THE EMS TELEGRAM, OR BISMARCK’S TRAP
ARMAN NAVASARDYAN
Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary







Hunting is a game of its own kind; it’s a competition. The one who is more cunning, agile and resourceful wins. If the hunter is experienced in this game of power and intellect, he is able to lure the animal out of its hiding place and entrap it.

Such scenes remind of the diplomatic history of the Franco-Prussian war, the duel of nations during the second half of the nineteenth century.

Moving in the shadow of his great predecessor, Napoleon III attempted to return at least some of the lost lands on the continent, reassert French influence in Europe, and most importantly, hinder Germany’s reinforcement of its eastern borders. Determined like a bulldog, Otto von Bismarck, a great diplomat in his own right, was trying to carve a road to achieve his ultimate goal—the creation of a powerful German Empire under Prussian leadership. France was the main obstacle; it tried to resolve the dispute by means of war, without taking into consideration Germany’s and its own military potential.

Certain of his power and abilities, Bismarck, who then was Prime Minister of Prussia (during Wilhelm I, who was a weak monarch), was ready to fight the war and did everything to provoke France into declaring war against Prussia. France, thus, would be perceived as the aggressor and lose all its allies, becoming politically isolated, while the other countries would maintain a neutral stance.

This is how events unravelled: an article in the paper announced that the German Prince Leopold of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen was offered the Spanish throne, which had been vacant since the Glorious Revolution in 1868. This was, as the reader may guess, a diplomatic trap masterminded by Bismarck, who knew very well that France would block the candidacy and threaten the North German Confederation (the German Empire had not been established yet).

Disconcerted by the French ultimatum and without consulting with Bismarck or Wilhelm I, Prince Leopold declined the offer. Bismarck didn’t foresee such a turnaround of events and before he could devise a new plan of action, the French got ahead of him by making a crude diplomatic mistake. On July 13, 1870, Wilhelm I, on his morning stroll in the park at a spa resort in Ems, was waylaid by Vincent Benedetti, the French ambassador to Prussia. With an insolent tone Benedetti demanded that the king should guarantee that he would never again permit the candidacy of a Hohenzollern prince to the Spanish throne.

Anxiously, the monarch promised that he would not facilitate the crowning of his relative and that the Hohenzollerns did not covet the Spanish throne.

Echoing this conversation, the French Foreign Minister Antoine Agénor, the Duc de Gramont invited Wilhelm I’s ambassador and with a similar insolence gave him the following text: "Wilhelm I of Prussia assures Napoleon III of France that he will never make any decisions that may hurt the interests of France.” Gramont insisted that the king should copy this text, word for word, sign and send it to Paris.

Back in Ems, Benedetti, at the behest of Gramont, made an unsuccessful attempt to, yet again, present the French demand to Wilhelm I and "caught” the king at the train station, boarding a train. The latter, rather offended, said that he had nothing to add and that the negotiations would continue in Berlin. From the meeting, the king’s secretary wrote an account, which was passed on to Bismarck.

. . . Bismarck was dining with Minister of War Albrecht von Roon and the Chief of Staff of the Prussian Army Helmuth von Moltke when he received Wilhelm I’s message. He read it attentively, then introduced the contents to his two guests. All three agreed that Wilhelm I’s promise to continue negotiating after France’s insolent and demeaning demarche was outrageous. Bismarck then came up with a brilliant idea, which was to change the development of international relations and the political map of Europe. He asked von Moltke: "Will the Prussian army and weaponry secure our victory against the French?”
The Chief of Staff of the Prussian Army assured him that they would win without a doubt. The Minister of War confirmed the same thing.

"Then continue dining without me,” Bismarck said and went into his room.

In his memoir, Bismarck wrote: "I reread the dispatch carefully, then took a pencil and reduced the telegram by striking out the words about a negotiation still pending and to be continued in Berlin. I only left the head and tail of the message.” The edited telegram created the impression that the French had made demands and Wilhelm I had refused them.

His editing, Bismarck laughed, "would have the effect of a red rag upon the Gallic bull.”
According to von Moltke, Bismarck had "replaced the drum of retreat with the trumpet of attack.”

The edited version of the telegram was released to the media and foreign embassies, spreading across Europe. Bismarck’s trap worked! Napoleon III wanted war. So did Bismarck. They both got what they wanted. France declared war against Prussia and lost the war. This was Bismarck’s brilliant victory at the diplomatic-intelligence level. He carried out a combination of strategies by defaming the enemy and publicizing secret documents, strategies that greatly hurt Paris in its attempt to form an alliance with St. Petersburg and London. France was abandoned.

At the end of the war, France lost the territories of Alsace and part of Lorraine, the strategically important Fortifications of Metz and paid five billion francs in war indemnity to Prussia.

Otto von Bismarck succeeded in unifying the German states and forming the German Empire under Prussian leadership. As one of the founding fathers of European politics, he became the first Chancellor of the German Empire and was known by the nickname the "Iron Chancellor.”

The Franco-Prussian conflict persisted for nearly a century.
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1911 reads | 27.08.2013
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