Primary Documents - Germany's Policy of Unrestricted Submarine Warfare, 31 January 1917

Count Bernstorff Reproduced below is the text of the diplomatic note sent by the German government - via their 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.

In effect the policy 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.

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 the Spanish government's reaction; click here to read Brazil's reaction; click here to read Chile's response.

German Ambassador Count Johann von Bernstorff to Robert Lansing, U.S. Secretary of State

Washington D.C., 31 January 1917

Mr. Secretary of State:

Your Excellency was good enough to transmit to the Imperial Government a copy of the message which the President of the United States of America addressed to the Senate on the 22nd inst.  The Imperial Government has given it the earnest consideration which the President's statements deserve, inspired, as they are, by a deep sentiment of responsibility.

It is highly gratifying to the Imperial Government to ascertain that the main tendencies of this important statement correspond largely to the desires and principles professed by Germany.  These principles especially include self-government and equality of rights for all nations.  Germany would be sincerely glad if, in recognition of this principle, countries like Ireland and India, which do not enjoy the benefits of political independence, should now obtain their freedom.

The German people also repudiate all alliances which serve to force the countries into a competition for might and to involve them in a net of selfish intrigues.  On the other hand, Germany will gladly cooperate in all efforts to prevent future wars.

The freedom of the seas, being a preliminary condition of the free existence of nations and the peaceful intercourse between them, as well as the open door for the commerce of all nations, has always formed part of the leading principles of Germany's political program.  All the more the Imperial Government regrets that the attitude of her enemies, who are so entirely opposed to peace, makes it impossible for the world at present to bring about the realization of these lofty ideals.

Germany and her allies were ready to enter now into a discussion of peace, and had set down as basis the guarantee of existence, honour, and free development of their peoples.  Their aims, as has been expressly stated in the note of December 12, 1916, were not directed toward the destruction or annihilation of their enemies and were, according to their conviction, perfectly compatible with the rights of the other nations.

As to Belgium, for which such warm and cordial sympathy is felt in the United States, the Chancellor had declared only a few weeks previously that its annexation had never formed part of Germany's intentions.  The peace to be signed with Belgium was to provide for such conditions in that country, with which Germany desires to maintain friendly neighbourly relations, that Belgium should not be used again by Germany's enemies for the purpose of instigating continuous hostile intrigues.

Such precautionary measures are all the more necessary, as Germany's enemies have repeatedly stated, not only in speeches delivered by their leading men, but also in the statutes of the Economical Conference in Paris, that it is their intention not to treat Germany as an equal, even after peace has been restored, but to continue their hostile attitude, and especially to wage a systematical economic war against her.

The attempt of the four allied powers to bring about peace has failed, owing to the lust of conquest of their enemies, who desired to dictate the conditions of peace.  Under the pretence of following the principle of nationality, our enemies have disclosed their real aims in this way, viz., to dismember and dishonour Germany, Austria-Hungary, Turkey and Bulgaria.  To the wish of reconciliation they oppose the will of destruction.  They desire a fight to the bitter end.

A new situation has thus been created which forces Germany to new decisions.  Since two years and a half England is using her naval power for a criminal attempt to force Germany into submission by starvation.  In brutal contempt of international law, the group of powers led by England not only curtail the legitimate trade of their opponents, but they also, by ruthless pressure, compel neutral countries either to altogether forego every trade not agreeable to the Entente Powers, or to limit it according to their arbitrary decrees.

The American Government knows the steps which have been taken to cause England and her allies to return to the rules of international law and to respect the freedom of the seas.  The English Government, however, insists upon continuing its war of starvation, which does not at all affect the military power of its opponents, but compels women and children, the sick and the aged, to suffer for their country pains and privations which endanger the vitality of the nation.

Thus British tyranny mercilessly increases the sufferings of the world, indifferent to the laws of humanity, indifferent to the protests of the neutrals whom they severely harm, indifferent even to the silent longing for peace among England's own allies.

Each day of the terrible struggle causes new destruction, new sufferings.  Each day shortening the war will, on both sides, preserve the lives of thousands of brave soldiers and be a benefit to mankind.

