Germany Backs Down, As Spy Scandals Erupt

New York Tribune via Chronicling America 
New York Tribune via Chronicling America 

The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that shaped our modern world. Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 199th installment in the series. 

September 1, 1915: Germany Backs Down, As Spy Scandals Erupt 

The sinking of the British liner Arabic by the German submarine U-24 on August 19, 1915, resulting in the deaths of three Americans, brought the diplomatic crisis between Germany and the U.S. to a head. Previously U.S. Secretary of State Robert Lansing had warned Berlin that any further submarine attacks resulting in American deaths would be regarded as “deliberately unfriendly,” leaving little doubt President Woodrow Wilson was contemplating war. Now just such an event had occurred, and it seemed Wilson had little choice but to break off relations with Germany. 

While diplomatic telegrams flew back and forth across the Atlantic Ocean following the Arabic sinking, behind the scenes in Berlin long-simmering tension between the civilian diplomats of the Foreign Office and the hardline militarists of the German Admiralty over U-boat policy finally boiled over. In the end, the threat of war with the world’s most powerful neutral country forced Kaiser Wilhelm II to intervene and overrule the naval faction – for now. 

Panic in Berlin 

In the immediate aftermath of the Arabic sinking, testimony from multiple American and British survivors seemed to leave little doubt that U-24 had attacked the Arabic without warning, giving civilian passengers no chance to evacuate to lifeboats, as the U.S. had previously demanded.

On August 24, 1915, the German ambassador to the U.S., Johann Heinrich von Bernstorff, pleaded with Lansing to hold off judgment until all the facts were known – adding this could take up to two weeks, as the German Admiralty usually didn’t have direct communications with U-boats at sea, meaning they might have to wait for U-24 to return to port (the British Admiralty added to the confusion by claiming, mistakenly, that a British ship had sunk U-24 shortly after the Arabic sinking). However on August 26 Lansing turned up the heat, warning Bernstorff that he didn’t see the point in further exchanges of notes.

Washington Times via Chronicling America

Meanwhile in Berlin there was already a fierce political struggle underway between the Foreign Office and the Admiralty, reaching all the way up to the highest levels of the Kaiser’s government. Both sides tried to lay blame on the other, with the Foreign Office pointing to the obvious impact of the Lusitania and other sinkings on U.S. public opinion, while the Admiralty attacked the Foreign Office for failing to stop American munitions shipments to France and Britain. 

On August 26, as Lansing dismissed Bernstorff’s latest statement as pointless, Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg convened a meeting with Grand Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, the architect of Germany’s prewar naval buildup and the most powerful advocate of unrestricted U-boat warfare; Admiralty chief of staff Admiral Gustav Bachmann, War Minister and chief of the general staff Erich von Falkenhayn; and representatives of the Foreign Office.

Amid growing acrimony Bethmann-Hollweg argued that relations with the U.S. were strained to the breaking point, and something had to give, complaining, “I cannot stay forever on the top of a volcano.” Tirpitz proposed moving the submarine war to the Mediterranean, away from U.S. shipping lanes, but this wouldn’t have solved the problem posed by the presence of American civilian passengers on British ships. At the same time Bethmann-Hollweg noted that Germany’s success on the Eastern Front held out the possibility of a negotiated peace with Russia, splitting the Allies; it made no sense to add a powerful new enemy just as ultimate victory might be within reach. Falkenhayn agreed and Kaiser Wilhelm II, previously an enthusiastic supporter of unrestricted U-boat warfare, backed up his chancellor and war minister. 

Thus Bethmann-Hollweg approved the Foreign Office’s request to send a conciliatory note to Washington, in which Germany disavowed the sinking of the Arabic (though not the Lusitania) and offered meaningful compromises on U-boat warfare. Unsurprisingly the text of the note sent to Lansing left the Admiralty livid, as the German Foreign Office assured their American counterparts that the sinking was “condemned by the German Government” and confided that Berlin was “most anxious to maintain amicable relations with the United States, [and] would express its deep regret and make full reparation.” 

