File No. 763.72/1940

The Ambassador in Germany (Gerard) to the Secretary of State



Foreign Office,

Berlin, July 8, 1915.

The undersigned has the honor to make the following reply to the note of his excellency, Mr. James W. Gerard, Ambassador of the United States of America, dated the 10th [9th] ultimo, Foreign Office No. 3814, on the subject of the impairment of American interests by the German submarine war;2

The Imperial Government has learned with satisfaction from the note how earnestly the Government of the United States is concerned in seeing the principles of humanity realized in the present war. Also, this appeal meets with [Page 464] full sympathy in Germany, and the Imperial Government is quite willing to permit its statements and decisions in the case under consideration to be governed by the principles of humanity just as it has done always.

The Imperial Government welcomed it with gratitude when the American Government in its note of May 15 [13], 1915,1 itself recalled that Germany had always permitted itself to be governed by the principles of progress and humanity in dealing with the law of maritime war. Since the time when Frederick the Great negotiated with John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson the treaty of friendship and commerce of September 10, 1785, between Prussia and the Republic of the West, German and American statesmen have in fact always stood together in the struggle for the freedom of the seas and for the protection of peaceable trade. In the international proceedings which have since been conducted for the regulation of the right of maritime war Germany and America have jointly advocated progressive principles, especially the abolishment of the right of capture at sea and the protection of the interests of neutrals. Even at the beginning of the present war the German Government immediately declared its willingness, in response to the proposal of the American Government, to ratify the Declaration of London and thereby to subject itself, in the use of its naval forces, to all the restrictions provided therein in favor of neutrals. Germany has likewise been always tenacious of the principle that war should be conducted against the armed and organ zed forces of the enemy country, but that the civilian population of the enemy must be spared as far as possible from the measures of war. The Imperial Government cherishes the definite hope that some way will be found when peace is concluded, or perhaps earlier, to regulate the law of maritime war in a manner guaranteeing the freedom of the seas, and will welcome it with gratitude and satisfaction if it can work hand in hand with the American Government on that occasion.

If in the present war the principles which should be the ideal of the future have been traversed more and more the longer its duration, the German Government has no guilt therein.

It is known to the American Government how Germany’s adversaries, by completely paralyzing peaceable traffic between Germany and the neutral countries, have aimed from the very beginning, and with increasing lack of consideration at the destruction, not so much of the armed forces, as the life of the German nation, repudiating in so doing all the rules of international law and disregarding all the rights of neutrals. On November 3, 1914,2 England declared the North Sea to be a war area, and by planting poorly anchored mines and the stoppage and capture of vessels made passage extremely dangerous and difficult for neutral shipping, so that it is actually blockading neutral coasts and ports, contrary to all international law. Long before the beginning of the submarine war England practically completely intercepted legitimate neutral navigation to Germany also. Thus Germany was driven to submarine war on trade. On November 16, 1914, the English Prime Minister declared in the House of Commons that it was one of England’s principal tasks to prevent food for the German population from reaching Germany by way of neutral ports. Since March 1 of this year England has been taking from neutral ships, without further formality, all merchandise proceeding to Germany, as well as all merchandise coming from Germany, even when neutral property. Just as was the case with the Boers, the German people is now to be given the choice of perishing from starvation, with its women and children, or of relinquishing its independence.

While our enemies thus loudly and openly have proclaimed war without mercy until our utter destruction, we are conducting war in self-defense for our national existence and for the sake of peace of assured permanency. We have been obliged to adopt submarine warfare to meet the declared intentions of our enemies and the method of warfare adopted by them in contravention of international law.

With all its efforts in principle to protect neutral life and property from damage as much as possible, the German Government recognized unreservedly in its memorandum of February 4 that the interests of neutrals might suffer from submarine warfare.3 However, the American Government will also understand [Page 465] and appreciate that in the fight for existence which has been forced upon Germany by its adversaries and announced by them, it is the sacred duty of the Imperial Government to do all within its power to protect and to save the lives of German subjects. If the Imperial Government were derelict in these, its duties, it would be guilty before God and history of the violation of those principles of the highest humanity which are the foundation of every national existence.

