The German Plot and Democracy's Future

By David Jayne Hill

[The Century Magazine, October 1917]

Vital as the principles of democracy are believed to be to the independence of nations and the ultimate peace of the world, the United States of America would never have entered the Great War for the purpose of imposing a democratic form of government on any people. What makes the present struggle in a real sense a battle for democracy is the fact that the exposure of imperial designs has produced a conviction that, if these designs should prove successful, democracy would ultimately be rendered impossible anywhere in the world. Confronted by a triumphant imperialism, self-governing nations would be obliged to protect themselves against aggression by arming themselves to the full extent of their resources, and to resort to a permanent centralization of public powers that would divest them of their democratic character. Even with the utmost precautions, the weaker independent states, if left to defend themselves unaided, would eventually be compelled to yield to imperial domination, thus progressively augmenting the resources of arbitrary power and proportionally weakening the forces of the independent, self-governing states. If, for example, Central Europe, as conceived by Naumann, should be consolidated as the result of the Great War, it would be only a question of time when not only Belgium, but Holland, Switzerland, the Scandinavian kingdoms, possibly France itself, and certainly the Balkan States, would fall under imperial rule. A great maritime power, such as would then come into existence, with naval stations on all the coasts of Europe and the acquired colonies, could proceed to the conquest of the world in perfect confidence and ease.

It was not, however, the fear of German expansion in Europe that induced the United States to abandon its policy of neutrality. So long as the war was considered as a merely European conflict of power, it was to be expected, following the American tradition of non-interference in European affairs, that the contest would be regarded as foreign to the interests of the American people.

Even a long succession of incredible outrages upon the citizens of the United States, accompanied with almost open interference with its internal affairs, did not move the American Government to abandon the resolution to remain neutral, nor did it awaken the American people to a full realization of the peril to which they were exposed. Hundreds of American men, women, and children, innocently traveling upon the high seas in the faith that they were under the protection of laws and customs that all nations had agreed to respect, were mercilessly slaughtered under the orders of the Imperial German Government. Repeated protests were followed by the continued destruction of non-combatant lives and the sinking of ships without search or warning, in violation not only of established laws of the sea, but of the principles embodied in treaties solemnly entered into which the German Government insisted were still binding upon the United States.

When, finally, the American Government announced that, unless the German Government was disposed to conform to the established rules of international law, diplomatic relations between the two countries must cease altogether, a promise to pursue thenceforth a legal course was made, but qualified by the demand that the Government of the United States should serve the purposes of the Imperial Government with other powers friendly to the United States. That the restriction placed upon the devastations of submarine torpedo-boats was intended to be only temporary, and that these devastations were intended to be resumed when a sufficient number of boats should be constructed to become really effective in suppressing American commerce, is now established in a manner that exposes the utter insincerity of the Imperial Government in all its professedly friendly negotiations with the United States.

On January 24, 1917, the German secretary for foreign affairs, Herr Zimmermann, used the following language for publication in the United States:

In the message which President Wilson addressed to the Senate [January 22, 1917] the Imperial German Government recognizes with extreme satisfaction the fact that the aspirations and thoughts of the President continue to occupy themselves with the question of the restoration of permanent peace. The exalted moral earnestness in the words of the President insures them an attentive ear throughout the world. The Imperial German Government earnestly hopes that the untiring efforts of the President to restore peace on earth may be crowned with success.

Apparently believing in "the exalted moral earnestness" of the President of the United States in his "untiring efforts to restore peace on earth," Herr Zimmermann, in the midst of these efforts for peace, was not only meditating war, but five days before using these expressions he had communicated by secret code through the German ambassador at Washington the following instruction to the German minister in Mexico:

Berlin, Jan. 19, 1917.

On the 1st of February we intend to begin submarine warfare unrestricted. In spite of this, it is our intention to endeavor to keep neutral the United States of America.

