OLD ALLIES AND FUTURE OPPONENTS
WILHELM II's closest advisers were almost exclusively aristocrats, usually professional army officers, but from time to time exceptions emerged. One of the most prominent of these outsiders was Albert Ballin, the managing director of the Hamburg-American Line, the largest steamship company in the world. The friendship was remarkable, for Ballin was not only bourgeois but also a Jew. He was a person of inordinate charm, deferential but forthright, and his worldwide maritime operations provided him with uniquely rich sources of information. The Kaiser delighted in Ballin's company, his opulent passenger liners, and his fund of news from many quarters. Ballin was an ardent champion of good Anglo-German relations, a desire that he shared with his friend in London, Sir Edward Cassel, an immensely wealthy Jewish financier who was a companion of King Edward VII's and who was also acquainted with the Kaiser. 1 In 1909, Ballin had, with Wilhelm's authorization, sounded out Cassel about the possibility of an Anglo-German negotiation treating armaments, but the Foreign Office in Berlin had objected to the use of such unofficial intermediaries, and the matter had come to nothing. 2 In early 1912, Ballin and Cassel together conceived the idea of having a member of the British cabinet go to Berlin to discuss the naval situation with the Kaiser, Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, and other members of Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg's government. Wilhelm II was receptive when Ballin approached him, and by the beginning of 1912 an active exchange was in progress between Berlin and London for the purpose of establishing the agenda for such a meeting.
On 29 January 1912 Cassel arrived in Berlin to prepare the way for negotiations. The basic point on which the British would insist was Germany's recognition that the Royal Navy must remain superior. This meant that Tirpitz's existing naval program would have to be "retarded and reduced." In return, Britain was prepared to endorse an expansion of Germany's African empire and to conclude a diplomatic agreement that would prevent either signatory from joining a combination directed ag