von Holtzendorff's Memo, 22 December 1916

Dirk Steffen (DSteffen709@aol.com) has been kind enough to provide this translation of Admiral von Holtzendorff's final memorandum on unrestricted U-boat warfare, which follow the introduction Dirk has provided:

Notes on the memorandum by Admiral von Holtzendorff of 22 December 1916
regarding unrestricted U-boat warfare

by Dirk Steffen

Admiral Henning von Holtzendorff assumed the post of the Imperial German Navy's Chief of the Admiral Staff on 3 September 1915. Kaiser Wilhelm II had relieved Holtzendorff's predecessor, Admiral Gustav von Bachmann, and his deputy, Admiral Paul Behncke, of their posts over a dispute on the conduct of the U-boat war. In the wake of the Lustiania and Arabic incidents the Kaiser and his government had unequivocally adopted a moderate position that subordinated military considerations to political ones--primarily with a view to avoid American belligerence. Holtzendorff's appointment was intended to preserve the fiction of imperial control over naval policy, which had in fact largely passed to the State Secretary of the Imperial Naval Office, Grand-Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz. The State Secretary, however, quickly converted Holtzendorff to his view, and the appointment thus did nothing to bolster the Kaiser's standing within the naval leadership nor did it end the controversial and politically harmful public debate over the indiscriminate use of U-boats. (1)

Holtzendorff became an ardent fighter for Tirpitz's cause once he was fully committed to it. He produced no less than half a dozen drafts, scattered over a period of one year, and one official paper (submitted on 27 August 1916) on U-boat warfare before he submitted his final memorandum on 22 December 1916, (2) which then became the pivotal document for Germany's declaration of unrestricted U-boat warfare in 1917. Holtzendorff's arguments in favour of the campaign revolved around two key issues: first, that progressive arming of merchantmen would offset any increase in efficiency and numbers of U-boat assets if they continued to adhere to cruiser rules, and second, that the failed crop of 1916 would offer a unique opportunity to starve Great Britain into submission quickly. The latter, very persuasive, argument was inspired by a study of Dr. Richard Fuss, the director of a renowned Magdeburg-based banking institute. In February 1916 Fuss postulated that if the U-boats sank enemy merchant tonnage at a rate of 630,000 tons per month, Britain would be compelled to sue for peace within 5 to 6 months, simply because there would not be sufficient merchant tonnage available in the trade with Great Britain in order to carry the necessary grain imports and sustain the war economy at the same time. The attraction of a swift and decisive victory at sea was irresistible and became an obsession with many German naval leaders who secretly deplored the navy's strategic passivity in the war. The study, which was first enclosed in Holtzendorff's memorandum on unrestricted U-boat warfare of 27 August 1916, was endorsed by a host of renowned German financial and economic experts. A rather salient point was the tacit assumption that, given the campaign's anticipated scope of time of no more than 6 months, U.S. belligerence would have no significant impact on the course of the war. (3)

In contrast to 27 August, however, when Holtzendorff's propositions had only received a lukewarm response, the situation in December 1916 proved to be infinitely more favourable for the drastic measures advocated by the admiral. Following the catastrophic losses sustained by the Central Powers' armies during the battles of 1916, the Oberste Heeresleitung (OHL), the German Army's supreme command, was much more amenable to an alternative concepts, provided they bore the promise of a quick victory that seemed no longer attainable on land. As early as October 1916 the generals had signalled their agreement in principle for Holtzendorff's scheme. (4) At the same time, the position of the Kaiser and the Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg--both of whom were firmly committed to a policy of moderation--was steadily eroding in the course of 1916. The public and the press were blasting the Kaiser for his weak-kneed stance on U-boat warfare, while an increasingly belligerent parliament took up the Chancellor on his remarks in favour of unrestricted U-boat war, which he had previously made in order to deflect criticism from the Kaiser and to assuage the heated tempers. Bethmann-Hollweg, a master of prevarication, however, was not easily put out. He was convinced that the OHL and the Kaiser would continue to back him against any domestic opposition and thus spare him a firm commitment to Holtzendorff's plans. Holtzendorff, on the other hand, could thus play both ends against the middle, having withheld the true extent of the OHL's conversion to his views from the Chancellor.

