Primary Documents - Brazil's Reaction to Germany's Policy of Unrestricted Submarine Warfare, 6 February 1917

Brazil's President Wenceslau Braz Reproduced below is the text of the diplomatic note sent by the Brazilian government to its German counterpart regarding Germany's newly reintroduced policy of unrestricted submarine warfare.  This policy in effect set in place a blockade of Britain and her European allies, to be applied to belligerent and neutral shipping alike.

The German government argued that such a policy was implemented only as an aggressive form of defence.  It was announced in a letter from the German Ambassador to the U.S., Count Johann von Bernstorff, to the U.S. Secretary of State, Robert Lansing.

In the note the Bernstorff announced a re-opened German policy of unrestricted submarine warfare (initially introduced and then rapidly abandoned in 1916 owing to U.S. protests), to take effect the day following the date of the note (i.e. 1 February 1917).  The German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg spoke before the Reichstag on the same day to explain the reasons for the policy.

Reaction to the policy was rapid; the Allied powers inevitably decried its aggression, as did the U.S. government, which broke off diplomatic relations on 3 February 1917.  On the same day President Woodrow Wilson appeared before Congress to announce his reasons, receiving virtually unanimous support in doing so.

Reaction among other neutrals was similarly one of dismay; click here to read Spain's reaction; click here to read Chile's response.

Brazilian Foreign Minister Lauro Muller's' Diplomatic Protest to Germany

6 February 1917

I have transmitted to my Government by telegraph your letter of February 3rd, in which your Excellency informed me of the resolution of the German Imperial Government to blockade Great Britain, its islands, the littoral of France and Italy, and the Eastern Mediterranean by submarines which would commence operations on February 1st.

Your letter stated that the submarines would prevent all maritime traffic in the zones above mentioned, abandoning all restrictions observed up to the present in the employment of means for sea fighting, and would use every military resource capable of the destruction of ships.

The letter of your Excellency said further that the German Government, having confidence that the Government of Brazil would appreciate the reasons for the methods of war which Germany was forced to take on account of the actual circumstances hoped that Brazilian ships would be warned of the danger they ran if they navigated the interdicted zones, the same as passengers or merchandise on board any other ship of commerce, neutral or otherwise.

I have just been directed to inform your Excellency that the Federal Government has the greatest desire not to see modified the actual situation, as long as the war lasts, a situation in which Brazil has imposed upon itself the rigorous observance of the laws of neutrality since the commencement of hostilities between nations with whom she has had friendly relations.

My Government has always observed this neutrality while reserving to itself the right, which belongs to it and which it has always been accustomed to exercise, of action in those cases where Brazilian interests are at stake.

The unexpected communication we have just received announcing a blockade of wide extent of countries with which Brazil is continually in economic relations by foreign and Brazilian shipping has produced a justified and profound impression through the imminent menace which it contains of the unjust sacrifice of lives, the destruction of property, and the wholesale disturbance of commercial transactions.

In such circumstances, and while observing always and invariably the same principles, the Brazilian Government, after having examined the tenor of the German note, declares that it cannot accept as effective the blockade which has just been suddenly decreed by the Imperial Government.

Because of the means employed to realize this blockade, the extent of the interdicted zones, the absence of all restrictions, including the failure of warning for even neutral menaced ships, and the announced intention of using every military means of destruction of no matter what character, such a blockade would neither be regular nor effective and would be contrary to the principles of law and the conventional rules established for military operations of this nature.

For these reasons the Brazilian Government, in spite of its sincere and keen desire to avoid any disagreement with the nations at war, with whom it is on friendly terms, believes it to be its duty to protest against this blockade and consequently to leave entirely with the Imperial German Government the responsibility for all acts which will involve Brazilian citizens, merchandise, or ships and which are proven to have been committed in disregard of the recognized principles of international law and of the conventions signed by Brazil and Germany.

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

Around one million Indian troops served in WW1, of which some 100,000 were either killed or wounded.

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