April 6, 1917 marks a day in World history that should not be forgotten: The United States of America declared war on Germany. The declaration of war followed years of German subversion of the US economy, politics, social fabric, and national security. When the war started in Europe in August 1914, Germany dispatched a group of secret agents to New York and activated sleepers and active agents already there. The leader of the group was an unknown bureaucrat who worked for the German Interior Department. He had been to the United States on a few occasions and spoke English well. In charge of the Secret War Council, Heinrich F. Albert was joined by the German Military Attaché and future chancellor of Germany, Franz von Papen. Von Papen’s job was to gather intelligence on munitions contracts the Allies concluded in the United States. Especially England was wholly dependent on US military supplies, as well as food and raw materials. Von Papen also provided German reservists with false passports to make it from the Americas to Germany through the tightening English blockade. Karl Boy-Ed, the Naval Attaché oversaw naval affairs, such as supplying the roaming remnants of the German navy in the Atlantic and Pacific and taking care of the thousands of stranded sailors in US ports. Since foreign intelligence was exclusively a naval affair, Boy-Ed also took over and ran the naval intelligence operation in the US and Mexico. Finally, the former German Minister of Colonial Affairs, Bernhard Dernburg, joined Albert in the beginning of September to assist with raising funds for Germany’s operations overseas and to counter the highly effective British propaganda in the US.

Heinrich F. Albert

Heinrich F. Albert

While focusing on combating British, French and Russian activities in the US in the first months of the war, the United States became the main supplier of Germany’s enemies by 1915, thus a combatant in German eyes. Germany decided to threaten the supply lines from the United States with unrestricted submarine war, sinking not only allied by also neutral/American ships. When a German submarine sank the British liner Lusitania in May 1915 and almost provoked a US entry into the war, the Emperor curtailed the unrestricted submarine war until the US would be busy with its own affairs. To this effect, Albert financed, while Boy-Ed and von Papen organized groups of sabotage agents all around the US, setting factories on fire, sabotaging ships, and organizing labor unrest. This unfolded in the spring and summer of 1915 and culminated with the explosion at the Black Tom loading terminals in the New York harbor in the summer of 1916. German agents also supported factions fighting in the Mexican Revolution with American arms and munitions, first to restrict the market for the purchasing agents of the Allies, and by 1915 to actively provoke border incidents that would draw the US military into defending the US-Mexican border rather than potentially joining the Allies in Europe. These efforts culminated in Pancho Villa’s attack on Columbus, New Mexico in March 1916. German propaganda efforts, including the spreading of one-sided or false news, bribing editors of “respected” news outlets, and even purchasing a major daily in New York, supported the acts of war against the United States.

The German strategy had been to reinstate unrestricted submarine warfare as soon as the threat of an American entry into the war on the side of the Allies became unlikely. The summer of 1916 was the point at which the US was effectively neutralized as an active threat for the German Empire. A spy panic had gripped the country. The public saw daily evidence of German sabotage efforts, the rust belt was gripped by horrendous labor strikes, even the Republican candidate for the presidency Hughes was under suspicion of support by the Kaiser. The New York harbor lay in shambles, dozens of sabotaged neutral freight ships caused sky rocketing insurance rates, while the courts tried notorious cases against the few German agents, authorities managed to catch. Worse, the attack of the Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa on Columbus, New Mexico precipitated virtually the entire US military and reserve to fight in Mexico or secure the border. The country was effectively paralyzed.

Drawing of a German Pencil Bomb, used to set fire to ships and factories.

Drawing of a German Pencil Bomb, used to set fire to ships and factories.

Yet, the German government did not follow through on its strategy. Divisions within the cabinet, especially the Navy and the Foreign Office, caused the Emperor to hesitate re-instituting unrestricted submarine warfare. This hesitation would have dire consequences. While in the summer of 1916, the US military suffered from a lack of preparedness, the Pershing expedition into Mexico as well as the call up, training and equipping of the US reserve quickly changed the situation. When in February 1917 the Kaiser finally agreed to the renewed submarine war, President Woodrow Wilson had the ability, the public backing, and a trained and equipped military to respond with a call to arms. The last member of the Secret War Council - von Papen and Boy-Ed had been expelled in the fall of 1915, Dernburg left voluntarily after the Lusitania sinking - Heinrich Albert, left with the German diplomatic corps in the spring of 1917. Prosecutors and historians never fully uncovered his role. He continued in German politics, became Secretary of Reconstruction in 1923, then became Henry Ford's man in Nazi Germany.    

Rather than taking advantage of restricting supplies to its enemies, Germany had inadvertently strengthened the US to become its greatest nemesis. GIs began pouring into the battlefields of Europe and started to tip the balance of a stalled war. Even the separate peace, Germany concluded with the Russians could not change its defeat. Only two-and-a-half years after Pancho Villa attacked Columbus and German agents blew up the New York harbor, and one-and-a-half years after the US declaration of war, Germany sued for unconditional surrender.

If you are interested in the details of this story, read the Secret War Council® trilogy on the German Secret Service in North America between 1914 and 1917.     

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