Primary Documents - Germany's Response to U.S. Ultimatum Regarding Unrestricted U-Boat Warfare, 4 May 1916

Gottlieb von Jagow Reproduced below is the text of the German Foreign Minister Gottlieb von Jagow's note to the U.S. government regarding its policy of U-boat warfare.  This was in response to President Woodrow Wilson's ultimatum to the German government regarding the latter's use of U-boats.

In his ultimatum, dated 18 April 1916, Wilson condemned Germany's policy of unrestricted submarine warfare, which resulted in merchant vessels being sunk without warning should they be suspected of trading with the Allies.

Wilson warned that the U.S. would not tolerate the continuation of such a policy and demanded it be revoked by the German government (a stance re-iterated in a speech to Congress the following day).

Wilson had been spurred into action by the sinking of the British passenger ship Sussex while it was in the English Channel.  Several U.S. citizens were among those drowned.  Germany initially denied sinking the Sussex but subsequently admitted doing so.

Alarmed by the U.S. stance the German government withdrew its policy, noting that in future a clear warning would be given before ships were torpedoed.  The Naval Minister, Alfred von Tirpitz, was furious, and later attributed Germany's wartime defeat to its weakness at this time in the face of U.S. opposition.

Germany's reintroduction of the policy in February 1917 led to the U.S. breaking off diplomatic relations with Germany.

Germany's Response to U.S. Ultimatum Regarding Use of U-Boats, 4 May 1916

The German Government handed over to the proper naval authorities for early investigation the evidence concerning the Sussex, as communicated by the Government of the United States.

Judging by the results that the investigation has hitherto yielded, the German Government is alive to the possibility that the ship mentioned in the note of April 10th as having been torpedoed by a German submarine is actually identical with the Sussex.

The German Government begs to reserve further communication on the matter until certain points are ascertained, which are of decisive importance for establishing the facts of the case.  Should it turn out that the commander was wrong in assuming the vessel to be a man-of-war, the German Government will not fail to draw the consequence therefrom.

In connection with the case of the Sussex the Government of the United States made a series of statements, the gist of which is the assertion that the incident is to be considered but one instance of a deliberate method of indiscriminate destruction of vessels of all sorts, nationalities, and destinations by German submarine commanders.

The German Government must emphatically repudiate the assertion.  The German Government, however, thinks it of little avail to enter into details in the present stage of affairs, more particularly as the Government of the United States omitted to substantiate the assertion by reference to concrete facts.

The German Government will only state that it has imposed far-reaching restraints upon the use of the submarine weapon, solely in consideration of neutrals' interests, in spite of the fact that these restrictions are necessarily of advantage to Germany's enemies.  No such consideration has ever been shown neutrals by Great Britain and her allies.

The German submarine forces have had, in fact, orders to conduct the submarine warfare in accordance with the general principles of visit and search and the destruction of merchant vessels recognized by international law, the sole exception being the conduct of warfare against enemy trade carried on enemy freight ships encountered in the war zone surrounding Great Britain.

With regard to these, no assurances have ever been given to the Government of the United States.  No such assurances are contained in the declaration of February 8, 1916.

The German Government cannot admit any doubt that these orders were given or are executed in good faith.  Errors actually occurred.  They can in no kind of warfare be avoided altogether.  Allowances must be made in the conduct of naval warfare against an enemy resorting to all kinds of ruses, whether permissible or illicit.

But apart from the possibility of errors, naval warfare, just like warfare on land, implies unavoidable dangers for neutral persons and goods entering the fighting zone.  Even in cases where the naval action is confined to ordinary forms of cruiser warfare, neutral persons and goods repeatedly come to grief.  The German Government has repeatedly and explicitly pointed out the dangers from mines that have led to the loss of numerous ships.

The German Government has made several proposals to the Government of the United States in order to reduce to a minimum for American travellers and goods the inherent dangers of naval warfare.  Unfortunately the Government of the United States decided not to accept the proposals.  Had it accepted, the Government of the United States would have been instrumental in preventing the greater part of the accidents that American citizens have met with in the meantime.

The German Government still stands by its offer to come to an agreement along these lines.

As the German Government repeatedly declared, it cannot dispense with the use of the submarine weapon in the conduct of warfare against enemy trade.  The German Government, however, has now decided to make a further concession, adapting methods of submarine war to the interests of neutrals.  In reaching its decision the German Government is actuated by considerations which are above the level of the disputed question.

The German Government attaches no less importance to the sacred principles of humanity than the Government of the United States.  It again fully takes into account that both Governments for many years cooperated in developing International law in conformity with these principles, the ultimate object of which has always been to confine warfare on sea and land to armed forces of belligerents and safeguard as far as possible non-combatants against the horrors of war.

