Read the introduction to my new book on the German sabotage campaign in the United States in 1915. If you are hooked, which is my expectation, get the e-book on Amazon for $9.99, the paperback from Amazon for $28, or order a hardcover from this shop and receive a 50% discount. This is the story of what really happened, not some journalistic half history haphazardly put together to get a movie deal. 

The Secret War on the United States in 1915

Despite President Wilson’s declaration of neutrality at the onset of the Great War, the United States became the main supplier of arms, munitions, military and civilian goods for the enemies of Germany and her allies in early 1915. The lure of profits from munitions sales on a grand scale trumped any efforts by the German Empire to resume non-contraband trade with the United States. Germany’s representatives in New York and Washington D.C. deserve blame for this development. From the onset of the war, they missed ample opportunities to counter British propaganda and use the anger of American business leaders, farmers, and merchants over the British sea blockade to exert political pressure. Their ineffective use of American surrogates to oppose the tightening English blockade, and the inability to coalesce American support into promoting trade in cotton, dyes, food, and fertilizer, all helped push American foreign policy away from true neutrality. The biggest fear of the German government, namely unleashing the unbridled power of the American economy in support of the enemy, thus became a painful reality in 1915. 

The frustration in Germany with this development, disregarding the fact that German officials had a lot to do with it, brought a group of hardliners from within the German military and civilian government to the fore. The belief was that a determined war effort against the United States and England would bring the war to a quicker conclusion. Based on intelligence that German military attaché in New York, Franz von Papen, his predecessor Hans-Wolfgang Herwarth von Bittenfeld, and other German intelligence assets had gathered in 1913 and 1914, the hardliners firmly believed that the American military would never play any significant role in the European conflict. Viewed from a military standpoint, they deemed an armed conflict with the U.S. inconsequential. Rather, an American declaration of war might be helpful in bringing moderate ‘politicians’ to support an uncompromising war effort. The flow of supplies and materiel from the U.S. to European battlefields in support of the Entente had a devastating effect on Germany’s war effort. An accommodating diplomatic approach, which the Foreign Office preferred, in their estimation, did not have the power to disturb these Entente supply lines. 

This group of hardliners consisted of influential members of the navy chain of command starting with Grand Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz at the very top and reaching to submarine force commander Hermann Bauer and the German naval attaché in the United States, Karl Boy-Ed. The German General Staff including its secret service, Political Section IIIB under Rudolph Nadolny, also supported a hardline strategy. HAPAG Director Albert Ballin, who longed for a quick end to the conflict to get his massive merchant marine fleet back afloat, supported a tougher approach towards the United States, as well. Interior Secretary Clemens von Delbrück, who worked and agreed with Ballin, joined the group. Delbrück was the direct superior of Germany’s commercial agent in the U.S., Heinrich F. Albert. 

Albert had come to the United States as a German purchasing agent without diplomatic status in August 1914. He not only coordinated the German efforts of blockade running and trade, but also commanded the entire financial structure of the German empire in the United States. Albert was in charge of a secret organization in New York City. Publicly, this Secret War Council managed German propaganda, supported the German-American community, sold German war bonds, and engaged in legal trade. However, the darker mission of this council consisted of organizing clandestine activities in the U.S. during the neutrality period of 1914 to 1917.2 Albert approved and financed the German intelligence cells across the U.S. The leading members of the Secret War Council included the German officials in New York, Franz von Papen (military attaché), Karl Boy-Ed (naval attaché), Bernhard Dernburg (propaganda chief), Karl Alexander Fuehr (propaganda), and Heinrich Albert as chief (commercial agent and financial controller). 

