Germany – The Days Before The War

AFTER my return from Kiel to Berlin a period of calm ensued. No one seemed to think that the murders at Sarajevo would have any effect upon the world.

The Emperor had gone North on his yacht, but, as I believe, not until a certain line of action had been agreed upon.

Most of the diplomats started on their vacations. Sir Edward Goschen, British Ambassador, as well as the Russian Ambassador, left Berlin. This shows, of course, how little war was expected in diplomatic circles.

I went on two visits to German country-houses in Silesia, where the richest estates are situated. One of these visits was to the country-house of a Count, one of the wealthiest men in Germany, possessed of a fortune of about twenty to thirty million dollars. He has a great estate in Silesia, farmed, as I explained, not by tenant farmers, but by his own superintendents. In the centre is a beautiful country house or castle. ‘We were thirty-two guests in the house-party. This Count and his charming wife had travelled much and evidently desired to model their country life on that of England. Our amusements were tennis, swimming and clay-pigeon shooting, with dancing and music at night. Life such as this, and especially, the lavish entertainment of so many guests, is something very exceptional in Prussian country life and quite a seven months’ wonder for the country side.

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, al-though I called on von Jagow every day and tried to get something out of him. On the night of the twenty-ninth, von Bethmann-Hollweg 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.”

Von Bethmann-Hollweg 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 Great Britain and that he had in mind a general neutrality agreement between Germany and Great Britain.

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, Kriegsgef ahrzustand 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.

Both Ambassador Cambon and Minister Beyens were very sad and depressed. After leaving them I met Sir Edward Goschen upon the street and had a short conversation with him. He also was very depressed.

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,


To this letter I never had any reply.

On the first day 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.”

Of course, during these days the population of Berlin was greatly excited. Every night great crowds of people paraded the streets singing “Deutschland Ueber Alles and demanding war. Extras, distributed free, were is-sued at frequent intervals by the newspapers, and there was a general feeling among the Germans that their years of preparation would now bear fruit, that Germany would conquer the world and impose its Kultur upon all nations.

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.

On the day the Russian Ambassador left, I sent him my automobile to take him to the station. The chauffeur and footman reported to me that the police protection was inadequate, that the automobile was nearly over-turned by the crowd, and that men jumped on the running board and struck the Ambassador and the ladies with him in the face with sticks. His train was due to leave at one-fifteen P. M. At about ten minutes of one, while I was standing in my room in the Embassy surrounded by a crowd of Americans, Mrs. James, wife of the Senator from Kentucky and Mrs. Post Wheeler, wife of our Secretary to the Embassy in Japan, came to me and said that they were anxious to get through to Japan via Siberia and did not know what to do. I immediately scribbled a note to the Russian Ambassador asking him to take them on the train with him. This, and the ladies, I confided to the care of a red-headed page boy of the Embassy who spoke German. By some miracle he managed to get them to the railroad station before the Ambassador’s train left, the Ambassador kindly agreeing to take them with him. His train, however, instead of going to Russia, was headed for Denmark; and from there the two ladies crossed to Sweden, thence to England, and so home, it being perhaps as well for them that they did not have an opportunity to attempt the Siberian journey during this period of mobilisation.

The Russian Ambassador reciprocated by confiding to me a Russian Princess who had intended to go out with him but who, intimidated, perhaps, by the scenes on the way to the station, had lost her nerve at the railway station and refused to depart with the Ambassador. She remained for a while in Berlin, and after some weeks recovered sufficient courage to make the trip to Denmark.

On the morning of August fourth, having received an invitation the day before, I “attended” at the Palace in Berlin. In the room where the court balls had been held in peace times, a certain number of the members of the Reichstag were assembled. The diplomats were in a gallery on the west side of the room. Soon the Emperor, dressed in field grey uniform and attended by several members of his staff and a number of ladies, entered the room. He walked with a martial stride and glanced toward the gallery where the diplomats were assembled, as if to see how many were there. Taking his place upon the throne and standing, he read an address to the members of the Reichstag. The members cheered him and then adjourned to the Reichstag where the Chancellor addressed them, making his famous declaration about Belgium, stating that “necessity knew no law,” and that the German troops were perhaps at that moment crossing the Belgian frontier. Certain laws which had been pre-pared with reference to the government of the country, and which I will give in more detail in another place, as well as the war credit, were voted upon by the Reichstag. The Socialists had not been present in the Palace, but joined now in voting the necessary credits.

On the afternoon of August fourth, I went to see von Jagow to try and pick up any news. The British Ambassador sat in the waiting room of the Foreign Office. Sir Edward told me that he was there for the purpose of asking for his passports. He spoke in English, of course, and I am sure that he was overheard by a man sitting in the room who looked to me like a German news-paper man, so that I was not surprised when, late in the afternoon, extra sheets appeared upon the street announcing that the British Ambassador had asked for his passports and that Great Britain had declared war.

At this news the rage of the population of Berlin was indescribable. The Foreign Office had believed, and this belief had percolated through all classes in the capital, that the British were so occupied with the Ulster rebellion and unrest in Ireland that they would not declare war.

