Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg (November 29, 1856 January 1, 1921) was a German politician and statesman who served as Chancellor of the German Empire from 1909 to 1917.
He was educated at Pforta Gymnasium and at the Universities of Strasbourg, Leipzig and Berlin. Entering the Prussian administrative service in 1882 he rose to the position of the President of the Province of Brandenburg in 1899. After that he was 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-Hollweg was appointed to succeed him.
In foreign policy, he pursued a policy of détente with Britain, hoping to come to some agreement that would put a halt to the two countries' 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-Hollweg 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-Hollweg'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 in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, Bethmann-Hollweg 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, he 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.
Bethmann-Hollweg, 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 in the course of her invasion of France, reportedly asking the departing British Ambassador Goschen how Britain could go to war over a "mere scrap of paper" (the Treaty of London of 1839 which guaranteed Belgium's neutrality), a remark which would become infamous for its demonstration of German insensitivity to international law and treaty rights. However, it is accepted that Hollweg was involved closely in the decisions that authorised plans to destabilise Britain's colonies, most notably the Hindu German Conspiracy.
During the war, Bethmann-Hollweg 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-Hollweg made more concessions to the nationalist right than had previously been thought. He supported the goal of ethnicly cleansing Poles from areas conquered by Germany, as well germanisation of Polish territories by settlement of German colonists. Nevertheless, he 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. His hopes for American President Woodrow Wilson's mediation at the end of 1916 came to nothing, and, over Bethmann-Hollweg'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-Hollweg, 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 political nonentity Georg Michaelis.
Bethmann-Hollweg spent the short remainder of his life in retirement, writing his memoirs. A little after Christmas 1920, he caught a cold which developed into acute pneumonia. He died from this illness on January 1, 1921. His wife died in 1914 and he lost his eldest son in the war. He was survived by a daughter, Countess Zeech, wife of the Secretary of the Russian Legation at Munich.