German Discussions Concerning Unrestricted Submarine Warfare
9 January, 1917
See also: U-boat Conference of 31 August, 1916.
Official German Documents Relating to the World War,
Translated under the supervision of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
(New York: Oxford University Press, 1923), II: 1320-1321.
Present at the conference:
1. Dr. v. Bethmann-Hollweg, Imperial Chancelor.
2. General Field Marshal v. Beneckendorff and v. Hindenburg, Chief of the General Staff.
3. Lieutenant General Ludendorff, First Quartermaster General.
Note: the transcript includes both direct quotes and paraphrases as recorded by v. Bartenwerffer for the Chancelor.
PLESS CASTLE, January 9, 1917.
If His Majesty commands that a ruthless U-boat war shall be launched, the Chancelor will endeavor to succeed in keeping America "out of it." For this purpose, certain concessions already taken up previously with the Admiralty staff would have to be made. But we will have to calculate upon America's entrance into the war against us.
The Chancelor feels more assurance about the attitude of the European neutrals. Our peace note has brought good results. Holland and Denmark will not enter the war, at least not as long as they do not see that the U-boat war brings us no success.
With regard to Switzerland, we shall have to bear in mind the possibility that the Entente will bring pressure to bear on Switzerland if food becomes scarce in that country, to make it possible for French armies to march through or even for Switzerland to join the cause of the Entente.
Denmark will possibly lay up its shipping.
The Chancelor requests that the military measures which are to be taken with regard to the neutral boundaries, and particularly with regard to the Danish boundary, be such as not to carry the implication of excessive menace.
The purpose is just to detail a few regiments of cavalry to the borders.
The determination to launch the unrestricted U-boat war depends, then, upon the results which we may expect. Admiral von Holtzendorff assumes that we will have England on her knees by the next harvest. The experiences of the U-boats during the last few months, the increased number of U-boats, and England's bad economic situation, will at least increase our chances of success.
On the whole, the prospects for the unrestricted U-boat war are very favorable.
Of course, it must be admitted that those prospects are not capable of being demonstrated by proof.
We should be perfectly certain that, so far as the military situation is concerned, great military strokes are insufficient as such to win the war.
The U-boat war is the "last card." A very serious decision. "But if the military authorities consider the U-boat war essential, I am not in a position to contradict them."
We are ready to meet all eventualities and to meet America, Denmark, Holland, and Switzerland too.
The restricted U-boat war on commerce will only bring about a slight increase in the results reached up to this time. We need the most energetic, ruthless methods which can be adopted. For this reason, we need the ruthless U-boat war to start from February 1, 1917.
The war must be brought to an end rapidly, although we would be able to hold out still longer, but haste is needed on account of our allies.
It may be imagined that the U-boat war might postpone the end of hostilities.
The U-boat war will also bring our armies into a different and better situation. Through the lack of wood needed for mining purposes and for lack of coal, the production of ammunition is hard-pressed. It means that there will be some relief for the western front. We must spare the troops a second battle of the Somme. That this relief will come about will be proved by our own situation and the effects of our transportation crisis. And, too, Russia's power of initiative will be detrimentally affected by the lack of ammunition which will result from shortage in tonnage. The Siberian railroad alone will not be sufficient for Russia's needs.
America's assistance, in case she enters the war, will consist in the delivery of food supplies to England, financial support, delivery of airplanes and the dispatching of corps of volunteers.
We can take care of that. The opportunity for the U-boat war is such that it can perhaps never become as favorable again; we can carry it on and we must carry it on.
Of course, if success beckons, we must follow.
We would reproach ourselves later if we let the opportunity pass by.
The situation is certainly better than it was in September.
The measures of security taken against the neutrals will have nothing about them in the nature of a challenge; they will be purely defensive measures.
And suppose Switzerland came into the war, or that the French were to come through Switzerland.
That would not be unfavorable from a military standpoint.
For the Chancelor,
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