Otto von Bismarck (1815-1898) Arthur Zimmerman (1864-1940)
The Ems Telegram sparked the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, which led to the unification of Germany’s many independent states into a powerful German Reich or Empire dominated by Prussia. In less than a year, the recently industrialized Prussia easily defeated France.
The Zimmermann Telegram in 1917 contributed to America’s decision to declare war on an exhausted Germany. The Americans sent two million men to Europe, tipping the scales in favor of the Allied powers, Britain and France.
The harsh terms of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 that ended the war humiliated the people of Germany who sought to restore the nation’s honor and found a man who promised to accomplish that, Adolf Hitler.
Until the 19th century, Germany had been a hodgepodge of independent kingdoms like Prussia and Bavaria, principalities, and duchies. The German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck subscribed to irredentism, a political movement that sought to unite people with a common language under one government.
Irredentism also inspired the independent states of Italy to unite under the King of Savoy, much to the enduring fury of the papacy, which lost almost all of its territory and secular power because of Italian reunification, known as il Risorgimento (“The Resurgence”).
In order to unify Germany’s independent states, the Prussian Chancellor Bismarck first had to neutralize the dominant German-speaking power to the south, Austria.
The result was the Austro-Prussian War of 1866, in which a newly industrialized Prussia easily defeated the necrotic Austrian Empire in only seven weeks. After Austria’s defeat, the fearful rulers of Germany’s petty independent states bowed to the inevitable, domination by Prussia.
There was one other major continental power that also had to be neutralized before Bismarck could achieve his dream of a united Germany dominated by Prussia. The Chancellor provoked war between France and Prussia by creating an international incident based on a doctored telegram dealing with Spain’s dynastic crisis.
When the Spanish throne become vacant in 1870, Spain asked Prince Leopold of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen, a Catholic relative of the Protestant King of Prussia, to fill the vacancy. France under Napoleon III denounced the plan, fearing it would be encircled by Prussia and a pro-Prussian Spain. After the French protest, Leopold voluntarily renounced his candidacy for the Spanish throne.
But that concession wasn’t enough to satisfy Bismarck’s plan to stop France’s inevitable opposition to a powerful, united Germany on its eastern border. A chance meeting between the King of Prussia and the French ambassador to Prussia gave Bismarck the opportunity of provoking a war with France that would keep it from interfering with Germany’s internal affairs, in particular, unification.
King Wilhelm of Prussia, the future Kaiser Wilhelm I of Germany, was taking the waters at Bad Ems, a health spa in the Rhineland, when he bumped into the French ambassador to Prussia, Count Vincent Benedetti.
Acting on instructions of the French Foreign Minister, Benedetti demanded that the King promise that Prussia would never again lobby for a German prince to become king of Spain
King Wilhelm politely declined to make any pledge in perpetuity and passed Benedetti’s demands on to Bismarck via telegraph from Bad Ems, which gave the historic telegram its name. The Prussian Chancellor saw his chance to provoke a war with France that would leave Prussia free to form a united Germany.
The King’s telegram wasn’t inflammatory and didn’t claim the French ambassador had been discourteous, but Bismarck decided to change the message’s tone before releasing it to the press.
The rewritten text made it appear that the meeting at Bad Ems between the King and the French Ambassador had been bitter rather than polite, which wasn’t true because the King was known for his unflappable courtesy.
Bismarck’s version of the telegram claimed that both men had insulted each other with the hope of enraging both the French and the Prussians. The revised text also claimed, falsely, that the French ambassador had threatened to declare war on Prussia.
Bismarck’s deception worked. French honor had been compromised by the King’s rudeness to the French ambassador, and the Emperor Napoleon III wanted “satisfaction.” But instead of a duel, Napoleon’s government declared war on Prussia. The Emperor and the entire French army was defeated and captured by the Prussians in 1870 in Sedan, France. Napoleon was forced to abdicate.
With both Austria and France now neutralized, Bismarck was able to unite Germany without foreign interference and with the King of Prussia as Emperor.
The formerly independent kings and princelings of Germany were allowed to keep their thrones in a loose confederation of German states dominated by Prussia. At the Palace of Versailles in 1871, Wilhelm was declared Kaiser or Emperor of all Germany.
France’s defeat and the coronation of a German Emperor in the former palace of French kings did more than humiliate the defeated nation. The newly unified German Reich emerged as the most powerful nation in continental Europe, powerful enough to believe decades later that it could win another conflict that got out of control and became the First World War.
It was another telegram sent by a high-ranking German official that would lead to the nation’s defeat in World War I.
