The subject of this study was a typical, if in some respects well qualified, U.S. ambassadorial appointee for his time, the early twentieth century: an attorney, judge, and politician who served competently in his one diplomatic assignment, in Berlin, before returning to private life.—Ed.
James Watson Gerard, U. S. ambassador to Berlin between 1913 and 1917, was in many ways representative of Americans in their perceptions of Imperial Germany in that period. In his personal writings and despatches to Washington, Gerard’s views came to be unflattering, inspired by suspicions about Berlin’s expansionist aims and military tactics. His views of Imperial Germany fit neatly into an age which historian Merle Curti characterized as “a struggle between darkness and light, barbarism and civilization.”1 Gerard believed Germany to be gripped by an institutionalized concept of conservative authoritarianism—a hostage of a militarist Prussian minority.
Gerard was not swift to come to this conclusion, however, despite the certitude of his memoirs. His letters early on, in 1914, reveal a much more positive assessment, impressed as he was by the ceremony of the Hohenzollern court. As the 1914-1918 war progressed, his portraits of the German character hardened, frequently buttressed by rumor and gossip, a development not missed by President Woodrow Wilson’s biographer, Arthur S. Link.2 Gerard’s criticisms took the form of vignettes that characterized German character with crude biological references, often inconsistent and self-contradictory: weather, gastronomy, and the inability of any German class to show a sense of humor. The inevitable conclusion of this later analysis was an entire reassessment of the Kaiser’s character, who he came to believe was responsible for the war and directly linked to the sinking of the Cunard liner Lusitania on May 7, 1915. This led to his later public recommendations of what amounted to a war trial, a view that was not maintained by colleagues within the State Department, most notably Secretary Robert Lansing.
A high opinion of his role in Berlin has been maintained despite his extravagant theoretical meditations on German tyranny. Charles Seymour, for example, in his compilation of the Intimate Papers of Colonel House claimed that “Gerard was excelled by none in the dignity and capacity by which he maintained the interests and furthered the policy of his Government in the most trying diplomatic situation of the war zone.” 3
I: Initial Impressions: Posted to Berlin
When Archduke Franz Ferdinand of the Hapsburg family was slain by a bullet of a young Serbian nationalist, Gavrilo Princip, in the summer of 1914, the system of alliances that had come to dominate Europe moved rapidly toward war. Gerard remained oblivious to the machinery that had been set in motion and the negative impressions of his hosts had yet to set in. Tennis, sailing to the United States on the Vaterland, and a yacht race with the Kaiser were on his mind when writing to Colonel House in early July 1914: “Tennis is responsible for this almost illegible handwriting.”8 Seymour noted how the murder initially “created no audible effect [in London] than a tenor solo in a boiler-shop.”9 The Imperial German at this stage left Gerard with little grounds for pessimism. A letter to Colonel House in the winter of 1913 had described Arthur Zimmerman of the German foreign office as “a very jolly sort of large German who was once a judge,” a person whom Gerard befriended immediately. Chancellor von Bethmann-Hollweg was “a very tall, pleasant, Abraham Lincoln sort of a man.” The Kaiser provided various dispensations in protocol for Gerard, more than his collegial equivalent in London, Walter Hines Page, received. “The Kaiser has permitted me to wear ordinary clothes, which disposes of the infernal uniform question, so there I am now better off than Page, who has to wear knickers to Court functions.” Gerard’s description of the Kaiser the winter before hostilities broke out was flattering: “The Kaiser is a much more majestically looking man than I expected.”10
War thus was not on Gerard’s mind after the Ferdinand murder: “Berlin is as quiet as the grave….”11 In late July 1914, Gerard expressed in a telegram to Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan his optimism that “matters will be arranged without general European war.”12
But optimism turned to gloom in a matter of days. At the end of July, Gerard’s tune changed: “Think Germany’s efforts toward peace fruitless and general European war certain.”13 By August, a one-line telegram was sufficient to communicate the gloomy predicament: “Sorry to report no hope for peace treaty.”14
