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

Wednesday, March 20, 2024

The American Ambassador in Berlin Views the Coming of War

Ambassador Gerard and His Embassy Staff in Berlin

New Yorker James Watson Gerard, Jr, (1867–1951) served as Ambassador to Germany from 1913 to 1917, when America broke diplomatic relations with the empire. Earlier had been highly active in Democratic politics, including Tammany Hall and had served as a Justice of the New York Supreme Court from 1908 to 1913. His 1917 memoir of his time as ambassador, My Four Years in Germany, was a bestseller and even led to a movie spin-off. After the First World War, Gerard became known as a wealthy mining investor and philanthropist.  In the 1930s he became a visceral critic of Hitler and Nazism, especially their anti-Jewish policies.  

Meeting the Kaiser

On September ninth, 1913, having resigned as Justice of the Supreme Court of the State of New York, I sailed for Germany, stopping on the way in London in order to make the acquaintance of Ambassador Page, certain wise people in Washington having expressed the belief that a personal acquaintance of our Ambassadors made it easier for them to work together. . . In the month of November [1913], I presented my letters of credence as Ambassador to the Emperor. This presentation is quite a ceremony. Three coaches were sent for me and my staff, coaches like that in which Cinderella goes to her ball, mostly glass, with white wigged coachmen, outriders in white wigs and standing footmen holding on to the back part of the coach. Baron von Roeder, introducer of Ambassadors, came for me and accompanied me in the first coach; the men of the Embassy staff sat in the other two coaches. Our little procession progressed solemnly through the streets of Berlin, passing on the way through the centre division of the arch known as the Brandenburger Thor, the gateway that stands at the head of the Unter den Linden, a privilege given only on this occasion.

We mounted long stairs in the palace, and in a large room were received by the aides and the officers of the Emperor's household, of course all in uniform. Then I was ushered alone into the adjoining room where the Emperor, very erect and dressed in the black uniform of the Death's Head Hussars, stood by a table. I made him a little speech, and presented my letters of credence and the letters of recall of my predecessor. The Emperor then unbent from his very erect and impressive attitude and talked with me in a very friendly manner, especially impressing me with his interest in business and commercial affairs. I then, in accordance with custom, asked leave to present my staff. The doors were opened. The staff came in and were presented to the Emperor, who talked in a very jolly and agreeable way to all of us, saying that he hoped above all to see the whole of the Embassy staff riding in the Tier Garten in the mornings. . .

Symptoms of Extreme Militarism

For years officers of the army, both in the discharge of their duties and outside, have behaved in a very arrogant way toward the civil population. Time and again, while I was in Germany waiting in line at some ticket office, an officer has shoved himself ahead of all others without even a protest from those waiting. On one occasion, I went to the races in Berlin with my brother-in-law and bought a box. While we were out looking at the horses between the races, a Prussian officer and his wife seated themselves in our box. I called the attention of one of the ushers to this, but the usher said that he did not dare ask a Prussian officer to leave, and it was only after sending for the head usher and showing him my Jockey Club badge and my pass as Ambassador, that I was able to secure possession of my own box.

There have been many instances in Germany where officers having a slight dispute with civilians have instantly cut the civilian down. Instances of this kind and the harsh treatment of the Germans by officers and under-officers, while serving in the army, undoubtedly created in Germany a spirit of antagonism not only to the army itself but to the whole military system of Prussia.

The German View of War

The short war against Denmark in 1864, against Austria, Bavaria, etc., in 1866 and against France in 1870, enormously increased both the pride and prestige of the Prussian army. It must not be forgotten that at all periods of history it seems as if some blind instinct had driven the inhabitants of the inhospitable plains of North Germany to war and to conquest. The Cimbri and Teutones—the tribes defeated by Marius; Ariovistus, who was defeated by Julius Caesar; the Goths and the Visi-Goths; the Franks and the Saxons; all have poured forth from this infertile country, for the conquest of other lands. The Germans of to-day express this longing of the North Germans for pleasanter climes in the phrase in which they demand "a place in the sun."

