Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg

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

Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg
Bethmann-Hollweg in 1914
Chancellor of the German Empire
In office
14 July 1909  13 July 1917
MonarchWilhelm II
Preceded byBernhard von Bülow
Succeeded byGeorg Michaelis
Minister President of Prussia
In office
14 July 1909  13 July 1917
MonarchWilhelm II
Preceded byBernhard von Bülow
Succeeded byGeorg Michaelis
Vice Chancellor of the German Empire
In office
24 June 1907  10 July 1909
ChancellorBernhard von Bülow
Preceded byArthur von Posadowsky-Wehner
Succeeded byClemens von Delbrück
Secretary of State of the Interior
In office
24 June 1907  10 July 1909
ChancellorBernhard von Bülow
Preceded byArthur von Posadowsky-Wehner
Succeeded byClemens von Delbrück
Personal details
Theobald Theodor Friedrich Alfred von Bethmann Hollweg

(1856-11-29)29 November 1856
Hohenfinow, Kingdom of Prussia
Died1 January 1921(1921-01-01) (aged 64)
Political partyIndependent


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. He married Martha von Pfuel, the niece of Ernst von Pfuel, Prime Minister of Prussia. From 1905 to 1907, Bethmann-Hollweg served as Prussian Minister of the Interior and 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 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. The policy failed, largely from the opposition of German Naval Minister Alfred von Tirpitz. Despite the increase in tensions because of the Second Moroccan Crisis of 1911, Bethmann-Hollweg improved relations with Britain to some extent, working with British foreign secretary Sir Edward Grey to alleviate tensions during the Balkan Crises of 1912–1913. He did not learn of the Schlieffen Plan until December 1912, after he had received the Second Haldane Mission.[3] 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 German-Ottoman alliance. The crisis came to a head on 5 July 1914 when the Count Hoyos Mission arrived in Berlin in response to Berchtold's plea for friendship. Bethmann-Hollweg was assured that Britain would not intervene in the frantic diplomatic rounds across the European powers. However, reliance on that assumption encouraged Austria to demand Serbian concessions. His main concern was Russian border manoeuvres, conveyed by his ambassadors at a time when Raymond Poincaré himself was preparing a secret mission to St Petersburg. He wrote to Count Sergey Sazonov:

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

Cabinet (1909-1917)
Office Incumbent In office Party
Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg 14 July 1909 – 13 July 1917 None
Vice-Chancellor of Germany
Secretary for the Interior
Clemens von Delbrück 14 July 1909 – 22 May 1916 None
Karl Helfferich 22 May 1916 – 23 October 1917 None
Secretary for the Foreign Affairs Wilhelm von Schoen 7 October 1907 – 28 June 1910 None
Alfred von Kiderlen-Waechter 28 June 1910 – 30 December 1912 None
Gottlieb von Jagow 30 December 1912 – 22. November 1916 None
Arthur Zimmermann 22 November 1916 – 6 August 1917 None
Secretary for the Justice Rudolf Arnold Nieberding 10 July 1893 – 25 October 1909 None
Hermann Lisco 25 October 1909 – 5 August 1917 None
Secretary for the Treasury Adolf Wermuth 14 July 1909 – 16 March 1912 None
Hermann Kühn 16 March 1912 – 31 January 1915 None
Karl Helfferich 31 January 1915 – 22 May 1916 None
Siegfried von Roedern 22 May 1916 – 13 November 1918 None
Secretary for the Post Reinhold Kraetke 6 May 1901 – 5 August 1917 None
Secretary for the Navy Alfred von Tirpitz 18 June 1897 – 15 March 1916 None
Eduard von Capelle 15 March 1916 – 5 October 1918 None
Secretary for the Colonies Bernhard Dernburg 17 May 1907 – 9 June 1910 None
Friedrich von Lindequist 10 June 1910 – 3 November 1911 None
Wilhelm Solf 20 November 1911 – 13 December 1918 None
Secretary for Food Adolf Tortilowicz von Batocki-Friebe 26 May 1916 – 6 August 1917 None

When War Minister Erich von Falkenhayn wanted to mobilise for war on 29 July, Bethmann was still against it but used his veto to prevent the Reichstag debating it. Pourtales telegram of 31 July was what Helmuth von Moltke the Younger, who declared a Zustand drohender Kriegsgefahr (state of imminent danger of war) wanted to hear; to Bethmann-Hollweg's dismay, the other powers had failed to communicate Russia's provocation.

In domestic politics, Bethmann-Hollweg's record was also mixed, and his compromising of socialists and liberals on the left and nationalists on the right alienated 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-Hungary of Germany's unconditional support, regardless of Austria's actions against Serbia. While Grey was suggesting a mediation between Austria-Hungary and Serbia, Bethmann-Hollweg wanted Austria-Hungary to attack Serbia and so he tampered with the British message and deleted the last line of the letter:

"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 Wilhelm 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 during its invasion of France. He reportedly asked the departing British Ambassador Edward Goschen how Britain could go to war over a "scrap of paper" ("ein Fetzen Papier"), which was the 1839 Treaty of London guaranteeing Belgium's neutrality.

