On July 10, 1917, Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg, chancellor of Germany, resigns his position after failing to control the divided German Reichstag (government) as World War I threatened to stretch into its fourth agonizing year.
A former Prussian minister of the interior and state secretary in the Imperial German Office, Bethmann Hollweg was appointed German chancellor by Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1909. Though of a relatively liberal bent, Bethmann Hollweg from the beginning strove to satisfy both the right and left extremes within the Reichstag, with varying results. His efforts to pursue diplomacy within Europe were often undermined by the strength of the German military establishment, supported by the kaiser. One outstanding example of this dynamic was Bethmann Hollweg’s unsuccessful efforts to scale back Germany’s aggressive naval build-up in the first decade of the 20th century, in accordance with negotiations he entered into with Britain. In the end, the kaiser weighed in on the side of Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, and the naval arms race continued.
Though Bethmann Hollweg personally expressed hopes of avoiding Germany’s going to war in the summer of 1914, he nonetheless played a central role in the machinations between Austria-Hungary and Germany that occurred in the wake of the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand by a Serbian nationalist in Sarajevo in late June. Once the war was underway, Bethmann Hollweg struggled to make his influence felt with the kaiser and the military leaders of Germany, who effectively dictated policy from the first year of war and whose power was formally consolidated with the creation of the Third Supreme Command—effectively a military dictatorship—in August 1916. The chancellor, echoing more liberal elements within the Reichstag, including the socialists, spoke out for peace more than once and argued for limitation of Germany’s policy of unrestricted submarine warfare, actions that earned him the contempt of the military and naval command, including Von Tirpitz and Generals Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff.
The chancellor owed his final downfall, however, to his failure to manage the civil unrest within Germany, reflected in the feuding Reichstag. During the summer of 1917, as parliamentary debate raged over a proposed peace resolution, Bethmann Hollweg found himself unable to continue to balance the feuding elements of the German government, especially the majority Socialist Party—which was itself alienating its most radical leftist elements by aligning with a center-left coalition—and the conservative right, which predictably enjoyed the support of Hindenburg and Ludendorff. Having previously committed—reluctantly—to an unrestricted naval policy that had led the United States to declare war on Germany the previous April, Bethmann Hollweg was seen by the center-left, the authors of the Reichstag peace resolution, as a warmonger and by the right as a weakling for supporting the efforts to broker a peace.
Exhausted, Bethmann Hollweg rose in the Reichstag on July 9 to respond to his critics: “My position does not matter…I myself am convinced of my own limitations…I am considered weak because I seek to end the war. A leading statesman can receive support neither from the Left nor the Right in Germany.” The following day, he resigned as chancellor. He was replaced by Georg Michaelis, a relatively obscure undersecretary of state in the Finance Ministry who served for less than four months, only to be replaced by the equally unobtrusive Count Georg von Hertling, who served until the last month of the war and was, like Michaelis, basically a puppet premier subject to the authority of the kaiser and the military.