It looks like you're using an Ad Blocker.

Please white-list or disable in your ad-blocking tool.

Thank you.


Some features of ATS will be disabled while you continue to use an ad-blocker.


The Ems Telegram- The Fake News that started a war

page: 1

log in


posted on Sep, 8 2018 @ 08:55 AM
On the morning of the 13th of July, 1870, Frederick William IV, the King of Prussia, met Count Benedetti, the French ambassador, on the promenade of the spa town of Ems.
It became one of the most notorious encounters in the history of diplomacy.
Their discussion was frank but courteous, and they parted company amicably enough. Yet only a couple of days later, this conversation was plunging the two countries into one of the greatest wars of the century, a war which overthrew one Empire, established another, and left a legacy of bitterness which was still active in 1945.

The “Ems telegram” was the main account of their meeting.
The grand secret of the war, not revealed until the later publication of Bismarck’s Memoirs and “Table Talk”, was that the Ems telegram came in two versions. There was the version which the king sent back to Berlin, and there was the version which Berlin published to the world. That second version was the one which ignited the conflict.
Since I don’t know German, I take these telegrams and surrounding events from John Morley’s “Life of Gladstone” (Vol1 pp958-968). I’ve also inherited a textbook used in French schools in about 1900.

The topic of the conversation was the minor prince Leopold of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen. The de facto dictator of Spain, Marshal Prim, had invited him to be a candidate for the recently vacated Spanish throne.
The king was involved as head of the house of Hohenzollern. The etiquette of German aristocracy required the prince to seek his consent.

The ambassador was involved because of the political sensitivity of his master, Napoleon III, Emperor of France. This Napoleon was the nephew of the original Bonaparte, and always struggled to find a really sound basis for his own authority.
He had shown his liberal credentials by starting a war for the benefit of Italian unity, but spoiled the effect by giving up when the job was only half done.
He had sent an expedition into Mexico to display his army, but the Mexican affair ended as a fiasco.
He was currently maintaining a garrison in Rome to protect the secular power of the Pope, showing his Catholic credentials at the expense of what was left of his liberal credentials.

Napoleon was jealously watching the growing power of Prussia. When the Prussians defeated the Austrians and became leaders of the new North German Confederation, he thought his prestige demanded “compensation”. Something on the west bank of the Rhine would be nice.
In 1867, he had tried to acquire Luxemburg from its hereditary owner, the king of Holland. Unfortunately Luxemburg was also a vital frontier fortress, already garrisoned by the Prussians.
Punch had a cartoon which portrayed Bismarck as “the Man in Possession”, blocking the gate of the “highly eligible property, for sale by private contract” against the prospective purchaser and his royal escort;

Emperor Napoleon; “I- a- have made an offer to my friend here, and –“
The Man in Possession; “No, have you, though? – I rather think I was the party to apply to.”
Emperor Napoleon; “Oh, indeed! Ah! Then in that case I’ll- But it’s of no consequence.”

They called it “To be sold”, which also implied that Napoleon had been “sold”, in the slang of the time.
Luxemburg was finally neutralised by international agreement, which counts as a compromise, but the affair showed which way the wind was blowing.
It seemed likely that Napoleon would strike down
the Rhine at the first real opportunity, and so it became Bismarck’s business to get something going before the French were ready.

On the 6th of July 1870, the genial Lord Granville was taking over the reins of the British Foreign Office, following the death of the previous occupant. He was being briefed by the permanent under-secretary (that is, the non-political head of the department), who assured him that “he had never during his long experience known so great a lull in foreign affairs, and that he was not aware of any important question that I should have to deal with.”
At six o’clock on the evening of the same day, a telegram arrived announcing the Spanish invitation to Prince Leopold.
The French response was angry and public. They would rather go to war than allow such an insulting development as having a German ruler on their southern frontier.
The king himself had never been very enthusiastic about the idea, so he was willing to withdraw his consent. When Leopold’s father announced that he was withdrawing his own consent, there was an expectation that Leopold would fall into line.
However, Napoleon was not satisfied. The victory was too easy, and his prestige needed something more. He decided to press for an additional promise that the Hohenzollerns would never again offer themselves as candidates for the throne of Spain.