II: Reassessing German Character
The erosion of his optimism was evident a few months later in Gerard’s despatches. As early as March 1915, E. M. House, Wilson’s close friend, noted in a letter to the president “that he [Gerard] does not believe the Germans would hesitate in a moment to go to war against us.”17 After the sinking of the British liner Lusitania in May 1915, with 124 Americans losing their lives, Gerard found a Germany carried away with its bellicosity. “I have heard that in parts of Germany school children were given a holiday to celebrate the sinking of the Lusitania.” Gerard suggested “that a wave of exultation swept over Germany.”18
In June 1915, Gerard commented in a letter to Wilson that, while he did “not believe all the atrocities [stories],” accounts filtering into his personal household indicated otherwise. Within the Gerard home were highly unofficial hearsay accounts and suspicions about the German war machine: the servants “back from the Eastern Front” with news of “orders” to “kill all Cossacks” and his washer woman, whose son had been “ordered to shoot a woman in Belgium.” Gerard’s observations included an officer who “kindly describe[d] the shooting of a seven year old Belgian girl child [for having] fired on [him].”19
With these accounts came Gerard’s objections to Wilson’s neutrality policy. In a letter to House, Gerard opined that war against Germany might be of value “to have it decided that the United States of America is not to be run from Berlin.” The German people were convinced that Americans “could be slapped, insulted and murdered with absolute impunity.” The Lusitania sinking and similar instances of German belligerency were what he called “submarine murder.” Later that year, Gerard reiterated his views in a letter to Robert Lansing. “I hope we are getting ready for defence. If these people win we are next on the list—in some part of South or Central America which is the same thing.”20 Gerard’s views were also reproduced in a diary he kept whilst in Berlin. During December 1915 he noted that, “There is no question that there is a deep-seated hatred of America here, which must be reckoned with sooner or later.”21
Despite official U. S. neutrality, Gerard was not alone in assessing the prospects of engaging the German war machine. Walter Lippmann, editor of the New Republic, argued in a letter as early as September 1914: “If Germany wins [the war] the whole world will have to arm against her—the U. S. included, for Germany quite seriously intends to dominate the World.”22 Americans read the opinions of the British poet of empire Rudyard Kipling, who described the exploits of the German army as those of “wild beasts.”23 Ambassador Page in London saw the war in a broader sense as a confrontation between “English free institutions or Germany military autocracy,” a war which, if Germany won, would result threaten the Monroe Doctrine, opening the way for “big armies and big navies indefinitely and periodical great conflicts.”24
On the other hand, despite his hostility to the Prussian war machine, Gerard was not inclined to dismiss entirely the validity of some German methods of war. The submarine, used by the German navy as an assault weapon on Allied shipping, was not condemned outright as an instrument of atrocity. “A submarine is a recognized weapon of war as far as the English go, because they use it themselves,” wrote Gerard in a letter to Colonel House.25
It was only the insistence by Berlin on unrestricted submarine warfare, claimed Gerard, that drove a wedge between the prospects for a compromise between the countries. By early 1917, Washington-Berlin relations had cooled again on that issue. Gerard’s despatch of January 21, 1917, to the State Department outlined the bleak prospects: “Many Germans have informed me lately that the public feeling for the resumption of reckless submarine warfare is so great that they do not see how any government can withstand it.”26In early January 1917, Gerard heard “on the best authority that there is an absolute reign of terror in Belgium. Sudden and arbitrary arrests etc.”27 Gerard’s diary recorded these events in identical fashion: “Herbert Hoover writes me that the Germans are violating all their pledges in Belgium.”28 A few weeks later, Secretary Lansing wrote to Wilson recommending that “Germany be considered an international outlaw, and that it would be necessary to warn Americans to keep away from the seas infested with its piratical craft.”29
With the release of the deciphered contents of the Zimmerman telegram to Wilson on February 24, 1917, by the British, the United States’ course for war was set.
