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A German Attack On America?
The invasion plans which have been hidden for a century.

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• The Kaiserreich
 
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• The US in the 19th Century
 
German battleships shelling Boston? Infantry battalions storming the streets of New York? These events might read like something from science fiction, but new research suggests that Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany was considering an attack on the United States.

The German newspaper Die Zeit has published a set of newly discovered documents, dating from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century; they were found in a military archive at Freiburg, south Germany. The files relate to the Kaiser's famous desire to conquer an empire, and archivists have found a series of stunning material: plans for the invasion of the mainland United States.

Two of the most sensational strategies were created, at the behest of the Kaiser, by a naval officer called Eberhard von Mantey and then probably refined by Admiral Tirpitz. One, dating from 1897, planned a sea-borne invasion of Norfolk, Hampton and the Newport News, areas of America that were considered particularly vulnerable. The plan was changed in 1898 when American victories over Spain left the U.S. in control of Cuba, a region which Wilhem II coveted: the files show his desire to build a military base there. The revised plan called, not for a naval blockade or sea battle to aid in the capture of Cuba, but for a huge invasion of New York and the surrounding region.

Without seeing the documents it is difficult to say exactly what the plan would have been - whether the German military was aiming simply for a show of strength or whether it intended to occupy New York permanently - but some details are certain. A massive flotilla of ships would be dispatched, carrying around 100,000 troops and a terrific strength in artillery. The ships would then shell New York, Boston and other targets - the German military believed this would cause significant panic - before troops disembarked and began to plunder.

The English language media has reacted to this discovery with its traditional reactionary journalism and poor academic standards, calling the Kaiser a megalomaniac and the plans those for world domination. These descriptions may be true, but they present a gross simplification of the late nineteenth century. Historians have known for many years, just as contemporary politicians did, that the newly created Germany (or Kaiserreich) wanted an empire of foreign land, just like those of Britain, Spain and, to a lesser extent, France and Portugal. One obvious target was South America, and the new material reveals debates between the German high command, regarding bases on Puerto Rico and plans to capture the Panama Canal.

Crucially, the seizure of these lands would have brought Germany into conflict with the United States, a relatively new world power at the start of its swift rise to Superpower status. U.S. politicians were aware of the Kaiser's territorial hunger, and in 1917 the U.S. ambassador to Germany argued in favour of American intervention in the Great War because of it:

"I believe that we are not only justly in this war, but prudently in this war. If we had stayed out and the war had been drawn or won by Germany we should have been attacked, and that while Europe stood grinning by: not directly at first, but through an attack on some Central or South American State...and what if this powerful nation, vowed to war, were once firmly established in South or Central America? What of our boasted isolation then?" (James W. Gerard, My Four Years in Germany, cited from Voices from the Great War, ed. P. Vansittart, Pimlico, 1998, p. 161 - 162.)

The plans for attacking the U.S. fit seamlessly into the broader desire of the Kaiserriech for an empire and a swift and shocking invasion would have demonstrated German might, possibly preventing the US from acting against German expansion; of course, that's only if the plan succeeded. Even allowing for the 1890's radically different military climate, the whole scheme is still slightly fantastical. This might be one reason why the plans were never implemented, remaining dormant until being dropped in 1906. By then, the state of world politics had changed: America's strength had continued growing while events in Europe suggested that a war might soon be fought on the continent.

Overall, the documents have a twofold importance. For historians, they cast further light on the Kaiserreich, enabling greater insight into imperial policy and - for better or worse - allowing a few academics to draw greater comparisons with the Nazi period. For everyone else, especially the citizens of New York, the archive is a quirky, and possibly ghoulish, insight into the route history could have taken. Even if German forces had failed to subdue America, their invasion would have changed U.S. policy, and our own history.

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