956), 3-6; W.J. Mommsen, "Kurt Riezler, ein Intellektueller im Dienste Wilhelminischer Machtpolitik", Geschichte in Wissenschaft und Unterricht ix (1973), 236-41; I. Geiss, "Kurt Riezler und der Erste Weltkrieg", id. And B.J. Wendt (eds.), Deutschland und die Weltpolitik des 19. und 20. Jahrhunderts: Festschrift für Fritz Fischer (Düsseldorf, 1973), 398-418; W.C. Thompson, In the Eye of the Storm: Kurt Riezler and the Crises of Modern Germany (Iowa City, IA, 1980).

[39]. For the complex nature and history of the diaries, the controversy surrounding them, and their abiding value see H. Afflerbach, "Einleitung" to the second edition of the diaries (Göttingen, 2008), i-xix; and the more critical assessment by B. Sösemann, "Die “Juli-Krise” im Riezler-Tagebuch: Eine kritische Edition (7. Juli-15. August 1914)", Historische Zeitschrift xxxcviii, 3 (2014), 686-707.

[40]. Lerchenfeld to Hertling (no. 328), 4 June 1914, BayD no. 1.

[41]. Pourtalès to Bethmann Hollweg, 13 June 1914, and article in Birshevi"ia Vedomosti, 13 June 1914, DD i, nos. 1 and 2. Sukhomlinov was in the habit of using the paper to air his views, see tel. Jagow to Pourtalès (no. 41), 12 Mar. 1914, and reply (tel. no. 53), 13 Mar. 1914, GP xxxix, nos. 15845-6; for a summary of contemporary press commentary see H. von Kuhl, Der deutsche Generalstab in Vorbereitung und Durchführung des Weltkrieges (Berlin, 1920), 70-5.

[42]. Bethmann Hollweg to Lichnowsky (no. 893, strictly confidential), 16 June 1914, GP xxxix, no. 15883; for the opposite view that Bethmann was alarmed, see Clark, Sleepwalkers, 421.

[43]. Riezler diary, 7 July 1914, Erdmann (ed.), Riezler, 182.

[44]. Min. Grey, n.d., on min. Nicolson (secret), 17 Apr. 1914, and Grey to Buchanan (no. 249, secret), 1 May 1914, TNA (PRO), FO 371/2092/17370 and /19288; for some of the background see T.G. Otte, ""Détente 1914": Sir William Tyrrell"s Mission to Germany," Historical Journal, lvi, 1 (2013), 190-3; for the Siebert source and Berlin"s reaction see E. Hölzle, Der Geheimnisverrat und der Kriegsausbruch 1914 (Göttingen, 1973), 10-15 et passim; and more balanced M. Rauh, "Die britisch-russische Marinekonvention von 1914 und der Ausbruch des Ersten Weltkriegs," Militärgeschichtliche Mitteilungen xli (1987), 37-62.

[45]. Lerchenfeld to Hertling (no. 328), 4 June 1914, BayD no. 1. There had been leaks in the French press, and Bertie had been instructed to remonstrate with the French government, see Bertie to Grey (private), 28 June 1914, Bertie MSS, BL, Add. MSS. 63033.

[46]. See also Bethmann Hollweg to Jagow, 11 June 1919, Nachlass Jagow, TNA (PRO), GFM 25/16.

[47]. Riezler diary, 8 July 1914, Erdmann (ed.), Riezler, 183; E. von Vietsch, Bethmann Hollweg: Staatsmann zwischen Macht und Ethos (Boppard: Boldt, 1969), 183.

[48]. "J.J. Ruedorffer" [pseud. K. Riezler], Grundzüge der Weltpolitik der Gegenwart (Berlin: Stuttgart, 1914), 219 and 221; for Hillgruber"s interpretation see id., "Riezlers Theorie des kalkulierten Risikos und Bethmann Hollwegs politische Konzeption in der Julikrise 1914," Schieder (ed.), Erster Weltkrieg, 240-255; also K.H. Jarausch, "The Illusion of Limited War: Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg’s Calculated Risk in July 1914," Central European History ii, 1 (1969), 48-76.

[49]. See also R. vom Bruch, Weltpolitik als Kulturmission: Auswärtige Kulturpolitik und Bildungsbürgertum in Deutschland am Vorabend des Ersten Weltkrieges (Paderborn: München, 1982), 76-77.

[50]. For the notion of political generations see K. Mannheim, "Das Problem der Generationen," id., Wissenssoziologie, ed. K.H. Wolff (Luchterhand: Frankfurt, 1964), 509-65; see also T.G. Otte, The Foreign Office Mind: The Making of British Foreign Policy, 1865-1914 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 17-22; for some thoughts on Humboldt’s educational ideas see M. Kaul, Das deutsche Gymnasium, 1780-1980 (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1984), 30-41

[51]. The locus classicus remains J. Joll, "1914: The Unspoken Assumptions," in H.W. Koch (ed.), The Origins of the First World War: Great Power Rivalry and German War Aims (London: Macmillan, repr. 1977), 304-328.

[52]. Haldane to his mother, 11 Feb. 1912, Haldane MSS, NLS, MS 5987 (my emphasis); for Bethmann’s reading habits see Jarausch, Enigmatic Chancellor, 17-18.

[53]. Vietsch, Bethmann Hollweg, 197; for a detailed discussion see T.G. Otte, July 1914: The World’s Descent into War, Summer 1914. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014).

[54]. Rumbold to de Bunsen (private), 15 Apr. 1918, Rumbold MSS, Bodleian Library, Oxford, Ms. Rumbold dep. 24.

[55]. Bethmann Hollweg to Jagow, 15 Aug. 1919, Nachlass Jagow, TNA (PRO), GFM 25/16.