Alexander Sedlmaier. Deutschlandbilder und Deutschlandpolitik: Studien zur Wilson-Administration (1913-1921). Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2003. 386 S. EUR 70.00 (gebunden), ISBN 978-3-515-08124-5.
Reviewed by Thomas Boghardt (BMW Center for German and European Studies, Georgetown University)
Published on H-German (May, 2004)
A "Germanophobe" in the White House
A "Germanophobe" in the White House
Historians and political scientists tend to see the end of the Cold War era as a return to the multi-polar world of the early twentieth century. If they are correct, the future does not bode well, for Alexander Sedlmaier's doctoral dissertation, Deutschlandbilder und Deutschlandpolitik, reminds us of the deeply troubled nature of the German-American relationship in the World War I era.
Sedlmaier examines the Wilson administration's image of and policy towards Germany during and after World War I. The author's central thesis is that long before America's entry into the conflict, Woodrow Wilson had formed a negative opinion of Imperial Germany, and that his view would steadily harden throughout his presidency. At the end of the war, the author argues, the U.S. administration regarded Germans uniformly as "bloodthirsty Huns and uncivilized barbarians" (p. 357). This stark conception, in turn, impacted and increasingly determined Washington's policy towards Berlin, notably after the armistice of November 1918.
Sedlmaier has chosen a rigidly biographical approach to the subject. In five chapters, he chronologically evaluates the views and policy choices of President Wilson, his personal friend and adviser Colonel Edward House, Secretary of State Robert Lansing, and two State Department experts on Germany, William Bullitt and Ellis Dresel. The study is primarily based on the protagonists' own writings; notably, the author makes full use of the sixty-nine volumes of Wilson's edited papers, and, for the section on House, of the colonel's extensive diary at Yale University.
In the first chapter, Sedlmaier argues that Wilson resented the possibility of a German victory in the European conflict as early as September 1914. As the war progressed, the president became increasingly hostile to Germany. While historians often claim that Wilson softened his view of and policies towards Germany after the Allied victory, Sedlmaier argues the reverse: by the end of the war, Wilson had developed a highly dichotomous world view in which Germany stood for the vicious old forces, and the United States for a virtuous new order. Sedlmaier claims that this simplistic and moralistic view starkly limited Wilson's policy choices after the armistice. Contrary to his earlier declarations of wishing to act as an arbiter between the warring parties, the president now succumbed to his pent-up "Germanophobia" (pp. 158f.), blamed the German people collectively for the war, and became a veritable crusader for a vindictive peace treaty. Sedlmaier concludes that Wilson regarded the peace treaty of Versailles as a just punishment for an inherently "evil" Germany, and that he stubbornly defended the terms against reasonable criticism at home and abroad (p. 146).
The chapters on the president's closest advisers, Edward House and Robert Lansing, are equally instructive. While Colonel House's opinion of Germany appears more flexible than Wilson's, Lansing emerges as a passionate and emotional anti-German. Bent on smashing Lansing's traditional image as a cool lawyer and realistic diplomat, Sedlmaier argues that the secretary of state exaggerated German transgressions during the war "out of proportion" (p. 305f.), and that Lansing's own prejudices prevented him from evaluating Berlin's policies soberly.
In comparison with the detailed sections on Wilson, House and Lansing, the chapters on William Bullitt and Ellis Dresel are rather brief. Both men worked as State Department advisers for German affairs during and after the war, and Dresel became Washington's first emissary to the Weimar republic. Based on first-hand knowledge of the country, their realistic assessments often differed enormously from the administration's "hostile images" (Feindbilder) (p. 355), but Sedlmaier makes it clear that Bullitt nor Dresel exerted much influence over Washington's policies.
Sedlmaier reaches a number of important and original conclusions. He argues his case for the policy-determining nature of Wilson's negative image of Germany persuasively. Likewise, he puts Wilson's peace proposals of January 1918, the famous Fourteen Points, into a new context; while historians have traditionally maintained that the president announced the Fourteen Points in response to the Bolshevik revolution, Sedlmaier argues plausibly that Wilson regarded them first and foremost as an alternative to Germany's harsh peace designs on Eastern Europe (p. 89). It is also much to Sedlmaier's credit that he throws some light on the second tier of Wilson's advisers whose activities were not well known to date. A number of caveats, however, remain.