The nobles of Prussia are always for war. The business men and manufacturers and shipowners desire an increasing field for their activities. The German colonies were uninhabitable by Europeans. All his life the glittering Emperor and his generals had planned and thought of war; and the Crown Prince, surrounded by his remarkable collection of relics and reminders of Napoleon, dreamed only of taking the lead in a successful war of conquest. Early in the winter of 1913-14, the Crown Prince showed his collection of Napoleana to a beautiful American woman of my acquaintance, and said that he hoped war would occur while his father was alive, but, if not, he would start a war the moment he came to the throne.

During the Crisis and Early Days of the War
the American Embassy Was a Center of Interest

The July Crisis

Some days after my return to Berlin the ultimatum of Austria was sent to Serbia. Even then there was very little excitement, and, when the Serbian answer was published, it was believed that this would end the incident, and that matters would be adjusted by dilatory diplomats in the usual way.

On the twenty-sixth of July, matters began to boil. The Emperor returned on this day and, from the morning of the twenty-seventh, took charge. On the twenty-seventh, also, Sir Edward Goschen returned to Berlin. I kept in touch, so far as possible, with the other diplomats, as the German officials were exceedingly uncommunicative, although I called on von Jagow every day and tried to get something out of him. On the night of the twenty-ninth, the Chancellor and Sir Edward had their memorable conversation in which the Chancellor, while making no promises about the French colonies, agreed, if Great Britain remained neutral, to make "no territorial aggressions at the expense of France."

The Chancellor further stated to Sir Edward, that ever since he had been Chancellor the object of his policy had been to bring about an understanding with England and that he had in mind a general neutrality agreement between Germany and England. 

On the thirtieth, Sir Edward Grey refused the bargain proposed, namely that Great Britain should engage to stand by while the French colonies were taken and France beaten, so long as French territory was not taken. Sir Edward Grey said that the so-called bargain at the expense of France would constitute a disgrace from which the good name of Great Britain would never recover. He also refused to bargain with reference to the neutrality of Belgium. Peace talk continued, however, on both the thirtieth and thirty-first, and many diplomats were still optimistic. On the thirty-first I was lunching at the Hotel Bristol with Mrs. Gerard and Thomas H. Birch, our minister to Portugal, and his wife. I left the table and went over and talked to Mouktar Pascha, the Turkish Ambassador, who assured me that there was no danger whatever of war. But in spite of his assurances and judging by the situation and what I learned from other diplomats, I had cabled to the State Department on the morning of that day saying that a general European war was inevitable. On the thirty-first, Kriegsgefahrzustand or "condition of danger of war" was proclaimed at seven P. M., and at seven P. M. the demand was made by Germany that Russia should demobilise within twelve hours. On the thirtieth, I had a talk with Baron Beyens, the Minister of Belgium, and Jules Cambon, the French Ambassador, in the garden of the French Embassy in the afternoon. They both agreed that nothing could prevent war except the intervention of America. . .

Acting on my own responsibility, I sent the following letter to the Chancellor:

"Your Excellency:

Is there nothing that my country can do? Nothing that I can do towards stopping this dreadful war?

I am sure that the President would approve any act of mine looking towards peace.

  Yours ever, (Signed) JAMES W. GERARD."

To this letter I never had any reply.

Ambassador Gerard Bids Farewell to a Train of
Americans Being Evacuated from Germany

On the first of August at five P. M. the order for mobilisation was given, and at seven-ten P. M. war was declared by Germany on Russia, the Kaiser proclaiming from the balcony of the palace that "he knew no parties more". . . On the second of August, I called in the morning to say good-bye to the Russian Ambassador. His Embassy was filled with unfortunate Russians who had gone there to seek protection and help. Right and left, men and women were weeping and the whole atmosphere seemed that of despair.


Source: My Four Years in Germany by James W. Gerard

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