The king had gone to Ems to “take the waters” and the ambassador was keeping in close contact. The crisis was nearly over, and they were just waiting for the final confirmation that Leopold would withdraw his candidacy.
On the morning of the 13th, as already mentioned, the king met Benedetti on the promenade, and asked him if he had anything new to say.
As he had been instructed, Benedetti passed on the new request from his master. The king turned it down, but promised that they would resume the conversation in the afternoon. In the interval, though, the answer from Leopold arrived, so the king sent an aide-de-camp to Benedetti to pass on the news, and to tell him that he did not intend to continue discussions on the new topic. They did meet again on the following morning; the king received Benedetti in his railway carriage, and informed him that any further negotiations should be conducted with his government in Berlin. “Neither king nor ambassador was conscious that the country of either had suffered a shadow of indignity from the representative of the other”.

edit on 8-9-2018 by DISRAELI because: (no reason given)

edit on 8-9-2018 by DISRAELI because: (no reason given)

posted on Sep, 8 2018 @ 08:55 AM
The royal secretary reported this discussion to Bismarck in the original “Ems telegram”;.

His Majesty writes to me “Count Benedetti spoke to me on the promenade, in order to demand from me, finally in a very importunate manner, that I should authorize him to telegraph at once that I bound myself for all future time never again to give my consent if the Hohenzollerns should renew their candidature. I refused at last somewhat sternly, as it is neither right nor possible to undertake engagements of this kind a tout jamais. Naturally I told him that I had as yet received no news, and as he was earlier informed about Paris and Madrid he could clearly see that my government once more had no hand in the matter.” His Majesty has since received a letter from the Prince. His Majesty having told Count Benedetti that he was awaiting news from the Prince, has decided, with reference to the above demand, not to receive Count Benedetti again, but only to let him be informed, through an aide-de-camp; That His Majesty has now received from the Prince confirmation of the news which Benedetti
already received from Paris, and has nothing further to say to the ambassador. His Majesty leaves it to your excellency whether Benedetti’s fresh demand and its rejection should be at once communicated both to ambassadors and to the press.

The decoded telegram was received by Bismarck on the evening of the 13th. He was dining with General Moltke and von Roon, the army’s chief of staff and the Prussian Minister of War. “I read it aloud to my guests, whose dejection was so great that they turned away from food and drink”. The party was dejected, because they could see nothing in these events to bring about the war they were looking for. But then Bismarck looked more closely at the telegram, and saw its possibilities. He asked Moltke about the army’s readiness for war, and the general confirmed that nothing could be gained from delay. With that encouragement, Bismarck set about condensing the text. When he read the result to his guests, the mood was transformed. Moltke said “Now it has a different ring… now it is like a flourish in answer to a challenge.” Roon said “Our God of old lives still, and will not let us perish in disgrace.” Their mood became joyous, and they suddenly recovered their interest in eating and drinking. Bismarck explained that the publication of the message in that form would have the effect of a red rag upon the Gallic bull, exciting the French into launching a war in which the world would recognize them as the aggressors. So it proved. The French Chambers were voting for war within two days.

But what exactly had Bismarck done to achieve that effect?
The relevant Wiki page dwells on the fact that Benedetti was supposed to have received the king’s message through an “adjutant”, which was a much humbler rank in the French army than it was in the German army.
The French textbook notices “the usual mistranslation” replacing the original “n’avait rien de plus a communiquer” with “n’avait plus rien a communiquer”, which has “un sens tres different”. I suppose the point is that the latter is getting closer to “never want to talk to you again”.
However, I think these are minor quibbles.
The real impact came from the brutally simple sweep of Bismarck’s editing. In effect, he kept the beginning and the end of the king’s message and excised everything in the middle. The result looked like this;

After the news of the renunciation of the hereditary Prince of Hohenzollern had been officially communicated to the imperial government of France by the royal government of Spain, the French ambassador at Ems further demanded of his Majesty the King that he would further authorise him to telegraph to Paris that his Majesty the King bound himself for all future time never again to give his consent if the Hohenzollerns should renew their candidature. The Majesty the King thereupon decided not to receive the French ambassador again, and sent to tell him through the aide-de-camp on duty that his Majesty had nothing further to say to the ambassador.