Gerard at this time took an overwhelmingly favorable view of his own country’s actions on the international scene when, compared with Prussian militarism. His held American foreign policy to be free of any imperial content. The singularity of German war methods contrasted with the humanity and benevolence of American Manifest Destiny, he wrote. “I do not think that the Spanish harbor any spirit of revenge against us because of the events of the Spanish-American war.” America did nothing that would have left a brooding resentment in the defeated Spaniard: “No one used poison gas, or enslaved women or cut off the hands of babies.” In contrast to the suffering of a captive Belgium populace at the hands of Germany, the Spaniards were “admired” by American forces. “Spain was, in reality, benefited by the loss of Cuba and the Philippines; indeed, they were practically lost to her before we entered the war.”30 America, the guardian across the Atlantic of civilization, “bars the way [of German conquest]—America led by a fighting President, who will allow no compromise with a brutal autocracy.”31
III. Gerard’s Evaluation Upon Leaving
Germany and the war had ceased to be a purely European concern. “Kaiserism” as a doctrine did not merely manifest itself in the autocracy of German society, but according to Gerard, in the United States itself, in the form of deceptive literature and what he saw as the sedition of hyphenated Americans. An allusion to the prospect of traitorous German-Americans was made in a conversation he had with Zimmerman, held some time in May 1915. Zimmerman suggested, Gerard wrote, that America would be reluctant to fight a war with Imperial Germany despite its submarine policy, given the presence of “500,000 German reservists in America, who will rise up in arms against your government if your Government should dare to take any action against Germany.” Gerard’s response, according to his memoirs, indicated that there were 501,000 lamp-posts in America, and that was where the German reservists would find themselves in the event of any uprising.33
Gerard’s sensitivity to the presence of German influences in the United States was part of the overall American feeling on the virtual sanctity of the Monroe Doctrine. On his return to the United States, Gerard set to work publicizing the prospect of a German insurrection in the Western Hemisphere through Mexico. In a speech to a Polish-American audience in early January 1918, Gerard expressed his opinion on how he would most like to deal with those sympathetic to the German cause. “If you find any of this paid German propaganda in any publication of yours, take the editor and tie him up and send him back to Lemberg or Cracow.”34
In Gerard’s view, foreign language papers were ideologically suspect, as were universities. A professor at the University of Texas, E. Prokosch, made the mistake, in Gerard’s eyes, of equating American constitutional government with Wilhelm’s Germany. In his book Deutscher Lehrgang, First Year, Prokosch made several favorable observations of the German system of government, arguing that its elective system at the state level was similar to that of the United States. For Gerard it was a cardinal error to equate America’s liberal constitutionalism with the autocracy of the Prussian Junkers governed by the Kaiser. Americans were being exposed to “the hand of the German propagandist,” the “same hand” that funded “German colonists in the Southern States of Brazil in order that the German schools be maintained there.”35
III: Vignettes, Impressions
Heat changed the Anglo-Saxon character, while darkness and cold made unique contributions to the German personality. “There is much rain, and the winter skies are so dark that the absence of the sun must have some effect on the character of the people.” In the “dark, cold northern plains of Germany there exists an autocracy deceiving a great people, poisoning their minds from one generation to another and preaching the virtue and necessity for war.”37
Gastronomic eccentricities also played on the German character. Being “heavy eaters,” Gerard was taken with the sound medical advice of the numerous doctors who had suggested that large quantities of meat and drink had “unfavorably affected the German national character” through engendering aggression and irritability.38This made Gerard observe: “Meat-eating nations have always ruled vegetarians.”
