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THE “LUSITANIA" INCIDENT
On August 6th, 1914, the Government of the United States proposed to all the belligerent Powers that the laws of war at sea, as laid down in the Declaration of London of 1909, should be observed throughout the present war. This reasonable suggestion, which, had it been generally observed, would have saved the world much distress, came to nothing, owing to the refusal of Great Britain to accept it as it stood without reservation. The United States Government thereupon withdrew its proposal on October 24th, and announced that “It was resolved in future to see that the rights and duties of the Government and citizens of the United States should be settled in accordance with the accepted principles of international law and the treaty obligations of the United States, without reference to the provisions of the Declaration of London.” Moreover, the American Government drew up protests and demands for compensation, for use in case of any infringement of these rights, or of any interference with their free exercise on the part of the belligerent Powers.
On November 3rd, 1914, Great Britain declared the whole of the North Sea a theatre of war, and thereupon instituted, in flagrant violation of the Law of Nations, a blockade of the adjoining neutral coasts and ports. General disappointment was felt in Germany that the United States made no attempt to vindicate her rights in this matter, and confined herself to demanding compensation in individual cases of infringement.
Both in Germany and elsewhere it was clearly recognized that England's design was to use this illegal blockade for the purpose of starving out the German people. During a discussion between myself and Mr. Lansing, later Secretary of State, on the matter of assistance to be sent by America to Belgium, he expressed the opinion that nothing would come of the scheme, as Lord Kitchener had adopted the attitude that no food supplies could under any circumstances be sent to territory in German occupation. I answered that I had expected this refusal, as it was England's intention to starve us out, to which Mr. Lansing replied: “Yes, the British frankly admit as much.” It will be remembered that, as a matter of fact, Lord Kitchener withdrew his refusal in view of the pressure of English public opinion, which demanded that relief should be sent to Belgium on account of the distress prevalent there, and despite the fact that such a measure was of indirect assistance to
A subsequent proposal from the American Government for the dispatch of similar relief to Poland was declined in London.
We Germans had hoped that the neutral States would vigorously claim their right to freedom of mutual trade, and would take effective measures, in conjunction with the leadership of the United States, to force the British Government to suspend the oppressive and extra-legal policy. This they failed to do, at any rate, in time to forestall the fateful decision on our part to undertake submarine warfare. It is now impossible to tell whether this policy might not have had more favorable results, had not the growing estrangement between Germany and America caused by the new campaign nipped in the
bud any possibility of serious Anglo-American differences. In the other neutral countries this submarine warfare alienated all sympathy for us, and no doubt was one reason why the neutral States, which in previous wars had always attempted to vindicate their rights as against the Power which had command of the sea, now refrained from any concerted action to this end. Such a procedure on their part would have indirectly influenced the situation in favor of Germany, as the weaker Power at sea; it will be remembered that the United States, during their War of Independence against England, drew much advantage from a similar attitude on the part of the European Powers. My knowledge of America leads me to believe that, had we not incurred such odium by our infringement of Belgian neutrality and our adoption of submarine warfare, the action of the Washington Government might have been other than it was; had it even raised a finger to protest against England's methods, the latter must instantly have given way, as had so frequently happened during the last twenty-five years, when the United States took up on any point an attitude hostile to Britain. The contrast between this passive attitude on the part of the President and the traditional forward policy of America visà-vis England, goes far to support the contention of Wilson's detractors in Germany—that these two countries were in league and were playing a preconcerted game.
It is impossible to convince one's political foes on any point except by positive proof, and until the time comes when the enemy's archives are published, such proof cannot, of course, be adduced on this particular matter. This time is still far distant. Why should the enemy publish their archives? They have won and have therefore no reason to grumble at the course of events. Thus I can at present only combat with counter-arguments the contention that I misunderstood the true state of affairs in America. The hypothesis of secret collusion between America and England seems in the present case unnecessary; the attitude of public opinion in America is in itself sufficient explanation of the situation at the time. Sympathy for us from the very first day of the war there was none; but had the general feeling been as strongly for us as it actually was against us, no doubt the Government would have kicked against the English illegalities, and enforced an embargo against her. I still hold to my view that Mr. Wilson made a real effort to maintain the observance of a strict neutrality; but the decisive factor was that he found himself, as a result of his efforts, in increasing measure in conflict with the overwhelming Germanophobe sentiment of the people, and continually exposed to the reproach put forward in the Eastern States that he was a pro-German.
The American public, indifferent as it was to the affairs of Europe and entirely ignorant of its complicated problems, failed to understand the full extent of the peril to the very existence of the German Empire, which compelled its rulers, much against their will and with heavy hearts, to have recourse to the invasion of Belgium. They themselves, living in perfect security and under pleasant conditions, had no means of realizing the perilous position of a comparatively small people, such as the Germans, surrounded by greedy foes, and straitened within narrow frontiers; their judgment, as already remarked, was swayed by their individual sentiments of justice and humanity. The attitude of the Allied and Associated Powers at Versailles might have enlightened the American people as to the peril of dismemberment which threatened a defeated Germany; but such realization, even supposing it to have taken place, has come too late to affect the consequences of the war. I am convinced that they will in a few years be forced to admit that Germany during the course of her struggle was, contrary to the generally accepted view of to-day, quite as much sinned against as sinning.
The German Government, then, decided upon the adoption of submarine warfare, and issued a declaration to this effect. This document, together with explanatory memorandum, was delivered by me on February 4th, 1915, to the Secretary of State, Mr. Bryan; it was to the effect that the territorial waters of Great Britain and Ireland, including the whole of the English Channel, were declared a war area. From February 18th onwards every enemy merchant ship encountered in this area was liable to be sunk, without any guarantee that time could be given for the escape of passengers and crew. Neutral shipping in the war zone was likewise liable to the same dangers, as owing to the misuse of neutral flags resulting from the British Government's order of January 31st, and the chances of naval warfare, the possibility of damage to other shipping as a result of attacks on hostile vessels might sometimes be unavoidable.
I regarded it as my main duty, when handing this document to Mr. Bryan, to recommend to the United States Government that they should warn all American citizens of the danger to the crews, passengers and cargoes of hostile merchant ships moving within the war area from this time onwards. Further, I felt it necessary to draw attention to the advisability of an urgent recommendation that American shipping should keep clear of the danger zone, notwithstanding the express statement in the memorandum that the German naval forces had orders to avoid any interference with neutral vessels clearly recognizable as such.