originally published September 12, 2012
Sure, social media has become a powerful force for communication and social change. Yes, I can use it to stalk ex-girlfriends, tend an electronic farm for hundreds of hours with no palpable rewards, or follow the thoughts and musings of some guy who writes for The Big Bang Theory. But can I start a war?
Back when dots and dashes were the entire message, not simply a way of adding a winky-face to the end of an obvious come-on to let you know that I didn’t mean it like an obvious come-on, a single act of communication could evoke a shit-storm of political poopery. These are the infamous telegrams that did what ten thousand tweets about Snooki’s baby have yet to accomplish: basically, anything.
In 1870, German Prince Leopold had been offered the Spanish throne. He declined, but the French were freaked out about a German-Spanish alliance. France was (and probably still is, though I haven’t checked today) stuck right between these two powers. In a panic, the French ambassador to Prussia wandered up to King Wilhelm I, the head honcho of Prussia, and demanded that there never be another German Prince offered to the Spanish throne. Wilhelm, not one to make promises on forever-ness, said no.
A report of this conversation was sent from Bad Ems, the vacation spa where Wilhelm had been relaxing when all this took place, back to Otto von Bismarck in Berlin. The ‘Ems Dispatch’ was poorly translated by the French media, and France, mistakenly believing some snarky insult had taken place, invented the Franco-Prussian War. That’s over 850,000 casualties because of one telegram.
Jumping forward to 1896, the Germans once again got themselves involved in a kerfuffle via the wire, thanks in no small part to the man pictured above, Kaiser Wilhelm II. And all he really said was, “Way to go, man.”
The ‘man’ in this case was Stephanus Johannes Paulus Kruger, president of a little southern African getaway known as the Transvaal Republic. In 1895, about 600 British troops wandered up from what is now South Africa in order to rouse some anti-government rabble among the populace. Kruger’s troops shut them down.
The predominant German sentiment at the time was slightly less than enthused over England’s foreign policy. Though he would later downplay the telegram as having come through political pressure from one of his Secretaries of State, Wilhelm nonetheless signed his name to a telegram to Kruger, congratulating him on the win against “the armed bands which invaded your country as disturbers of the peace.”
Queen Victoria and the English in general were rightly miffed about Wilhelm’s telegram, especially the part where he’d commended Kruger on not appealing for help from ‘friendly powers’, which suggests that Germany would have intervened if they’d been asked to. Wilhelm didn’t want this telegram to crap all over his relationship with England (Victoria was, after all, his grandmother, and he still wanted his birthday checks to come in the mail), but the damage was done.
If the Kruger Telegram was scandalous, it was nothing compared to the weirdness known as the Willy-Nicky Correspondence. That’s a real thing, not a catchy term invented by the media, like ‘Jacko’, ‘Macca’, ‘Brangelina’ or ‘JaCarla’ (that’s what I call Governor of Delaware Jack Markell and his wife, Carla).
Willy was Kaiser Wilhelm II, Nicky was Tsar Nicholas II of Russia. They were buddies – cousins, actually – and that’s how they addressed one another. The two of them swapped a number of telegrams in the years leading up to the first World War.
Nicky starts out by playing the friendship card, asking Willy to try to stop his allies from going too far, “for the sake of their old friendship.” Things went back and forth, then two days before the war began, Nicky wrote his pal, thanking him for his last friendly telegram and asking why the German diplomat had appeared so much less friendly when he’d spoken to Nicky earlier that day. The telegram ends with “Trust in your wisdom and friendship. Your loving Nicky.”
Loving Nicky. This is an exchange between two heads of state that are less than forty-eight hours away from the bloodiest war Europe had ever seen. Nicky suggested bringing the whole Austro-Serbian problem to the Hague Conference to try to work things out diplomatically; Willy never addressed that point. The war was on.
The first two famous telegrams inspired violence, or at least the deterioration of amicable diplomacy that would eventually lead to violence. These telegrams could have prevented it. It’s like hearing Obi Wan an Anakin trying to talk to one another before it was too late, but with realistic dialog and nobody who looks like this:
By 1917, Germany was well accustomed to watching their political visage get pummeled by leaked telegrams. This next one, the Zimmerman Telegram, would really mess things up.
In January, Foreign Secretary of the German Empire Arthur Zimmerman (possibly Jewish; that was okay back then) sent a telegram to Mexico, suggesting that they attack the United States. In the event of a loss by the Allies, Mexico would be rewarded with Texas, New Mexico and Arizona.
Chances are, had this telegram remained as confidential as it was meant to be, Mexico would have politely declined the offer, knowing they’d have had no chance against the American army. But British intelligence snagged the transmission and decoded it. Once it became public, the general sentiment among the American public toward Germany turned fierce. It’s believed this helped to kick-start support for America’s declaration of war a few months later. If only Zimmerman had kept his mouth shut.
The last famous telegram on our list also involves the Germans. The Riegner Telegram didn’t start any wars, nor did it lead to a deterioration of relations. It simply told the truth, that the war the Allies were already fighting was more important than they’d realized.
The Riegner Telegram, sent by Gerhart Riegner, Secretary of the World Jewish Congress to the Allied forces in August, 1942, informed them about German’s plan for the ‘Final Solution’, the ultimate extermination of the world’s Jewish population. The Allies were aware that Hitler wasn’t big on the Jews, but the reality of his plans had never come to light until this telegram.
It’s hard to top that one for a weighty telegram. And even harder to end an article on a comedic note after having just mentioned the Nazi Final Solution. I will say this though – leaked telegrams with political implications make for an interesting phenomenon, certainly more so than leaked Twitter photos of politicians’ junk. World leaders today should be happy they don’t use such a porous means of communication to send their messages around the world.
Especially the Germans.