File No. 763.72/1438

The German Ambassador (Bernstorff) to the Secretary of State

J. Nr. A 876]

Mr. Secretary of State: I have the honor to transmit to you herewith a copy of the Imperial Chancellor’s proclamation concerning Great Britain’s conduct of the war, as received here by wireless.1

Accept [etc.]

For the Imperial Ambassador:
[Page 96]

Memorandum of the German Government concerning retaliation against Great Britain’s illegal interference with trade between neutrals and Germany

Since the beginning of the present war Great Britain has carried on a mercantile warfare against Germany in a way that defies all the principles of international law. It is true the British Government has announced in a number of decrees the London declaration concerning naval warfare to be binding on its naval forces, but in reality she has renounced the declaration in its most important particulars, although her own delegates at the London Conference on Naval Warfare had recognized its conclusions to be valid as international law.

The British Government has put a number of articles in the list of contraband which are not or at most only indirectly useful for military purposes and therefore according to the London declaration as well as according to the universally recognized rules of international law may not be designated as contraband. She has further actually abolished the distinction between absolute and relative contraband, inasmuch as she has subjected to capture all articles of relative contraband intended for Germany without reference to the harbor in which they are to be unloaded or to the hostile or peaceful use to which they are to be put.

She does not even hesitate to violate the Paris declaration, as her naval forces have seized on neutral ships German property that was not contraband, in violation of her own desires concerning the London declaration she has further through her naval forces taken from neutral ships numerous Germans liable to military service and has made of them prisoners of war. Finally she has declared the entire North Sea to be an area of war, and if she has not made impossible the passage of neutral shipping through the sea between Scotland and Norway, has rendered it so difficult and so dangerous, that she has to a certain extent effected a blockade of neutral coasts and neutral ports in violation of all international law.

All these measures have the obvious purpose through the illegal paralyzation of legitimate neutral commerce not only to strike at the German military strength, but also at the economic life of Germany and finally through starvation doom the entire population of Germany to destruction.

The neutral powers have generally acquiesced in the steps taken by the English Government, especially they have not succeeded in inducing the British Government to restore the German individuals and property seized in violation of international law. In certain directions they have also aided the British measures, which are irreconcilable with the freedom of the sea, in that they have obviously under the pressure of England hindered by export and transit embargoes the transit of wares for peaceful purposes to Germany. The German Government has in vain called the attention of neutral powers to the fact, that it must face the question of whether it can longer persevere in its hitherto strict observance of the rules of the London declaration, if Great Britain were to continue its course, and the neutral powers were to continue to acquiesce in these violations of neutrality to the detriment of Germany; for her violations of international law Great Britain pleads the vital interests which the British Empire has at stake, and the neutral powers seem to satisfy themselves with theoretical protest. Therefore in fact they, accept the vital interests of belligerents as sufficient excuse for every method of warfare. Germany must now appeal to these same vital interests to its regret. It therefore sees itself forced to military measures aimed at England in retaliation against the English procedure. Just as England has designated the area between Scotland and Norway as an area of war, so Germany now declares all the waters surrounding Great Britain and Ireland including the entire English Channel as an area of war, and thus will proceed against the shipping of the enemy.

For this purpose beginning February 18, 1915, it will endeavor to destroy every enemy merchant ship that is found in this area of war without its always being possible to avert the peril, that thus threatens persons and cargoes. Neutrals are therefore warned against further entrusting crews, passengers and wares to such ships. Their attention also called to the fact, that it is advisable for their ships to avoid entering this area, for even though the German naval forces have instructions to avoid violence to neutral ships in so far as they are recognizable, in view of the misuse of neutral flags ordered by the British Government and the contingencies of naval warfare their becoming [Page 97] victims of torpedoes directed against enemy ships cannot always be avoided; at the same time it is specifically noted that shipping north of Shetland Islands in the eastern area of the North Sea and in a strip of at least thirty sea miles in the width along the Netherlands coast is not imperiled. The German Government gives such early notice of these measures, that hostile as well as neutral ships may have time accordingly to adapt their plans for landing at ports in this area of war and may expect that the neutral powers will show no less consideration for the vital interests of Germany than for those of England and will aid in keeping their citizens and the property of the latter from this area. This is the more to be expected, as it must be to the interest of the neutral powers to see this destructive war end as soon as possible.

  1. The text enclosed is in English translation only. It is printed as the first copy of the memorandum to reach the Department. Another English version arrived on the morning of February 10, telegraphed by the Ambassador in Germany (File No. 763.72/1443). A third came with his despatch No. 525. on the 24th, together with a copy of the German original and a translation into French (File No. 763.72/1495).