Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Albert Ballin and the Haldane Mission

Albert Ballin (1857–1918, pronounced "balleen") was a German shipping magnate, who was the general director of the Hamburg-Amerikanische Packetfahrt-Actien-Gesellschaft or Hamburg-America Line, at times the world's largest shipping company. The Kaiser honored Ballin with his friendship, took a great interest in his work, and sought his advice frequently. Wilhelm visited his Jewish friend many times at Ballin's villa in Hamburg where they dined together. Ballin was also an Anglophile, temperamentally a compromiser, with hopes for peace between Germany and England.

Albert Ballin at the Height of His Influence, Visiting the Races in 1905

Up to 1908, Ballin was one of the main supporters of the ideas of Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz. [But by then] Ballin was increasingly concerned with the dangerous consequence of continued naval expansion: a further deterioration of German-British relations.

It is thus not surprising that Ballin’s “first major political action” took him to London in June 1908.  Ballin made the trip to meet Sir Ernest Cassel, one of the most influential bankers in London. Cassel, a Jew who had converted to Catholicism in 1881, originally came from Cologne. He had emigrated as a young man to England, where he had earned a great deal of money with clever financial transactions. In 1902 he was appointed private financial adviser to King Edward VII, with whom he was also friends. Cassel intended to discuss German-British relations with Ballin, who had become acquainted with him through Max Warburg. The discussion ended with Cassel proposing that Germany and England should try to resolve their differences via negotiations.

The Daily Telegraph Affair in October 1908 mentioned above led to a further deterioration in German-British relations. Negotiations were resumed at the initiative of Ballin, who met Cassel for the second time on 10 July 1909. Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg, who was appointed Reich Chancellor four days later, was also interested in good relations with Britain. He considered a fleet agreement between both countries to be desirable but was determined to conduct negotiations via normal diplomatic channels, as he mistrusted the semi-official link via Cassel and Ballin, who responded sensitively to this lack of confidence. From August 1909, Germany and Britain had their ambassadors discuss the fleet issue informally, without any results being achieved up to 1910.

The Kaiser Visting Ballin

Ballin again acted as an intermediary at the beginning of 1912. He resumed contact with Cassel and began to correspond with him. This led to Cassel traveling to Berlin on 29 January 1912 and, together with Ballin, holding a discussion with the Kaiser and the Reich Chancellor.  On 2 February, Cassel, who had meanwhile returned to Britain, sent a telegram drafted by him and by Winston Churchill (First Lord of the Admiralty), Lord Richard Burdon Haldane (the British minister of war) and Sir Edward Grey (the British foreign secretary) to Ballin, who passed it on to the Reich Chancellor. This stated: “Inform confidentially that intention is possibly to send ministre de la guerre Berlin, (…)”

Close on two weeks later, the secret discussions between Haldane and Bethmann-Hollweg (on 8 and 10 February) and between Haldane, the Kaiser, and Tirpitz (on 9 February) took place in the Reich capital. The latter was not prepared to renounce the just announced German Naval Amendment, which – going beyond the original planning – envisaged in particular the construction of three more battleships in the next six years. Tirpitz agreed merely to hold out the prospect of an extension of the construction times, a concession that seemed to satisfy Haldane. He in turn offered a political agreement, but not the neutrality agreement demanded by the “hawks” in the Imperial Naval Office, at court, in Parliament, and by the public at large. This would have obliged Britain to maintain a position of unconditional neutrality and thus enabled Germany to take a calculated risk in a war against France and Russia.

When he was back in Britain, Haldane soon met criticism, as the British naval experts reproached him for having overlooked the important point of crew strengthening that the Germans also planned. Although Ballin spoke several times with the Kaiser in the following weeks and was involved in further negotiations with Britain in mid-March, no settlement was reached, and in May 1912 the Reichstag accepted the Naval Amendment with the votes of the Conservatives, the Liberals and the Center.

Richard Haldane

Ballin attributed the failure of the Haldane Mission, which was a serious blow for him, to the fact that the Kaiser and Chancellor had undertaken to deal with the issue themselves from the beginning to the end. Tirpitz was only indirectly involved and could thus much more easily contest the attempted rapprochement with Britain. However, Ballin himself also made no efforts at all to persuade Tirpitz to drop the Naval Amendment Act, distancing himself clearly from Tirpitz. The most convincing reason for this is given by Ballin’s biographer, Cecil: “But what Tirpitz had and what Ballin admired in the man were characteristics that were completely lacking in the rest of Berlin: resolution and ability.” When Tirpitz resigned in March 1916 after disagreements with the Kaiser and Bethmann-Hollweg concerning unrestricted submarine warfare, Ballin wrote “that one has now let Tirpitz go is the peak of stupidity!”

Ballin and Cassel continued to work for an agreement between Britain and Germany even after the failure of the Haldane Mission, but in vain. The scope for this – in any case limited – had again considerably narrowed. Then in August 1914 the lights went out throughout Europe.

Ballin advocated peaceful negotiations to end the war and opposed submarine warfare, but eventually lost his nerve and will. On 9 November 1918, seeing that Germany was defeated and that he was doomed to lose his shipping empire, Albert Ballin committed suicide with an overdose of sleeping pills.

Source: Albert Ballin biography from the Hapag-Lloyd Foundation


  1. An historical side note on Sir Ernest Cassel - his granddaughter was Edwina, Countess Mountbatten of Burma, wife of Lord Mountbatten. Sir Ernest left her most of his fortune (valued at $121 million in today's US dollars) when he died in 1921.

  2. What a fascinating post. Thank you for adding another biographical insight into WWI.
    What a story, too, starting from such potential, and falling so far.

  3. Very interesting article. Showing that diplomacy happens in many different forms. The efforts of business and banking interests to settle a dispute over naval power is interesting. That the normal diplomatic channels failed, can be linked to problems of diplomacy today. Politicians always negotiate with their agendas before them. Perhaps that is why the Earth has been cursed with so many wars.