But although these considerations are of great weight, they alone would not under present circumstances have determined the attitude of the German Government.  For in answer to the appeal by the Government of the United States on behalf of the sacred principles of humanity and international law, the German Government must repeat once more, with all emphasis, that it was not the German, but the British, Government which ignored all accepted rules of international law and extended this terrible war to the lives and property of non-combatants, having no regard whatever for the interests and rights of neutrals and non-combatants that through this method of warfare have been severely injured.

In self-defence against the illegal conduct of British warfare, while fighting a bitter struggle for national existence, Germany had to resort to the hard but effective weapon of submarine warfare.

As matters stand, the German Government cannot but reiterate regret that the sentiments of humanity, which the Government of the United States extends with such fervour to the unhappy victims of submarine warfare, are not extended with the same warmth of feeling to many millions of women and children who, according to the avowed intention of the British Government, shall be starved, and who by sufferings shall force the victorious armies of the Central Powers into ignominious capitulation.

The German Government, in agreement with the German people, fails to understand this discrimination, all the more as it has repeatedly and explicitly declared itself ready to use the submarine weapon in strict conformity with the rules of international law as recognized before the outbreak of the war, if Great Britain likewise was ready to adapt the conduct of warfare to these rules.

Several attempts made by the Government of the United States to prevail upon the British Government to act accordingly failed because of flat refusal on the part of the British Government.  Moreover, Great Britain again and again has violated international law, surpassing all bounds in outraging neutral rights.

The latest measure adopted by Great Britain, declaring German bunker coal contraband and establishing conditions under which English bunker coal alone is supplied to neutrals, is nothing but an unheard-of attempt by way of exaction to force neutral tonnage into the service of British trade war.

The German people know that the Government of the United States has the power to confine the war to armed forces of the belligerent countries, in the interest of humanity and maintenance of international law.  The Government of the United States would have been certain of attaining this end had it been determined to insist, against Great Britain, on the incontrovertible rights to freedom of the seas.

But, as matters stand, the German people is under the impression that the Government of the United States, while demanding that Germany, struggling for existence, shall restrain the use of an effective weapon and while making compliance with these demands a condition for maintenance of relations with Germany, confines itself to protests against illegal methods adopted by Germany's enemies.

Moreover, the German people knows to what considerable extent its enemies are supplied with all kinds of war material from the United States.

It will, therefore, be understood that the appeal made by the Government of the United States to sentiments of humanity and principles of international law cannot, under the circumstances, meet the same hearty response from the German people which such an appeal otherwise always is certain to find here.

If the German Government, nevertheless, is resolved to go to the utmost limit of concessions, it has been guided not alone by the friendship connecting the two great nations for over one hundred years, but also by the thought of the great doom which threatens the entire civilized world should the cruel and sanguinary war be extended and prolonged.

The German Government, conscious of Germany's strength, twice within the last few months announced before the world its readiness to make peace on a basis safeguarding Germany's vital interests, thus indicating that it is not Germany's fault if peace is still withheld from the nations of Europe.

The German Government feels all the more justified in declaring that responsibility could not be borne before the forum of mankind and in history if after twenty-one months of the war's duration the submarine question, under discussion between the German Government and the Government of the United States, were to take a turn seriously threatening maintenance of peace between the two nations.

As far as lies with the German Government, it wishes to prevent things from taking such a course.  The German Government, moreover, is prepared to do its utmost to confine operations of the war for the rest of its duration to the fighting forces of the belligerents, thereby also insuring the freedom of the seas, a principle upon which the German Government believes, now as before, that it is in agreement with the Government of the United States.

The German Government, guided by this idea, notifies the Government of the United States that German naval forces have received the following order:

In accordance with the general principles of visit and search and the destruction of merchant vessels, recognized by international law, such vessels, both within and without the area declared a naval war zone, shall not be sunk without warning and without saving human lives unless the ship attempts to escape or offer resistance.

But neutrals cannot expect that Germany, forced to fight for existence, shall, for the sake of neutral interests, restrict the use of an effective weapon, if the enemy is permitted to continue to apply at will methods of warfare violating rules of international law.

Such a demand would be incompatible with the character of neutrality, and the German Government is convinced that the Government of the United States does not think of making such a demand, knowing that the Government of the United States repeatedly declares that it is determined to restore the principle of freedom of the seas, from whatever quarter it has been violated.

Accordingly, the German Government is confident that in consequence of the new orders issued to the naval forces the Government of the United States will also now consider all impediments removed which may have been in the way of a mutual cooperation toward restoration of the freedom of the seas during the war, as suggested in the note of July 23, 1915, and it does not doubt that the Government of the United States will now demand and insist that the British Government shall forthwith observe the rules of international law universally recognized before the war, as are laid down in the notes presented by the Government of the United States to the British Government December 28, 1914, and November 5, 1915.

Should steps taken by the Government of the United States not attain the object it desires, to have the laws of humanity followed by all belligerent nations, the German Government would then be facing a new situation in which it must reserve to itself complete liberty of decision.

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

A "listening post" was an advanced post, usually in no-man's land, where soldiers tried to find out information about the enemy.

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