Almost exactly 100 years ago, German ambassador to Mexico Paul von Hintze returned to Mexico from a sick leave. Von Hintze was not a diplomat of the traditional school. When his assignment to Mexico was announced career diplomats in the Imperial Foreign Office politicked against him. German Ambassador to the U.S. Johann Count von Bernstorff certainly would have liked to have had input into the appointment. Rear Admiral von Hintze was one of the most daring and influential international players in German World War I history. His career spanned an incredible range: He rose from naval officer to become confidante of the German naval chief Grand Admiral von Tirpitz and the Kaiser himself. Then he became an ambassador and diplomat. As such, von Hintze’s ascent culminated in briefly becoming Foreign Secretary at the end of the First World War.
Paul Hintze was born in 1864 in the little town of Schwedt approximately eighty miles northeast of Berlin. The Hintze family was part of the hardworking German middle class of the Prussian country towns. Paul’s father owned a tobacco plant, making cigars of the raw tobacco he imported. He also had a seat in the City Council. The Hintze family was one of the best regarded and wealthiest in town. In 1894 the navy lieutenant (Kapitänleutnant) studied at the Naval Academy in Kiel, a school for which very few officers had the honor of admission. Among the many that trained and studied at Kiel there were several graduates worth mentioning: Grand Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz (then Captain Tirpitz) graduated in 1865, Rear Admiral von Hintze (then without noble title) in 1896. Commander Karl Boy-Ed, eight years von Hintze’s junior, joined the class of 1894. Commander Franz Rintelen (never had a noble title), the son of a well-known Berlin banker, graduated in 1905. Rintelen was to become a notorious German sabotage agent in the United States in World War I. All three worked for Tirpitz who became the loudest voice clamoring for unrestricted submarine warfare in the Great War.
In 1898, Rear Admiral Tirpitz commissioned Commander Hintze to join the East Asian battle group as a “Flaggleutnant,” the liaison officer to the Naval High Command. In this capacity Hintze faced an outraged Admiral Dewey when the German navy obstructed Dewey’s efforts to subdue the Spanish in the Philippines in the Spanish-American War. German ships had operated so close to the U.S. navy that Dewey had to employ searchlights, which gave away the American positions to the Spanish. According to newspapers, Dewey summoned Lieutenant Hintze and in a screaming match told the German naval officer “if he [German Admiral von Diederichs] wants a fight he can have it now.” Cooler heads prevailed. Rather than shooting out their differences, the German fleet found a way to compromise with the Americans and eventually left the Philippine theater. In 1903 Hintze received orders to report to the Russian Empire's capital St. Petersburg. As the new naval attaché Hintze occupied a critical position in the embassy: Emperor Wilhelm II became extraordinarily interested in reports from Tirpitz’ protégé. Hintze’s assessment of Russian politics and the quality of his intelligence soon caused the Kaiser to use Hintze for most sensitive missions between the German government and the Russian Czar. Never trusting of the Foreign Office, the Emperor preferred communication with his cousin “Nikki” to go through Naval Attaché Hintze. In 1905, Hintze joined the two emperors in a summit meeting in the Swedish city of Bjoerko. A year later Hintze received the title “Flügeladjutant.” This promotion, in a roundabout way, made him the direct representative of the German Emperor in Russia, a position that in many ways was more powerful than that of the ambassador. Hintze’s close relationship with the two emperors and the circumvention of the Foreign Office by the Kaiser made him a long-term target of career diplomats in the Reich. In 1908, Wilhelm II made Hintze into a nobleman with the title of Baron that could be inherited. As such, the middle class tobacco merchants of Schwedt became nobility. Von Hintze also received the promotion to rear admiral that year.
In 1911 von Hintze became ambassador to Mexico. Despite some historians assertions, Mexico was not a second rate assignment. The Mexican Revolution and the competition for influence with the new Mexican president Francisco I. Madero necessitated a diplomat of the highest ability. That person was Rear Admiral von Hintze. In Mexico, he was to sow the seeds of a highly efficient intelligence network that would be ready for action when the Great War started. Two years after von Hintze took up his new assignment in Mexico City, his young staff officer from Berlin, Karl Boy-Ed, reported to a new assignment in Washington D.C. as German naval attaché responsible for Mexico and the U.S. Von Hintze would eventually turn his whole spy organization over to his protégé in Washington and in 1915 move on to an assignment in China. As imperial ambassador in Beijing, he was to use the excellent experience he had gained in Mexico from 1911 to 1914. With great success he intrigued against the Entente powers that were trying to engage China for their cause in World War I. His tactics included diplomatic maneuvering, political intrigue, and clandestine operations such as sabotaging Entente supply lines. In 1918, after the courageous rear admiral had slipped back to Germany through the British blockade, he became Imperial Foreign Secretary. He represented the view of the military to the Kaiser, that resignation and exile would be the best for Germany and his majesty. The Kaiser resigned, but the German government collapsed immediately after ending the stellar career of one of the most underrated personalities in German history.