The son of a Frankfurt banker, Bethmann became a professional civil servant, and gradually rose through the ranks, serving as Prussian Minister of Interior from 1905 to 1907, and then as Imperial State Secretary for the Interior from 1907 to 1909. In 1909, on the resignation of Chancellor Bernhard von Bülow, Bethmann was appointed to succeed him.
In foreign policy, Bethmann pursued a policy of detente with Britain, hoping to come to some agreement that would put a halt to their ruinous naval arms race, but failed, largely due to the opposition of German Naval Minister Alfred von Tirpitz. Despite the increase in tensions due to the Second Moroccan Crisis of 1911, Bethmann did improve relations with England to some extent, working with British foreign secretary Sir Edward Grey to alleviate tensions during the Balkan Crises of 1912-1913, and negotiating treaties over an eventual partition of the Portuguese colonies and the Berlin-Baghdad railway. In domestic politics, Bethmann's record was also mixed, and his policy of the "diagonal", which endeavoured to maneuver between the Socialists and Liberals of the left and the right-wing nationalists of the right, only succeeded in alienating most of the German political establishment.
Following the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, Bethmann and Foreign Secretary Gottlieb von Jagow were instrumental in urging the Austrians to take a tough stand against Serbia, and later, took steps to prevent Grey's efforts to impose a peaceful solution on the quarreling parties. In the last days before the outbreak of war, however, Bethmann seems to have had some second thoughts, and he took half-hearted measures to support Grey's proposals of mediation, until Russia's mobilization on July 31, 1914, took the matter out of his hands and into the hands of Chief of Staff Helmuth von Moltke, who demanded immediate mobilization and war so that the German army could implement its Schlieffen Plan to end the war quickly by an invasion of France through Belgium.
Bethmann, much of whose foreign policy before the war had been guided by his desire to establish good relations with Britain, was particularly upset by Britain's declaration of war following German violation of Belgium's neutrality, reportedly asking the departing British Ambassador Goschen how Britain could go to war over a "mere scrap of paper" (i.e. the Belgian Neutrality Treaty of 1839), a remark which would become infamous for its demonstration of German insensibility to international law and treaty rights.
During the war, Bethmann has usually been seen as having generally attempted to pursue a relatively moderate policy, but having been frequently outflanked by the military leaders, who played an increasingly important role in the direction of all German policy. However, this view has been partially superseded, as the work of historian Fritz Fischer in the 1960s showed that Bethmann made more concessions to the nationalist right than had previously been thought. Nevertheless, Bethmann was generally a voice of moderation, particularly after Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff replaced the more ineffectual Erich von Falkenhayn at the General Staff in the summer of 1916. Bethmann's hopes for American President Woodrow Wilson's mediation at the end of 1916 came to nothing, and, over Bethmann's objections, Hindenburg and Ludendorff forced the adoption of unrestricted submarine warfare in March 1917, which led to the United States's entry into the war the next month. Bethmann, all credibility and power lost, remained in office until July of that year, when a Reichstag revolt, resulting in the passage of the famous Peace Resolution by an alliance of the Social Democratic, Progressive, and Center parties, forced his resignation and replacement by the nonentity Georg Michaelis.
Bethmann spent the remainder of his life in retirement, writing his memoirs.
|Chancellor of Germany|
|1909 - 1917||Followed by:
|Prime Minister of Prussia|
|1909 - 1917||Followed by:|