Humiliated by these diplomatic obsequies, Tirpitz and Bachmann offered their resignations to Kaiser Wilhelm II, but at a stormy interview on August 30, 1915 the monarch furiously refused Tirpitz’s offer, accusing him (with some justice) of behaving like a prima donna during a time of national emergency, bitterly adding at a later meeting, “If I must kowtow to Wilson I will.” He did however accept Bachmann’s resignation.

In any event the crisis wasn’t over quite yet: while the White House expressed pleasure at the promises of compromise in the German note sent on August 27, Wilson insisted on an official, comprehensive commitment that German U-boats would stop sinking merchant ships without warning. On August 30, after delivering a new note insisting on these terms the U.S. ambassador to Berlin, James Watson Gerard, reported that Bethmann-Hollweg had definitively prevailed with the Kaiser’s support. Two days later, on September 1, Bernstorff presented a note to Lansing declaring: “Liners will not be sunk by our submarines without warning and without safety of the lives of noncombatants, provided the liners do not try to escape or offer resistance.”

Although the main diplomatic crisis had passed, the controversy over German U-boat warfare would drag on. For one thing Bernstorff had jumped the gun with his promise, which Berlin only later officially approved, creating some additional confusion. Then on September 4, 1915, U-20 (which sank the Lusitania) sank the British passenger liner Hesperian, outbound from Liverpool to Quebec, without warning, resulting in the loss of 32 people when a lifeboat overturned.

The Germans said this shouldn’t be of concern to the U.S., since no American lives were lost, but Washington responded that the Germans were missing the point, since the Hesperian was a civilian commercial ship, of the kind they had just promised not to sink.  In fact the Hesperian was carrying defensive armament and was zigzagging – the same maneuver which allegedly caused U-24’s captain to think the Arabic was trying to ram him – all of which made the situation even more complicated, as these were the main justifications cited by the Germans for conducting submarine attacks without warning. 

But having just settled matters with America the Germans weren’t taking any chances: captain Schwieger was officially reprimanded and on September 18 (over two weeks after Bernstorff’s unauthorized promise to Lansing) the German Admiralty finally ordered the end of unrestricted U-boat warfare around the British Isles. The U-boat controversy was over – for now. 

Spy Scandals Erupt 

As one self-inflicted diplomatic crisis ended, Germany promptly found itself facing another – this time over revelations of espionage in the United States, including deliberate efforts to stir up labor unrest in order to sabotage munitions production. 

Rumors of spying by agents of the Central Powers went back to the very beginning of the war, when the U.S. government suspected the Germans of operating a wireless station broadcasting to German ships in the Atlantic from Long Island, followed by the discovery of a second wireless station in the Maine woods in November 1914 (to be fair the government also discovered a covert wireless station operated by the British on a yacht in New York City Harbor). 

The cloak-and-dagger campaign soon escalated to actual sabotage, although it wasn’t always apparent at the time that the perpetrators were actually German agents, rather than German immigrants inspired to become “lone wolves.” In December three Germans were arrested in New Orleans for plotting to blow up Allied merchant ships at sea, and in January a munitions factory in Trenton, NJ owned by John A. Roebling’s Sons Co., which supplied arms to the Allies, was destroyed in a suspected case of arson (above). Then in February a German national, Werner Horn, tried unsuccessfully to blow up the Canadian Pacific Railway bridge at Vanceboro, Maine – in a plot later found to be organized by the German military attaché in Washington, D.C., Franz von Papen (who later served as vice-chancellor under Adolf Hitler). And in July Eric Muenter, a German instructor at Cornell University, planted a bomb in the U.S. Senate antechamber and then tried to murder J.P. Morgan. 

Other plots were less violent but more successful. July 24, 1915, agents with the U.S. Secret Service picked up a briefcase full of papers accidentally left on a train by Heinrich Albert, a German national, which detailed a wide-ranging conspiracy to hinder U.S. munitions production by buying up all the supplies of phenol, or carbolic acid, a key chemical precursor used in the manufacture of explosives. The papers, published by the anti-German New York World on August 15, 1915, didn’t provide enough evidence to prosecute Albert, but did force him to suspend his activities. 

