Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg

Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg

Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg in 1913
5th Chancellor of Germany
In office
14 July 1909  13 July 1917
Monarch Wilhelm II
Preceded by Bernhard von Bülow
Succeeded by Georg Michaelis
Personal details
Born Theobald Theodor Friedrich Alfred von Bethmann-Hollweg
(1856-11-29)29 November 1856
Died 1 January 1921(1921-01-01) (aged 64)
Political party none
Religion Lutheran
Signature Signature of Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg

Theobald Theodor Friedrich Alfred von Bethmann-Hollweg (29 November 1856 – 1 January 1921) was a German politician and statesman who served as Chancellor of the German Empire from 1909 to 1917.



Bethmann-Hollweg was born in Hohenfinow, Brandenburg, the son of Prussian official Felix von Bethmann-Hollweg. His grandfather was August von Bethmann-Hollweg, who had been a prominent law scholar, president of Frederick William University in Berlin, and Prussian Minister of Culture. His great-grandfather was Johann Jakob Hollweg, who had married a daughter of the wealthy Frankfurt am Main banking family of Bethmann, founded in 1748.[1]

Cosima Wagner was a relative on the Bethmann side, and his mother Isabella de Rougemont was a French Swiss.

Early life

He was educated at the boarding school of Schulpforta and at the Universities of Strasbourg, Leipzig and Berlin. Entering the Prussian administrative service in 1882, Bethmann Hollweg rose to the position of the President of the Province of Brandenburg in 1899. In 1889 he married Martha von Pfuel, niece of Ernst von Pfuel, Prime Minister of Prussia. From 1905 to 1907 Bethmann Hollweg served as Prussian Minister of the Interior, then as Imperial State Secretary for the Interior from 1907 to 1909. On the resignation of Chancellor Bernhard von Bülow in 1909, Bethmann Hollweg was appointed to succeed him.[2]

In power as Chancellor

In foreign policy he pursued a policy of détente with Britain, hoping to come to some agreement that would put a halt to the two countries' ruinous naval arms race and give Germany a free hand to deal with France. This policy failed, largely due to the opposition of German Naval Minister Alfred von Tirpitz. Despite the increase in tensions due to the Second Moroccan Crisis of 1911, Bethmann-Hollweg did improve relations with Britain to some extent, working with British foreign secretary Sir Edward Grey to alleviate tensions during the Balkan Crises of 1912–1913, owing to the fact that he only learnt of the Schlieffen Plan in December 1912, after he had received a Second Haldane Mission.[3] The German Army's plan for invasion of Belgium had been in gestation since 1905, so when he found out Bethmann apologised to the Kaiser. However he negotiated treaties over an eventual partition of the Portuguese colonies and the projected Berlin-Baghdad railway, the latter aimed in part at securing Balkan countries support for a Germano-Turkish alliance. The crisis came to a head on 5 July 1914 when Count Hoyos Mission arrived in Berlin in response to the Berchtold's plea for friendship: Bethmann was assured that Britain would not intervene in the frantic diplomatic rounds across the European powers. However Wilhelmstrasse's reliance on this assumption encouraged Austrian to write a Note to demand Serbian compromises. His main concern was Russian border manoeuvres, conveyed by his ambassadors at a time when Raymond Poincare himself was preparing a secret mission to St Petersburg. He wrote Count Sazonov:

Russian mobilisation measures would compel us to mobilise and that then European war could scarcely be prevented.[4]

When Minister of War Falkenhayn wanted to mobilise for war on 29 July, Bethmann was still against it, yet used his veto to prevent the Reichstag debating it. Pourtales telegram of 31 July was what Moltke, designer of the Zustand drohender Kriegsgefahr (state of imminent danger of war, i.e., a state of pre-mobilization) wanted to hear; to Bethmann's dismay the other powers had failed to communicate Russia's provocation.

In domestic politics, Bethmann-Hollweg's record was also mixed, and his policy of the "diagonal", which endeavored to maneuver between the Socialists and Liberals of the left and the nationalists of the right, only succeeded in alienating most of the German political establishment.

Following the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914, Bethmann-Hollweg and his foreign minister Gottlieb von Jagow were instrumental in assuring Austria of Germany's unconditional support regardless of Austria's actions against Serbia. While Sir Edward Grey was suggesting a mediation between the Austrians and the Serbs, it is known that Bethmann-Hollweg tampered with the British message—in order to forestall any chance that the Austrians would refrain from attacking Serbia—by deleting the last line of the letter, which read:

"Also, the whole world here is convinced, and I hear from my colleagues that the key to the situation lies in Berlin, and that if Berlin seriously wants peace, it will prevent Vienna from following a foolhardy policy."[5]

When the Austro-Hungarian ultimatum was presented to Serbia, Kaiser William II ended his cruise of the North Sea and hurried back to Berlin.

When Wilhelm arrived at the Potsdam station late in the evening of July 26, he was met by a pale, agitated, and somewhat fearful Chancellor. Bethmann-Hollweg's apprehension stemmed not from the dangers of the looming war, but rather from his fear of the Kaiser's wrath when the extent of his deceptions were revealed. The Kaiser's first words to him were suitably brusque: "How did it all happen?" Rather than attempt to explain, the Chancellor offered his resignation by way of apology. Wilhelm refused to accept it, muttering furiously, "You've made this stew, now you're going to eat it!"[6]

Bethmann-Hollweg, much of whose foreign policy before the war had been guided by his desire to establish good relations with Britain, was particularly upset by Britain's declaration of war following the German violation of Belgium's neutrality in the course of her invasion of France. He had counted on fighting France alone, and reportedly asked the departing British Ambassador Edward Goschen how Britain could go to war over "ein Fetzen Papier" ("a scrap of paper", the Treaty of London of 1839 which guaranteed Belgium's neutrality). However Bethmann Hollweg had made some plans in the event Britain came into the war, and was involved closely in the decisions that authorised plans to destabilise Britain's colonies, most notably the Hindu–German Conspiracy.[7]