If this attempt is not successful, we propose an alliance on the following basis with Mexico: That we shall make war together and together make peace. We shall give general financial support, and it is understood that Mexico is to reconquer the lost territory in New Mexico, Texas, and Arizona. The details are left to you for settlement.

You are instructed to inform the President of Mexico of the above in the greatest confidence as soon as it is certain that there will be an outbreak of war with the United States, and suggest that the President of Mexico, on his own initiative, should communicate with Japan suggesting adherence at once to this plan. At the same time, offer to mediate between Germany and Japan.

Please call to the attention of the President of Mexico that the employment of ruthless submarine warfare now promises to compel England to make peace in a few months.


One week after expressing his hopes that the President's efforts for peace "would be crowned with success," on January 31, the Imperial German Government formally announced, as was intended before and during this whole period, that on and after February 1 it would adopt a policy with regard to the use of submarines against all shipping seeking to pass through certain designated areas of the high seas.

This violation of a previous agreement to observe the rules of international law the Imperial German Government well knew was equivalent to a declaration of war upon the United States, made in the midst of "the untiring efforts of the President to restore peace on earth." It was the German way of expressing "hopes" that those efforts might "be crowned with success." The pledge to observe the law had lasted until hundreds of submarine boats were ready to perform their task of wrecking the commerce of the world as an essential preliminary to "the restoration of peace on earth!" The intention had long been kept a secret, which the German proposal of peace negotiations had aided in concealing. On January 19 the Imperial Foreign Office knew that this vast flotilla of submarines would be ready by February 1, and that its mission would impose measures of war upon all neutral nations; yet when, on February 3, diplomatic relations with the Imperial German Government were severed by the United States, Berlin naively professed to be "astonished."

Not until April 6, however, when overt acts had demonstrated the fixed purpose of the Imperial Government to sink American ships, was the state of war officially declared to exist. It was with truth that the President said to the American people, "The wrongs against which we are now arraying ourselves are no common wrongs; they cut to the very roots of human life."

It is German violence that, notwithstanding our peaceable purposes, has made this our war. That the United States would ultimately be involved in it was inevitable, for it was conceived and promoted in arrogant contempt of everything for which the American people stand sponsors. We have accepted the challenge thrown down to us, as the President has said, "to vindicate the principles of peace and justice in the life of the world as against selfish and autocratic power, and to set up among the really free and self-governed peoples of the world such a concert of purpose and of action as will henceforth insure the observance of those principles."

It was at last made evident that geographic isolation is no longer a sufficient guarantee of American security, and that it is with a world problem that we now have to deal. Until this fact was established by indisputable evidence, and rendered undeniable by a prompt confession that saw in this hypocrisy nothing that called for shame, few of our citizens could have believed that it would ever enter into the plans of the Imperial German Government to propose the dismemberment of the United States, and that it would even designate and portion out whole States as the spoils of a war of conquest to be promoted by German gold, paid to mercenary armies under the command of German officers, as the forces of the Ottoman Empire are already commanded by them, for the purpose of rendering the will of Germany supreme through the conquest of Europe and the mastery of the sea.

Fortunately, this secret purpose was disclosed in time to lay bare at a critical moment the real attitude of the Imperial Government toward the United States, and thus to reveal to the American people unmistakably the degeneration of the Prussian official mind. Happily also, both the Japanese and the Mexican governments were sensitive to the insult offered to them by the infamy of this proposal. Even the citizens of the United States whose racial affinities led them at first to sympathize with the German cause, on account of their belief in the moral soundness of the German people, must now realize how cruelly they themselves as well as their friends in Germany have been deceived by the sophistications of the Imperial Government's propaganda, which has everywhere made appeal to race prejudice and sordid interest, but never to the noble humanism that was once esteemed characteristic of German thought.