New York World via Wikimedia Commons

An even more damaging spy scandal came to light on August 30, 1915, when British authorities arrested an American correspondent, James A. Archibald, after he disembarked from the steamer Rotterdam in Falmouth, England, on charges of espionage. British intelligence agents searched Archibald and found secret correspondence from the German and Austro-Hungarian embassies in the U.S., intended for spymasters in Berlin and Vienna. 

One of the letters seized by the British had been written by the Austro-Hungarian ambassador, Konstantin Dumba, to Foreign Minister Burian in Vienna, and revealed the existence of a massive covert campaign to foment labor unrest in American factories, in the hopes of provoking strikes to disrupt production. Dumba had also been orchestrating a secret publicity campaign which involved, among other things, bribing well-known journalists and columnists to write articles sympathetic to the Central Powers. 

Infuriated by Dumba’s participation in espionage, Wilson demanded the Austria-Hungary recall the ambassador, which the Habsburg court finally did on September 27, 1915. Dumba departed the U.S. on November 4, 1915, and was replaced by Adam Graf Tarnowski von Tarnow – the last Austro-Hungarian ambassador to the U.S. 

Wilson Shifts Stance on Loans 

Beyond the immediate negative effects on U.S. public opinion, the tensions over U-boat warfare and then spying may have had much more significant long-term effects, by making President Woodrow Wilson more sympathetic towards the Allies. Indeed, it’s probably not a coincidence that around this time Wilson revised his earlier stance against U.S. banks making loans to the Allies. 

In declaring U.S. neutrality on August 19, 1914, Wilson had stated, “We must be impartial in thought, as well as action, must put a curb upon our sentiments, as well as upon every transaction that might be construed as a preference of one party to the struggle before another.” This accorded with the views of Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan, a pacifist who was a strong advocate of American neutrality. 

However Bryan’s replacement, Lansing, who was more in tune with the interests of Wall Street financiers, pointed out that Allied purchases of munitions were driving the U.S. economy’s recovery from its prewar slump, and argued that U.S. banks should be allowed to extend loans to the Allies in order to keep this business going. On August 26, 1915, Wilson finally acceded to this suggestion in policy in a confidential note to Lansing, advising the Secretary to henceforth state that “Parties [i.e., the government] would take no action either for or against such a transaction.” 

This opened the floodgates to funds that Britain and France (and through them, the other Allies) could use to pay for U.S. munitions and agricultural goods, deepening the rift between the U.S. and the Central Powers. Because billions dollars of loans were at stake if the Allies should suffer defeat and default, it also gave the U.S. an enormous financial incentive to help secure their victory. 

See the previous installment or all entries.

10 Reusable Gifts for Your Eco-Friendliest Friend

Disposable tea bags can't compete with this pla-tea-pus and his friends.
Disposable tea bags can't compete with this pla-tea-pus and his friends.
DecorChic/Amazon

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

By this point, your eco-friendly pal probably has a reusable water bottle that accompanies them everywhere and some sturdy grocery totes that keep their plastic-bag count below par. Here are 10 other sustainable gift ideas that’ll help them in their conservation efforts.

1. Reusable Produce Bags; $13

No more staticky plastic bags.Naturally Sensible/Amazon

The complimentary plastic produce bags in grocery stores aren’t great, but neither is having all your spherical fruits and vegetables roll pell-mell down the checkout conveyor belt. Enter the perfect alternative: mesh bags that are nylon, lightweight, and even machine-washable.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Animal Tea Infusers; $16

Nothing like afternoon tea with your tiny animal friends.DecorChic/Amazon

Saying goodbye to disposable tea bags calls for a quality tea diffuser, and there’s really no reason why it shouldn’t be shaped like an adorable animal. This “ParTEA Pack” includes a hippo, platypus, otter, cat, and owl, which can all hang over the edge of a glass or mug. (In other words, you won’t have to fish them out with your fingers or dirty a spoon when your loose leaf is done steeping.)

