Imperial Germany and Irish-American contacts, 1900–17

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 1 (Jan/Feb 2010), Volume 18, World War I

An unflattering portrayal of the diplomatic skills of Germany’s ambassador to the United States, Count von Bernstorff (New York Herald, 13 April 1915).

An unflattering portrayal of the diplomatic skills of Germany’s ambassador to the United States, Count von Bernstorff (New York Herald, 13 April 1915).

In 1892 France signed a military convention with Russia: in the event of war, the Central Powers, Germany and Austria-Hungary, would have to fight on two fronts. As for the United Kingdom, it worried about Kaiser Wilhelm II’s decision to massively develop the German navy. When in 1901 Anglo-German talks eventually failed to reach a compromise, Frank Hugh O’Donnell, a maverick nationalist politician, paid a visit to the German embassy in London. He had come to offer an alliance between Irish nationalists and Germany. Unfortunately for him, the very anti-Home Rule ambassador Paul von Wolff Metternich zur Gracht rejected the offer out of hand.

Triple Entente: strategic encirclement of Central Powers

But O’Donnell bided his time. In April 1904 the French and the British signed the Entente Cordiale, to the German government’s great consternation. O’Donnell grasped this opportunity and travelled to Berlin, where he met Secretary of State Oswald von Richthofen and explained that as president of the National Democratic League he would oppose British imperial policy that threatened German interests. Von Richthofen informed Chancellor Bernhard von Bülow of his visit. Von Bülow was at once smitten and went as far as to offer 60,000 marks to O’Donnell if his plan was successful! But once again Ambassador von Wolff thought otherwise and warned the chancellor that the affair could be seriously compromising if exposed. The deal was called off, but O’Donnell had not said his last word.
The Entente Cordiale marked a dramatic turning point in Irish nationalist attitudes to France, traditionally Ireland’s potential or actual ally against Britain: Irish republicans now turned to Germany and Austria-Hungary. We don’t know what, if anything, Wilhelm II knew about Frank Hugh O’Donnell’s various approaches, but he soon found his own source of information through Dr Theodor Schiemann, a professor of Eastern European history, who corresponded with the Irish republican George Freeman. Freeman originally came from County Mayo and was now a journalist specialising in foreign affairs for the Gaelic American in New York. He was in touch with John Devoy’s Clan na Gael and had a vast network of anti-British nationalist contacts, ranging from Scotland to Afghanistan.
In 1906 the German editor of the Eastern World in Yokohama, Japan, advised Freeman to contact Schiemann. In May he sent his first letter, in which he proposed collaboration against Britain. Schiemann accepted immediately and their correspondence would last until 1921. Freeman gave information about nationalists and republicans in the United States and Ireland. He entrusted his letters to the crews of German ships in New York, as he did not trust the local post office. Schiemann in turn informed the foreign ministry in Berlin and also the kaiser. The activities of this anti-British network were essentially propagandist but on occasion they could be of a cloak-and-dagger nature. For example, in May 1907 Schiemann asked how many Irishmen were serving in the Royal Navy, the implication being that they could be relied upon to foment trouble when needed. (Freeman had ‘not been able to ascertain the approximate number’.)

 

 

Maverick nationalist politician Frank Hugh O’Donnell—first offered an alliance with the Germans in 1901.

Maverick nationalist politician Frank Hugh O’Donnell—first offered an alliance with the Germans in 1901.

There was another bad year for the Central Powers in 1907, as the United Kingdom and Russia signed an entente: the strategic encirclement of Germany and Austria-Hungary was now complete. In 1908, in London, Frank Hugh O’Donnell had a meeting with Austro-Hungarian ambassador Albert von Mensdorff, to whom he offered a plan of alliance. Mensdorff thought that his visitor was a man of wide historical and political knowledge but that ‘his views were a little exaggerated and eccentric’. Nonetheless, he sent a report on his meeting to Vienna. The Austro-Hungarian government was not interested, as Ireland was not in its direct geostrategic sphere, but it did forward the report to the Germans, who were definitely interested. The matter was entrusted to Schiemann, who contacted Freeman. The latter strongly advised him to have nothing to do with O’Donnell, as he was ‘an imposter and a dangerous one’. This was the end of O’Donnell’s Central European ventures. But Schiemann cannot have failed to notice the rather divisive nature of Irish nationalism—not a good sign. There was further bad news for Irish republicans. In 1909 Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg became chancellor and, unlike his predecessor, Bernhard von Bülow, he was not interested in the Irish question: no concerted German approach to nationalist Ireland could be expected in the immediate term.

 

First World War
When the First World War broke out in 1914, President Woodrow Wilson declared that the United States would be neutral. The war, however, meant big business for American trade, and this greatly favoured Britain, France and Russia. German merchant ships had little chance of crossing the Atlantic without being intercepted by the Royal Navy. The Triple Entente countries bought vast supplies of ammunition and food, which increased as the war went on. From the beginning the Germans were at a huge disadvantage, and understandably it upset them. Tensions with the Americans gradually built up.

 

 

Franz von Papen (later chancellor in 1932), German military attaché in Washington DC in 1914, claimed in 1952 that sabotage in the United States was Roger Casement’s idea.

Franz von Papen (later chancellor in 1932), German military attaché in Washington DC in 1914, claimed in 1952 that sabotage in the United States was Roger Casement’s idea.

In August 1914 the German ambassador, Johann Heinrich von Bernstorff, travelled back to the United States. In one of his suitcases were $150 million in German treasury notes, to buy as much American ammunition as possible before the British, French and Russians could lay their hands on it, and also to finance propaganda and sabotage operations. From Washington, the military attaché Franz von Papen (who would later become chancellor of Weimer Germany in 1932) reported about the huge quantities of ammunition in the harbours of New York, Boston, etc. General Erich von Falkenhayn, chief of the general staff, said that something had to be done to stop its arrival in Europe. Von Bernstorff and von Papen met John Devoy and Roger Casement in New York and it was agreed that Casement would travel to Germany to recruit Irish prisoners-of-war to fight alongside the German army for the liberation of Ireland.