The evidence that the motives of the Imperial German Government are unscrupulous, predatory, and ruthless has become overwhelming. Its conspiracies envelop the world. They have been directed under the mask of friendship by official diplomacy on our own soil. They lay under tribute every quarter of the globe and seek partners in crime in both hemispheres. Such a power is the enemy of all mankind. This at last the American people have come to understand; but they have not, perhaps, even yet fully appreciated how America will be affected by the fate of Europe, for the fate of Europe will determine the fate of the world.

What is the testimony of the Germans themselves regarding their aims and ambitions in this war? In a book of more, than four hundred octavo pages the Swiss publicist Grumbach has collected "Documents Published or secretly Circulated in Germany since August 4, 1914," bearing upon the annexation of conquered territory. In his preface he declares, "No competent person can dispute the fact that the war aims of Germany are of a nature to cause the greatest anxiety to the entire world."

Although the Imperial Government avoids as much as possible committing itself to any definite declaration of policy, it allows and even encourages a popular demand for annexations and indemnities. Men of every party, of every class, and of every profession possessing influence in public affairs in Germany have constantly voiced the demand for annexations which the Pan-Germanist literature had made before the war, and often in the same terms. The expectations of spoils which rendered the war popular in Germany in the beginning have during every stage of its progress taken the form of urgency that they be realized at its close.

Not knowing just how the war will end, the Imperial Government dares not promise too much, but it does not hesitate to keep alive a popular approval of any conquests which the forces at its disposal may eventually enable it to make. "Compare," writes Grumbach, "the passivity which the authorities manifested when the six great industrial and agrarian leagues circulated their famous annexionist petition without encountering the least obstacle with the confiscation at the moment of its publication of the petition of the anti-annexionist league Neues Vaterland, intended as a reply;" followed by the gradual strangling of this anti-annexionist league under police surveillance, and the imprisonment of its secretary.

It is important also to note that the territory now claimed for annexation in the west is even in excess of that marked out for conquest by the Pan-German writers in 1911. "In the interest of our own existence," says the petition, "we ought to enfeeble France politically and economically without scruple, and to render our military and strategic situation more favorable with regard to it. We are convinced that, to secure that end, a serious correction of our whole western frontier from Belfort to the coast is necessary. We ought to do everything possible to conquer a part of the French coast, from the north to the Pas-de-Calais, in order to be assured from a strategic point of view against England, and to possess a better approach to the ocean." The German scientific experts, it is explained by one of the commentators on this extension of the frontier, were not aware in 1871 of the vast treasures of coal and iron they had failed to claim.

The territory now demanded includes, in the west, the whole of Belgium and the frontier territories of France; that is to say, the part of the coast almost to the Somme, with a hinterland assuring the complete economic and strategic exploitation of the port on the channel; the iron mine-fields of Briey; the frontier fortresses with the line of the Meuse, especially Verdun and Belfort, with the watershed west of the Vosges between Verdun and Belfort; on the east "at least" parts of the Baltic provinces and the territories to the south, in such a manner that the new acquisitions would protect first of all the present Prussian provinces the whole length of the frontiers of East Prussia, and also the length of the frontiers of West Prussia, of Posnania, and of Silesia.

To secure these advantages, the six leagues stated in their manifesto that they did not desire a "premature peace;" for "from such a peace," the petition runs, "one could not expect a sufficient fruit of victory!"

But, in addition to the defined areas of conquest, there are certain indefinite aspirations here set forth, "if it be possible to realize them." These include "a colonial empire which would fully satisfy the manifold economic interests of Germany, besides guarantees for our commercial future, and the securing of a sufficient war indemnity, paid in an appropriate form."

The reasons for these additional conquests are not that Belgium and France have forfeited these territories by making an attack upon Germany. The iron- and coal-fields specified are said to be "indispensable not only for the existence of our industrial power, but they constitute military necessities;" that is, they are desired as new bases for future military activity. It is pointed out that "neutral industrial states are constrained to make themselves the tools of that one of the belligerents that can assure them a supply of coal." By possessing all the coal in western Europe, Germany can better exercise that restraint. Germany, it is urged, has already been "obliged to have recourse to the Belgian production in order to prevent our neutral neighbors from becoming dependent on England." Besides, in Belgium, it is explained, are found also "the fundamental elements of our principal explosives;" and "benzol, the only substitute for benzene, which we lack, and this is indispensable for submarines."