After dinner I went to the station to say good-bye to the French Ambassador, Jules Cambon. The route from the French Embassy by the Branderburg Thor to the Lehrter railway station was lined with troops and police, so that no accident whatever occurred. There was no one at the station except a very inferior official from the German Foreign Office. Cambon was in excellent spirits and kept his nerve and composure admirably. His family, luckily, were not in Berlin at the time of the outbreak of the war. Cambon instead of being sent out by way of Switzerland, whence of course the road to France was easy, was sent North to Denmark. He was very badly treated on the train, and payment for the special train, in gold, was exacted from him by the German govternment.

Then I went for a walk about Berlin, soon becoming involved in the great crowd in front of the British Embassy on the Wilhelm Strasse. The crowd threw stones, etc., and managed to break all the windows of the Embassy. The Germans charged afterwards that people in the Embassy had infuriated the crowd by throwing pennies to them. I did not see any occurrences of this kind. As the Unter den Linden and the Wilhelm Platz are paved with asphalt the crowd must have brought with them the missiles which they used, with the premeditated design of smashing the Embassy windows. A few mounted police made their appearance but were at no time in sufficient numbers to hold the crowd in check.

Afterwards I went around to the Unter den Linden where there was a great crowd in front of the Hotel Ad ion. A man standing on the outskirts of the crowd begged me not to go into the hotel, as he said the people were looking for British newspaper correspondents.

So threatening was the crowd towards the British correspondents that Wile rang up the porter of the Embassy after we had gone to bed and, not wishing to disturb us, he occupied the lounge in the porter’s rooms.

Believing that possibly the British Embassy might be in such a condition that Sir Edward Goschen, the British Ambassador, might not care to spend the night there, ordered an automobile and went up through the crowd which still choked the Wilhelm Strasse, with Roland Harvey, the Second Secretary, to the British Embassy. Sir Edward and his secretaries were perfectly calm and politely declined the refuge which I offered them in our Embassy. I chatted with them for a while, and, as I was starting to leave, a servant told me that the crowds in the street had greatly increased and were watching my automobile. I sent out word by the servant to open the automobile, as it was a landau, and to tell the chauffeur, when I got in, to drive very slowly.

I drove slowly through the crowd, assailed only by the peculiar hissing word that the Germans use when they are especially angry and which is supposed to convey the utmost contempt. This word is “Pfui” and has a peculiar effect when hissed out from thousands of Teutonic throats.

As we left the outskirts of the crowd, a man of respectable appearance jumped on the running board of the automobile, spit at me, saying “Pfui,” and struck Harvey in the face with his hat. I stopped the automobile, jumped out and chased this man down the street and caught him. My German footman came running up and explained that I was the American Ambassador and not an Englishman. The man who struck Harvey thereupon apologised and gave his card. He was a Berlin lawyer who came to the Embassy next morning and apologised again for his “mistake.”

The following day, August fifth, I spent part of the time taking over from Sir Edward the British interests. Joseph C. Grew, our First Secretary, and I went to the British Embassy; seals were placed upon the archives, and we received such instructions and information as could be given us, with reference to the British subjects in Germany and their interests. The British correspondents were collected in the Embassy and permission was obtained for them to leave on the Embassy train.

During the day British subjects, without distinction as to age or sex, were seized, wherever found, and sent to the fortress of Spandau. I remonstrated with von Jagow and told him that that was a measure taken only in the Middle Ages, and I believe that he remonstrated with the authorities and arranged for a cessation of the arbitrary arrests of women.

Frederick W. Wile, the well-known American correspondent of the London Daily Mail, was to go out also with the British party, on the ground that he had been a correspondent of a British newspaper. In the evening I went to the Foreign Office to get his passport, and, while one of the department chiefs was signing the passport, he stopped in the middle of his signature, threw down the pen on the table, and said he absolutely refused to sign a passport for Wile because he hated him so and because he believed he had been largely instrumental in the bringing about of the war. Of course this latter statement was quite ridiculous, but it took me some time before I could persuade this German official to calm his hate and complete his signature.

I have heard a few people say that Wile was unduly fearful of what the Germans might do to him, but the foregoing incident shows that his fears were well grounded, and knowing of this incident, which I did not tell him, I was very glad to have him accept the hospitality of the Embassy for the night preceding his departure. He was perfectly cool, although naturally much pleased when I informed him that his departure had been arranged.

Sir Edward and his staff and the British correspondents left next morning early, about six A. M. No untoward incidents occurred at the time of their departure which was, of course, unknown to the populace of Berlin.

During these first days there was a great spy excitement in Germany. People were seized by the crowds in the streets and, in some instances, on the theory that they were French or Russian spies, were shot. Foreigners were in a very dangerous situation throughout Germany, and many Americans were subjected to arrest and indignities.

A curious rumour spread all over Germany to the effect that automobiles loaded with French gold were being rushed across the country to Russia. Peasants and gamekeepers and others turned out on the roads with guns, and travelling by automobile became exceedingly dangerous. A German Countess was shot, an officer wounded and the Duchess of Ratibor was shot in the arm. It was some time before this excitement was allayed, and many notices were published in the newspapers before this mania was driven from the popular brain.

There were rumours also that Russians had poisoned the Muggelsee, the lake from whence Berlin draws part of its water supply. There were constant rumours of the arrest of Russian spies disguised as women through-out Germany.

Many Americans were detained under a sort of arrest in their hotels; among these were Archer Huntington and his wife; Charles H. Sherrill, formerly our minister to the Argentine and many others.