Primary Documents - German Government's Response to the Sinking of the Lusitania, 28 May 1915

Gottlieb von Jagow Reproduced below is the official German response to U.S. and British protests over the sinking of the Lusitania on 7 May 1915 by German U-boat U-20 on 7 May 1915.  The German note, written by Foreign Minister Gottlieb von Jagow and sent to the U.S. government, argued that while the sinking was regrettable it was nonetheless necessary.

To support this assertion von Jagow argued that the German government possessed information that the Lusitania was carrying munitions to Britain - a situation which would inevitably render her a legitimate target.

Click here to read the first of the U.S. government's official protests to the German government; click here to read the second; click here to read the third.

The Sinking of the Lusitania - Official German Response by Foreign Minister Gottlieb von Jagow, 28 May 1915

Berlin, May 28, 1915

The Imperial Government has subjected the statements of the Government of the United States to a careful examination and has the lively wish on its part also to contribute in a convincing and friendly manner to clear up any misunderstandings which may have entered into the relations of the two Governments through the events mentioned by the American Government.

With regard firstly to the cases of the American steamers Cushing and Gulflight, the American Embassy has already been informed that it is far from the German Government to have any intention of ordering attacks by submarines or flyers on neutral vessels in the zone which have not been guilty of any hostile act; on the contrary, the most explicit instructions have been repeatedly given the German armed forces to avoid attacking such vessels.

If neutral vessels have come to grief through the German submarine war during the past few months by mistake, it is a question of isolated and exceptional cases which are traceable to the misuse of flags by the British Government in connection with carelessness or suspicious actions on the part of the captains of the vessels.

In all cases where a neutral vessel through no fault of its own has come to grief through the German submarines or flyers according to the facts as ascertained by the German Government, this Government has expressed its regret at the unfortunate occurrence and promised indemnification where the facts justified it.

The German Government will treat the cases of the American steamers Cushing and Gulflight according to the same principles.  An investigation of these cases is in progress.  Its results will be communicated to the Embassy shortly.  The investigation might, if thought desirable, be supplemented by an International Commission of Inquiry, pursuant to Title Three of The Hague Convention of October 18, 1907, for the pacific settlement of international disputes.

In the case of the sinking of the English steamer Falaba, the commander of the German submarine had the intention of allowing passengers and crew ample opportunity to save themselves.

It was not until the captain disregarded the order to lay to and took to flight, sending up rocket signals for help, that the German commander ordered the crew and passengers by signals and megaphone to leave the ship within ten minutes.  As a matter of fact, he allowed them twenty-three minutes and did not fire the torpedo until suspicious steamers were hurrying to the aid of the Falaba.

With regard to the loss of life when the British passenger steamer Lusitania was sunk, the German Government has already expressed its deep regret to the neutral Governments concerned that nationals of those countries lost their lives on that occasion.

The Imperial Government must state for the rest the impression that certain important facts most directly connected with the sinking of the Lusitania may have escaped the attention of the Government of the United States.  It therefore considers it necessary in the interest of the clear and full understanding aimed at by either Government primarily to convince itself that the reports of the facts which are before the two Governments are complete and in agreement.

The Government of the United States proceeds on the assumption that the Lusitania is to be considered as an ordinary unarmed merchant vessel.  The Imperial Government begs in this connection to point out that the Lusitania was one of the largest and fastest English commerce steamers, constructed with Government funds as auxiliary cruisers, and is expressly included in the navy list published by the British Admiralty.

It is, moreover, known to the Imperial Government from reliable information furnished by its officials and neutral passengers that for some time practically all the more valuable English merchant vessels have been provided with guns, ammunition and other weapons, and reinforced with a crew specially practiced in manning guns.  According to reports at hand here, the Lusitania when she left New York undoubtedly had guns on board which were mounted under decks and masked.

The Imperial Government furthermore has the honour to direct the particular attention of the American Government to the fact that the British Admiralty by a secret instruction of February of this year advised the British merchant marine not only to seek protection behind neutral flags and markings, but even when so disguised to attack German submarines by ramming them.

High rewards have been offered by the British Government as a special incentive for the destruction of the submarines by merchant vessels, and such rewards have already been paid out.  In view of these facts, which are satisfactorily known to it, the Imperial Government is unable to consider English merchant vessels any longer as "undefended territory" in the zone of maritime war designated by the Admiralty Staff of the Imperial German Navy, the German commanders are consequently no longer in a position to observe the rules of capture otherwise usual and with which they invariably complied before this.

Lastly, the Imperial Government must specially point out that on her last trip the Lusitania, as on earlier occasions, had Canadian troops and munitions on board, including no less than 5,400 cases of ammunition destined for the destruction of brave German soldiers who are fulfilling with self-sacrifice and devotion their duty in the service of the Fatherland.

The German Government believes that it acts in just self-defence when it seeks to protect the lives of its soldiers by destroying ammunition destined for the enemy with the means of war at its command.  The English steamship company must have been aware of the dangers to which passengers on board the Lusitania were exposed under the circumstances.

In taking them on board in spite of this the company quite deliberately tried to use the lives of American citizens as protection for the ammunition carried, and violated the clear provisions of American laws which expressly prohibit, and provide punishment for, the carrying of passengers on ships which have explosives on board.  The company thereby wantonly caused the death of so many passengers.

According to the express report of the submarine commander concerned, which is further confirmed by all other reports, there can be no doubt that the rapid sinking of the Lusitania was primarily due to the explosion of the cargo of ammunition caused by the torpedo.  Otherwise, in all human probability, the passengers would have been saved.

The Imperial Government holds the facts recited above to be of sufficient importance to recommend them to a careful examination by the American Government.  The Imperial Government begs to reserve a final statement of its position with regard to the demands made in connection with the sinking of the Lusitania until a reply is received from the American Government, and believes that it should recall here that it took note with satisfaction of the proposals of good offices submitted by the American Government in Berlin and London with a view to paving the way for a modus vivendi for the conduct of maritime war between Germany and Great Britain.

The Imperial Government furnished at that time ample evidence of its good will by its willingness to consider these proposals.  The realization of these proposals failed, as is known, on account of their rejection by the Government of Great Britain.

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

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