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Germany’s Fateful Gamble

US National Archives
US National Archives

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 262nd installment in the series. 

January 9, 1917: Germany’s Fateful Gamble

The most fateful decision of the First World War was made on January 9, 1917, at a top-secret meeting of Germany’s civil and military leaders at Pless Castle in Silesia in Eastern Germany. Here, at the urging of chief of the general staff Paul von Hindenburg and his close collaborator, first quartermaster Erich Ludendorff, Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg reluctantly agreed to the resumption of unrestricted U-boat warfare – a gamble that would decide the outcome of the war.

As 1917 began, Germany’s strategic options were narrowing. The plan of the previous chief of the general staff, Erich von Falkenhayn, to bleed France white at Verdun had succeeded in causing massive casualties but failed to split the Allies or knock France out of the war, as hoped. Germany’s main allies, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire, were both on the defensive, requiring more and more assistance to simply survive, and the simultaneous Allied offensives at the Somme and in Galicia had sorely taxed German manpower and material.

Meanwhile Germany’s vast industrial machine was gradually being stretched to the limit, while shortages of food and fuel stirred growing discontent in the civilian population. The indecisive Battle of Jutland in May 1916 left the Allied naval blockade undisturbed, and Britain’s adoption of conscription was putting several million new soldiers in the field. 

But Hindenburg and Ludendorff believed that victory was still within reach, provided Germany acted boldly and swiftly. Indeed the Allies also found themselves overstretched, as France reached the limits of her own manpower following Verdun and the Russians suddenly found themselves responsible for shoring up Romania, or what was left of it. Further, as before Germany enjoyed the advantage of a central position, allowing it to move forces between various fronts and perhaps defeat its enemies “in detail,” or one at a time.

In order to exploit these opportunities, in 1917 Hindenburg and Ludendorff contemplated yet another shift in focus, this time from west to east (reversing Falkhenhayn’s earlier switch from east to west). On the Western Front, they planned a surprise withdrawal from the Somme to massive, newly constructed fortifications at the Siegfried Line – known to the Allies as the Hindenburg Line – shortening the front by around 25 miles and freeing up two whole armies for service elsewhere. 

By going on the defensive on the Western Front, they hoped, Germany would be able to deliver a knockout blow to Italy, Russia, or both; Russia in particular was already teetering on the edge of revolution, and the incompetent tsarist regime just needed a final push before it collapsed.

However Hindenburg and Ludendorff realized that simply shortening the Western Front and digging in wouldn’t be enough: they also had to ratchet up the pressure on Britain in order to keep the British from launching a new offensive like the Somme, and maybe even knock them out of the war. To accomplish this they pinned their hopes on a new (but no longer secret) weapon: the submarine.

“Germany Is Playing Her Last Card” 

Germany had already tried unrestricted U-boat warfare twice, unleashing a growing fleet of submarines on Allied and neutral shipping, with permission to sink unarmed merchant ships without warning. But on both occasions these campaigns were eventually suspended (first in the summer of 1915, then again in the spring of 1916) in the face of protests from neutral countries, especially the United States of America, over civilian casualties. 

The threat of war with the U.S. had forced Berlin to back down twice, but by early 1917 Germany’s leaders were willing to take the risk. A number of factors contributed to this shift, including the general sense that time was working against Germany, as well as public demands for retaliation in kind against the “Starvation Blockade” maintained by the British Royal Navy. The steady growth of Germany’s U-boat fleet also held out the promise of a decisive result. 

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Most important, however, were Britain’s growing dependence on U.S. imports to sustain its war effort, a vulnerability which could be exploited by attacks on shipping, and the resulting enmity of Germany’s new military leaders, Hindenburg and Ludendorff, towards the U.S.

According to the U.S. ambassador to Berlin, James Gerard, in the fall of 1916 Ludendorff was on the record as stating that “he did not believe America could do more damage to Germany than she had done if the countries were actually at war, and that he considered that, practically, America and Germany were engaged in hostilities.” With the ascendancy of Hindenburg and Ludendorff over Germany’s civilian government – in effect a bloodless military coup countenanced by Kaiser Wilhelm II – the balance of political power in Berlin shifted towards open confrontation.

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The minutes of the meeting on January 9, 1917, make clear that Bethmann-Hollweg was now playing second fiddle to Hindenburg and Ludendorff, public heroes who enjoyed the backing of the fickle monarch. Germany’s leaders also allowed themselves to be swayed by optimistic thinking, in the form of cheery projections from the Admiralty about how quickly British morale and war-making capacity could be destroyed through unrestricted sinkings. 