A Published Interview Explaining the "Scrap of Paper" Phrase said by German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg [translation][7]

My conversation with Sir E. Goschen occurred on the 4th of August.

I had just declared in the Reichstag that only dire necessity, only the struggle for existence, compelled Germany to march through Belgium, but that Germany was ready to make compensation for the wrong committed.

When I spoke I already had certain indications, but no absolute proof, on which to base a public accusation that Belgium had long before abandoned its neutrality in its relations with England.

Nevertheless, I took Germany's responsibilities towards neutral States so seriously that I spoke frankly on the wrong committed by Germany.

What was the British attitude on the same question? The day before my conversation with the British Ambassador, Sir Edward Grey had delivered his well-known speech in Parliament, wherein, while he did not state expressly that England would take part in the war, he left the matter in little doubt.

One needs only to read this speech through carefully to learn the reason of England's intervention in the war. Amid all his beautiful phrases about England's honour and England's obligations we find it over and over again expressed that England's interests - its own interests - called for participation in war, for it was not in England's interests that a victorious, and therefore stronger, Germany should emerge from the war.

This old principle of England's policy - to take as the sole criterion of its actions its private interests regardless of right, reason, or considerations of humanity - is expressed in that speech of Gladstone's in 1870 on Belgian neutrality from which Sir Edward quoted.

Mr. Gladstone then declared that he was unable to subscribe to the doctrine that the simple fact of the existence of a guarantee is binding upon every party thereto, irrespective altogether of the particular position in which it may find itself at the time when the occasion for action on the guarantee arrives, and he referred to such English statesmen as Aberdeen and Palmerston as supporters of his views.

England drew the sword only because she believed her own interests demanded it. Just for Belgian neutrality she would never have entered the war. That is what I meant when I told Sir E. Goschen, in that last interview when we sat down to talk the matter over privately man to man, that among the reasons which had impelled England into war the Belgian neutrality treaty had for her only the value of a scrap of paper.

I may have been a bit excited and aroused. Who would not have been at seeing the hopes and work of the whole period of my Chancellorship going for naught?

I recalled to the Ambassador my efforts for years to bring about an understanding between England and Germany, an understanding which, I reminded him, would have made a general European war impossible, and have absolutely guaranteed the peace of Europe.

Such understanding would have formed the basis on which we could have approached the United States as a third partner.

But England had not taken up this plan, and through its entry into the war had destroyed forever the hope of its fulfilment.

In comparison with such momentous consequences, was the treaty not a scrap of paper?

Charles F. Horne, Source Records of the Great War, Vol. I (1923)

Bethmann-Hollweg had made some plans in the event Britain came into the war and was involved closely in the plans to destabilise Britain's colonies, most notably the Hindu–German Conspiracy.

A tall, gaunt, sombre, well-trimmed aristocratic figure, Bethmann-Hollweg sought approval from a declaration of war. His civilian colleagues pleaded for him to register some febrile protest, but he was frequently outflanked by the military leaders, who played an increasingly important role in the direction of all German policy.[9] However, 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 ethnic cleansing of 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 was a survey of ideas from the Elite should Germany win the war. Bethmann-Hollweg, with all credibility and power now lost, conspired over Falkenhayn's head with Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff (respectively commander-in-chief and chief of staff for the Eastern Front) for an Eastern Offensive. They then succeeded, in August 1916 in securing Falkenhayn's replacement by Hindenburg as Chief of the General Staff, with Ludendorff as First Quartermaster-General (Hindenburg's deputy). Thereafter, Bethmann-Hollweg's hopes for US President Woodrow Wilson's mediation at the end of 1916 came to nothing. Over Bethmann-Hollweg's objections, Hindenburg and Ludendorff forced the adoption of unrestricted submarine warfare in March 1917, adopted as a result of Henning von Holtzendorff's memorandum. Bethmann-Hollweg had been a reluctant participant and opposed it in cabinet. The US entered the war in April 1917, perhaps the inevitability that they had wished to avoid.

Bethmann-Hollweg remained in office until July 1917, when a Reichstag revolt resulted in the passage of the Social Democrat Matthias Erzberger's Peace Resolution by an alliance of the Social Democratic, Progressive, and Centre Parties, which forced his resignation and replacement by a relatively unknown figure, Georg Michaelis.

German Revolution

During 1918, German support for the war was increasingly challenged by strikes and political agitation. In October sailors in the German Imperial Navy mutinied when ordered to set sail for a final confrontation with the British Navy. The Kiel Mutiny sparked off the November Revolution which brought the war to an end. Bethmann-Hollweg tried to persuade the Reichstag to opt for moderate for peace.

Later life

His plan to dominate European hegemony through Pan-Germanism in the east and Mitteleuropa in the west disintegrated at the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. It signalled a long-term development of racially expansive policies of Germanification that presaged the conflict 20 years later.

