Newspaper Text of the German Note of February 16, 1915, With Comments by the Counselor for the Department of State (Lansing) of February 18, 19152

Berlin, via London, Thursday.—Following is the text of the German government’s answer to the American note3 protesting against a blockade of British waters:—

“The imperial government has examined the communication from the United States government in the same spirit of good will and friendship by which the communication appears to have been dictated. The imperial government is in accord with the United States government that for both parties it is in a high degree desirable to avoid misunderstandings which might arise from measures announced by the German Admiralty and to provide against the occurrence of incidents which might trouble the friendly relations which so far happily exist between the two governments.

“With regard to the assuring of these friendly relations the German government believes that it may all the more reckon on a full understanding with the United States, as the procedure announced by the German Admiralty, which was fully explained in the note of the 4th instant,4 is in no way directed against legitimate commerce and legitimate shipping of neutrals, but represents solely a measure of self-defence, imposed on Germany by her vital interests, against England’s method of warfare, which is contrary to international law and [Page 355] which so far no protest by neutrals has succeeded in bringing back to the generally recognized principles of law as existing before the outbreak of war.

[Because G. B. violates neutral rights is not a valid excuse for Germany’s doing so. Neutrals are entitled to insist on their rights or not to insist as they see fit.]

“In order to exclude all doubt regarding these cardinal points the German government once more begs leave to state how things stand. Until now Germany has scrupulously observed valid international rules regarding naval warfare.

[This is correct.]

At the very beginning of the war Germany immediately agreed to the proposal of the American government to ratify the new Declaration of London4a and took over its contents unaltered, and without formal obligation, into her prize law.

[Including it in prize law does not make it valid international law.]

“The German government has obeyed these rules, even when they were diametrically opposed to her military interests. For instance, Germany allowed the transportation of provisions to England from Denmark until to-day, though she was well able, by her sea forces, to prevent it.

[Was not this done, so Germany would be in a consistent position in regard to the import of foodstuffs into Germany?]

In contradistinction to this attitude, England has not even hesitated at a second infringement of international law if by such means she could paralyze the peaceful commerce of Germany with neutrals. The German government will be the less obliged to enter into details as these are put down sufficiently, though not exhaustively, in the American note to the British government dated December 29 [26]5 as a result of five months’ experience.

“All these encroachments have been made, as has been admitted, in order to cut off all supplies from Germany and thereby starve her peaceful civil population—a procedure contrary to all humanitarian principles. Neutrals have been unable to prevent the interruption of their commerce with Germany, which is contrary to international law.

[There is something to be said in favor of this argument in regard to the purpose of G. B.]

“The American government, as Germany readily acknowledges, has protested against the British procedure. In spite of these protests and protests from other neutral States, Great Britain could [Page 356] not be induced to depart from the course of action she had decided upon. Thus, for instance, the American ship Wilhelmina recently was stopped by the British, although her cargo was destined solely for the German civil population, and according to the express declaration of the German government was to be employed only for this purpose.

[What proof is there of this assertion?]

“Germany is as good as cut off from her overseas supply by the silent or protesting toleration of neutrals, not only in regard to such goods as are absolute contraband, but also in regard to such as, according to acknowledged law before the war, are only conditional contraband or not contraband at all. Great Britain, on the other hand, is, with the toleration of neutral governments, not only supplied with such goods as are not contraband or only conditional contraband, but with goods which are regarded by Great Britain, if sent to Germany, as absolute contraband; namely, provisions, industrial raw materials, &c., and even with goods which have always indubitably been regarded as absolute contraband.

[What additional steps does Germany expect protesting neutrals to adopt? Does she expect them to use force to compel the passage of foodstuffs to Germany?]

“The German government feels itself obliged to indicate with the greatest emphasis that a traffic in arms, estimated at many hundreds of millions, is being carried on between American firms and Germany’s enemies. Germany fully comprehends that the practice of right and the toleration of wrong on the part of neutrals are matters absolutely at the discretions of neutrals and involve no formal violation of neutrality. Germany, therefore, did not complain of any formal violation of neutrality, but the German government, in view of complete evidence before it, cannot help saying that it, together with the entire public opinion of Germany, feels itself to be severely prejudiced by the fact that neutrals, in safeguarding their rights in legitimate commerce with Germany according to international law, have, up to the present, achieved no, or only insignificant, results, while they are making unlimited use of their right by carrying on contraband traffic with Great Britain and our other enemies.

[The whole question of traffic in arms can be answered in the statement: American markets are open to all belligerents; Germany can buy arms as well as the Allies; as to whether they reach Germany is not the affair of this Government. The complaint of Germany is not as to the sale of arms but as to ability to transport them to Germany. Because of inability to transport munitions to Germany is Germany’s misfortune, which it is not our business to cure.]

“If it is a formal right of neutrals to take no steps to protect their legitimate trade with Germany, and even to allow themselves to be influenced in the direction of the conscious and wilful restriction of their trade, on the other hand they have the perfect right, which they [Page 357] unfortunately do not exercise, to cease contraband trade, especially in arms, with Germany’s enemies.