With the assistance of that very misleading “thereupon”, Bismarck had created, by implication, a dramatic scene in which the ending of the discussion by third-party message was the instant, on-the-spot response to Benedetti’s request, instead of taking place a few hours later when the two principals had separated.

The story was evidently being “spun” that way in the diplomatic world and the press, because that is how it appears on two different pages of the Spectator of 16th July 1870;

M. Benedetti, a diplomatist of the first rank, aware doubtless of the Imperial wishes, on the 14th inst., without asking for an audience, assailed the King with this demand on the public promenade of Ems. King William accepted this act as it was meant, as a breach of etiquette intended to imply inferiority, and turning to his aide-de-camp, Count Lehndorff, ordered him to inform M. Benedetti that his Majesty had no communication to make, and would give him no audience. M. Benedetti thereupon quitted Ems.

To make sure of a repulse, the French Ambassador, M. Benedetti, received instructions which induced him to assail the King on the public promenade of Ems with this demand, an affront which, even in the history of French diplomacy, always able, but so often arrogant, is almost without a parallel. It was met with haughty dignity, the King, looking steadily at M. Benedetti, ordered the aide-de-camp by his side to inform him that he declined to receive him, having no further communication to make,—and the Emperor had at last succeeded. He had aroused the German heart at last. It was, then, insult that he meant, to be accepted under penalty of war…
This is, we believe, the only true, as it is certainly the only intelligible, explanation of the astounding incidents of the week.

These accounts (despite that last claim) have simply developed the drama implied by Bismarck into an explicit drama, fleshed out with imaginative journalistic details like the king “turning to the aide-de-camp at his side” and “looking steadily at” the man he was snubbing. In the eyes of the world that read these reports, Benedetti had received a real slap in the face.

It will be seen that the German spin-doctors managed to get the best of both worlds. For the benefit of their German readers, they discovered a gross insult in the very fact that Benedetti approached the king in the open air. The truth is probably that walking on the promenade and talking to acquaintances was what Victorian “society” did at spa towns; according to Morley, indeed, the king was the one who opened the conversation.

So both nations considered themselves to have been insulted. But, as Bismarck hoped, it was the French who started the fighting and took the blame.
When the dust settled, Napoleon’s Empire had collapsed, and a new republic was in place.
The Germans had taken Paris, and Bismarck used Versailles as the setting for the proclamation of a new German Empire. (When Hitler called his regime “the Third Reich”, he was counting this one as the Second.)

Meanwhile, down in sunny Spain, Marshal Prim coped with the embarrassment of indirectly starting a major European war, and continued looking for a new king.

posted on Sep, 8 2018 @ 12:03 PM
never understood why the Prussians/Germans of that era were so enthusiastic about war.

they sure paid a price for it in the long run

Europe pretty peaceful last few centuries, aside from Napoleon and the Germans.

looking at the continent today, hard to see major war.

posted on Sep, 8 2018 @ 12:29 PM
a reply to: ElGoobero
In the mid-nineteenth century, it was all about getting all the Germans together in one nation. With the events of 1870, they got what they wanted and were content to rest on their laurels for the rest of the century (except that they would like some colonies, like everybody else, and thought they needed a powerful navy for the purpose).

The unity was difficult to achieve with Napoleon demanding "compensation" for every advance they made in the process- up to that point, the French had spent four centuries being the great militarists of Europe.
I didn't even mention the "secret treaty" which Napoleon supposedly offered to Bismarck after the Luxemburg affair, which was roughly "We will withdraw objections to German unity and even let you have Holland, if you let me have Belgium and Luxemburg". Bismarck delivered a killer punch in the propaganda war when he leaked this document to the press a couple of days after the war started. The French argued about whose idea it was, but he had a copy on French embassy notepaper in Benedetti's handwriting.

The difference now is that nobody is looking for territorial expansion at the expense of other people.

edit on 8-9-2018 by DISRAELI because: (no reason given)


log in