The Imperial Government could not justify before its own conscience, before the German people, and before history the neglect of any means destined to bring about the end of the war.  Like the President of the United States, the Imperial Government had hoped to reach this goal by negotiations.

Since the attempts to come to an understanding with the Entente Powers have been answered by the latter with the announcement of an intensified continuation of the war, the Imperial Government - in order to serve the welfare of mankind in a higher sense and not to wrong its own people - is now compelled to continue the fight for existence, again forced upon it, with the full employment of all the weapons which are at its disposal.

Sincerely trusting that the people and the Government of the United States will understand the motives for this decision and its necessity, the Imperial Government hopes that the United States may view the new situation from the lofty heights of impartiality, and assist, on their part, to prevent further misery and unavoidable sacrifice of human life.

Inclosing two memoranda regarding the details of the contemplated military measures at sea, I remain, etc.

Memoranda Enclosed with Count Bernstorff's Note

From February 1, 1917, sea traffic will be stopped with every available weapon and without further notice in the following blockade zones around Great Britain, France, Italy and in the Eastern Mediterranean:

In the North: The zone is confined by a line at a distance of twenty sea miles along the Dutch coast to Terschelling Lightship, the meridian of longitude from Terschelling Lightship to Udsire; a line from there across the point 62 degrees north, 0 degrees longitude, to 62 degrees north, 5 degrees west; further to a point three sea miles south of the southern point of the Faroe Islands; from there across a point 62 degrees north, 10 degrees west, to 61 degrees north, 15 degrees west; then 57 degrees north, 20 degrees west, to 47 degrees north, 20 degrees west; further, to 43 degrees north, 15 degrees west; then along the parallel of latitude 43 degrees north to twenty sea miles from Cape Finisterre, and at a distance of twenty sea miles along the north coast of Spain to the French boundary.

In the South - The Mediterranean: For neutral ships, remains open the sea west of the line Pt. Des Espiquettes to 38 degrees 20 minutes north and 6 degrees east; also north and west of a zone sixty sea miles wide along the North African coast, beginning at 2 degrees longitude west.  For the connection of this sea zone with Greece there is provided a zone of a width of twenty sea miles north and east of the following line: 38 degrees north and 6 degrees east to 38 degrees north and 10 degrees west, to 37 degrees north and 11 degrees 30 minutes east, to 34 degrees north and 22 degrees 30 minutes east.  From there leads a zone twenty sea miles wide, west of 22 degrees 30 minutes eastern longitude, into Greek territorial waters.

Neutral ships navigating these blockade zones do so at their own risk.  Although care has been taken that neutral ships which are on their way toward ports of the blockade zones on February 1, 1917, and have come in the vicinity of the latter, will be spared during a sufficiently long period, it is strongly advised to warn them with all available means in order to cause their return.

Neutral ships which on February 1st are in ports of the blockade zones can with the same safety leave them.

The instructions given to the commanders of German submarines provide for a sufficiently long period during which the safety of passengers on unarmed enemy passenger ships is guaranteed.

Americans en route to the blockade zone on enemy freight steamers are not endangered, as the enemy shipping firms can prevent such ships in time from entering the zone.

Sailing of regular American passenger steamers may continue undisturbed after February 1, 1917, if:

(A) The port of destination is Falmouth.

(B) Sailing to or coming from that port course is taken via the Scilly Islands and a point 50 degrees north, 20 degrees west.

(C) The steamers are marked in the following way, which must not be allowed to other vessels in American ports: On ship's hull and superstructure three vertical stripes one metre wide, each to be painted alternately white and red.  Each mast should show a large flag checkered white and red, and the stern the American national flag.  Care should be taken that, during dark, national flag and painted marks are easily recognizable from a distance, and that the boats are well lighted throughout.

(D) One steamer a week sails in each direction with arrival at Falmouth on Sunday and departure from Falmouth on Wednesday.

(E) United States Government guarantees that no contraband (according to German contraband list) is carried by those steamers.

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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