New York Tribune via Chronicling America
New York Tribune via Chronicling America

U.S. Rejects German Stance on U-boat Warfare

New York Tribune via Chronicling America
New York Tribune via Chronicling America

July 21, 1915: U.S. Rejects German Stance on U-boat Warfare 

The sinking of the Lusitania on May 7, 1915, triggered a diplomatic crisis that brought the U.S. to the edge of war, as President Woodrow Wilson demanded the end of Germany’s submarine campaign against neutral shipping while the Germans refused. Tensions mounted with the exchange of a series of “notes” throughout the summer of 1915 – always delivered in unfailingly polite Victorian language, even when the threat of war loomed in the background. 

After Britain declared the North Sea a war zone and implemented a blockade of Germany in November 1914, the Germans responded by proclaiming a counter-blockade of the British Isles by U-boats, a novel weapon never used on a large scale in war before. Because the British Admiralty had authorized British merchant vessels to fly neutral flags – a traditional ruse on the high seas in wartime – the Germans warned that neutral vessels would also be subject to sinking. The Germans also published warnings in U.S. newspapers warning Americans not to travel aboard British ships, including the Lusitania

None of this served to mollify American public opinion following the loss of the Lusitania, which resulted in the deaths of 118 U.S. citizens, including a number of children. But in the note delivered by the German ambassador, Johann Heinrich von Bernstorff of July 8, 1915, German Foreign Minister Gottlieb von Jagow refused to apologize, pay reparations, or halt U-boat attacks on neutral shipping, arguing that “Germany merely followed England’s example when she declared part of the high seas an area of war.” Furthermore “Germany’s adversaries, by completely paralyzing peaceable traffic between Germany and neutral countries, have aimed from the very beginning… at the destruction not so much of the armed forces as the life of the German nation” – justifying an equally brutal response. 

Jagow offered limited concessions, including a proposal for a handful of designated safe ships identified by special markings to carry U.S. citizens across the Atlantic (in fact in early June Berlin had secretly ordered U-boat commanders to no longer sink passenger without notice) but added that anyone traveling aboard other merchant ships would remain in peril, as “the Imperial Government is unable to admit that American citizens can protect an enemy ship through the mere fact of their presence on board.” This impractical suggestion indicated, as the U.S. ambassador to Berlin James Gerard put it, that the Germans were just playing for time, hoping to “to keep the matter ‘jollied along’ until the American people get excited about baseball or a new scandal and forget.” 

However Wilson rejected Jagow’s attempt to equate the British blockade with German submarine warfare, distinguishing between harm to American business caused by the blockade and the loss of American lives due to deliberate attacks. In fact his focus on German wrongdoings, coupled with his apparent reluctance to confront Britain for interfering with American commerce, had prompted the pacifist Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan to resign on June 9, 1915, protesting that the U.S. was not pursuing a truly neutral policy. Wilson’s new Secretary of State, Robert Lansing, was much more closely aligned with the president’s views, as reflected in the response to the German note of July 8, dispatched on July 21, 1915. 

Washington Times via Chronicling America

In the July 21 note Lansing came right to the point with the strongest statement yet: “The note of the Imperial German Government, dated July 8, 1915, has received the careful consideration of the Government of the United States, and it regrets to be obliged to say that it has found it very unsatisfactory, because it fails to meet the real differences between the two Governments…” He added that the United States was “keenly disappointed” at Germany’s determination to continue violating universal principles by threatening the lives of civilians on neutral vessels. 

Turning to Jagow’s argument that Germany’s U-boat campaign was justified by the British blockade, Lansing countered that Britain’s actions were irrelevant, as one crime couldn’t justify another: “Illegal and inhuman acts, however justifiable they may be thought to be against an enemy who is believed to have acted in contravention of law and humanity, are manifestly indefensible when they deprive neutrals of their acknowledged rights, particularly when they violate the right to life itself.” On that note Lansing also rejected the proposal for designated safe ships, because agreeing would mean accepting that other neutral vessels were legitimate targets.