[Suggestion that neutrals could retaliate on G. B.’s interference with trade by prohibiting trade in contraband. That is, because part of our trade is stopped, we should stop all our trade. Our merchants would thus be the sufferers by such a policy.]

“In view of this situation, Germany, after six months of patient waiting, sees herself obliged to answer Great Britain’s murderous method of naval warfare with sharp counter measures. If Great Britain in her fight against Germany summons hunger as an ally for the purpose of imposing upon a civilized people of seventy millions the choice between destitution and starvation and submission to Great Britain’s commercial will, then Germany to-day is determined to take up the gauntlet and appeal to similar allies.

[The appeal is to destroy neutrals on the high seas without regard to the destination or character of their cargoes. It seems to be an effort to compel neutrals by threats to force G. B. to change her policy.]

“Germany trusts that the neutrals, who so far have submitted to the disadvantageous consequences of Great Britain’s hunger war in silence, or merely in registering a protest, will display toward Germany no smaller measure of toleration, even if German measures, like those of Great Britain, present new terrors of naval warfare.

[The difference is in the two policies that G. B. proposes to make their enemies suffer, while Germany proposes to make neutrals suffer.]

“Moreover, the German government is resolved to suppress with all the means at its disposal the importation of war material to Great Britain and her allies, and she takes it for granted that neutral governments, which so far have taken no steps against the traffic in arms with Germany’s enemies, will not oppose forcible suppression by Germany of this trade.

[Germany has the right to suppress this trade, but she must employ legitimate means.]

“Acting from this point of view, the German Admiralty proclaimed a naval war zone whose limits it exactly defined. Germany, so far as possible, will seek to close this war zone with mines, and will also endeavor to destroy hostile merchant vessels in every other way.

[This is the greatest menace to neutrals since it is directed against all commerce regardless of destination or character.]

While the German government, in taking action based upon this over-powering point of view, keeps itself far removed from all intentional destruction of neutral lives and property, on the other hand it does not fail to recognize that from the action to be taken against Great Britain dangers arise which threaten all trade within the war zone, [Page 358] without distinction. This is a natural result of mine warfare which, even under the strictest observance of the limits of international law, endangers every ship approaching the mine area.

[Comment on the use of mines by all belligerents should be made.]

The German government considers itself entitled to hope that all neutrals will acquiesce in these measures as they have done in the case of the grievous damages inflicted upon them by British measures, all the more so as Germany is resolved, for the protection of neutral shipping even in the naval war zone, to do everything which is at all compatible with the attainment of this object.

“In view of the fact that Germany gave the first proof of her good will in fixing a time limit of not less than fourteen days before the execution of said measures, so that neutral shipping might have an opportunity of making arrangements to avoid threatening danger, this can most surely be achieved by remaining away from the naval war zone. Neutral vessels which, despite this ample notice, which greatly affects the achievement of our aims in our war against Great Britain, enter these closed waters will themselves bear the responsibility for any unfortunate accidents that may occur. Germany disclaims all responsibility for such accidents and their consequences.

[What right has a nation to close the high seas to neutral commerce? If it does so illegally, it cannot hold a neutral responsible for failure to ignore [sic] action.]

“Germany has further expressly announced the destruction of all enemy merchant vessels found within the war zone, but not the destruction of all merchant vessels, as the United States seems erroneously to have understood.

[How can there be restriction in operation of mines?]

This restriction which Germany imposes upon itself is prejudicial to the aim of our warfare, especially as in the application of the conception of contraband practised by Great Britain toward Germany—which conception will now also be similarly interpreted by Germany—the presumption will be that neutral ships have contraband aboard.

[The unjustifiable character of this presumption should be emphatically stated.]

Germany naturally is unwilling to renounce its rights to ascertain the presence of contraband in neutral vessels and in certain cases to draw conclusions therefrom.

“Germany is ready, finally, to deliberate with the United States concerning any measures which might secure the safety of legitimate shipping of neutrals in the war zone. Germany cannot, however, forbear to indicate that all its efforts in this direction may be rendered very difficult by two circumstances; first, the misuse of neutral flags by British merchant vessels, which is indubitably known to the United States; second, the contraband trade already mentioned, especially in war materials, on neutral vessels.

[Page 359]

[This is the affair of the U. S. This trade is legitimate but subject to seizure.]

“Regarding the latter point, Germany would fain hope that the United States, after further consideration, will come to a conclusion corresponding to the spirit of real neutrality.

[“the spirit of real neutrality” is a phrase which is open to more, than one interpretation. If it means to equalize advantages by neutral action, then the fact that Germany possesses superior productive power in the matter of munitions of war must be considered as well as the ability of the Allies to obtain munitions from this country.]

