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11-08-2015, 17:25

Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg (1856-1921)

Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg was the prime minister of Germany from 1909 to the middle of 1917. He was the major civilian official empowered to deal with German foreign policy and the conduct of the war. His freedom of action was restricted, however, by the predominant role Emperor Wilhelm II played in the German political system. Similarly, the leaders of the military establishment had extraordinary influence. Bethmann's responsibility for the start of World War I has been a highly controversial question. Of course, other powerful figures such as the country's military commanders stood at the top of the system. If Bethmann, the civilian leader, deliberately helped to bring on the war, the taint of waging aggressive war can scarcely be placed on the military alone. Historians once saw Bethmann as a German moderate with good intentions tragically carried along by the fanaticism of military leaders and the kaiser. A newer trend in scholarship sees him as a prime mover in bringing Germany into the war. Bethmann was bom November 29, 1856, at Hohenfinow. He was the son of a Prussian landowner who also held local political office. Educated as a lawyer, the future prime minister served with distinction in the Prussian government until 1907. At that point, he took a leading role in the German imperial government as well, becoming minister of the interior and deputy prime minister. In 1909 he took over as prime minister. Bethmann's bland personality and his mixture of policies have made him difficult to characterize. He tried in vain to halt the naval competition between Germany and Great Britain, but he also expressed concern about the danger posed by Serb nationalism to Austria-Hungary, Germany's chief ally. Similarly, he was bedeviled by the apparent increase in Russian military power on the eve of World War I. In the July crisis of 1914, Bethmann quickly followed the lead of Emperor Wilhelm II in backing Austrian plans to punish Serbia for the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Most historians now reject the view that the kaiser and the military leaders took an aggressive stance and thus dragged an unwilling prime minister along a path that led to war. Instead, Bethmann himself encouraged Austria to act vigorously against Serbia; otherwise, he feared, Austria might feel forced to turn away from its alliance with Germany. Thus, he used German influence to promote a war in the Balkans, and he accepted the possibility of a much larger conflict involving all the Great Powers. Bethmann's most vocal critics have claimed that he intended from early July onward to go much further in exploiting the crisis brought on by the assassination. In this view, his intentions included crushing Serbia, humiliating Russia, and establishing German domination in Europe. Once the conflict had broken out, Bethmann more clearly followed a policy of moderation. He sought to limit the wilder plans of nationalist groups that advocated annexation of huge chunks of territory after Germany had won the war with a decisive military victory. He preferred a reorganized Europe in which Germany would quietly dominate a group of political and economic satellite states like Belgium and Poland. The prime minister also opposed the policy of unlimited submarine warfare against merchant shipping. In his eyes, such aggressive actions were certain to pull the United States into the war. Bethmann was less perceptive when it came to choosing among military leaders. He was appalled by the failure of General Erich von Falkenhayn, the army chief of staff, to win a decisive victory at Verdun, and he promoted the idea of bringing in Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff, the successful generals from the eastern front, to take over the high command. He hoped that their prestige would facilitate the search for a compromise peace. Uistead, the arrival of the eastern generals in Berlin in fall 1916 quickly eroded Bethmann's position. Facing Hindenburg and Ludendorff, the prime minister found it impossible to take advantage of American efforts to get a compromise peace in late 1916. The military leaders blocked such possibilities by insisting on keeping Belgium in any peace settlement. And Bethmann had to give way to the military's demands for the unrestricted use of submarines starting in early 1917. Nonetheless, Germany's highest military leaders became in creasingly uncomfortable with a prime minister they could not control completely. Under pressure from the military chieftains, he fell from office in mid-1917. Bethmann spent the remainder of his life at Hohenfmow writing his memoirs. He died at his ancestral home on January 1, 1921.