A day after Holtzendorff had submitted his final memorandum, Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg bluntly declared in a tersely worded telegram to Bethmann-Hollweg that "the situation will be favourable at the end of January [1917]" for the commencement of unrestricted U-boat warfare and urged a political decision. (5) The OHL's change of tack also increased the pressure on the Kaiser, who, in the past, had repeatedly turned down Holtzendorff's eloquent requests to sign a prepared imperial order for unrestricted U-boat warfare. Following the allied rejection of the German peace initiative in December 1916, Kaiser Wilhelm II too began to vacillate. On top of that Crown Prince Wilhelm and Empress Auguste Viktoria, as well as numerous other courtiers, railed publicly against defeatist elements that opposed a measure that was bound to bring certain victory and implored the Kaiser to give in to Holtzendorff's request for unrestricted U-boat warfare. (6)

The decision for the implementation of unrestricted U-boat warfare on the basis of Holtzendorff's memorandum was finally taken during a conference at Pless on 9 January 1917. A few minutes before the conference began, the Chief of the Naval Cabinet, Admiral Georg Alexander von Müller, informed Bethmann-Hollweg that the Kaiser had reneged on his position, although Bethmann-Hollweg might have guessed as much from the wording of the Kaiser's invitation to Pless. (7) The conference itself was a thinly disguised set up in which Hindenburg and Ludendorff contented themselves with pursuing the line of argument agreed upon with Holtzendorff and von Müller on the previous day.The officers had also privately agreed--with the Kaiser's consent--that they would rid themselves of the Chancellor, should he continue interfere with their plans. (8) The hapless Bethmann-Hollweg made a half-hearted attempt to stave off the inevitable but eventually yielded to the collective bullying with the words that "if the military authorities consider the unrestricted U-boat war a vital instrument then I am not in a position to contradict them." (9) That having been said, the Kaiser made a brief statement in favour of unrestricted U-boat warfare and immediately signed a prepared imperial order to the effect. Bethmann-Hollweg's later attempts in January 1917 to renegotiate his consent, or to explain it away, suggest that he may actually have been bent on extricating himself from an uncomfortable and embarrassing situation as quickly as possible, rather than having deliberately intended to forfeit the primacy of policy at Pless. Nevertheless, the Chancellor's lapse triggered the same sort of fateful, irreversible automatism of military preparations that had already launched Germany into the war in 1914.


1. For details of the German military and political decision making process regarding the prosecution of the U-boat war 1914-1918 see the exhaustive study by: Joachim Schröder, Die U-Boote des Kaisers: Die Geschichte des deutschen U-Boot-Krieges gegen Grossbritannien im ersten Weltkrieg (The Kaiser's U-boats: the History of the German U-boat War against Great Britain in World War One) (Lauf an der Pegnitz: Europaforum-Verlag, 2001).

2. See translation of the original document text below. From: NARA T-1022, roll 847, KdA, folder U.M. 5/II, Copy of memorandum by Admiral von Holtzendorff to Field-Marshal von Hindenburg (original delivered by hand to Chancellor von Bethmann-Hollweg), Berlin, 22 December 1916.

3. NARA T-1022, roll 847, KdA, folder U.M. 5/II, Die Schiffsraumfrage und die Versorgung Englands im Jahre 1916 (The Tonnage Issue and the British Supply Situation in 1916), enclosure to a memorandum by Admiral von Holtzendorff to Chancellor von Bethmann-Hollweg, Berlin, 27 August 1916.

4. NARA T-1022, roll 847, KdA, folder U.M. 5/I, Aufzeichnungen für eine Besprechung der Vorbereitungen, die vor Beginn des rücksichtslosen U-Bootkrieges noch notwendig sind (notes of a conference on measures required before commencement of unrestricted U-boat warfare), 5 October 1916.

5. See translation of the original document text below. NARA T-1022, roll 847, KdA, folder U.M. 5/I, telegram by the Chief of the General Staff to Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg, 23 December 1916.

6. Schröder, 270.

7. "Since My order to the Navy regarding the U-boat war has to go out no later than the day after tomorrow, I should be delighted to see you here tomorrow." Cited in: Schröder, 304.

8. Georg Alexander von Müller, Regierte der Kaiser? (War diaries, notes and correspondence of the Chief of the Naval Cabinet, Admiral Georg Alexander von Müller, 1914-1918) ed. by Walter Görlitz (Göttingen: Musterschmidt-Verlag, 1959), pp. 247-8.

9. Notes of a conference between the Chancellor, Field-Marshal von Hindenburg and General Ludendorff in Pless, 9 January 1917, in: Erich Ludendorff (ed.), Urkunden der Obersten Heeresleitung über ihre Tätigkeit 1916-18 (Documents of the Army Supreme Command 1916-1918) (Berlin: E.S. Mittler & Sohn, 1920), p. 323.

[von Holtzendorff]
Admiral von Holtzendorff, courtesy of Dirk Steffen

The Chief of the Admiralty Staff of the Navy Berlin, 22 December 1916

B 35 840 I

To the

Royal Field-Marshal

Chief of the General Staff of the Army

His Excellency v. Beneckendorff und v. Hindenburg.

Great Headquarters

Most Secret!

