U.S. Breaks Off Relations With Germany

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 265th installment in the series.  

February 3, 1917: U.S. Breaks Off Relations With Germany

Germany’s fateful decision to resume unrestricted submarine warfare on February 1, 1917, allowing U-boat commanders to sink unarmed neutral vessels without warning, sent shockwaves around the world after it was publicly announced on the last day of January. Coming close on the heels of President Wilson’s offer to host peace talks, the new U-boat campaign was a slap in the face to the United States, which had twice threatened to break off diplomatic relations with Germany over this precise issue; there was now no way to avoid an open breach, setting the stage for America’s entry into the war. 

This wasn’t for lack of effort by Johann Heinrich von Bernstorff, the German ambassador to America, who frantically tried to persuade Berlin to delay the U-boat campaign, dispatching a flurry of secret telegrams up to the very last moment. On January 26, 1917 he sent a message marked “Most urgent,” asking to be allowed time to consider Wilson’s proposals, or at least give the appearance of doing so: 

After having had very important conference request most urgently postponement till my next two messages received… To begin U-boat war without previous negotiations regarding above proposals would among other things put us seriously in the wrong, and owing to Wilson’s personal sensitiveness, would make prevention of rupture quite impossible. 

The following day, January 27, Bernstorff again warned Berlin: 

If the U-boat campaign is opened now with any further ado, the President will regard this as a smack in the face, and war with the United States will be inevitable. The war party here will gain the upper hand, and the end of the war will be quite out of sight, as, whatever people may say to the contrary, the resources of the United States are enormous… At present, therefore, it is only a matter of postponing the declaration for a little while so that we may improve our diplomatic position. 

On January 29, however, Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg brushed off Bernstorff’s warnings with the breezy assertion that Wilson’s proposal for peace negotiations came too late:

If his offer had only reached us a few days earlier, we should have been able to postpone opening of the new U-boat war. Now, however, in spite of the best will in the world, it is, owing to technical reasons, unfortunately too late, as far-reaching military preparations have already been made which cannot be undone, and U-boats have already sailed with new instructions… [I]n view of the life and death struggle which has once again been proclaimed against us, we cannot any longer delay the use of those means which appear to us best calculated to end the war quickly… 

In short, the die was cast. 

“Enemy Of Mankind” 

The American reaction was exactly as Bernstorff predicted. Although Wilson and Secretary of State Robert Lansing had heard rumors that Germany was preparing to resume unrestricted U-boat warfare through diplomatic and intelligence channels, they may have been surprised by the lack of warning in the latest declaration, which opened the campaign immediately. In any event both men were outraged, and Lansing, who had long been sympathetic to the Allies, advocated an immediate declaration of war. 

On February 2, Lansing sent Wilson a lengthy memorandum about “Germany’s broken promise and the crime of submarine warfare,” laying out several possible responses before making his own recommendation. First of all, he wrote, “I am firmly convinced that we must without taking any preliminary step break off diplomatic relations by sending Bernstorff and his suite home and by recalling [U.S. ambassador] Gerard and closing our Embassy at Berlin.

After this step, Lansing continued, the White House could attempt to minimize American casualties by advising U.S. citizens and merchant vessels to avoid traveling on the high seas – but he quickly pointed out that this would essentially mean the U.S. was submitting to Germany’s demands by severing its connections with Britain. In addition to undermining the Allied war effort and possibly handing Germany victory, tolerating the actions of an “outlaw” nation would be an obvious affront to American prestige (although Lansing didn’t feel the need to state this explicitly). 

Thus Lansing recommended the second, more extreme course of action: 

To follow up the severance of relations by announcing to Congress this action with a statement that Germany has forfeited every consideration by reason of her breach of faith, that the full criminality of her previous acts is revived and that no honorable course remains but for this country to employ every resource which it possesses to punish the guilty nation and to make it impotent to commit in the future crimes against humanity. 

In other words, Lansing was pushing Wilson to declare war on Germany, and marshaled a number of arguments in favor of the second course of action, appealing to Wilson’s fervent belief in democracy (which Lansing shared): “It amounts to a frank declaration that an outlaw Government is an enemy of mankind, and will show that the present military oligarchy must be eliminated for the sake of civilization and the future peace of the world… It will give tremendous moral weight to the cause of human liberty and the suppression of Absolutism.” 

On February 3, 1917 Wilson announced that the United States was breaking off diplomatic relations with Germany to a special session of Congress (top), by expelling the German ambassador and recalling the American ambassador to Berlin. For the time being diplomatic relations would continue with the other members of the Central Powers (in fact the U.S. didn’t declare war on Austria-Hungary until December 1917, long after it went to war with Germany, and never declared war on the Ottoman Empire). 

The New York Times 

Everyone understood that breaking off relations with Germany was the final step before a declaration of war, but Wilson remained understandably reluctant to embroil his country in the bloodiest conflict in human history; for one thing, in an age before opinion polls it was unclear where the American people stood, and he needed time to read the national mood. He may also have decided to wait for the first German U-boat attacks on American shipping in order to be able to present a firm case to Congress.

Unbeknownst to Wilson, British intelligence was about to make the task of convincing America to go to war much easier, with the disclosure of the Zimmermann Telegram.  

See the previous installment or all entries.

Take Advantage of Amazon's Early Black Friday Deals on Tech, Kitchen Appliances, and More

Amazon
Amazon

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

Even though Black Friday is still a few days away, Amazon is offering early deals on kitchen appliances, tech, video games, and plenty more. We will keep updating this page as sales come in, but for now, here are the best Amazon Black Friday sales to check out.

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Instant Pot/Amazon

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Home Appliances

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Apple/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.