Johann Heinrich von Bernstorff

Johann Heinrich Graf von Bernstorff (November 14, 1862October 6, 1939) was the German ambassador to the United States and Mexico from 1908 to 1917. He was a central figure in wartime espionage and was involved in a number of sabotage acts and plots to hamper the Allies in World War I.

Early life

He was born in London and represented Germany in London and Cairo.

Wartime career

He was recalled to Germany on July 7, 1914, but returned on August 2. It was later revealed that he had been recruited into intelligence work and ordered to assist the German war effort by all means necessary. He was also provided with a large slush fund to finance these operations. He began with attempts to assist German-Americans who wished to return home to fight by forging passports to get them through the Allied blockade.


Later, however, as the Blockade began to prevent American munitions manufacturers from trading with Germany, the Ambassador began financing sabotage missions in order to ostruct arms shipments to Germany's enemies. Some of the plans included destroying the Welland Canal, which circumvents Niagara Falls. This was attempted in September 1914, but failed. It was also in 1914 that the German diplomatic mission began supporting the Expatriate Indian movement for independence.

Bernstorff was assisted by Captain Franz von Papen (who would later be Chancellor of Germany) and Captain Karl Boy-Ed, a naval attaché. The commercial attaché, Heinrich Albert would be the finance officer for the sabotage operations. Papen, as well as the German consulate in San Francisco, are known to have been extensively involved in the Hindu German Conspiracy, especially in the Annie Larsen gun running plot. Although Bernstorff himself officially denied all knowledge, most accounts agree this was a part of the German intelligence and sabotage offensive in America against Britain and Bernstorff was among those intricately involved. Following the capture of the Annie Larsen and confiscation of its cargo, Bernstorff made furile efforts to recover the $200,000 worth of arms insisting they were meant for Colonel Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck in German East Africa. This was futile, however, and the arms were auctioned off.

In December of the same year, Bernstorff received a cable from the German Foreign Office instructing him to target the Canadian Railways.

On January 1, 1915, the Roebling Wire and Cable plant in Trenton, New Jersey was blown up. On January 28, an American merchant ship carrying wheat to Britain was sunk.

On February 2, Werner Horn was captured attempting to blow up the Vanceboro Bridge.

In 1915, Bernstorff also helped organize what became known as the Great Phenol Plot, an attempt to divert phenol from the production of high explosives in the United States (which would end up being sold to the British), and at the same time prop up several German-owned chemical companies that made aspirin and its precursor salicylic acid.

In July 1916, the Black Tom explosion was the most spectacular of the sabotage operations.

Bernstorff was returned home on February 3, 1917, when Woodrow Wilson severed diplomatic relations with Germany. Upon receiving the news, Colonel Edward House wrote to him,

"The day will come when people in Germany will see how much you have done for your country in America."

Later life

After the war, Count von Bernstorff served as chairman of the German League of Nations Union until the ascension of Adolf Hitler in 1933. Disgusted with the Nazis, Count Bernstorff went into exile in Geneva, where he died.


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