Reichskanzlers Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg, 1915

11 August 1915 – September Program

In Paris today, the French newspaper Temps (‘Times’) publishes the full text of a secret memorandum that was prepared for German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg (see above) last September. Known as the Septemberprogramm, and based on the input and advice of the six largest economic organizations in the Germany, it is an outline of a postwar world rearranged to the advantage of the Kaiser’s empire and its economic interests — and a clue to the real war aims in Potsdam. The preamble resonates with our worst memories of Germany during the 20th Century:

The general aim of the war is security for the German Reich in west and east for all imaginable time. For this purpose France must be so weakened as to make her revival as a great power impossible for all time. Russia must be thrust back as far as possible from Germany’s eastern frontier and her domination over the non-Russian vassal peoples broken. (Emphasis mine)

To this end, the document recommends harshly-punitive war indemnities — the very same reparations that a defeated Germany will be obliged to make after the war, complaining all the while at the unfairness of them — with the objective of making it impossible for France to fight another war with Germany for the next two decades. Paris will also be required to surrender the iron-rich strip of land from the industrial center at Belfort to the English Channel, much of which is already occupied by German troops, and must submit to German economic domination in a new union of Mitteleuropa.

Furthermore: a commercial treaty which makes France economically dependent on Germany, secures the French market for our exports and makes it possible to exclude British commerce from France. This treaty must secure for us financial and industrial freedom of movement in France in such fashion that German enterprises can no longer receive different treatment from French.

Redrawing the boundaries of Poland and Luxembourg, the plan also stipulates that the Netherlands, Sweden, and Norway be brought into permanent economic union with Germany, that a contiguous Central African empire must be granted to the Kaiser, and that Belgian independence should be forever abolished to give the German merchant and naval fleets maximum frontage on the North Sea.

Belgium, even it allowed to continue to exist as a state, must be reduced to a vassal state, must allow us to occupy any militarily important ports, must place her coast at our disposal in military respects, must become economically a German province. Given such a solution, which offers the advantages of annexation without its inescapable domestic political disadvantages, French Flanders with Dunkirk, Calais and Boulogne, where most of the population is Flemish, can without danger be attached to this unaltered Belgium. The competent quarters will have to judge the military value of this position against England.

While it never becomes official policy, the Septemberprogramm advisory memorandum nevertheless informs many German diplomatic actions throughout the war. The desire to keep neutral Belgium as a prize of war has already been reflected in many public statements, for example, and with the ongoing victories of the Central Powers in Poland, a growing chorus of right wing voices calls for the seizure of a ‘Polish strip’ and greater exploitation of the newly-occupied territories in line with the Septemberprogramm. 

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An Italian map of the European continent as revised by the 1914 Septemberprogramm shows the creation of buffer states with Russia and the proposed Mitteleuropa economic union including Italy, now at war with Austria

Bethman-Hollweg’s personal secretary Kurt Reizler is the single most important contemporary figure involved in this controversy. Dispatched to Stockholm to arrange the ceasefire on the Eastern Front in 1917, he is then sent on to Moscow as the top aide to Germany’s ambassador, and the peace treaties he helps to conclude with both Russia and Romania contain territorial and economic concessions modeled after the Septemberprogramm. But it is possible to read too much into a single memorandum, and the history of German expansionism is nowhere near so cut-and-dried as we might think, for the matter is controversial even in Germany.

The Social Democrats, Left Liberals, and the Catholic Center Party consistently oppose the Septemberprogramm and its authors. Having never intended the ‘shopping list’ of territories to be anything more than an informal, informational memo, Bethmann-Hollweg even represses public discussions of the Septemberprogramm for fear that it may hurt national unity or worsen his bargaining position during any eventual peace accord, and his stubborn resistance to efforts to codify or implement the plan annoy Conservatives so much that they call for his replacement by a Tirpitz, Falkenhayn, or Erich Ludendorff of their own hard-line ilk. He will eventually resign rather than concede to these pressures.

Moreover, it is clear from the date of the memorandum that the conflict preceded the war aims, not the other way around. Whereas a later German regime will make war with stated aims for expansion (Lebensraum) as their primary goal, this time Germans have not started the war hoping to rule Belgium and Poland. Rather, they have learned to want these things by way of their battlefield successes. Indeed, there is as yet no public appetite to fulfill the terms of the Septemberprogramm, and postwar tensions created by the chaotic changes along Germany’s ‘impossible border‘ with Poland will create that public hunger where it presently does not exist.

It is therefore more instructive to see Mitteleuropa and the Septemberprogramm as reactions to the sense of diplomatic and economic siege in Germany which immediately preceded the war, and out of which the Germans sought to break their way by force. That these ideas catch on with the German political right, and feed the revenge fantasies of militarists, is quite a separate matter from their origins as ideas.

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Transitional figure: Ludendorff will be the foremost cheerleader for the Septemberprogramm, then later endorse Hitler’s Third Reich

  • Gregory Robert Zieren

    There’s another linkage with the annexationists that makes it difficult for reasonable people to say no more war.. The military propose rewarding German soldiers with land in the east at the expense of Poles, Lithuanians, and possibly Latvians and Esthonians. The connection to Lebensraum is clear, but there’s also an immediate obstacle for the advocates of a negotiated settlement. No state will grant land to a defeated Germany so the “reward” for military service can come only with a clear victory. As the material circumstances for the German military and civilian population become increasingly difficult, it costs nothing to promise land in the future as an incentive and a reward. But what if Germany loses the war? How will the state provide a substitute for land for individual farmsteads in the East? What if the entire reward mechanism is nothing but an illusion? The dilemma is partly responsible for the resort to lies about Germany being stabbed in the back. Is there an end to the vicious cycles this war generates? It doesn’t seem so.

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  • Gregory Robert Zieren

    Let me express my appreciation for the nuanced way you treat the Septemberprogramm and other evidence of German expansionism and territorial greed. Rather like Berhardi’s pre-war book which “proves” that Germany wanted a war and us have started it, the September Program appears to prove Germany’s aggressive war aims in the manner of Fritz Fischer’s interpretation. But the documents do no such thing. Yes some military leaders and industrialists would have been thrilled to annex territory to their heart’s content. But that doesn’t prove that they drove policy.

    • http://www.osborneink.com/ OsborneInk

      Thank you. I think it’s important to see the Septemberprogramm as a phase within the history of German militarism that reflects its development. Such an understanding helps us to analyze German war aims as well as the ambitions of Lebensraum theory. But it’s easy to invest too much meaning in the document and project those future intentions on the past discussion, and that’s not helpful. I feel the same way sometimes while explaining the true purposes and limits of PNAC to progressive souls who are trapped in conspiratorial thinking about 9/11.

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