I have the honour to respectfully submit to your Excellency in the attachment a memorandum on the necessity for the commencement an unrestricted campaign of submarine warfare at the earliest opportunity. The memorandum is essentially a continuation of the memorandum Ref. No. 22 247 I of 27 August 1916: The Merchant Tonnage Issue and the Supply of England in 1916, which has previously been submitted to your Excellency.

Based on the detailed information attached to this memorandum, I would like to ask your Excellency to kindly follow the line of argument laid out below, and I hope to achieve agreement that it is absolutely necessary to increase our measures against England as soon as possible to the very limit of our abilities in order to exploit the favourable situation and to obtain a swift victory.


The war requires a decision before autumn 1917, lest it should end in the mutual exhaustion of all parties and thus in a disaster for us. Of our enemies, Italy and France are already so severely weakened in their economic foundations that they are kept in the fight only through England's energy and resources. If we succeed to break England's backbone, the war will immediately be decided in our favour. England's backbone is the merchant tonnage, which delivers essential imports for their survival and for the military industry of the British islands and which ensures the [kingdom's] ability to pay for its imports from abroad.


The current situation in respect to the merchant tonnage has already been mentioned in the memorandum of 27 August and is laid out in further detail in the attachment. In all brevity the situation is as follows: The [shipping] rates have reached outrageous levels, often as much as ten times as much [as in peacetime] for many important goods. We know with certainty from a variety of sources that merchant tonnage is lacking everywhere.

The current English merchant tonnage can safely be assumed to be in the order of 20 million gross register tons. 8.6 million tons of these are requisitioned for military purposes, and 1/2 million is employed in coastal trade. Approximately 1 million [tons] are undergoing repairs or are otherwise temporarily unavailable. Approximately 2 million tons are sailing for other allies, which leaves about 8 million tons of English merchant tonnage to provide for the supply of England. An analysis of statistical figures of ship movements in British ports suggests an even lower figure. In the months of July - September 1916 only 6 3/4 million tons were employed in the trade with England. In addition to that, other tonnage sailing in the trade with England can be assumed to amount to around 900,000 tons of enemy - non-English - and approximately 3 million tons of neutral tonnage. Hence, no more than 10 3/4 million GRT are at the disposal for the supply of England.


If the achievements in our battle against merchant tonnage have been encouraging thus far, then the exceptionally poor world harvest of grain, including feed grain, this year provides us with a unique opportunity, which nobody could responsibly reject. Both North America and Canada will probably cease their grain exports to England in February. Then that country will have to draw its grain supplies from the more distant Argentina, but since Argentina will only be able to deliver very limited quantities, because of the poor harvest, England will have to turn to India and mostly Australia. In the attachment it is explained in detail how such an increase in the length of the grain routes will require an extra 720,000 tons of tonnage for the grain shipments alone. In practice, the implications will be that, until August 1917, 3/4 million tons of the available 10 3/4 million tons will have to be employed for a service, which had hitherto not been required.


Under such favourable circumstances an energetic blow conducted with all force against English merchant tonnage will promise a certain success in a way that I have to reiterate and emphasize my statements made on 27 August 1916 that "our clearly defined strategic objective is to force a decision in our favour through the destruction of [enemy] sea transport capacity" and also that "from a military point of view it would be irresponsible not to make use of the submarine weapon now." As things stand at the moment, I cannot vouch that a campaign of unrestricted submarine warfare will force England to make peace within five months time. This reservation needs to be made in respect to the unrestricted submarine warfare only. Of the currently conducted submarine warfare under cruiser a decisisve result cannot be expected, regardless of the circumstances, even if all armed merchantmen are designated as legitimate targets.


Based on a monthly rate of destruction of 600,000 tons of shipping through a campaign of unrestricted submarine warfare, as pointed out previously, and on the well grounded expectation, elaborated upon in the attachment, that at least two fifths of the neutral tonnage sailing in the trade with England will be deterred by such a campaign, it stands to reason that the current volume English sea borne trade will be reduced by 39% within five months. This would not be bearable for England, neither in view of her future position after the war, nor in view of her ability to continue the war effort. Already, the country is at the verge of a food crisis, which will soon compel it to attempt to undertake the same food rationing measures, which we, as a blockaded country, have been forced to adopt since the outbreak of the war. The preconditions for implementing such measures are totally different and infinitely more unfavourable than in our case. They do not have the necessary administration and their population is unused to submitting to such privations. Then there is another reason why the uniform rationing of bread for the whole population will not be possible in England at this point. It was possible for Germany at a time in which bread could be substituted by other foodstuffs. That moment has been missed in England. But with only three fifths of the current sea borne trade, the continued supply with [alternative] foodstuffs cannot be maintained unless a severe rationing of grain is imposed--provided the war industry is to be maintained at its current output level. The objection that England could have sufficient domestic stockpiles of grain and raw materials has been disproved in detail in the attachment.