Sedlmaier's biographical approach is both a strength and a weakness of the book. While it allows the author to isolate and trace the views of his five protagonists, as a whole the administration's decision-making process remains somewhat nebulous. The reader may infer that the president dominated the decision-making process at most times, but it is not always clear how exactly the Wilson administration reached certain decisions or reacted to particular events. The index is not very helpful as it is limited to persons, rendering it difficult for the reader to reconstruct the impact of particular events on the administration, such as the sinking of the Lusitania. While Sedlmaier's writing style is usually straightforward and clear, he over-indulges in direct quotations, occasionally covering over half a page and stopping readers in their tracks (e.g., pp. 294, 336).
Sedlmaier delivers a strong indictment of U.S. foreign policy which, he contends, was guided increasingly by emotional aversion to Germany and a "Manichean" world view (p. 358). But while Wilson's thinking certainly contained moralistic elements, the author occasionally goes over the top in accusing the administration of "Germanophobia." When considering Wilson's policies vis-a-vis Germany, the author does not pay sufficient attention to several important factors. First, Sedlmaier does not do full justice to the complexity of Wilson's mind. While the president had certainly concluded by 1919 that Germany bore the main responsibility for the war--a view shared by most contemporaries outside Germany--he conceded only grudgingly the Allies' demand for a war trial of the German emperor. Wilson also steadfastly and successfully opposed French designs of severing the Rhineland from Germany. These and other instances do not square with the image of a man consumed entirely by his hatred for the former enemy.
Second, Sedlmaier does not take into account the force of public opinion. No political leader, least of all a democratically elected one, could ignore the hatred that had accumulated in his country towards the enemy during the bloodiest war the world had yet seen. For instance, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, whom Sedlmaier credits with being more understanding of the German position than Wilson, was re-elected in late 1918 on the slogan "Hang the Kaiser." American public opinion, too, demanded vociferously that Germany be punished, which begs the question of how realistic it is to expect of Wilson a dispassionate and detached policy towards Berlin after the armistice. Third, the author makes only tangential references to Berlin's responsibility for antagonizing the United States. During the period of neutrality, were not American concerns justified, at least to some extent, over German espionage and sabotage activities, unrestricted submarine warfare, and Berlin's anti-American overtures to Mexico? The author states that Imperial Germany occupied a strategically much more precarious international position than Britain and France, and he implies that American leaders should have been more accommodating towards Berlin's ambitions on the world stage (p. 363), but he never elaborates on this explosive statement.
An issue that would have merited extra attention is Great Britain's role in shaping the administration's negative image of Germany. Instructive studies on British propaganda activities in World War I are available, and it would have been pertinent to explore the extent to which these efforts succeeded in the United States. Conceivably, the findings might have strengthened Sedlmaier's case for Wilson's double-standard vis-a-vis Germany and the Allies.
Finally, not all of Sedlmaier's conclusions are entirely new. For instance, he challenges Arthur Link's view that the Wilson administration pursued a policy of strict neutrality from 1914 until 1917 (p. 358). But when the author ventures his own opinion to the effect that the Wilson administration's neutrality favored the Allies, he fails to mention that this interpretation has actually been around for a while. Revisionist historians like Horace Peterson, Charles Transill and Walter Millis argued at length during the inter-war period that the Wilson administration was inherently pro-Ally. Arthur Link's work was a response to these revisionist assaults on the president, but historians have never entirely discarded the view that the Wilson administration did not act neutrally.
Overall, however, Sedlmaier's work is a valuable contribution to the field of German-American relations in the early twentieth century. His conclusions are sometimes stark and occasionally provocative, and not everybody will agree with his indictment of the Wilson administration. Yet historians will ignore Sedlmaier's findings at their peril.
. Margaret Macmillan, Paris 1919: Six Months that Changed the World (New York: Random House, 2001), pp. 164, 202.
. For instance, M. L. Sanders and P.M. Taylor, British Propaganda during the First World War, 1914-1918 (London, Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1982).
. Ross Gregory wrote of "the pro-Ally nature of American neutrality," see Ross Gregory, The Origins of American Intervention in the First World War (New York: Norton, 1971). p. 130.
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Thomas Boghardt. Review of Sedlmaier, Alexander, Deutschlandbilder und Deutschlandpolitik: Studien zur Wilson-Administration (1913-1921).
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Copyright © 2004 by H-Net, all rights reserved. H-Net permits the redistribution and reprinting of this work for nonprofit, educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the author, web location, date of publication, originating list, and H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online. For any other proposed use, contact the Reviews editorial staff at firstname.lastname@example.org.