Buy it: Amazon

3. Rocketbook Smart Notebook; $25

Typing your notes on a tablet or laptop might save trees, but it doesn’t quite capture the feeling of writing on paper with a regular pen. The Rocketbook, on the other hand, does. After you’re finished filling a page with sketches, musings, or whatever else, you scan it into the Rocketbook app with your smartphone, wipe it clean with the microfiber cloth, and start again. This one also comes with a compatible pen, but any PILOT FriXion pens will do.

Buy it: Amazon

4. Food Huggers; $13

"I'm a hugger!"Food Huggers/Amazon

It’s hard to compete with the convenience of plastic wrap or tin foil when it comes to covering the exposed end of a piece of produce or an open tin can—and keeping those leftovers in food storage containers can take up valuable space in the fridge. This set of five silicone Food Huggers stretch to fit over a wide range of circular goods, from a lidless jar to half a lemon.

Buy it: Amazon

5. Swiffer Mop Pads; $15

For floors that'll shine like the top of the Chrysler Building.Turbo Microfiber/Amazon

Swiffers may be much less unwieldy than regular mops, but the disposable pads present a problem to anyone who likes to keep their trash output to a minimum. These machine-washable pads fasten to the bottom of any Swiffer WetJet, and the thick microfiber will trap dirt and dust instead of pushing it into corners. Each pad lasts for at least 100 uses, so you’d be saving your eco-friendly friend quite a bit of money, too.

Buy it: Amazon

6. SodaStream for Sparkling Water; $69

A fondness for fizzy over flat water doesn’t have to mean buying it bottled. Not only does the SodaStream let you make seltzer at home, but it’s also small enough that it won’t take up too much precious counter space. SodaStream also sells flavor drops to give your home-brewed beverage even more flair—this pack from Amazon ($25) includes mango, orange, raspberry, lemon, and lime.

Buy it: Amazon

7. Washable Lint Roller; $13

Roller dirty.iLifeTech/Amazon

There’s a good chance that anyone with a pet (or just an intense dislike for lint) has lint-rolled their way through countless sticky sheets. iLifeTech’s reusable roller boasts “the power of glue,” which doesn’t wear off even after you’ve washed it. Each one also comes with a 3-inch travel-sized version, so you can stay fuzz-free on the go.

Buy it: Amazon

8. Countertop Compost Bin; $23

Like a tiny Tin Man for your table.Epica/Amazon

Even if you keep a compost pile in your own backyard, it doesn’t make sense to dash outside every time you need to dump a food scrap. A countertop compost bin can come in handy, especially if it kills odors and blends in with your decor. This 1.3-gallon pail does both. It’s made of stainless steel—which matches just about everything—and contains an activated-charcoal filter that prevents rancid peels and juices from stinking up your kitchen.

Buy it: Amazon

9. Fabric-Softening Dryer Balls; $17

Also great for learning how to juggle without breaking anything.Smart Sheep

Nobody likes starchy, scratchy clothes, but some people might like blowing through bottles of fabric softener and boxes of dryer sheets even less. Smart Sheep is here to offer a solution: wool dryer balls. Not only do they last for more than 1000 loads, they also dry your laundry faster. And since they don’t contain any chemicals, fragrances, or synthetic materials, they’re a doubly great option for people with allergies and/or sensitive skin.

Buy it: Amazon

10. Rechargeable Batteries; $40

Say goodbye to loose batteries in your junk drawer.eneloop/Amazon

While plenty of devices are rechargeable themselves, others still require batteries to buzz, whir, and change the TV channel—so it’s good to have some rechargeable batteries on hand. In addition to AA batteries, AAA batteries, and a charger, this case from Panasonic comes with tiny canisters that function as C and D batteries when you slip the smaller batteries into them.

Buy it: Amazon

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15 Extremely Valuable Funko Pop! Figures That Might Be Hiding In Your Collection

In the 1990s, collectors salivated over Beanie Babies. In the 2000s, it was Pokemon. Today, the collectibles market is dominated by Funko Pops!, the ubiquitous vinyl figures that turn pop culture characters into block-headed, saucer-eyed cute bombs.