In addition to that, the unrestricted submarine campaign would cut off England from the trade with Denmark and Holland, which would result in an immediate shortage of fats, since one third of all butter imports and the entire margarine imports to England originate in Denmark and Holland respectively. Moreover, by threatening the sea routes to Scandinavia and intensifying activities against the Spanish iron-ore trade, it would result in a scarcity of iron-ore and wood. This will automatically reduce the coal production for lack of wood. In consequence it would also reduce the output of pig iron, steel, and subsequently the production of munitions, which depends on both. Finally, it gives us the long hoped for opportunity to strike at neutral munitions shipments, and thus it will also provide a relief for the army.

By contrast, a submarine campaign according to cruiser rules, even assuming the possibility of indiscriminate attacks on armed merchantmen, would only yield a reduction of the tonnage sailing for England by 5 x 400,000 tons--about 18%--or less than half of what could be achieved by unrestricted submarine warfare. Experience so far does not suggest that the authorization to torpedo armed merchantmen would improve upon the result of 400,000 tons of destroyed merchant tonnage, which has been achieved over the past two months. In fact, it is likely to merely compensate for a decline, which has to be expected in the course of progressing arming [of merchantmen]. I am aware that even a reduction of one fifth of English sea borne trade will have a severe impact on the English supply situation. However, I consider it unthinkable that the current English leadership under Lloyd George, who is absolutely determined, could be forced to make peace on these grounds, particularly since the constraints of fat, iron-ore, and wood scarcity--and the latters' impact on the munitions production-- would not come into effect. Furthermore, the psychological effects of panic and terror cannot be exploited. These effects, which can only be achieved by a campaign of unrestricted submarine warfare are, in my view, an indispensable prerequisite for success. Just how important they are can be judged by the experiences made when we initiated submarine warfare in early 1915, or even during the brief period of the submarine campaign in March and April 1916, when the British believed that we were serious about it.

A further precondition [for success] is that the beginning and the declaration of unrestricted submarine warfare should coincide in a manner that leaves no room for negotiations, particularly between England and the neutrals. Only then will the effect of shock have the most profound impact on the enemy and the neutrals.


Upon the declaration of unrestricted submarine warfare the United States government will once more be compelled to make a decision whether or not to take the consequences of its previous position vis-à-vis the unrestricted submarine warfare. I am absolutely of the opinion that war with the United States is such a serious matter that everything has to be undertaken to avoid it. Fear of a diplomatic rupture however, should not lead us to recoil from the use of a weapon that promises victory for us.

At any rate, it is realistic to assume the worst case as the most probable one and to consider, which impact an American entry into the war on the side of our enemies would have on the course of the war. In respect to the merchant tonnage this impact is likely to be negligible. It cannot be expected that more than a fraction of the interned central power tonnage in American--and perhaps in other neutral ports--can be put into the trade with England at short notice. The overwhelming part of it can be rendered useless in a manner that it will be unable to sail during the first, critical months. All preparations in this respect have been made. Also, there would be no crews available in the initial stages. The American troops would be of equally little import, if only for the lack of bottoms to carry them over here in great numbers; the same applies to American money, which cannot compensate the lack of tonnage. The only question that remains would be how America would react to a peace, which Great Britain would be forced to accept. It is unlikely that it would decide to continue the war against us, since it has no means to strike at us decisively, whereas its sea borne commerce would suffer from our submarines. Indeed, it is to be expected that it will join England in making peace, in order to restore healthy economic conditions.

Therefore my conclusion is that a campaign of unrestricted submarine warfare, launched in time to produce a peace before the harvest of the summer 1917--i.e. 1 August--has to accept the risk of American belligerence, because we have no other option. In spite of the diplomatic rupture with America, the unrestricted submarine warfare is nevertheless the right means to conclude this war victoriously. It is also the only means to this end.


Since I have declared the time come to strike against England in autumn 1916 the situation has even improved tremendously in our favour. The crop failure, in conjunction with the impact of the war on England up to now, gives us the opportunity to force a decision before the next harvest. If we do not make use of what seems to be the last chance, then I see no other option than that of mutual exhaustion, without our succeeding to bring the war to an end on terms that will guarantee our future as a world power.

In order to achieve the required results, the unrestricted submarine warfare has to commence no later than 1 February. I request from your Excellency an indication, whether the military situation on the continent, particularly in regard to the remaining neutrals, would allow this schedule. The necessary preparations can be completed within three weeks time.

(Signed) von Holtzendorff

Last Updated: 23 January, 2003.

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