Gerard’s caricatured Germans laboring under various neuroses: an obsession with the uniform; the love of food and drink; a fascination with dullness. “I know of no class in Germany which really enjoys life.”39 This lay in sharp contrast with the Hungarians, who, for Gerard, exhibited “American” tendencies: “agreeable manners” and an ability “to laugh in a natural way, something which seems to be a lost art in Prussia.”40 Gerard persisted in his account of the somber, humorless German, seemingly surprised that war-weary Berlin had been taken over by a tense depression. The Friars Club heard Gerard on April 28, 1918, suggest that, “Here at least, we know how to smile; they have lost all sense of humor in Berlin.” His evidence lay in the popularity of morbid theater, “for there was not one successful play produced in Berlin while I was there which did not have in it several murders.”41
Gerard was not always successful in seeking a coherent synthesis of German character and institutions in his racial theorizing. The uniform German character so confidently espoused in his biographical sketches of the empire led to contradiction and ambiguity. “The Emperor is out of uniform only on rare occasions.” Yet assessment of the Kaiser presented Gerard with difficulties: At times he was a bucolic statesman, at times a Teddy Roosevelt incarnate, “talking with the same energy, the same violence of gesture and of voice so characteristic of our great ex-President.”42 But he was also a “twentieth-century Carthaginian,” preferring war to peace.43
Not all Germans fit neatly into the mold Gerard had devised for them. Baron von Truetler, Prussian Minister to Bavaria and the Kaiser’s Foreign Office representative was “a German of the world.”44 Gerard wrote with some admiration on German academics who signed petitions against the proposed annexation of Belgium. Even after the Lusitania sinking, penitent and understanding Germans surfaced. Gerard noted how, at the Winter-Garden concert-hall in Berlin, many guests silenced a drunken patriot who had told Gerard and other American staff in attendance that “Americans were even worse than English, and the ‘Lusitania’ had been flying the American flag as a protection in British waters.” There were apologies and “the manager of the Winter Garden also called on me to express his regret at the occurrence.”45
But any modifications to his core theme of Prussianism were limited: It was the system that dominated German character and habit; it was history that weighed heavily on Imperial Germany. The eminent position of the Prussian state kept “the people from any overt act.” Gerard advised his readers that “at present [other German states] must be counted on only as faithful servants in a military way to the German emperor.”46 In Face to Face, he propounded the same theme of tyranny: “The Teutonic Knights, from whom the ruling class of Prussia is descended, kept the Slavic population in subjection by a reign of physical terror. This class believes that to rule one must terrorize.”47 Then came the “system of decorations” which tended “to induce the plain people to be satisfied with a piece of ribbon instead of the right to vote, and to make them upholders of a system by which they are deprived of every opportunity to make a real advance in life.”48
Lacking the humility that had been visited on the exemplary Prussian of 1810 after the battle of Jena, the “Prussian of 1914” was “far removed” from humility. But Gerard was certain that Prussianized Germany, obsessed by the neuroses of expansion, had little time for its own cultural monuments—the philologist Friedrich Nietzsche or historian Trieschke—who were cited to emphasize their intellectual irrelevance, rather than importance. This remarkably underestimated the pull of professorial knowledge in the Kaiser’s Germany. To Gerard, German professors were less important than the general staff. Quoting Mirabeau (“war is the national industry of Prussia”) and Napoleon (“Prussia was hatched from a cannon ball”), the ambassador felt he had the German character pinned down to its military outlook.49 These themes were again reiterated to students who crowded St. Paul’s Chapel at Columbia University in the winter of 1918 to hear Gerard determined to dismiss notions of a romantic, culturally enlightened Germany. “The old Germany that you once admired and loved, the Christmas trees and the family life you liked to think about, have been buried for years beneath the spiked helmets of Prussians.”50
IV: The Guilty Kaiser
Gerard’s opinion did not weigh heavily in the State Department. Secretary Lansing was applying his own political philosophy of the immune sovereign. While he had pursued an inflexible line on German submarine policy towards neutral shipping, Lansing’s conciliatory attitude towards the defeated Kaiser stemmed from more strategic considerations. Punishing the Kaiser, in Lansing’s view, left the way open for a diminishing of the office of the head of state and a weakening of central Europe. Any such punishment of the Kaiser would lead to the opening of floodgates to the Bolshevik threat looming from Moscow. “We have seen the hideous consequences of Bolshevik rule in Russia, and we know that the doctrine is spreading westward…. We must look to the future, even though we forget the immediate demands of justice.”53
Because of Lansing’s influence, American reservations were formally filed in the report on German war responsibility at Versailles. While Article 227 of the Versailles Treaty charged the Kaiser with the “supreme offense” of violating international treaties in much the same way that Gerard had envisaged it, his trial was thwarted by his escape to exile in Holland and by State Department legal theory.
Gerard took his critique of the German character to the conclusion that the militarist cast system was “guilty” from top to bottom, a vertical guilt that could only be overcome through defeat and punishment. The most obvious bearer of guilt in Gerard’s view of Imperial Germany was Kaiser Wilhelm II.
Binoy Kampmark is currently a Hampton Scholar at St. John’s College, University of Queensland, Australia, where he tutors in law and history. He is pursuing a doctoral thesis in modern history at the University of Queensland.