Intellectual supporters of the policy in Berlin, Arnold Wahnschaffe (1865–1941), undersecretary in the chancellery, and Arthur Zimmermann, were his closest and ablest colleagues. Bethmann-Hollweg was directly responsible for devising the Flamenpolitik on the Western Front carried out in the Schlieffen Plan, yet this strategy's ultimate failure as a mode of occupation brought economic collapse and military defeat, as was clearly identified by the Bryce Report. The Chancellor's justification lay in the refrain that Germany was fighting a war of national survival.

Bethmann-Hollweg received prominent attention throughout the world in June 1919, when he formally asked the Allied and the Associated Powers to place him on trial instead of the Kaiser.[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 offences in connection with the origin of the war.

In 1919, reports from Geneva said he was credited in diplomatic circles there as leading the monarchists for both the Hohenzollerns and the Habsburgs, the nucleus of which was said to be located in Switzerland.[2]

The ex-Chancellor 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 from which he died 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, the wife of the Secretary of the Russian Legation at Munich.[13]

Bethmann-Hollweg is buried in Hohenfinow.


  1.  Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1922). "Bethmann Hollweg, Theobald von" . Encyclopædia Britannica (12th ed.). London & New York.
  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. Duffy, Michael (2009). "Primary Documents - The Scrap of Paper, 4 August 1914". First World Retrieved 25 July 2018.
  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 documentary on the war, he is known to have stated Germany's view on the clearly 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) p. 77
  13. Jarausch, Konrad (1973). Von Bethmann-Hollweg and the Hubris of Imperial Germany. Yale University Press.

Further reading

  • Clark, Christopher. Kaiser Wilhelm II: A Life in Power (Penguin UK, 2009).
  • Bass, Gary Jonathan (2002). Stay the Hand of Vengeance: The Politics of War Crimes Tribunals. Prince, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  • Goerlitz, Walther (1955). History of the German General Staff. New York: Praeger.
  • Jarausch, Konrad (1973). Von Bethmann-Hollweg and the Hubris of Imperial Germany. Yale University Press.
  • Jarausch, Konrad Hugo. “Revising German History: Bethmann-Hollweg Revisited.” Central European History 21#3 (1988): 224-243, historiography in JSTOR
  • Langdon, John W. "Emerging from Fischer's shadow: recent examinations of the crisis of July 1914." History Teacher 20.1 (1986): 63-86, historiography in JSTOR
  • Watson, Alexander. Ring of Steel: Germany and Austria-Hungary in World War I ( Basic Books, 2014).

Primary sources

In German

  • Wolfgang Gust, ed. (Spring 2005). 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. zu Klampen Verlag. ISBN 3-934920-59-4.
  • Janßen, Karl-Heinz: Der Kanzler und der General. Die Führungskrise um Bethmann Hollweg und Falkenhayn. (1914–1916). Musterschmidt, Göttingen u. a. 1967.
  • Wollstein, Günter: Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg. Letzter Erbe Bismarcks, erstes Opfer der Dolchstoßlegende (= Persönlichkeit und Geschichte. Bd. 146/147). Muster-Schmidt, Göttingen u. a. 1995, ISBN 3-7881-0145-8.
  • Zmarzlik, Hans G.: Bethmann Hollweg als Reichskanzler, 1909–1914. Studien zu Möglichkeiten und Grenzen seiner innerpolitischen Machtstellung (= Beiträge zur Geschichte des Parlamentarismus und der politischen Parteien. Bd. 11, ISSN 0522-6643). Droste, Düsseldorf 1957.


  • Deuerlein, Ernst: Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg. In: Ernst Deuerlein: Deutsche Kanzler. Von Bismarck bis Hitler. List, München 1968, S. 141–173.
  • Erdmann, Karl Dietrich: Zur Beurteilung Bethmann Hollwegs (mit Tagebuchauszügen Kurt Riezlers). In: Geschichte in Wissenschaft und Unterricht. Jg. 15, 1964, ISSN 0016-9056, S. 525–540.
  • Werner Frauendienst (1955), "Bethmann Hollweg, Theobald Theodor Friedrich Alfred von", Neue Deutsche Biographie (NDB) (in German), 2, Berlin: Duncker & Humblot, pp. 188–193; (full text online)
  • Gutsche, Willibald: Bethmann Hollweg und die Politik der Neuorientierung. Zur innenpolitischen Strategie und Taktik der deutschen Reichsregierung während des ersten Weltkrieges. In: Zeitschrift für Geschichtswissenschaft. Jg. 13, H. 2, 1965, ISSN 0044-2828, S. 209–254.
  • Mommsen, Wolfgang J.: Die deutsche öffentliche Meinung und der Zusammenbruch des Regierungssystems Bethmann Hollwegs im Juli 1917. In: Geschichte in Wissenschaft und Unterricht. Jg. 19, 1968, S. 422–440.
  • Riezler, Kurt: Nachruf auf Bethmann Hollweg. In: Die deutsche Nation. Jahrgang 3, 1921, ZDB-ID 217417-0.
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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