Lansing then repeated the previous demands that Germany disavow the sinking of the Lusitania, apologize, pay reparations to the families of American victims, and above all desist from unrestricted U-boat warfare against neutral vessels. These demands were accompanied with a series of dire warnings: “If persisted in, it would in such circumstances constitute an unpardonable offense against the sovereignty of the neutral nation affected.” Therefore Germany should understand that, “The Government of the United States will continue to contend for that freedom, from whatever quarter violated, without compromise and at any cost.” Lansing concluded with the clearest allusion to war so far, writing that further sinkings of neutral ships that resulted in the deaths of U.S. citizens would be regarded as “deliberately unfriendly.” 

The sudden sharpening of the U.S. attitude caused consternation in Berlin, but German officials were also under domestic political pressure to keep up the U-boat campaign as retaliation for the British “hunger blockade” (which the British defended again in a note to Washington, D.C. delivered on July 24). It would take one more incident – the sinking of the British liner Arabic on August 19, 1915, resulting in the deaths of three Americans – to bring matters to a head. 

Russians Decide to Evacuate Poland 

By mid-July 1915 the continuing success of the Austro-German offensive on the Eastern Front left the Russian high command, Stavka, with a difficult choice: make a last-ditch attempt to hold on to Poland, at the risk of the total envelopment of four Russian armies, or abandon the Polish salient (and huge amounts of weapons and supplies stockpiled in fortresses there) and withdraw to a new defensive line hundreds of miles to the rear. On July 22 General Mikhail Alekseyev, commander of the Russian Northwestern Front, decided to cut his losses and ordered the evacuation of the western portion of the Polish front – a preamble to the total evacuation of the salient, initiating the next phase of the Great Retreat. 

Click to enlarge

As fighting continued all along the front, Russian troops withdrew from Lublin on July 30, followed by Warsaw on August 4 and the fortress town of Ivangorod on August 5; further north the German Niemen Army was advancing along the Baltic coast, capturing the town of Mitau on August 1, while the German Tenth Army prepared to advance east towards Vilna, now the capital of Lithuania. 

Considering that millions of Russian troops were mixed up with huge columns of Polish peasants fleeing the enemy, the Great Retreat had for the most part been remarkably orderly, but inevitably there were mistakes – some of them quite damaging. The decision of Grand Duke Nicholas, the Russian commander-in-chief, to hold the obsolete fortress of Novogeorgievsk led to the loss of 92,000 Russian troops, taken prisoner when the fortress fell to the Germans on August 20, 1915, along with thousands of artillery pieces and guns. The Germans also picked up hundreds of thousands of tons of oil stockpiled in Galicia (home to several oil fields) – a huge win for the oil-strapped Central Powers.

These big errors were accompanied by countless smaller oversights and plain negligence. A British military observer, Alfred Knox, recalled one officer’s outrage at receiving belated orders to retreat in the middle of the night: “He was in a towering rage, and cursed the Chief of Staff freely, saying that things were going on in the Guard Corps that were a disgrace to the Russian army.” Not long afterwards Knox observed the haphazard implementation of the scorched earth policy: 

As usual, there was everywhere evidence of misdirected or undirected effort. The gendarmes, without an officer to direct them, ran about setting fire to piles of dry straw, but leaving the crops untouched. Eight large barrels of copper parts from the machinery of a local factory had been collected with infinite trouble, but they were characteristically left behind owing to a doubt as to whose duty it was to remove them. 

See the previous installment or all entries.

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Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images for PCA
12 Surprising Facts About Robin Williams
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images for PCA
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images for PCA

Robin Williams had a larger-than-life personality. On screen and on stage, he embodied what he referred to as “hyper-comedy.” Offscreen, he was involved in humanitarian causes and raised three children—Zak, Zelda, and Cody. On July 16, HBO debuts the documentary Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind, directed by Marina Zenovich. The film chronicles his rise on the L.A. and San Francisco stand-up comedy scenes during the 1970s, to his more dramatic roles in the 1980s and '90s in award-winning films like Dead Poets Society; Good Morning, Vietnam; Awakenings; The Fisher King; and Good Will Hunting. The film also focuses on August 11, 2014, the date of his untimely death. Here are 12 surprising facts about the beloved entertainer.