 

Eventually the Germans opted for sabotage operations, in which the fiery and clumsy von Papen was involved, using their own agents, German-Americans and Irish-Americans. Bridges were blown up, ammunition factories sabotaged, strikes organised, etc. In 1952 von Papen claimed that ‘it was [Casement], then in Berlin, who put forward to disrupt as much as possible America’s increasing supplies to our enemies with acts of sabotage’. Whether true or not, it put Ambassador von Bernstorff in a very tricky position: these covert activities, if exposed, would compromise his embassy and provoke the American administration into adopting a harsher attitude towards Germany. But Berlin would not listen to von Bernstorff’s warnings. In March 1915 Captain Franz von Rintelen was sent to the United States for further sabotage activities. He arrived in April and soon was at loggerheads with von Papen, whom he rightly believed to be a bungler. Von Rintelen’s stay in the country was short but it made a big impact as he did much damage. He carefully observed the situation on the docks of New York and recruited German sailors and also Irish-Americans, thanks to cooperation with George Freeman, of whom he had a high opinion. Soon a clandestine laboratory was set up aboard a German ship, the Friedrich der Grosse, moored in the harbour, to manufacture small, cigar-shaped incendiary bombs.

Irish dockers ‘swarmed about . . . with detonators in their pockets’
The dockers under von Rintelen’s command would place ‘cigars’ in between the boxes of ammunition while loading a ship. Their first success was the Phoebus, which was bound for Archangel in Russia but which ‘caught fire at sea’ and was obliged to dock at Liverpool. Von Rintelen held his Irish-Americans in high regard: ‘My most fanatical helpers in this way were the Irish. They swarmed about the various ports with detonators in their pockets and lost no opportunity of having a smack at an English ship’. There were other saboteurs who were not members of von Rintelen’s team, such as Captain Hans Boehm, who had set up his headquarters at the so-called ‘Pan American Trading Company’ in Liberty Street, New York. True to form, George Freeman kept Dr Theodor Schiemann fully informed of their activities.
The Deuxième Bureau, France’s military intelligence service, was perfectly aware of these acts of sabotage and knew some of those who were behind them, notably Boehm. One ‘cigar’ that failed to detonate was found by the French aboard the Barkdale in Le Havre in Normandy (see drawing, p. 33). French, British and Russian agents were sent to New York and elsewhere, but von Rintelen remained elusive. Unfortunately for him, his recall to Berlin was orchestrated by a jealous von Papen. On his way back, passing as a Swiss citizen, he was arrested by the British secret service in August 1915 and spent the rest of the war in prison. As for von Papen, he was eventually expelled from the United States, as he was not particularly discreet. In fact, German sabotage and other covert operations were rather clumsy. In July 1915, for example, the American secret service got hold of Dr Heinrich Albert’s briefcase. Albert was working in the German embassy. The Americans found extremely compromising documents, including information that von Papen was investing c. $2 million dollars a week in disrupting ammunition shipments.

Unsolvable problem for Germany

Kaiser Wilhelm II was kept informed on Irish affairs by Dr Theodor Schiemann, who corresponded with Mayoman George Freeman. The latter maintained a vast network of anti-British nationalist contacts, ranging from Scotland to Afghanistan.

Kaiser Wilhelm II was kept informed on Irish affairs by Dr Theodor Schiemann, who corresponded with Mayoman George Freeman. The latter maintained a vast network of anti-British nationalist contacts, ranging from Scotland to Afghanistan.

War eventually broke out between the United States and Germany in April 1917, and sabotage operations stopped almost overnight as most German agents fled to Mexico. America’s hardly neutral trade was partly to blame for her entry into the conflict. In any case, German/Irish-American attempts to stop arms shipments had little chance of success because American factories were too efficient in their production. Moreover, at the beginning of the war there were not enough German U-boats to make a difference. Between February and September 1915, the 27 available submarines managed to sink only 21 of the c. 5,000 ships crossing the Atlantic. Sabotage operations were a desperate measure, but they did inflict some damage. American Captain Henry Landau, who investigated German activities, estimated that, between January 1915 and April 1917, 94 acts of sabotage or attempts at sabotage took place, including 46 on infrastructure and 48 on ships. His list may not be complete. For 1916 alone, the New York Times claimed that the ‘incendiary loss … was easily twenty-five million dollars’. There was also a definite German clumsiness regarding Ireland and Irish America. Contacts with Irish-Americans were only established once the war had started, when it was too late. In 1915 George Freeman bitterly wrote to Dr Theodor Schiemann: ‘As I look back on things I never cease to regret that a properly organized campaign was not begun in British India and French Indo-China three years ago’. He was right and it must have dawned upon Schiemann, as he underlined this passage in Freeman’s letter. In the end, the problem of American shipment of ammunition was simply unsolvable for Imperial Germany.  HI

Jérôme aan de Wiel is a Visiting Professor in the History Department of University College Cork.


Further reading:

 

J. aan de Wiel, The Irish factor, 1899–1919: Ireland’s strategic and diplomatic importance for foreign powers (Dublin, 2008).

R. R. Doerries (ed.), Prelude to the Easter Rising (London, 2000).

H. H. Herwig, The First World War: Germany and Austria-Hungary, 1914–1918 (London, 1997).

Captain von Rintelen, The dark invader: wartime reminiscences of a German naval intelligence officer (with introduction by R. R. Doerries) (London, 1998).

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