German Note to the United States regarding the Submarine Blockade, January 31, 1917

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WWI Document Archive > 1916 Documents > Official Communications and Speeches Relating to Peace Proposals 1916-1917 > German Note to the United States regarding the Submarine Blockade, January 31, 1917


German Note to the United States regarding the Submarine Blockade, January 31, 19171

                                        [TRANSLATION]

                                                                      GERMAN EMBASSY,
                                                       Washington, January 31, 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 Sen-
ate on the 22, 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 prin-
ciples 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 in-
dependence, 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 Ger-
many'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 guaranty of existence, honor and free development of their
peoples. Their aims, as has been expressly stated in the note of
December 12, 1916, were not directed towards the destruction or
annihilation of their enemies and were according to their conviction
perfectly compatible with the rights of the other nations. As to Bel-
gium 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
neighborly relations, that Belgium should not be used again by Ger-
many'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 economi-
cal 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 economical 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 pretense of following the principle
of nationality our enemies have disclosed their real aims in this war,
viz., to dismember and dishonor 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 does 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 Govern-
ment, 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 in-
different to the laws of humanity, indifferent to the protests of the
neutrals whom they severely harm, indifferent even to the silent long-
ing for peace among England's own allies. Each day of the terrible
struggle causes new destruction, new sufferings. Each day shorten-
ing the war will, on both sides, preserve the life of thousands of brave
soldiers and be a benefit to mankind.
     The Imperial Government could not justify before its own con-
science, 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. After 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 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 avoidable sacrifice of human life.
     Enclosing two memoranda regarding the details of the contemplated
military measures at sea, I remain, etc.,
                                                            (Signed) J. BERNSTORFF.

                                        [INCLOSURE 1]

                                        MEMORANDUM

     After bluntly refusing Germany's peace offer the Entente Powers,
stated in their note addressed to the American Government, that they
are determined to continue the war in order to deprive Germany of
German provinces in the West and the East, to destroy Austria-Hun-
gary and to annihilate Turkey. In waging war with such aims, the
Entente Allies are violating all rules of international law, as they
prevent the legitimate trade of neutrals with the Central Powers, and
of the neutrals among themselves. Germany has, so far, not made
unrestricted use of the weapon which she possesses in her submarines.
Since the Entente Powers, however, have made it impossible to come
to an understanding based upon equality of rights of all nations, as
proposed by the, Central Powers and have instead declared only such
a peace to be possible, which shall be dictated by the Entente Allies
and shall result in the destruction and humiliation of the Central
Powers, Germany is unable further to forego the full use of her sub-
marines. The Imperial Government, therefore, does not doubt that
the Government of the United States will understand the situation thus
forced upon Germany bv the Entente Allies' brutal methods of war
and by their determination to destroy the Central Powers, and that
the Government of the United States will further realize that the
now openly disclosed intentions of the Entente Allies give back to
Germany the freedom of the action which she reserved in her note
addressed to the Government of the United States on May 4, 1916.
Under these circumstances Germany will meet the illegal measures
of her enemies by forcibly preventing after February 1, 1917, in a
zone around Great Britain, France, Italy and in the Eastern Mediter-
ranean all navigation, that of neutrals included, from and to England
and from and to France, etc., etc. All ships met within that zone
will be sunk.
     The Imperial Government is confident that this measure will result
in a speedy termination of the war and in the restoration of peace which
the Government of the United States has so much at heart. Like the
Government of the United States. Germany and her allies had hoped
to reach this goal by negotiations. Now that the war, through the
fault of Germany's enemies, has to be continued, the Imperial Gov-
ernment feels sure that the Government of the United States will
understand the necessity of adopting such measures and are destined
to bring about a speedy end of the horrible and useless bloodshed.
The Imperial Government hopes all the more for such an understand-
ing of her position, as the neutrals have under the pressure of the
Entente Powers, suffered great losses, being forced by them either to
give up their entire trade or to limit it according to conditions arbi-
trarily determined by Germany's enemies in violation of international
law.

                                        [INCLOSURE 2]

                                        MEMORANDUM

     From February 1, 1917, all 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 Mediter-
ranean.
     In the North: The zone is confined by a line at a distance of 20
sea miles along the Dutch coast to Terschelling fire ship, the degree of
longitude from Terschelling fire ship to Udsire, a line from there
across the point 62 degrees north degrees longitude to 62 degrees
north 5 degrees west, further to a point 3 sea miles south of the south-
ern point of the Faroe Islands, from there across point 62 degrees
north 10 degrees west to 61 degrees north 15 degrees west, then S7
degrees north 20 degrees west to 47 degrees north 20 degrees west,
further to 43 degrees north, 15 degrees west, then along the degree
of latitude 43 degrees north to 20 sea miles from Cape Finisterre and
at a distance of 20 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.
del'Espiquette to 38 degrees 20 minutes north and 6 degrees east, also
north and west of a zone 61 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 20
sea miles north and east of the following line: 38 degrees north and
6 degrees east to 38 degrees north and 10 degrees east to 37 degrees
north and 11 degrees 30 minutes east to 34 degrees north and 11 de-
grees 30 minutes east to 34 degrees north and 22 degrees 30 minutes
east.
     From there leads a zone 20 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 1, are in ports of the blockaded
zones, can, with the same safety, leave them if they sail before Febru-
ary 5, 1917, and take the shortest route into safe waters.
     The instructions given to the commanders of German submarines
provide for a sufficiently long period during which the safety of pas-
sengers on unarmed enemy passenger ships is guaranteed.
     Americans, en route to the blockade zone on enemy freight steam-
ers, 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 un-
disturbed 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 ships' hull
          and superstructure 3 vertical stripes 1 meter 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 Fal-
          mouth on Sunday and departure from Falmouth on Wednes-
          day
     e) The United States Government guarantees that no contraband
          (according to German contraband list) is carried by those
          steamers.


1Official print of the Department of State.