1. ROBIN WILLIAMS GOT HIS START AT A COMEDY WORKSHOP INSIDE A CHURCH.

A still from 'Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind' (2018)
HBO

After leaving Juilliard, Robin Williams found himself back in his hometown of San Francisco, but he couldn’t find work as an actor. Then he saw something for a comedy workshop in a church and decided to give it a shot. “So I went to this workshop in the basement of a Lutheran church, and it was stand-up comedy, so you don’t get to improvise with others, but I started off doing, ostensibly, it was just like improvising but solo," he told NPR. "And then I started to realize, ‘Oh.’ [I started] building an act from there."

2. HE FORMED A FRIENDSHIP WITH KOKO THE GORILLA.

In 2001, Williams visited Koko the gorilla, who passed away in June, at The Gorilla Foundation in Northern California. Her caregivers had shown her one of his movies, and she seemed to recognize him. Koko repeatedly signed for Williams to tickle her. “We shared something extraordinary: laughter,” Williams said of the encounter. On the day Williams died, The Foundation shared the news with Koko and reported that she fell into sadness.

3. FOR A TIME, HE WAS A MIME IN CENTRAL PARK.

In 1974, photographer Daniel Sorine captured photos of two mimes in New York's Central Park. As it turned out, one of the mimes was Williams, who was attending Juilliard at the time. “What attracted me to Robin Williams and his fellow mime, Todd Oppenheimer, was an unusual amount of intensity, personality, and physical fluidity,” Sorine said. In 1991, Williams revisited the craft by playing Mime Jerry in Bobcat Goldthwait’s film Shakes the Clown. In the movie, Williams hilariously leads a how-to class in mime.

4. HE TRIED TO GET LYDIA FROM MRS. DOUBTFIRE BACK IN SCHOOL.

As a teen, Lisa Jakub played Robin Williams’s daughter Lydia Hillard in Mrs. Doubtfire. “When I was 14 years old, I went on location to film Mrs. Doubtfire for five months, and my high school was not happy,” Jakub wrote on her blog. “My job meant an increased workload for teachers, and they were not equipped to handle a ‘non-traditional’ student. So, during filming, they kicked me out.”

Sensing Jakub’s distress over the situation, Williams typed a letter and sent it to her school. “A student of her caliber and talent should be encouraged to go out in the world and learn through her work,” he wrote. “She should also be encouraged to return to the classroom when she’s done to share those experiences and motivate her classmates to soar to their own higher achievements … she is an asset to any classroom.”

Apparently, the school framed the letter but didn’t allow Jakub to return. “But here’s what matters from that story—Robin stood up for me,” Jakub wrote. “I was only 14, but I had already seen that I was in an industry that was full of back-stabbing. And it was entirely clear that Robin had my back.”

5. HE WASN’T PRODUCERS' FIRST CHOICE TO PLAY MORK ON MORK & MINDY.

Anson Williams, Marion Ross, and Don Most told The Hallmark Channel that a different actor was originally hired to play Mork for the February 1978 Happy Days episode “My Favorite Orkan,” which introduced the alien character to the world. “Mork & Mindy was like the worst script in the history of Happy Days. It was unreadable, it was so bad,” Anson Williams said. “So they hire some guy for Mork—bad actor, bad part.” The actor quit, and producer Garry Marshall came to the set and asked: “Does anyone know a funny Martian?” They hired Williams to play Mork, and from September 1978 to May 1982, Williams co-headlined the spinoff Mork & Mindy for four seasons.

6. HE “RISKED” A ROLE IN AN OFF-BROADWAY PLAY.

Actor Robin Williams poses for a portrait during the 35th Annual People's Choice Awards held at the Shrine Auditorium on January 7, 2009 in Los Angeles, California
Michael Caulfield, Getty Images for PCA

In 1988, Williams made his professional stage debut as Estragon in the Mike Nichols-directed Waiting for Godot, which also starred Steve Martin and F. Murray Abraham. The play was held off-Broadway at Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center. The New York Times asked Williams if he felt the show was a career risk, and he responded with: “Risk! Of never working on the stage again! Oh, no! You’re ruined! It’s like you're ruined socially in Tustin,” a town in Orange County, California. “If there’s risk, you can’t think about it,” he said, “or you’ll never be able to do the play.”

Williams had to restrain himself and not improvise during his performance. “You can do physical things,” he said, “but you don’t ad lib [Samuel] Beckett, just like you don’t riff Beethoven.” In 1996, Nichols and Williams once again worked together, this time in the movie The Birdcage.