On January 16, 1917, Germany’s Foreign Secretary, Arthur Zimmermann, sent a coded telegram to the German ambassador to the United States, Johann von Bernstorff. The contents of the telegram would be a major contributing factor to America’s entry into the war and Germany’s defeat a year later.
The German ambassador in Washington forwarded what has become known as the Zimmermann Telegram to Germany’s ambassador in Mexico, Heinrich von Eckhardt. Zimmermann told von Eckhardt that if the U.S. entered the war on the side of the Allies, the Ambassador should sound out the Mexican government about joining the war on Germany’s side. Distracted by war with its neighbor to the south, the U.S., it was hoped, would be too distracted to send troops to Europe.
Germany offered the Mexican government funds to buy arms and recapture the Southwestern states Mexico had lost during the Mexican-American War in the mid-19th century.
Zimmermann sent the telegram because he feared, correctly, that attacks on neutral ships by German U-boats would bring America into the war. Two years earlier, a German submarine had sunk the British passenger ship, the Lusitania, killing 128 Americans aboard. The incident had the psychological impact of 9-11 in popular imagination if not in the number of casualties. The sinking of the Lusitania further inflamed America’s hatred of Germany, but not enough to precipitate a declaration of war by the U.S.
Plus, many German and Irish Americans opposed U.S. entry into the war on the side of the Allies. American isolationists with no ethnic ties to Germany also opposed U.S. involvement in the European conflict.
Press baron William Randolph Hearst was an isolationist who used his media empire to promote his claim that Zimmermann’s message was a forgery. The attempt failed when Zimmermann himself admitted on March 3, 1917, “I cannot deny it. It is true.”
President Woodrow Wilson had run for re-election in 1916 on the boast that “he kept us out of the war.” FDR would make a similar boast during his 1940 reelection campaign.
The contents of Zimmermann’s telegram became known because the British had cut Germany’s transatlantic cable.
Before the message could reach Washington, D.C., it had to pass through a booster station in England. Britain already had already broken Germany’s encryption codes, and a day after the telegram was sent, British intelligence had deciphered a portion of the message, which was eventually shown to the U.S. Ambassador to Britain, Walter Page.
The Ambassador forwarded the telegram to President Wilson. News reports about the message further enflamed anti-German and anti-Mexican sentiments in the U.S., which was already antagonistic toward Mexico because of Pancho Villa’s border raids that had killed 18 Americans in a border town in New Mexico.
At the time of the Zimmermann Telegram, Gen. John J. Pershing had been chasing the Mexican bandit for the past five years without success. In fact, Villa managed to evade the might of the American army and was never caught.
Germany’s efforts to entangle America in a war with Mexico failed. Mexican President/dictator Venustiano Carranza rebuffed Germany’s overtures for two reasons. Mexico would undoubtedly lose a war with the technologically superior United States. And Germany’s promise of financial aid to buy war matériel was impractical because the U.S. was the only arms maker in the Western Hemisphere. British ships patrolled the Atlantic, making it impossible to send munitions to Mexico from Germany.
The telegram had been sent on January 16, 1917, and on April 2, President Wilson asked a joint session of Congress to declare war on Germany. In his speech to Congress, Wilson declared that the war would “make the world safe for democracy.” The President later said that the conflict would be the “war to end all war.”
The immediate and long-lasting effects of the Ems and Zimmermann Telegrams can’t be overstated.
The first message ignited the Franco-Prussian War that left a united Germany powerful enough to take on the Allies in World War I. The second telegram led to Germany’s defeat in that war and left a nation bent on by starting the Second World War.
History has proven the idealistic Wilson wrong. The world had not been made for safe for democracy as right-wing and left-wing dictatorships took hold following World War I.
The crippling terms of the Treaty of Versailles that ended the conflict created hunger and hyperinflation in Germany. Starving and demoralized, the German people ultimately turned to a demagogue who promised to restore the nation’s honor by waging another war.
Two documents that together totaled less than 500 words helped end one war and ignite another at the cost of 70 million lives.
Evans, Richard J. The Coming of the Third Reich. The Penguin Press, 2003.
Keegan, John. The First World War. Alfred A. Knopf, 1999.
Röhl, John C. G. The Kaiser and His Court: Wilhelm II and the Government of Germany. Cambridge University Press, 1994.
Today & Yesterday
On this date in 1493, Columbus mistook manatees for mermaids.
On this date in 1913, Richard Nixon was born.
Causes Frank Sanello Supports
ACLU, ASPCA, Amnesty International, Doctors Without Borders