The case of the Lusitania shows with horrible clearness to what jeopardizing of human lives the manner of conducting war employed by our adversaries leads. In most direct contradiction of international law, all distinctions between merchantmen and war vessels have been obliterated by the order to British merchantmen to arm themselves and to ram submarines, and the promise of rewards therefor; and neutrals who use merchantmen as travelers have thereby been exposed in an increasing degree to all the dangers of war. If the commander of the German submarine which destroyed the Lusitania had caused the crew and travelers to put out in boats before firing the torpedo, this would have meant the sure destruction of his own vessel. After the experiences in the sinking of much smaller and less seaworthy vessels, it was to be expected that a mighty ship like the Lusitania would remain above water long enough, even after the torpedoing, to permit the passengers to enter the ship’s boats. Circumstances of a very peculiar kind, especially the presence on board of large quantities of highly explosive materials, defeated this expectation. In addition, it may be pointed out that if the Lusitania had been spared, thousands of cases of ammunit on would have been sent to Germany’s enemies and thereby thousands of German mothers and children robbed of their supporters.

In the spirit of friendship with which the German nation has been imbued toward the Union and its inhabitants since the earliest days of its existence, the Imperial Government will always be ready to do all it can, during the present war also, to prevent the jeopardizing of the lives of American citizens.

The Imperial Government therefore repeats the assurances that American ships will not be hindered in the prosecution of legitimate shipping, and the lives of American citizens on neutral vessels shall not be placed in jeopardy.

In order to exclude any unforeseen dangers to American passenger steamers, made possible in view of the conduct of maritime war on the part of Germany’s adversaries, the German submarines will be instructed to permit the free and safe passage of such passenger steamers when made recognizable by special markings and notified a reasonable time in advance. The Imperial Government, however, confidently hopes that the American Government will assume the guarantee that these vessels have no contraband on board. The details of the arrangements for the unhampered passage of these vessels would have to be agreed upon by the naval authorities of both sides.

In order to furnish adequate facilities for travel across the Atlantic Ocean for American citizens, the German Government submits for consideration [a proposal] to increase the number of available steamers by installing in the passenger service a reasonable number of neutral steamers, the exact number to be agreed upon, under the American flag under the same conditions as the American steamers above mentioned.

The Imperial Government believes that it can assume that in this manner adequate facilities for travel across the Atlantic Ocean can be afforded American citizens. There would therefore appear to be no compelling necessity for American citizens to travel to Europe in time of war on ships carrying an enemy flag. In particular the Imperial Government is unable to admit that American citizens can protect an enemy ship through the mere fact of their presence on board. Germany merely followed England’s example when it declared part of the high seas an area of war. Consequently accidents suffered by neutrals on enemy ships in this area of war, can not well be judged differently from accidents to which neutrals are at all times exposed at the seat of war on land when they betake themselves into dangerous localities in spite of previous warning.

If however, it should not be possible for the American Government to acquire an adequate number of neutral passenger steamers, the Imperial Government is prepared to interpose no objections to the placing under the American flag by the American Government of four enemy passenger steamers for the passenger traffic between America and England. The assurances of “free and safe” passage for American passenger steamers would then be extended to apply under the identical pre-conditions to these formerly hostile passenger ships.

[Page 466]

The President of the United States has declared his readiness, in a way deserving of thanks, to communicate and suggest proposals to the Government of Great Britain with particular reference to the alteration of maritime war. The Imperial Government will always be glad to make use of the good offices of the President, and hopes that his efforts in the present case, as well as in the direction of the lofty ideal of the freedom of the seas, will lead to an understanding.

The undersigned requests the Ambassador to bring the above to the knowledge of the American Government, and avails himself [etc.]

Von Jagow

  1. According to a later telegram from the Ambassador, of July 14 (file No. 763.72/1954), the note was delivered to him on July 8, “late at night.” It was telegraphed, in five sections, during the course of the following afternoon, by way of the Legation in Denmark. Four of the sections, in irregular order, arrived on July 10 between 4.30 and 7.30 p. m. One of them, the third, was not received until 7.15 a. m., on the 11th.
  2. Ante, p. 436.
  3. Ante, p. 393.
  4. Foreign Relations, 1914, Supplement, p. 464.
  5. Ante, p. 96.