For these reasons Belgium and northwestern France must belong to Germany. The native populations of these districts, it is insisted, "shall not be put in a position to obtain a political influence upon the destinies of the German Empire." It is also urged that "the existing means of economic power in these territories, including the medium and the great properties, shall be placed in the hands of Germans in a manner that shall require France to indemnify and recall the proprietors!"

In order to give some appearance of justice to these plans for imperial expansion at the expense of Belgium and France, the legend of a "conspiracy" to attack Germany and destroy her, of which England is charged with being the instigator, and France, Belgium, and Russia the eager instruments, has been persistently propagated in Germany and in the United States. As a penalty, runs the legend, for bringing this dreadful scourge of war upon peace-loving Germany, these guilty nations must repay her for the terrible sacrifices made by her brave sons and loyal subjects, who have given their lives and their treasures for the defense of the fatherland. Not only territories, but money indemnities, are expected, and these last the imperial chancellor, as late as February 27, 1917, asserted are "necessary." This Government, which declared war on Russia and France; which ordered the invasion of Belgium; which authorized Austria-Hungary to suppress Serbia; which, in July, 1914, rejected the proposals of Serbia and the czar to submit the Austria-Serbian question to the Hague Tribunal; which has ruined and depopulated Belgium, annihilated Serbia, and devastated Poland—this Government expects indemnities for the wrongs inflicted upon Germany, and to give this extortion a color of justice holds these countries up as the guilty culprits!

Note, for example, the attempt to heap calumnies upon Belgium for acting in self-defense. "Deputy Hirsch [Social Democrat]," cries the National-Liberal deputy, Dr. Friedberg, in the Prussian Landtag, in January, 1916—"Deputy Hirsch desires that the political and economic independence, of Belgium be restored. But we have no right to forget that Belgium was in no respect the neutral country it appeared to be on August 2, 1914!" And so a man who has been assassinated in his bed is to have his house plundered because it was discovered during the murder that he had tried to make previous arrangements with his neighbors for his protection against this very crime!

Germany, it is said, did not desire war. But listen to Major-General Von Gebsattel, an eminent soldier-diplomat, who is not afraid to confess the truth to his fellow-officers. In October, 1915, he said:

We have not wished the war to try, seriously this time, the efficiency of our quick-firing cannons and our machine-guns—of that we had a very exact idea, particularly we old soldiers—we wished it because we understood that our people were on the wrong road in their development, because we considered the war a necessity, and because we were besides aware that a war is easier—as much in its military course as for its minimum of sacrifices—when a people, in every fashion constrained to struggle for its existence, is more resolute and more prompt to choose the moment favorable for aggression.

Here is no attempt to conceal the fact that the present war was not only desired by the German officers, but that the time for it was opportunely chosen, yet not without serious miscalculations, and the whole progress of the war has shown how groundless and how ignoble the accusation of an international conspiracy is.

The orthodox German doctrine on annexations, it seems, was stated by the chief of the National-Liberal party, Herr Bassermann, as early as December, 1914, when he said in the Reichstag:

We shall hold till the most remote future the countries fertilized by German blood…. We shall be able to keep what we have acquired, and to acquire in addition that of which we have need.

But we do not reach the final formula of German tribal ambition until we have received it from the chief of the Free Conservative party in the Prussian Landtag, Herr Zedlitz-Neukirch. He said:

If the peace we aim at is to be durable, all the territorial acquisitions, which the general staff deems necessary to shield us from, the danger of a future war must be secured by that peace; and no regard for our adversaries, their county, or their people, should prevent our imposing these conditions, least of all the so-called right of the inhabitants of the territories that are to be conquered to dispose of themselves.

