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Civil-Military Tensions: Letter from Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg to Field Marshall von Hindenburg (1917)

Here, Chancellor of Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg (1856-1921) attempts to impose coordination among the highest levels of the German government, where rivalries had already set in over the prosecution of the war. According to the German constitution, the Kaiser was the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, but his influence on strategic decisions was marginal. He was nonetheless the ultimate source of authority, so tensions among civilian and military authorities pivoted on relationships to the Kaiser. Both camps sought to influence him for their own purposes.

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It was my honor to receive your letter from the 17th of this month. To my great regret, I see from your letter that my telegram of the 14th aroused sentiments in Your Excellency that I did not wish to evoke and that I also could not have expected, given what I knew of the circumstances. Taking into consideration the enormity of the tasks and responsibilities that rest on Your Excellency’s shoulders, I have always attempted to avoid involving either Your Excellency or General Ludendorff in these sorts of affairs and have instead allowed our assistants in charge of special tasks to handle such matters. This is what I attempted to do in this case as well.

The enclosed notes of the Ministerial Director Deutelmoser concerning his negotiations with the head of the War Press Office will convince Your Excellency that I only decided to send the telegram to Your Excellency on the 14th of this month after the special assistants’ handling of this matter produced the result that a statement on the difficult, complex, and dangerous question concerning the boundaries between the military and civilian leadership was to be made against my expressed wishes and without my participation. Your Excellency’s letter of March 17th made it clear to me that this procedure is not what Your Excellency wanted, and rather that it was obviously a misunderstanding on the part of a subordinate. On the other hand, I do not doubt that Your Excellency will accept that the situation, insofar as I could understand it, required me to make a direct presentation to Your Excellency.

I would like to take the liberty of discussing two points in Your Excellency’s letter in more detail. Your Excellency says that my telegram alleges that Your Excellency is capable of undermining His Majesty’s command. I did not intend to suggest anything like this at all. I simply considered it my duty to point out the consequences that were certain to result if the question at hand was opened up to public criticism.

Additionally, the Reichstag members’ wish (as conveyed to you in my telegram of September 29, 1916) for Your Excellency to make a personal appearance was rejected by me; I encouraged only the sending of a General Staff Officer for the purpose of passing on actual information concerning the state of the war, such as is usually given by me under reference to Your Excellency. In no way did I want you to account for your actions before the representatives of the people. I immediately recognized that the objections raised by Your Excellency in this regard were thoroughly justified.

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