Primary Documents - Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg's Speech to the Reichstag Regarding Unrestricted Submarine Warfare, 31 January 1917

Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg Reproduced below is German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg's address to the German Reichstag on 31 January 1917 regarding the re-introduction of the policy of unrestricted U-boat warfare the following day.

This followed the despatch, on the same day, of a diplomatic note to the U.S. Secretary of State, Robert Lansing.  In the note the German government 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).

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.

Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg's Address to the Reichstag on the German Policy of Unrestricted U-boat Warfare, 31 January 1917

On December 12th last year I explained before the Reichstag the reasons which led to our peace offer.  The reply of our opponents clearly and precisely said that they decline peace negotiations with us, and that they want to hear only of a peace which they dictate.  By this the whole question of the guilt for the continuation of the war is decided.  The guilt falls alone on our opponents.

Just as definite stands our task.

The enemy's conditions we cannot discuss.  They could only be accepted by a totally defeated people.  It therefore means fight.

President Wilson's message to Congress shows his sincere wish to restore peace to the world.  Many of his maxims agree with our aims, namely, the freedom of the seas, the abolition of the system of balance of power, which is always bound to lead to new difficulties, equal rights for all nations, and the open door to trade.

But what are the peace conditions of the Entente?  Germany's defensive force is to be destroyed, we are to lose Alsace-Lorraine and the eastern provinces of the Ostmarken, the Danube monarchy is to be dissolved, Bulgaria is again to be cheated of her national unity, and Turkey is to be pushed out of Europe and smashed in Asia.

The destructive designs of our opponents cannot be expressed more strongly.  We have been challenged to fight to the end.  We accept the challenge.  We stake everything, and we shall be victorious.

By this development of the situation the decision concerning submarine warfare has been forced into its last acute stage.  The question of the U-boat war, as the gentlemen of the Reichstag will remember, has occupied us three times in this committee, namely, in March, May and September last year.

On each occasion, in an exhaustive statement, I expounded points for and against in this question.  I emphasized on each occasion that I was speaking pro tempore, and not as a supporter in principle or an opponent in principle of the unrestricted employment of the U-boats, but in consideration of the military, political and economic situation as a whole.

I always proceeded from the standpoint as to whether an unrestricted U-boat war would bring us nearer to a victorious peace or not.  Every means, I said in March, that is calculated to shorten the war is the humanest policy to follow.  When the most ruthless methods are considered as the best calculated to lead us to a victory and to a swift victory, I said at that time, then they must be employed.

This moment has now arrived.  Last autumn the time was not yet ripe, but today the moment has come when, with the greatest prospect of success, we can undertake this enterprise.  We must, therefore, not wait any longer.  Where has there been a change?

In the first place, the most important fact of all is that the number of our submarines has very considerably increased as compared with last spring, and thereby a firm basis has been created for success.

The second co-decisive reason is the bad wheat harvest of the world.  This fact now already confronts England, France and Italy with serious difficulties.  We firmly hope to bring these difficulties by means of an unrestricted U-boat war to the point of unbearableness.

The coal question, too, is a vital question in war.  Already it is critical, as you know, in Italy and France.  Our submarines will render it still more critical.  To this must be added, especially as regards England, the supply of ore for the production of munitions in the widest sense, and of timber for coal mines.

Our enemy's difficulties are rendered still further acute by the increased lack of enemy cargo space.  In this respect time and the U-boat and cruiser warfare have prepared the ground for a decisive blow.

The Entente suffers in all its members owing to lack of cargo space.  It makes itself felt in Italy and France not less than in England.  If we may now venture to estimate the positive advantages of an unrestricted U-boat war at a very much higher value than last spring, the dangers which arise for us from the U-boat war have correspondingly decreased since that time.

A few days ago Marshal von Hindenburg described to me the situation as follows: "Our front stands firm on all sides.  We have everywhere the requisite reserves.  The spirit of the troops is good and confident.  The military situation, as a whole, permits us to accept all consequences which an unrestricted U-boat war may bring about, and as this U-boat war in all circumstances is the means to injure our enemies most grievously, it must be begun."

The Admiralty Staff and the High Seas Fleet entertain the firm conviction - a conviction which has its practical support in the experience gained in the U-boat cruiser warfare - that Great Britain will be brought to peace by arms.

Our allies agree with our views.  Austria-Hungary adheres to our procedure also in practice.  Just as we lay a blockaded area around Great Britain and the west coast of France, within which we will try to prevent all shipping traffic to enemy countries, Austria-Hungary declares a blockaded area around Italy.

To all neutral countries a free path for mutual intercourse is left outside the blockaded area.  To America we offer, as we did in 1915, safe passenger traffic under definite conditions, even with Great Britain.

No one among us will close his eyes to the seriousness of the step which we are taking.  That our existence is at stake every one has known since August 1914, and this has been brutally emphasized by the rejection of our peace offer.

When in 1914 we had to seize and have recourse to the sword against the Russian general mobilization, we did so with the deepest sense of responsibility toward our people, and conscious of the resolute strength which says, "We must, and, therefore, we can."

Endless streams of blood have since been shed, but they have not washed away the "must" and the "can."

In now deciding to employ the best and sharpest weapon, we are guided solely by a sober consideration of all the circumstances that come into question, and by a firm determination to help our people out of the distress and disgrace which our enemies contemplate for them.

Success lies in a higher Hand, but, as regards all that human strength can do to enforce success for the Fatherland, you may be assured, gentlemen, that nothing has been neglected.  Everything in this respect will be done.

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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