Net.lib.byu.edu, Click to enlarge

Admiral Henning von Holtzendorff, who headed the Admiralty’s analytical division, calculated that Germany’s growing U-boat fleet could sink 500,000-600,000 tons of British shipping per month at first – a forecast that proved remarkably accurate. However Holtzendorff erred in his assumptions about the impact that this would have on Britain’s total available shipping, as the British could requisition neutral shipping and order more replacements from American shipyards. The German Admiralty also failed to anticipate Allied tactics for convoying merchant ships (they believed convoys were ineffective, and if anything would make it easier for submarines to find targets). Finally, the German high command underestimated Britain’s ability to increase domestic production by finding manufacturing substitutes, implement rationing, and bring new farmland under cultivation; although ordinary British people certainly suffered from shortages and chaffed at rationing, the U-boat campaign fell far short of “starving Britain to her knees.”

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Equally important to the German (mis)calculations was the belief that America, as a mercantile but not mercenary nation, was basically unwilling to fight, due both to her traditional isolation and what they viewed as the social and cultural incoherence of the American population, resulting from the large proportion of immigrants (including millions of German descent, whom they assumed would not be loyal to their adopted land).

In short they predicted that the undisciplined, polyglot American rabble would resist conscription and European-style mass mobilization. Instead, any declaration of war would be mostly symbolic, or as Bethmann-Hollweg summarized the military leaders’ argument: “America's assistance, in case she enters the war, will consist in the delivery of food supplies to England, financial support, delivery of airplanes and the dispatching of corps of volunteers.” And its armed forces were so pathetically small that even if America did fight, Hindenburg and Ludendorff assured the civilians, Germany could win the war before it had a chance to mobilize enough men to make a difference in Europe. 

It’s worth pointing out that even at this critical stage, not everyone was convinced. Indeed Bethmann-Hollweg sounded a skeptical note during the meeting, observing, “Admiral von Holtzendorff assumes that we will have England on her knees by the next harvest… Of course, it must be admitted that those prospects are not capable of being demonstrated by proof.” Nevertheless he bowed to the general’s convictions, thus completing the submission of Germany’s civilian government to its military.

When the decision was publicized at the end of the month, everyone understood that Germany’s fate was riding on the outcome. Evelyn Blucher, an Englishwoman married to a German aristocrat living in Berlin, confided in her diary: “We all know and feel that Germany is playing her last card; with what results, no one can possibly foretell.” Unrestricted U-boat warfare would resume on February 1, 1917.

See the previous installment or all entries.

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10 People Who Have Misplaced Their Oscars
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Winning an Oscar is, for most, a once-in-a-lifetime achievement. Unless you’re Walt Disney, who won 22. Nevertheless, owning a little gold guy is such a rarity that you’d think their owners would be a little more careful with them. Now, not all of these losses are the winners' fault—but some of them certainly are, Colin Firth.

1. ANGELINA JOLIE

After Angelina Jolie planted a kiss on her brother and made the world wrinkle their noses, she went onstage and collected a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role as Lisa in Girl, Interrupted. She later presented the trophy to her mother, Marcheline Bertrand. The statuette may have been boxed up and put into storage with the rest of Marcheline’s belongings when she died in 2007, but it hasn’t yet surfaced. “I didn’t actually lose it,” Jolie said, “but nobody knows where it is at the moment.”

2. WHOOPI GOLDBERG

In 2002, Whoopi Goldberg sent her Ghost Best Supporting Actress Oscar back to the Academy to have it cleaned and detailed, because apparently you can do that. The Academy then sent the Oscar on to R.S. Owens Co. of Chicago, the company that manufactures the trophies. When it arrived in the Windy City, however, the package was empty. It appeared that someone had opened the UPS package, removed the Oscar, then neatly sealed it all back up and sent it on its way. It was later found in a trash can at an airport in Ontario, California. The Oscar was returned to the Academy, who returned it to Whoopi without cleaning it. “Oscar will never leave my house again,” Goldberg said.

3. OLYMPIA DUKAKIS

When Olympia Dukakis’s Moonstruck Oscar was stolen from her home in 1989, she called the Academy to see if it could be replaced. “For $78,” they said, and she agreed that it seemed like a fair price. It was the only thing taken from the house.

