Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg

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Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg
Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg 1913b.jpg
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
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 Christian 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

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, and negotiating treaties over an eventual partition of the Portuguese colonies and the Berlin-Baghdad railway. 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, Bethmann Hollweg is known to have been manipulating 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."[3]

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!"[4]

In the last days before the outbreak of war, once it became clear that, should war break out, British involvement was inevitable, he appeared to have some second thoughts, and he took half-hearted[clarification needed] measures to prevent an all-out war, until Russia's mobilization on 31 July 1914 took the matter out of his hands.

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 a "mere 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.[citation needed]

In uniform. He never served in the army, but after the war started he was appointed to an honorary rank which carried with it the wearing of a general's uniform.[5]

During the war Bethmann Hollweg has usually been seen as having generally attempted to pursue a relatively moderate policy, but as having been frequently outflanked by the military leaders who played an increasingly important role in the direction of all German policy. However this view has been partially superseded, as the work of historian Fritz Fischer in the 1960s showed that Bethmann Hollweg 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 germanisation of Polish territories by settlement of German colonists.[6] Also, and according to a documentary from the BBC 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"

He 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, and, over Bethmann Hollweg's objections, Hindenburg and Ludendorff forced the adoption of unrestricted submarine warfare in March 1917, which led to the United States's entry into the war the next month. Bethmann Hollweg, all credibility and power lost, remained in office until July that year, when a Reichstag revolt, resulting in the passage of the famous Peace Resolution by an alliance of the Social Democratic, Progressive, and Center parties, forced his resignation and replacement by the political nonentity Georg Michaelis.

Later life

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.[7] 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 under way 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.[2][8]


  • Wolfgang Gust, ed.: Der Völkermord an den Armeniern 1915/15: Dokumente aus dem Politischen Archiv des Auswärtigen Amts (The Armenian genocide of 1915: Documents from the political archives of the foreign office), preface by Vahakn N. Dadrian, in German with English abstracts of documents; ISBN 3-934920-59-4, published by zu Klampen Verlag, Spring 2005


  1. Wikisource-logo.svg Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1922). [ "Bethmann Hollweg, Theobald von" ] Check |ws link in chapter= value (help). Encyclopædia Britannica (12th ed.). London & New York.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Scrap of Paper Chancellor of Germany Dies, The Globe. Toronto, 3 January 1921. accessed on 8 October 2006.
  3. Fischer, 1967, p.71
  4. 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.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. Wikisource-logo.svg One or more of the preceding sentences incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainRines, George Edwin, ed. (1920). [ "Bethmann-Hollweg, Theobald Theodore Friedrich Alfred von" ] Check |ws link in chapter= value (help). Encyclopedia Americana.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. 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.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. Gary Jonathan Bass Stay the Hand of Vengeance: The Politics of War Crimes Tribunals Princeton University Press (2002) p77
  8. Jarausch, Konrad (1973). Von Bethmann-Hollweg and the Hubris of Imperial Germany. Yale University Press.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

External links

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