The Kaiser Decides On Unrestricted Submarine Warfare

(left to right) Hindenburg, the Kaiser, Chancellor Bethmann, the King of Bavaria, Ludendorff, and Admiral Holtzendorff, pictured at Pless in early 1917.

January 8 1917, Pless–By early January, most of the important German war leaders had decided that the U-boats should be unleashed against England, without any restrictions on their behavior to appease the Americans.  The most recent to add their support was Admiral Müller, an ally of Chancellor Bethmann and a close personal friend of the Kaiser, who wrote early on January 8 that “after our peace feelers and their curt rejection by the Allies, circumstances warrant the use of this weapon which offers a reasonable chance of success….I told [Admiral] Holtzendorff he could rely on my support.”

Still opposing the move was Chancellor Bethmann; however, he was still in Berlin while most of the proponents of the U-boats were with the Kaiser in Pless.  Holtzendorff discussed the situation with Hindenburg & Ludendorff in the afternoon, in a conversation whose transcript was recorded:

HOLTZENDORFF: The Chancellor arrives here tomorrow.
HINDENBURG: What’s troubling him now?
HOLTZENDORFF: He wants to control the diplomatic presentation of the announcement in order to keep the United States out of it….The Foreign Office is worried about what South America will do and our relations with them when the war is over.
HINDENBURG: We must conquer first…
HOLTZENDORFF: Later today I will read my memorandum to His Majesty, who even this morning had no real understanding of the situation.
HINDENBURG: That is true.
HOLTZENDORFF: What shall we do if the Chancellor does not join us?
HINDENBURG: That is just what is bothering me.
HOLTZENDORFF: Then you must become Chancellor.
HINDENBURG: No, no. I cannot do that.  I won’t do it.  I cannot talk in the Reichstag.  I refuse.
LUDENDORFF: I would not try to persuade the Field Marshal…
HINDENBURG: Well, we shall hold together anyway. We have to.  We are counting on the probability of war with the United States and we have made all preparations to meet it.  Things cannot be worse than they are now.  The war must be brought to an end by whatever means as soon as possible.
HOLTZENDORFF: His Majesty doesn’t understand the situation.
LUDENDORFF: Absolutely not.
HOLTZENDORFF: People and Army are crying for the unrestricted U-boat war.
HOLTZENDORFF: [Interior Secretary] Helfferich said to me, “Your plan will lead to ruin.” I said to him, “You are letting us drift into ruin.”
HINDENBURG: That is true.

Holtzendorff presented his memorandum to the Kaiser that evening.  The memorandum was wildly over-optimistic about the U-boat’s capacity to break Britain’s economy and food supply–despite its ultimately relatively conservative figures for British shipping to be lost to U-boats.  Nonetheless, it had the appearance of scientific certitude and the backing of all of Germany’s military leaders.

That evening, the Kaiser suddenly announced that he would support unrestricted submarine warfare “even if the Chancellor is opposed,” stating that the U-boats were “a purely military affair which did not concern the chancellor in any way,” despite the obvious implications for Germany’s foreign relations.

The Chancellor arrived the next day to find that he had already been defeated.  He argued the case against the submarines for an hour, but even he ended by telling the Kaiser that “I cannot counsel you to oppose the vote of your military advisers.”  The Kaiser had already made up his mind, as had the entire leadership of the armed forces, and he knew he could no longer count on a majority in the Reichstag to oppose it.  Unrestricted submarine warfare, one of the few tools that could punish hated England, was immensely popular both among the people and the politicians.

On the evening of January 9, the Kaiser signed the order:

I order that unrestricted submarine warfare be launched with the utmost vigor on the first of February.

The stage was now set for an inevitable confrontation with the United States.  Bethmann would not resign, but confided to his colleagues that this was the end of Germany: the Finis Germaniae.

Sources include: Alexander Watson, Ring of Steel; Barbara Tuchman, The Zimmermann Telegram; Robert B. Asprey, The German High Command at War; Robert K. Massie, Castles of Steel.