4. MARLON BRANDO

“I don’t know what happened to the Oscar they gave me for On the Waterfront,” Marlon Brando wrote in his autobiography. “Somewhere in the passage of time it disappeared.” He also didn't know what happened to the Oscar that he had Sacheen Littlefeather accept for him in 1973. “The Motion Picture Academy may have sent it to me, but if it did, I don’t know where it is now.”

5. JEFF BRIDGES

Jeff Bridges had just won his Oscar in 2010 for his portrayal of alcoholic country singer Bad Blake in Crazy Heart, but it was already missing by the next year’s ceremony, where he was up for another one. He lost to Colin Firth for The King’s Speech. “It’s been in a few places since last year but I haven’t seen it for a while now,” the actor admitted. “I’m hoping it will turn up, especially now that I haven’t won a spare! But Colin deserves it. I just hope he looks after it better.” Which brings us to ...

6. COLIN FIRTH

Perhaps Jeff Bridges secretly cursed the British actor as he said those words, because Firth nearly left his new trophy on a toilet tank the very night he received it. After a night of cocktails at the Oscar after-parties in 2011, Firth allegedly had to be chased down by a bathroom attendant, who had found the eight-pound statuette in the bathroom stall. Notice we said allegedly: Shortly after those reports surfaced, Firth's rep issued a statement saying the "story is completely untrue. Though it did give us a good laugh."

7. MATT DAMON

When newbie writers Matt Damon and Ben Affleck took home Oscars for writing Good Will Hunting in 1998, it was one of those amazing Academy Award moments. Now, though, Damon isn’t sure where his award went. “I know it ended up at my apartment in New York, but unfortunately, we had a flood when one of the sprinklers went off when my wife and I were out of town and that was the last I saw of it,” Damon said in 2007.

8. MARGARET O'BRIEN

In 1945, seven-year-old Margaret O’Brien was presented with a Juvenile Academy Award for being the outstanding child actress of the year. About 10 years later, the O’Briens' maid took the award home to polish, as she had done before, but never came back to work. The missing Oscar was forgotten about when O’Brien’s mother died shortly thereafter, and when Margaret finally remembered to call the maid, the number had been disconnected. She ended up receiving a replacement from the Academy.

There’s a happy ending to this story, though. In 1995, a couple of guys were picking their way through a flea market when they happened upon the Oscar. They put it up for auction, which is when word got back to the Academy that the missing trophy had resurfaced. The guys who found the Oscar pulled it from auction and presented it, in person, to Margaret O’Brien. “I’ll never give it to anyone to polish again,” she said.

9. BING CROSBY

For years, Bing Crosby's Oscar for 1944’s Going My Way had been on display at his alma mater, Gonzaga University. In 1972, students walked into the school’s library to find that the 13-inch statuette had been replaced with a three-inch Mickey Mouse figurine instead. A week later, the award was found, unharmed, in the university chapel. “I wanted to make people laugh,” the anonymous thief later told the school newspaper.

10. HATTIE MCDANIEL

Hattie McDaniel, famous for her Supporting Actress win as Mammy in Gone with the Wind, donated her Best Actress Oscar to Howard University. It was displayed in the fine arts complex for a time, but went missing sometime in the 1960s. No one seems to know exactly when or how, but there are rumors that the Oscar was unceremoniously dumped into the Potomac by students angered by racial stereotypes such as the one she portrayed in the film.

An earlier version of this post ran in 2013.

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Pop Culture
"Weird Al" Yankovic Is Getting the Funko Treatment
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Kevork Djansezian, Getty Images

Though the New York Toy Fair—the largest trade show for playthings in the western hemisphere—won't officially kick off until Saturday, February 17, kids and kids-at-heart are already finding much to get excited about as the world's biggest toy companies ready to unleash their newest wares on the world. One item that has gotten us—and fans of fine parody songs everywhere—excited is "Weird Al" Yankovic's induction into the Funko Pop! family. The accordion-loving songwriter behind hits like "Eat It," "White & Nerdy," "Amish Paradise," and "Smells Like Nirvana" shared the news via Twitter, and included what we can only hope is a final rendering of his miniaturized, blockheaded vinyl likeness:

In late December, Funko announced that a Weird Al toy would be coming in 2018 as part of the beloved brand's Pop Rocks series. Though we know he'll be joined by Alice Cooper, Kurt Cobain, Elton John, and the members of Mötley Crüe, there's no word yet on exactly when you’ll be able to get your hands on Pop! Al. But knowing that he's coming is enough … for now.

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