The purposes for which the war was begun having failed of accomplishment through an unexpected obstinacy of resistance on the part of the Entente Allies, the problem of negotiating a peace has become a serious one for the Imperial German Government. Not to make any annexations or collect any indemnities beyond the levies extorted from Belgium and Poland during military occupation would signify a defeat of the German plans. To this kind of settlement all those responsible for the war quite naturally object, and desire no relinquishment of territory occupied and no abatement of frightfulness, in the hope that the Allies may soon be disunited or exhausted, thus leaving Germany the victor. The Hohenzollern dynasty, having taken the responsibility of this vast predatory enterprise, cannot save its face without securing some compensation for the "sacrifices" imposed upon the people of Germany. So long as the Allies continue their opposition, these compensations cannot be secured; and in the meantime two changes are occurring in the minds of the German people: a growing weariness of the war as a result of exhaustion, and a gradual enlightenment regarding the responsibility for a war which the mass of the German people believed at its beginning was forced upon the empire by a combination of hostile powers. As a result, the desire for peace without annexations and indemnities, insisted upon by a group of Social Democrats, is rapidly becoming the sentiment of the country, with the exception of the Junker class and the industrial imperialists, whose very existence depends upon the continued alliance between private business and military power. Between these instigators of predatory war and the peace-loving people, the imperial chancellor, anxious at least to save the dynasty, dare not formulate precise terms of peace, and remains mute, with the intention of obtaining, as Bethmann-Hollweg has said, "all the pawns and all the real guarantees possible."

We already have evidence that the Imperial German Government is attentive to changes in the minds of the people. Why should the emperor himself, who claims his royal title "from God alone," propose "a people's kingdom of the Hohenzollerns," if he does not believe that in fact the people, if not wiser, are at least more powerful and more certain to endure than the Hohenzollern dynasty?

Thus, and thus only, it would appear, the imperial crown may be saved. No longer able to cover its errors by appealing to "the will of God," this shrewd family, which has known how to rise from a Swabian lordship over a handful of peasants to the throne of an empire by an alternation of bargain and bloodshed, would no doubt be content to reign by "the will of the people."

Here is the whole question at issue in this war—the right of peoples to dispose of themselves. Once conceded, there is a solid foundation for the new Europe when the peace congress meets to determine the future; for this right involves the repudiation of autocracy, giving the state an ethical basis, and at the same time implies the existence of the inherent obligation of every people to respect that right in others. Unhappily, this doctrine has not yet been clearly enunciated as a principle of public law. In Germany it is still disputed. The eminent professor of law in the University of Berlin, Dr. Joseph Kohler, writes:

The irresistible force of war and conquest takes possession of countries and peoples. That is one of the fundamental principles of international law, and it suffices to make litter of the old sentimentalities.... It is needless to be disquieted over the superfluous sentiment regarding a plebiscite, in virtue of which it is of importance to consult the population to know if it wishes to belong to one state or another. The territory carries with it the population that inhabits it; the individual who is not satisfied has only to quit the territory of the state....The rational assent of a people has hardly any sense; the impulsive forces of the popular soul repose the greater part of the time below the threshold of reason and reflection. Thus it is all reduced to force, an inflexible domination.

German jurists and publicists, the authorities to whom the people look for instruction in these matters, almost without exception have been bred to accept this doctrine. It is a perfectly logical deduction from the history of the Prussian state. Thus far the states of Europe have never formally repudiated it. On the other hand, they have never formally asserted it by an explicit international act. The time has now come to settle permanently the question whether arbitrary force or justice is the basis of European civilization. If the Central powers are to be judged by what they claim as the result of the Great War, and if the Allied powers are true to their professions, this is the fundamental issue between them: Shall the future of Europe and of the civilized world rest upon the assumption that a powerful state, in order to satisfy its economic ambitions, may take possession of the territory and the people of a weaker state by military force and appropriate the land and its people to its purposes? That is the tribal theory of the Central powers, as stated by themselves, against which the rest of the world, outside of their Turkish and Bulgarian allies, is contending.