7. HE USHERED IN THE ERA OF CELEBRITY VOICE ACTING.

The 1992 success of Aladdin, in which Williams voiced Genie, led to more celebrities voicing animated characters. According to a 2011 article in The Atlantic, “Less than 20 years ago, voice acting was almost exclusively the realm of voice actors—people specifically trained to provide voices for animated characters. As it turns out, the rise of the celebrity voice actor can be traced to a single film: Disney’s 1992 breakout animated hit Aladdin.” Since then, big names have attached themselves to animated films, from The Lion King to Toy Story to Shrek. Williams continued to do voice acting in animated films, including Aladdin and the King of Thieves, Happy Feet, and Happy Feet 2.

8. HE FORGOT TO THANK HIS MOTHER DURING HIS 1998 OSCAR SPEECH.

In March 1998, Williams won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance as Sean Maguire in Good Will Hunting. In 2011, Williams appeared on The Graham Norton Show, and Norton asked him what it was like to win the award. “For a week it was like, ‘Hey congratulations! Good Will Hunting, way to go,'” Williams said. “Two weeks later: ‘Hey, Mork.’”

Then Williams mentioned how his speech accidentally left out one of the most important people in his life. “I forgot to thank my mother and she was in the audience,” he said. “Even the therapist went, ‘Get out!’ That was rough for the next few years. [Mom voice] ‘You came through here [points to his pants]! How’s the award?’”

9. HE COMFORTED STEVEN SPIELBERG DURING THE FILMING OF SCHINDLER’S LIST.

At this year’s 25th anniversary screening of Schindler’s List, held at the Tribeca Film Festival, director Steven Spielberg shared that Williams—who played Peter Pan in Spielberg’s Hook—would call him and make him laugh. “Robin knew what I was going through, and once a week, Robin would call me on schedule and he would do 15 minutes of stand-up on the phone,” Spielberg said. “I would laugh hysterically, because I had to release so much.”

10. HE HELPED ETHAN HAWKE GET HIS AGENT.

During a June 2018 appearance on The Graham Norton Show, Ethan Hawke recalled how, while working on Dead Poets Society, Williams was hard on him. “I really wanted to be a serious actor,” Hawke said. “I really wanted to be in character, and I really didn’t want to laugh. The more I didn’t laugh, the more insane [Williams] got. He would make fun of me. ‘Oh this one doesn't want to laugh.’ And the more smoke would come out of my ears. He didn’t understand I was trying to do a good job.” Hawke had assumed Williams hated him during filming.

After filming ended, Hawke went back to school, but he received a surprising phone call. It was from Williams’s agent, who—at Williams's suggestion—wanted to sign Hawke. Hawke said he still has the same agent today.

11. HE WAS ALMOST CAST IN MIDNIGHT RUN.

In February 1988, Williams told Rolling Stone how he sometimes still had to audition for roles. “I read for a movie with [Robert] De Niro, [Midnight Run], to be directed by Marty Brest,” Williams said. “I met with them three or four times, and it got real close, it was almost there, and then they went with somebody else. The character was supposed to be an accountant for the Mafia. Charles Grodin got the part. I was craving it. I thought, ‘I can be as funny,’ but they wanted someone obviously more in type. And in the end, he was better for it. But it was rough for me. I had to remind myself, ‘Okay, come on, you’ve got other things.’”

In July 1988, Universal released Midnight Run. Just two years later, Williams finally worked with De Niro, on Awakenings.

12. BILLY CRYSTAL AND WILLIAMS USED TO TALK ON THE PHONE FOR HOURS.

Actors Robin Williams (L) and Billy Crystal pose at the afterparty for the premiere of Columbia Picture's 'RV' on April 23, 2006 in Los Angeles, California
Kevin Winter, Getty Images

Starting in 1986, Williams, Billy Crystal, and Whoopi Goldberg co-hosted HBO’s Comic Relief to raise money for the homeless. Soon after Williams’s death, Crystal went on The View and spoke with Goldberg about his friendship with Williams. “We were like two jazz musicians,” Crystal said. “Late at night I get these calls and we’d go for hours. And we never spoke as ourselves. When it was announced I was coming to Broadway, I had 50 phone messages, in one day, from somebody named Gary, who wanted to be my backstage dresser.”

