Johann Heinrich Count von Bernstorff, the German ambassador to the United States from 1908 to 1914 remains a controversial historical figure. Widely admired before the war, he received several honorary doctorates, graced the Washington and New York social scene with his charm, intelligence, perfect command of the English language, and his American wife. After the World War, Count Bernstorff became a political force in Germany, co-founder of the German Democratic Party, parliamentarian from 1921 to 1928, and a strong voice for Democracy. He supported the League of Nations and global disarmament. He ran afoul with the Nazi government as a result of his convictions and went into exile in Switzerland, where he died in 1939 at the eve of World War II. He is remembered and revered as a moderate voice in Germany, a man of principle, who dared to stand up to the fascist dictator.
The controversy about Count Bernstorff has to do with his role as ambassador in the United States in the Great War. Publicly and as a diplomat, he adamantly opposed the German submarine war and instead pursued mediation between Germany and the United States to a point of total frustration. He wrote in his war time memoirs: “Every time a diplomatic success was in view, an [submarine attack] incident occurred, which made it necessary to start one’s labours all over again." Despite his moderate stance, or "defeatism" as the Nazis later accused him, he did have knowledge of German clandestine operations in the United States. He also had, at least nominally, command and control over these operations. What was his involvement in German clandestine missions, especially the deadly sabotage campaign of 1915 and 1916?
Count Bernstorff's primary biographer, Reinhard Doerries, documented meticulously the ambassador's opposition to the German strategy of aggression against the United States. Looking at his life before and after the war, it is hard to fathom that this man indeed knew and condoned the fire bombings, ship sinkings, contraband smuggling, labor unrest, and misinformation that German agents undertook between 1914 and 1917. A historian can easily argue that the ambassador knew nothing, saw nothing, and did nothing. As is the case in any secret service operation, the very least a diplomatic representative can expect is plausible deniability. The German government destroyed Bernstorff's wartime instructions for when he came back to the U.S. in the end of August 1914. No incriminating documents have surfaced bearing his signature.
That is until now. The ambassador was a leading member of the command and control of German clandestine activities in the U.S. He met regularly and corresponded with Heinrich Albert, the man in charge of financing all secret service activities in the U.S. Together, Albert and Bernstorff opened bank accounts in dozens of cities through which funds flowed to German agents. In particular, Felix Sommerfeld used one of those accounts to finance munitions purchased for Pancho Villa. When Albert lost his briefcase and its contents graced the headlines of American dailies, the ambassador quickly promoted him to Commercial Attache. He thus prevented legal action against the paymaster of the German secret mission.
Bernstorff also attended the meetings of the German propaganda team in New York, gave suggestions, reprimanded Franz von Papen and Karl Boy-Ed when they wrote letters to editors that sounded too belligerent. The ambassador suggested the purchase of a large American newspaper, which happened in the spring of 1915. That in itself might not be illegal, but the same propaganda team also bribed editors of major newspapers, spread purposely misleading information, and provided target lists for German sabotage agents. The ambassador authorized the construction of a German owned munitions factory in 1915. This ruse locked up the American market for hydraulic presses, smokeless powder, and picric acid. Most significantly, there was a clear connection between the most notorious German sabotage agent, Franz Rintelen, and the German ambassador. Rintelen met Bernstorff in the spring of 1915, shortly after his arrival. Supposedly, the meeting was contentious. The source for this is Bernstorff's own account in his memoirs. Those, of course, were written after Rintelen was discovered and sitting in an Atlanta penitentiary for fire bombing thirty-five ships. Rintelen's main mission was to create labor unrest. Strikes in the American war industry greatly benefited Germany. The most important labor leader in 1915 was Samuel Gompers. Rintelen tried to enlist his support for a worker peace movement but the AFL leader would not budge. Bernstorff is documented of initiating several meetings with Gompers in that time. He could not change Gompers' mind either but certainly tried. Rintelen's efforts led to the great Bridgeport strike in the summer of 1915, settled only when employers extended the forty-hour work week to their workers.
Count Bernstorff clearly knew what was going on, mingled in parts of the clandestine efforts that he considered at least borderline legal, and knew the people involved. The distribution of funds for clandestine missions, the support of German sabotage agents, the knowledge of who engaged in illegal activities definitely link the ambassador to acts of war. Had he been ethically opposed, he could have resigned. It was war, the United States was the de-facto supplier of Germany's enemies, and certainly people like Franz von Papen, Karl Boy-Ed, and Heinrich Albert justified their involvement in actions to stop American arms from reaching the European battlefields, no matter the official neutrality of the United States. Would a reevaluation of the ambassador's actions and a documentation of his depth of knowledge in the clandestine war against the United States between 1914 and 1917 fundamentally change his stature in the Weimar Republic and beyond? This historian thinks not.