Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg was born in Howenfinow, Brandenburg. After studying law he served as Prussian minister for the Interior. When Bernhard von Bulow left office in 1909, Kaiser Wilhelm II appointed Bethmann-Hollweg as Imperial Chancellor. Inexperienced in foreign affairs, he was unable to achieve conciliation with England and France.
The economic strain of expansion and rearmament encouraged discontent. The 1912 Reichstag elections returned 110 socialist deputies and this made it difficult for Bethmann-Hollweg to achieve right-wing legislation.
After hearing Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg speak in the Reichstag where he introduced a bill increasing the German Army by two army corps Raymond Gram Swing wrote an article of several thousand words predicting the outbreak of war in Europe. He later recalled: "I waited for the four or five weeks to pass which it would take to deliver my solemn and warning article to Chicago and for it to appear on page one and be delivered to Berlin. Four weeks passed, then five and six, and finally eight. And then I was to discover an article of mine on an inside page, with von Bethmann-Hollweg's speech omitted, along with all reference to the danger of war... Subsequently I was told that Charles Dennis, the managing editor, had said he was not going to put up with any nonsense about the danger of war from his youngsters in the European bureaus."
By 1914 Bethmann-Hollweg was deeply unpopular in Germany. He became convinced that only a successful war could divert opposition to his economic policies. He hoped and expected a short, limited war. He encouraged Austro-Hungarian aggression after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Bethmann-Hollweg changed his mind after it became clear that it might escalate into a world war. However, he lacked the political authority to halt the Schlieffen Plan.
Raymond Gram Swing was asked by Bethmann-Hollweg to go to London to pass a message to Sir Edward Grey, the British foreign secretary. Bethmann-Hollweg warned him: "I must caution you... not a word of this in the newspapers. If it is published, I shall have to say I never said it." Swing wrote about his meeting in his autobiography, Good Evening (1964): "I had little firsthand knowledge of the British at that time. I knew how the Germans regarded them, Sir Edward Grey in particular. He was considered the arch-conspirator, the passionless builder of Germany's ring of enemies, and especially dangerous because of his ability to speak hypocritically about moral virtues - while acting in farsighted national interest. The Sir Edward Grey I met was a revelation. He had the personal appearance of a shaggy ascetic. He was tall, erect, slender, with thin but untidy hair. His clothes were not well pressed. At the time, I knew nothing about Sir Edward Grey, the naturalist, of the breed of Englishmen he represented -sensitive, shy, and complex - or that he was one of the best-educated men in the world. I delivered my message from Herr von Bethmann-Hollweg and ended with the instructions I had received to return to him and repeat what Sir Edward had to say in reply. Sir Edward's face turned crimson when I spoke the word "indemnity." I thought of Baroness von Schroeder's explanation of it and almost blurted it out. But Sir Edward gave me no time to blurt out anything. He ignored what I said about no annexations in Belgium and Belgian independence. He struck at the word "indemnity" with a kind of high moral fury, and launched into one of the finest speeches I had heard. Did not Herr von Bethmann-Holhweg know what must come from the war? It must be a world of international law where treaties were observed, where men welcomed conferences and did not scheme for war. I was to tell Herr von Bethmann-Holhveg that his suggestion of an indemnity was an insult and that Great Britain was fighting for a new basis for foreign relations, a new international morality."
Bethmann-Hollweg still hoped for a negotiated peace and was a strong opponent of those like Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz who wanted unrestricted submarine warfare. By the summer of 1917, Bethmann-Hollweg was disliked by both the conservatives and liberals in the Reichstag, and on 13th July was forced to resign from office. His book, Reflections on the World War , was published in 1920.
Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg died in 1921.