Primary Documents - Count Bernstorff on German Spying in the U.S., 1914-17

Count Bernstorff Reproduced below is Count von Bernstorff's memoir of the many charges of spying and industrial espionage that were laid at the German government's door during his tenure as German Ambassador to the U.S.  While not denying that some espionage took place Bernstorff suggested that these were invariably overstated.

In fact it was confirmed incidence of espionage by a German agent in the U.S. - German military attaché Franz von Papen - which resulted in both von Papen and von Bernstorff's ultimate recall to Germany.  Similarly the Austrian Ambassador to the U.S., Constantin Dumba, was also expelled from America on a charge of encouraging industrial espionage against U.S. munitions factories.

German Ambassador to the U.S. Count von Bernstorff's Account of Alleged Spying in America

Shortly after the outbreak of the war Great Britain's naval superiority enabled its war vessels upon foreign stations to prevent German reservists in North and South America from returning to their native land.

This caused German citizens and German-Americans in the United States to resort to measures which, though not directed primarily against the American Government, violated the laws of that country.  Over and above this, several acts of violence were committed against Germany's enemies at different points in the course of 1915, and preparations were made for other similar deeds, which likewise constituted more or less serious violations of the American laws.

All these plots were employed to our damage, being designated as German conspiracies against American neutrality.  The agitation they aroused injured the German cause, and in particular the policy I had adopted.

A prominent instance in which the laws of the country were broken without direct acts of violence, occurred when the New York branch of the Hamburg-American Line, acting upon instructions from the head office in Hamburg, dispatched about a dozen chartered vessels with coal and provisions to meet German cruisers and auxiliary cruisers upon the high seas.

These vessels were declared for foreign ports lying beyond the points on the high seas where they were to meet German vessels.  When it was discovered later that the New York agents of the Hamburg-American Line had thus coaled our warships, they were indicted for knowingly swearing to false declarations.  Their honoured chief, Dr. Bunz, and three other members of the firm were sentenced to eighteen months' imprisonment.

Furthermore, several German reserve officers who chanced to be in America were able to get home, in spite of the sharp watch Great Britain kept over sea traffic, through a secret office organized in New York by a German-American named Von Wedell, and later managed by Karl Ruroede, which provided them with counterfeit or forged American passports.

This bureau was broken up by the American Department of Justice when four German reservists possessing such passports were taken off a Norwegian ship in New York harbour.  Wedell is alleged to have fled from New York some time before, to have been captured by the British, and to have been drowned by the sinking of a transport.  The reservists escaped with heavy fines.  Ruroede was sentenced to three years' imprisonment.

These actions by the Hamburg-American Line and the false passport office had already done the German cause great harm in America, when it was injured far more seriously by the acts of destruction committed by German citizens and German-Americans in America against our enemies.

Any person free from prejudice would have recognized that in the cases where such acts were proved, they were undertaken on private initiative.  They were the mad enterprises of hot-headed patriots and not conspiracies organized or approved officially by representatives of Germany.

Innumerable other alleged plots were pure fictions of the imagination without the slightest basis of fact.  Every accident which occurred in an American munition works - and a mushroom growth of such enterprises covered the country, operated in the vast majority of cases by inexperienced and unskilled workers - was invariably ascribed to German agents.

Apparently I was held responsible for at least permitting these atrocities to be committed under the direction of officers or secret agents to the Embassy.  In order to prove this several cipher telegrams from the German War Office to the Embassy in Washington were deciphered in England, which were alleged to counsel such acts on Canadian soil.

I do not know whether these dispatches were genuine or not.  Military cipher telegrams addressed, "Attention, Military Attaché," did indeed reach the Embassy in great numbers, but were invariably forwarded at once to the office of Captain Von Papen in New York without my knowing their contents.

Mr. Von Papen, very naturally, never informed me of any instructions he might have received from his superiors to arrange for questionable enterprises of the character indicated.  Without further evidence I do not consider it to have been proved that such instructions were received by him.

But in regard to these questions I can only speak for myself; for I never concerned myself with purely military matters.  Soon after Captain Von Papen started home I energetically protested against the government's sending a successor, because I considered that with a situation such as existed in America, there was nothing for a military attaché to do, and that the presence of such an officer at the Embassy would merely feed enemy agitation.

I never knew at the time what secret agents, who might have been sent to the United States by the German military authorities, were possibly doing in violation of the laws of the country, either under explicit instructions or through exceeding their instructions.  Neither have I been able to learn anything under this head since returning to Germany.

Source: Source Records of the Great War, Vol. III, ed. Charles F. Horne, National Alumni 1923

A "red cap" was a British military policeman.

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