“Gary” turned out to be Williams.

Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind premieres on Monday, July 16 at 8 p.m. ET on HBO.

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Walt Disney Pictures
10 Facts About Hocus Pocus
Walt Disney Pictures
Walt Disney Pictures

In a 2014 Reddit AMA, Bette Midler said she'd be interested in doing a Hocus Pocus sequel. "You have to go to send in your cards to the Walt Disney company," she said. "The ball's in their court." While you get those cards ready, here are some facts about the original, which arrived in theaters 25 years ago today.

1. THE STORY ORIGINATED AS A BEDTIME STORY.

The story for Hocus Pocus came about after writer David Kirschner invented a bedtime story for his kids. He later wrote the story up and submitted it to Muppet Magazine (why does this not still exist?), where it gained recognition.

2. THE WRITERS USED PROPS TO PITCH IT TO STUDIO EXECUTIVES.

Bette Midler in 'Hocus Pocus' (1993)
Walt Disney Pictures

To pitch the story to Disney, the writers had execs enter a dark room with broomsticks and a vacuum cleaner hanging from the ceiling. They also scattered 15 pounds of candy corn throughout the room in an effort to invoke Halloween nostalgia. It obviously worked!

3. IT WAS NOT AN IMMEDIATE HIT.

Though it’s a cult classic now, Hocus Pocus didn’t do that well when it first came out in 1993, perhaps because it was released in July instead of September or October. Though it didn’t have a terrible opening—$8,125,471, putting it in fourth place at the box office that weekend—it fell to $2,017,688 a few weeks later, and bad reviews from the critics didn’t help matters.

Entertainment Weekly was particularly put off by the movie, calling it a “piece of corny slapstick trash” and saying that “It’s acceptable scary-silly kid fodder that adults will find only mildly insulting. Unless they’re Bette Midler fans. In which case it’s depressing as hell.”

4. BETTE MIDLER LOVES IT.

Bette Midler, by the way, has said that Hocus Pocus is her favorite film out of all of the films she’s ever done. (At least as of 2008.) Thora Birch agreed, recently saying, “The most fun I ever had on a film was Hocus Pocus.”

5. KATHY NAJIMY LOVES IT, TOO.

Midler isn't the only star of the film who isn't immune to its allure: Kathy Najimy has said she watches the movie with her family every year on August 15.

6. IT COULD HAVE STARRED LEONARDO DICAPRIO.

The role of Max was originally offered to Leonardo DiCaprio. He turned it down to do What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.

7. SARAH JESSICA PARKER IS RELATED TO A WOMAN FAMOUSLY ACCUSED OF BEING A WITCH.

Had Sarah Jessica Parker known then what she knows now, she might have approached the role of Sarah Sanderson a little differently. When the actress went on the show Who Do You Think You Are to trace her family history, Parker discovered that one of her ancestors was Esther Elwell, one of the women accused of being a witch during the Salem Witch Trials. After a young girl said she saw Esther’s “spectre” strangling neighbor Mary Fitch, Elwell was arrested, but escaped going to trial.

8. THORA BIRCH REVISITED THE NEIGHBORHOOD IN AMERICAN BEAUTY.

While the kids are prematurely celebrating victory against the Sanderson sisters after locking them in the kiln, they’re shown talking in front of a house as they walk to a park. The house was later used as the house Thora Birch’s character lived in for American Beauty.

9. THE KIDS WEREN'T HUGE FANS OF THE CATS.

The kids all hated working with the cats. Many different cats were used to represent Binx, and each one served a different purpose—one was good at cuddling with the kids, one would jump on command, etc. Every time a new cat was used, the children would have to coerce the kitty to trust them by using treats and a clicker. They got sick of it.

10. MUCH OF THE ORIGINAL CAST REUNITED FOR A 20TH REUNION.

Most of the cast participated in a 20th anniversary event for D23 (the Disney fan club) members. Sarah Jessica Parker and Bette Midler were not in attendance, but pretty much everyone else was, including Kathy Najimy (Mary Sanderson), Vinessa Shaw (Allison), Omri Katz (Max), Thora Birch (Dani), and Doug Jones (Billy Butcherson). You can watch some of that reunion above.

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