March 11, 1915

by Richard van Pelt, WWI Correspondent

The the Oregon Statesman’s headlines we read of an American ship destroyed by a German raider and of the Prinz Eitel Friedrich, which put in at Newport News for repairs:

Prinz Eitel Friedrich Puts Into Newport News for Repairs.
Sailing Ship Wm. P. Frye of Bath Sunk.
Cargo of Wheat on Frye Held to Be Contraband by Eitel’s Captain – Washington Doesn’t Deny That Sinking Appears on Face to Be an Unfriendly Act on Part of Germans.

Temp1Newport News, March 10. – The German auxiliary cruiser Prinz Eitel Friedrich after a commerce destroying cruise over Pacific and Atlantic oceans which culminated in the sinking of an American sailing ship in the South Atlantic January 28, made this port today and anchored for suplies and repairs. She brought with her rescued crews and passengers of American, British, French and Russian ships, and lay at anchor tonight, in a state of mechanical exhaustion from the strain of a 30,000 mile voyage.

At the outbreak of the war, the Prinz Eitel Friedrich was converted into a commerce raider. Between December of 1914 and the end of February, the converted freighter captured or sank eight sailing ships and three freighters, including the first American vessel sunk during the war, the William P. Frye.

She was interned at Newport News, and then seized by the United States in 1917 upon our entry into the war and recommissioned as a troopship.

In a long editorial, “Dreams of Empire,” the Oregon Statesman, proceeding beyond the question of who started the war, suggests that “the impulses, ideals and ambitions which propelled Germany along the path of militarism that inevitably led to the present conflagration are still, and will forever remain, of supreme importance.” The editor proceeds to analyze his understanding of the German mind:

It is man’s motives, and not his actions, which have real significance; and as with a man, so with a nation. If we are to profit by the lessons of the past, it is not enough to know what men did. What we must discover is why men did it.

The editor draws a picture of Germany, its people and its leadership. The editor bases his analysis on the Congress of Berlin of 1878 and the “Scramble For Africa” that followed over the next fifteen years. The motives the editor describe ignores the German concern that she was caught in a vice between Russia and France:

For two generations her statesmen and national leaders have preached the doctrine of imperial expansion. The masses of the people, who, as in all countries, allow their leaders to do most of their thinking for them, accepted this doctrine and made a fetich of it. They were told that Germany must have colonies, “spheres of influence,” and other impedimenta of world empire, or the nation was doomed to decay and extinction.

Imperial presence was on the minds of the kaiser and those about him, if even merely “a small sausage factory in Tanganyika.” The editor shares with many at the time that Germans were by and large followers, content to “allow their leaders to do most of their thinking for them.” While the editor is inclined to think this a failing applicable to most countries (apparently including his own and the readers of the Oregon Statesman), the editorial suggests Germans were seduced:

This idea, preached with the utmost zeal and energy, seems in some manner to have hypnotized the usually philosophic mind of the German people. Apparently it never occurred to them to ask why world empire was so essential to their national salvation. Of course they were supplied with certain specious and vague arguments anent markets for their goos and outlets for their surplus citizenship, but, speaking generally, such arguments were unnecessary. “World empire or downfall” was the dictum of Bernhardi, and his follow countrymen repeated the words parrot-wise as they wasted valuable years in learning the best means to exterminate their fellow men.

The editor proceeds to examine the “staggering price for their fetich”, should Germany win the war:

Let us suppose that Germany has won her prize. That she has, for example, stripped England of all her colonies and turned Canada into a Prussian province. In what ay will the German people benefit from this change?

The editor answers his questions by pointing out that high tariffs hurt buyer and seller, and that increasing income inequality, “growing rich by impoverishing your customers” is dangerous for all:

It is true that by the establishment of tariff walls the trade of these new colonies might be preserved for Germany alone, or at least to such an extent as Germany could satisfy it. But the theory that you can grow rich by impoverishing your customers requires no argument at this day to prove its falsity. Besides colonies cannot be exploited and manipulated in such a fashion. A German Canada would be as quick to resent being used merely for the purpose of enriching the mother country as a British Canada. The day of India as breeding places for nabobs is long past.

The editor then addresses the value of empire:

From the point of view of colonies as outlets for surplus population, apart from pure sentiment, of what early value are such possessions? The Englishman may boast that the Union Jack flies over Australia, but if the Australian buys his goods in Hamburg the German merchant can well afford to be minus the boast. If Australia, Canada or South Africa were lost to England tomorrow, it would make little real difference to the man in London or Birmingham, except to wound his national pride. Such hurts quickly heal.

England’s empire did not create her wealth, but her wealth created her empire. Geographic position, national resources, her position as the advance guard in the battle for democracy, and a native commercial ability in her sons, are the true causes of England’s supremacy. She would have every one of these advantages if she did not possess a colony on earth. Holland, once the greatest colonial power in the world, never knew such prosperity as she enjoys today without an imperial possession worthy of mention.

The editorial oversimplifies the relationship between colony and colonial power. National income is the sum of domestic output and income from abroad. Ownership of foreign assets returning the equivalent of about 5% of the nation’s income allowed the colonial powers to run large deficits. The editorial concludes by comparing the relative virtues of what Germany has produced without empire with that of Britain:

But there is another test of the truth of the German doctrine which should appeal to the people of that nation more powerfully than any academic or theoretic argument. If it is true that world empire is essential to national prosperity, how comes it that in the past twenty years German commerce has made more gigantic strides than that of any nation in any period of history? How comes it that in competition with the world empire of Britain Germany built up a merchant marine that was rapidly threatening her rival’s supremacy in every port of the seven seas? How comes it that German-made goods have ousted British manufactures from the marts of the empire itself?

If world empire has won for the average Englishman greater happiness and prosperity than the average German possesses, it will be a difficult task to prove it. Germany needed no colonies to produce a Goethe, a Schiller and a Heine, and the world can ill afford to barter a Goethe for a Cecil Rhodes or a Schiller for a Clive.


About whclarc

We are devoted to providing information fresh from the Archives, Library and Collections of the Willamette Heritage Center in Salem, Oregon. We specialize in the history of Marion County and the greater Salem area.
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