In uniform. He never served in the army, but after the war stated he was appointed to an honorary rank which carried with it the wearing of a general's uniform.[8]

A tall, gaunt, sombre, well-trimmed aristocratic figure, Bethmann-Hollweg sought approval from a declaration of war. His civilian colleagues pleaded that he register some febrile protest, but was frequently outflanked by the military leaders who played an increasingly important role in the direction of all German policy.[9] However this view has been partially superseded, as the work of historian Fritz Fischer in the 1960s showed that Bethmann made more concessions to the nationalist right than had previously been thought. He supported the goal of ethnically cleansing Poles from the Polish Border Strip, as well as Germanisation of Polish territories by settlement of German colonists.[10][11]

Bethmann presented the Septemberprogramm, which outlined the aggressively expansionist goals for the war. After Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff replaced the more ineffectual Erich von Falkenhayn at the General Staff in the summer of 1916, his hopes for American President Woodrow Wilson's mediation at the end of 1916 came to nothing. Over Bethmann's objections, Hindenburg and Ludendorff forced the adoption of unrestricted submarine warfare in March 1917, adopted as a result of Holtzendorff's Memorandum to which Bethmann had been a reluctant participant, opposing it in cabinet. To their consternation the United States entered into the war the next April, perhaps the inevitability they wished to avoid. Yet this was hardly surprising: Bethmann, now all credibility and power lost, had originally conspired with Ludendorff and Hindenburg for an Eastern Offensive over Falkenhayn's head. They had then succeeded in securing his replacement by Ludendorff as supreme commander on the western front. Bethmann remained in office until July 1917, when a Reichstag revolt, resulting in the passage of the Social Democrat Erzberger's Peace Resolution by an alliance of the Social Democratic, Progressive, and Zentrum, known as the Majority Parties, forced his resignation and replacement by a relatively unknown figure, Georg Michaelis.

Later life

During 1918 Germany sank into anarchy. Bethmann-Hollweg had failed to persuade the Reichstag to moderate for peace; a Socialist Party breakaway Communist grouping led them onto the streets in open revolt. His plan to dominate European hegemony through Pan-Germanism in the East and Mitteleuropa's economic plan in the west disintegrated at the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. But it signalled a long-term development of racially expansive policies of Germanification that presaged the conflict thirty years later. A policy whose intellectual supporters in Berlin, Arnold Wahnschaffe (1865–1941), undersecretary in the chancellery, and Arthur Zimmerman, were his closest and ablest. Bethmann was directly responsible for devising the flamenpolitik on the Western Front carried out in the Schlieffen Plan; yet its ultimate failure as a mode of occupation brought economic collapse and military defeat, as clearly identified by the Bryce Report. His justification lay in the refrain that Germany was fighting a war of "National Survival".

Dr. von Bethmann-Hollweg received prominent attention throughout the world in June 1919, when he formally asked the Allied and associated powers to place him on trial instead of Kaiser Wilhelm II.[12] The Supreme War Council decided to ignore his request. He was often mentioned as among those who might be tried by Allies for political offenses in connection with the origin of the war. In 1919 reports from Geneva said he was credited in diplomatic circles there as being at the bottom of the monarchist movement in favor of both the Hohenzollerns and Habsburgs, the nucleus of which was said to be located in Switzerland.[2]

Bethmann-Hollweg spent the short remainder of his life in retirement, writing his memoirs. A little after Christmas 1920 he caught a cold, which developed into acute pneumonia. He died from this illness on 1 January 1921. His wife had died in 1914, and he had lost his eldest son in the war. He was survived by a daughter, Countess Zeech, wife of the Secretary of the Russian Legation at Munich.[13]


  1.  Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1922). "Bethmann Hollweg, Theobald von". Encyclopædia Britannica (12th ed.). London & New York.
  2. 1 2 Scrap of Paper Chancellor of Germany Dies, The Globe. Toronto, 3 January 1921. accessed on 8 October 2006.
  3. Keegan, p.31; Tuchman, p.59
  4. quoted in Keegan, p.70
  5. Fischer, 1967, p.71
  6. Butler, David Allen (2010). THE BURDEN OF GUILT: How Germany Shattered the Last Days of Peace, Summer 1914. Casemate Publishers. p. 103. Retrieved 30 July 2012.
  7. A Scrap of Paper - its significance.
  8.  One or more of the preceding sentences incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Rines, George Edwin, ed. (1920). "Bethmann-Hollweg, Theobald Theodore Friedrich Alfred von". Encyclopedia Americana.
  9. Tuchman (1970), p.84
  10. Isabel V. Hull (2005). Absolute Destruction: Military Culture And The Practices Of War In Imperial Germany. Cornell University Press. p. 233. Retrieved 7 July 2009.
  11. according to a BBC TV documentary on WWI, he is known to have clearly stated Germany's view regarding the invasion of Belgium: "Necessity knows no law. Anyone who, like ourselves, is struggling for a supreme aim, must think only of how he can hack his way through".
  12. Gary Jonathan Bass Stay the Hand of Vengeance: The Politics of War Crimes Tribunals Princeton University Press (2002) p77
  13. Jarausch, Konrad (1973). Von Bethmann-Hollweg and the Hubris of Imperial Germany. Yale University Press.



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Political offices
Preceded by
Prince Bülow
Chancellor of Germany
Succeeded by
Georg Michaelis
Prime Minister of Prussia
Preceded by
Arthur von Posadowsky-Wehner
Vice Chancellor of Germany
Succeeded by
Clemens von Delbrück
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