It was the menaced application of this theory of international relationship to the United States that clarified the vision of the American people and enabled them to perceive that, neutrality toward an empire holding, practising, and plotting to extend and perpetuate that theory is impossible. They had hesitated to avenge their dead, cruelly slaughtered on the high seas; they had been reluctant to join in what seemed to be a European quarrel; they believed that the German nation would itself rise in denunciation of such enormities as it had been led into perpetrating; they have waited for this in the faith that a whole people, a people that had risen to such heights of excellence in many forms of civilization, could not always be blinded by leaders who defied all the nations of the earth to check what they deemed to be their irresistible force: but thus far they have waited in vain.

Those who best know Germany and the Germans do not look for a general revolution while the German armies are not beaten in the field. Revolt against the existing system is not only extremely perilous for the persons who may propose it, but it is in the German character to be loyal to the Imperial Government while their country is believed to be still in peril. Not until the whole ghastly truth dawns upon them regarding the atrocities committed in their name, how they themselves have been deceived, what cruel wrongs have been done to their sons and brothers in leading them to the shambles for the acquisition of ports and mines and war indemnities, and that this has brought only disaster, debt, and shame upon them, will the German people cry out for a more responsible control of their own destinies and a reorganization of international life upon a basis of peace through justice. Already isolated voices have been heard demanding these changes. The protests have come mainly from the Social Democrats, but it is not they alone who are aware that Germany stands before the rest of the world as a convicted culprit; whose good name has been lost through an unholy alliance between private greed and the weird priestcraft of divine prerogative—a partnership which has decked out an altar of sacrifice in the name of religion in order to give to military power a sacramental sanction for the commission of wholesale crime.

What needs now to be pressed home upon the German people is that those who are resisting the Imperial Government are sincere in their loyalty to the principles they profess, and that what they aim at is not mere selfish national interests, but permanent guarantees of peace with justice. Whatever fruits of victory result from this war must be international fruits. No nation should be permitted to claim them for itself or to dictate peace solely in its own interest. Claims for damage and advantage made by any one of the belligerents should be left to the judgment of the others, not made a condition of settlement by itself alone, and the solidity of the peace will depend upon the willingness of each nation to do this and the sense of impartial justice with which the decisions are reached. If this principle is followed out, there will be an immense development of the idea of internationalization. The seas and oceans of the world will be made freely accessible and safe for all nations, the avenues of trade will lead to an increased number of open doors, and the backward nations of the world will be treated as the common wards of those more advanced in civilization.

Is this the real purpose of the Entente Allies? The United States has entered into this struggle, and will afford the Allies all possible aid, in the faith that it is their purpose. Were the Great War believed to be on both sides nothing but an armed struggle for trade supremacy and first place in possession of the resources of the globe, there would be no disposition on the part of Americans to engage in it. Many Germans, no doubt, seriously believe that it is, on both sides, a contest for national primacy, and that it has been forced upon them, as the legends of "encirclement" and "conspiracy" pretend. The sooner this fiction can be exposed, the sooner will German confidence in the possibility of a permanent international peace be produced, and nothing could more effectually contribute to that enlightenment than a formal declaration that exclusive national gains are not the objects of the war. The exemplary spirit of renunciation manifested by Russia and the known absence of selfish purposes on the part of the United States might well inspire such a declaration. A clear statement of the principles of public law which it is desirable to establish for the future, with a solemn compact to observe and sustain them, would be an appropriate preliminary to any negotiations for peace. The whole world would then be in a position to express its adherence to those principles. Such a compact would necessarily involve the repudiation of the right of conquest for the purpose of acquiring territory by military force from an independent state and its infamous corollary that the population goes with the land and becomes subject to the will of the conqueror.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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