“Regarding the first point, the secret order of the British Admiralty, recommending to British merchant ships the use of neutral flags,

[This allegation appears to be denied by G. B.]

has been communicated by Germany to the United States and confirmed by communication with the British Foreign Office, which designates this procedure as entirely unobjectionable and in accordance with British law. British merchant shipping immediately followed this advice, as doubtless is known to the American government from the incidents of the Lusitania and the Laertes.

“Moreover, the British government has supplied arms to British merchant ships and instructed them forcibly to resist German submarines.

[Of this the U. S. must have proof.]

In these circumstances it would be very difficult for submarines to recognize neutral merchant ships, for search in most cases cannot be undertaken, seeing that in the case of a disguised British ship from which an attack may be expected the searching party and the submarine would be exposed to destruction.

[A submarine remaining at a safe distance could require a boat to be sent from the vessel stopped with the ship’s papers. If it refused or attempted to flee it could be torpedoed.]

“Great Britain, then, was in a position to make the German measures illusory if the British merchant fleet persisted in the misuse of neutral flags, and neutral ships could not otherwise be recognized beyond doubt. Germany, however, being in a state of necessity, wherein she was placed by violation of law, must render effective her measures in all circumstances in order thereby to compel her adversary to adopt methods of warfare corresponding with international law and so to restore the freedom of the seas, of which Germany at all times is the defender and for which she to-day is fighting.

[Page 360]

[Germany’s proposed policy is the greatest menace of any to freedom of the seas for neutrals.]

“Germany, therefore, rejoices that the United States has made representations to Great Britain concerning the illegal use of its flag and expresses the expectation that this procedure will force Great Britain to respect the American flag in the future. In this expectation commanders of German submarines have been instructed, as already mentioned in the note of February 4, to refrain from violent action against American merchant vessels so far as these can be recognized.

[The exercise of the right of visit, which belligerents possess, neutrals may demand. Any action based on anything short of certainty is lawless.]

“In order to prevent in the surest manner the consequences of confusion—though naturally not so far as mines are concerned—Germany recommends that the United States make their ships which are conveying peaceful cargoes through the British war zone discernible by means of convoys.

[In view of the exception made as to danger from mines this suggestion is without merit and cannot be considered. It would mean, if adopted, placing warships of the U. S. in danger of being destroyed without adequate benefit resulting to American commerce.]

“Germany believes it may act on the supposition that only such ships would be convoyed as carried goods not regarded as contraband according to the British interpretation made in the case of Germany.

[As convoy is out of the question this paragraph needs no discussion.]

“How this method of convoy can be carried out is a question concerning which Germany is ready to open negotiations with the United States as soon as possible. Germany would be particularly grateful, however, if the United States would urgently recommend to its merchant vessels to avoid the British naval war zone in any case until the settlement of the flag question. Germany is inclined to the confident hope that the United States will be able to appreciate in its entire significance the heavy battle which Germany is waging for existence, and that from the foregoing explanations and promises it will acquire full understanding of the motives and the aims of the measures announced by Germany.

[I think that there is opportunity here to recognize the greatness of the quarrel, but to point out at the same time the ineffectual character of the proposed action compared with the menace to friendly relations with neutrals.]

“Germany repeats that it has now resolved upon the projected measures only under the strongest necessity of national self defense, such measures having been deferred out of consideration for neutrals.

[Page 361]

“If the United States, in view of the weight which it is justified in throwing, and able to throw, into the scales of the fate of peoples, should succeed at the last moment in removing the grounds which make that procedure an obligatory duty for Germany, and if the American government in particular should find a way to make the Declaration of London respected—on behalf also of those Powers which are fighting on Germany’s side—and thereby make possible for Germany legitimate importation of the necessaries of life and industrial raw material, then the German government could not too highly appreciate such a service, rendered in the interests of humane methods of warfare, and would gladly draw conclusions from the new situation.”

[This last paragraph offers an opportunity for a compromise agreement between the belligerents.]

[General Comments

G. B. is more dependent on U. S. for food than Germany. If Germany could effectively carry out the Admiralty plan so as to interrupt trade with G. B., she would be far more benefited than G. B. would in stopping supplies to Germany. Germany is, however, willing to relax policy if G. B. will do so. The conclusion is that Germany does not expect that plan will succeed as she would never consent to forego such an advantage.

Germany fails to define outer limits of so called “war zone”. The vagueness of the area is another ground for complaint.

Is Germany’s position that, because G. B. seizes foodstuffs going to German ports, therefore Germany will destroy neutral ships within certain areas of the high seas; or that, because neutrals have done no more than protest against interference with their trade by G. B., Germany proposes to punish them by endangering their shipping.]

  1. Mr. Lansing’s comments are here printed in brackets following quotations from the newspaper text of the note. For official text of the note, see Foreign Relations, 1915, supp., p. 112.
  2. Ibid., p. 98.
  3. Ibid., p. 96.
  4. For text of the Declaration of London, see ibid., 1909, p. 318.
  5. Ibid., 1914, supp., p. 372.