While Funko has a deep bench of licenses, many figures are exclusive to retailers, available for a limited time, or are otherwise hard to find. After perusing recent auction sales and Funko online price guides, we’ve excavated a few figures that are being bought and sold for stacks of cash larger than the toys themselves—and could be hiding in your very own collection. Take a look at 15 of the most sought after and valuable Funko Pop! figures that could net you a small fortune on the secondary market.

1. Ghost Rider Metallic Freddy Funko // $4210

The spirit of vengeance was unleashed as an ultra-exclusive variant edition that's a mash-up of the Marvel hero with Funko mascot Freddy Funko. Released in 2013, it was limited to just 12 figures. As a result, it’s a high-ticket item. The Pop Price Guide, which tracks Funko Pop! values and sales, estimates it at $4210.

2. She-Ra // $690

Funko

The warrior princess of the 1980s Masters of the Universe spin-off cartoon made a splash in 2013. The figure wasn’t a limited edition, but so many fans snapped her up that she’s hard to find.

3. Mike Wazowski Glow-in-the-Dark // $1960

The jolly green creature from 2001’s Monsters, Inc. was available in a limited glow-in-the-dark edition beginning in 2011, but collectors had to go on a scavenger hunt—only 480 were produced.

4. Reggae Rasta // $1200

Walmart

This Bob Marley-inspired figure has been sought after by collectors for sporting a limited-edition green outfit instead of the multi-colored one in the image seen above. That regular version sells for around $400.

5. Holographic Darth Maul // $5070

The horned villain from The Phantom Menace, 1999’s Star Wars prequel, got the glow-in-the-dark treatment from Funko in 2012. San Diego Comic-Con attendees had first crack at the variant, which was limited to 480 figures.

6. Master Chief // $650

Funko

The hero of the Halo 4 video game was a Blockbuster Video exclusive and commands $650 on the open market.

7. Ken Griffey Jr. Bronze // $3150

One of Major League Baseball’s most celebrated players got the Pop! treatment in 2018, with just 24 gold-finish variants made for fans at Seattle's Safeco Field (which was renamed T-Mobile Park in late 2018). The current market value is $3150.

8. Headless Ned Stark // $980

Funko

One of the most tragic and unexpected deaths on Game of Thrones was immortalized in this 2013 San Diego Comic-Con exclusive, which features the head of the Stark family and his detachable melon. The Pop Price Guide has valued Stark at $980.

9. Black Ranger Freddy Funko // $1850

This hybrid of Funko mascot Freddy Funko and the Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers was limited to fans attending the Funko Fundays event at 2017's San Diego Comic-Con. Only 24 were produced, which is why they’re extremely difficult to find, even on auction sites.

10. The Notorious B.I.G. Metallic // $1930

Funko

The late rap headliner got the deluxe treatment in 2011, with a metallic coat and hat version that was limited to 240 pieces. (The regular version is pictured.) Its listed value is $1930.

11. Batman Blue Metallic // $1400

The Dark Knight is looking a little more ostentatious in this 2010 San Diego Comic-Con offering, with a shiny blue cowl and accessories.

12. 1970s Elvis Presley Glow-in-the-Dark // $2170

Funko

A 1970s-era Elvis (above) comes in a special glow-in-the-dark version that has an estimated value of $2170. Another limited chase figure that depicts him at the height of his powers in the 1950s will run you as much as $1700.

13. Clown Dumbo // $5900

The ear-shaming of Disney’s 1941 animated classic Dumbo continues to strike a chord with people. The 2013 edition of Dumbo in clown make-up was limited to 48 pieces for San Diego Comic-Con attendees.

14. Planet Arlia Vegeta // $3500

Funko

The flame-haired Vegeta from Dragon Ball Z was exclusive to fans at the 2014 New York Comic Con and the Toy Tokyo store in New York City.

15. Bob’s Big Boy // $850

This iconic advertising character was a San Diego Comic Con exclusive in 2016. Only 1000 were made.

This story was updated in 2020.