30 March 1916 – Rumors Of War

Seen above, Richard von Kühlmann is one of the most consequential German diplomats of the Great War. The outbreak found him in Sweden, but Kühlmann was soon dispatched to Constantinople in 1914 to conclude the alliance of the Kaisers and the Sultan, inducing the latter to declare jihad in a bid to set the Middle East ablaze all the way to India. Reassigned to The Hague, where he served happily before the war, Kühlmann has an expert understanding of Dutch neutrality and is an adept hand of public relations.

Knowing that the vast majority of Dutch citizens oppose Germany’s war, he quickly set up the Hilfstelle, a propaganda operation that panders to anti-British sentiments in the Netherlands and counters the muckraking journalism of a free press with a full spectrum of disinformation and spin. Kühlmann is also a practitioner of darker arts; this February, he arranged the temporary political downfall of Marie Willem Frederik Treub, a troublesome finance minister, by revealing the existence of his mistress to Queen Wilhelmina.

War being chaos, his challenges have increased in recent months. When a u-boat ran aground at Terschelling in November, Dutch authorities immediately interned its crew, requiring sharp protests and a flurry of op-eds to press an unsuccessful case for their release. On the 2nd of February, the Zeppelin L-19 lost power and drifted into Dutch airspace, where it was set ablaze by antiaircraft fire and crashed at sea. But the worst incident yet was two weeks ago when a torpedo sank the 14,000-ton liner Tubantia as she stood at anchor, fully lit and marked to prevent a mistaken submarine attack.

Seen here in a postcard, Tubantia will be the largest neutral ship sunk during the entire Great War

German denialism has followed a by-now familiar pattern. First, the Wolff Telegraph Bureau claims that a British mine was responsible for the Tubantia, an explanation contradicted by the passengers and crew, all of whom survived and some of whom saw the distinctive bubble trail of the torpedo. German newspapers counter that a British torpedo must be responsible, but when forensic examination finds distinctive bits of the bronze fittings from a German torpedo embedded in a lifeboat and a serial number carried by the UB-13, German naval ‘sources’ float a forged log from the u-boat that puts her far away from the scene at the time — along with an implausible new story. This time, the torpedo was fired at an enemy vessel, then floated until it struck the anchored Tubantia ten days later.

We may laugh at such fabrications, but they have an effect of shaping narrative regardless of their absurdity. Waging ‘information warfare,’ today Kühlmann has arranged for a rumor to reach the Dutch embassy in Berlin by two apparently independent sources. In Berlin, German Foreign Minister Gottlieb von Jagow informs the Dutch Minister in Berlin, W.A.F. Baron Gevers, that London is preparing to make an amphibious assault on Zeeland. Meanwhile, the German envoy in Bucharest claims to have heard the same information from French and Russian diplomatic staff in Romania. Tomorrow, Jagow repeats the warning, emphasizing that Germany would have to intervene if Britain lands at Zeeland to dominate the seaway to Antwerp.

Like other neutral states abutting the Great War belligerents, the Netherlands have long since mobilized their armed forces; two hundred thousand men have been activated, and ten thousand are already in Zeeland at any given time. Britain is known to have excess troop ship capacity in the North Sea, but there is no corroborating evidence for the rumors of pending invasion. Nevertheless, military leaves are canceled, while tomorrow’s Dutch papers announce a new state of national alert. Reasoning that the exercise will send a signal of strength to the combatant powers — ‘we will defend our neutrality’ — the Dutch government never implements a second phase of mobilization as planned in event of a genuine war emergency. Zeeland is reinforced with an additional infantry battalion.

Known later as the alerte, this propaganda victory will be short-lived, with the official state of emergency ending on the 2nd of April, although the sense of political emergency lingers. But it does succeed in distracting the Dutch public from their anger at Germany long enough for their government to agree on delayed compensation for the Tubantia. The Royal Holland Lloyd line is finally awarded £830,000 six years after she sank. To his credit, Kühlmann is a foremost advocate for this German indemnity.

In fact, Kühlmann is one of the strongest voices objecting to unrestricted u-boat warfare, Zeppelin raids on English towns, and other displays of ‘frightfulness’ that end up feeding enemy propaganda. He opposes the hard-right reactionaries who want to impose a German-dominated economic system on the Netherlands, preferring to let British arrogance push the Dutch into Germany’s orbit. After negotiating a peace treaty with revolutionary Russia in 1917, Kühlmann will be one of the last advocates for peace through compromise in the German government.

A map of German-occupied territory that shows the Dutch border and the isles and peninsulas of Zeeland. Click to enlarge