Acting consul general in New York Erich Hossenfelder was not a member of this group of hardliners. Hossenfelder belonged to the more accommodating faction that did not condone the U.S. supply of Germany’s enemies, but feared dire consequences of a U.S. entry headed this faction, which included most officials in the Imperial Foreign Office, in particular the ambassador to the U.S., Johann Heinrich Count von Bernstorff. This moderate group supported a military strategy subordinate to diplomacy and political considerations, and sought to keep the United States out of the European war. German war strategy shifted significantly in the spring of 1915 and, consequently, reinforced hardliner attitudes. Britain had destroyed the German naval battle group of Admiral Spee in the Falklands in November 1914. Except for small excursions, the German High Seas Fleet remained moored in German ports. Germany’s naval raiders had either been destroyed or saved themselves by agreeing to internment in neutral harbors. The German navy, for all intent and purpose, had been neutralized in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The army also reeled from its failure to swiftly take France. The German forces dug in on the western front and consolidated the gains made in Belgium and eastern France. The momentum now shifted to the east and the Russian front. The German army made important gains in the spring of 1915, as it collapsed the Russian lines and steam-rolled into the strategically important south. The static war on the western front, where material and supply would determine the eventual outcome of the war, moved the United States into strategic focus. 

Albert, Dernburg, Boy-Ed, and von Papen’s efforts from August up to the end of 1914 had had virtually no impact on the German war effort. The German team organized attacks on transportation installations in Canada, supplied remnants of the German Navy from U.S. ports, bought arms and munitions, which they sent to neutral countries or in support of separatist and nationalist movements in India, Ireland, and China. Except for Naval Attaché Karl Boy-Ed, the German team in the U.S. lacked sufficient funds, and added to the amateurish impression of German operations and propaganda in the U.S.

Other than a lack of funding, the main reason for the ineffectiveness of the German team was that the Secret War Council lacked a strategic plan underlying the various efforts. All of that changed in the beginning of 1915. The recognition, albeit late in the game, that the American theatre of war indeed impacted the European fronts, triggered the formulation of a new strategy towards the United States. The German officials in New York had worked hard on achieving this kind of recognition as a prerequisite for realistic financing of their efforts. Since the beginning of the war, the Secret War Council in New York had peppered Berlin with a barrage of facts, demands, ideas, requests, and suggestions in the hope of funding for its mission. 

The German clandestine war against industrial and government targets in the United States in 1915 has spawned countless books in the years since. While the World War still raged in Europe, journalists, retired investigators, and other real or imagined eyewitnesses told the story of outrageous German acts of war against a neutral United States. Sensationalist tales of virtually unlimited funding, armies of German conspirators, and devastating damages to American factories, ships and logistics installations intermingled with a few fact based reports. Several examples were accounts of Captain Thomas J. Tunney, the chief of the New York Bomb Squad, as well as John Price Jones and Paul Merrick Hollister, two of the most notable investigative journalists in New York. After the war, several of the actors in this tragic tale of asymmetric warfare, all with their own agendas to build or correct a lasting legacy, put to paper their memories of a story that has yet to find definitive treatment. 

The historiography of the German sabotage campaign of 1915 in the United States is wrought with inaccuracies, half-truths, and remnants of misinformation the Allies has disseminated as part of their wartime propaganda campaign in the U.S. Standard works, such as Barbara Tuchman’s The Zimmermann Telegram, written in the 1960s, could not yet take advantage of the various archives available to researchers today and consequently missed crucial sources. Subsequent events in the German war on America, such as the explosions of the Black Tom Island in the New York harbor in July of 1916, and of the Canadian Car and Foundry factory in Kingsland, New Jersey, in January 1917, have led scholars to make assumptions about earlier, less documented German acts of war. Even recent studies and journalistic accounts contain serious errors because their authors allowed flawed assumptions, the uncritical use of misleading personal accounts, and superficially researched facts to co-mingle with British war propaganda and hearsay. This book has the purpose of setting the record straight using diplomatic, military, financial, and investigative files from German and American archival sources.

The German secret war against the United States in 1915, and its discovery and publication, combined with the disastrous sinking of the Lusitania in May of that year, prepared the American public to finally accept joining the Entente powers against Germany in 1917. German war planners, members of the Admiralty, the General Staff, and political hardliners in the German government underestimated or purposely ignored the risks and cost of a large-scale clandestine campaign in the United States. In hindsight, the decision to execute a secret war in the nominally neutral United States in 1915 was a colossal blunder. This is the story of a group of German agents in the United States who executed this mission.