The Ems Telegram

10 February 2022

The Ems Telegram

What really sent Macron to Moscow.

By Neil Tidmarsh

The following two paragraphs appeared today in a number of US and British newspapers reporting on-line about Macron’s diplomatic efforts in Moscow and Kiev:

Macron said Putin “set a collective trap” by initiating the exchange of documents with the US.  Moscow submitted its demands to Washington in the form of draft agreements that were made public, and insisted on a written response, which was then leaked.

“In the history of diplomacy, there was never a crisis that has been settled by exchanges of letters which are to be made public afterward,” he said, adding that’s why he decided to go to Moscow for direct talks.

The paragraphs were easy to overlook, buried as they were deep in mid-column obscurity and without comment in every report in which they appeared, but they raise a couple of interesting points. The first and obvious point is a trivial one: it’s curious that they appeared – identical, word-for-word – in more than one article (who was copying whom? Did they all simply copy a common source, a press release from the Élysée palace, perhaps?). But the Shaw Sheet believes that they make another less obvious (to British and US readers, though perhaps obvious enough to French readers) and far more important point; they appear to give us a clue as to exactly what was in Macron’s mind – his precise fears – when he decided to go to Moscow.  Set a trap… history of diplomacy… crisis… exchange of letters… made public afterwards… This column suggests that President Macron was making a veiled but direct reference to one of the most calamitous episodes in the history of France.

In 1869, the two great powers in Europe – France under the Emperor Napoleon III and Prussia under King Wilhelm I at the head of a nascent Germany – were already at loggerheads when a fresh diplomatic crisis arose. The throne of Spain had become vacant and a German prince had been put forward as a candidate to fill it. The prospect of encirclement by German powers outraged the French and set them clamouring for war. Their emperor wrote to the King of Prussia, demanding that he persuade the German candidate to stand down. The French ambassador in Prussia lobbied against the candidate. Angry telegrams flew to and fro. The diplomatic campaign was heavy-handed but successful. Too successful and too heavy-handed. The Prussian king – anxious to avoid war with France – obliged and the German candidate stood down. But that wasn’t enough. Emboldened by this concession, the French Emperor and his ambassador demanded, in a formal written document, further concessions: a promise from King Wilhelm that it would never happen again, and a personal letter of apology to the French Emperor. The ambassador pursued these unreasonable, unacceptable and humiliating demands with such undiplomatic insistence that the king eventually had to refuse to receive him.

The Prussian king’s chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, didn’t share his appetite for peace. He had hoped that the affair would trigger the war which he was confident Prussia would win and which would make his country pre-eminent in Europe and his king the emperor of a united Germany. He had advised Wilhelm against the initial concession and had been infuriated when the king had ignored this advice. But the French ambassador’s heavy-handedness gave him a new opportunity. Bismarck wasn’t present in Ems where the king was being threatened by the French ambassador, but Wilhelm sent a telegram to him in Berlin, informing him of developments and suggesting that the new French demands and the royal refusal should perhaps be made public. Bismarck seized his opportunity. He promptly released the telegram to the press, after subtly editing it to make the king’s refusal to see the ambassador look like a deliberate and unacceptable insult to the ambassador, Napoleon III and the French nation.

Bismarck had set his trap and the French walked straight into it. The French, incensed by the telegram, rushed to war against Prussia. The French defeat was sudden and catastrophic. The Prussian victory was complete. Bismarck had Wilhelm crowned emperor of a united Germany in the ruins of Versailles. Napoleon III went into exile in England and his shattered country was plunged into revolution and civil war once again. Moreover, the Franco-Prussian war cast long dark shadows into the following century; Communism was first made real in the devastated Paris of 1870 and the road to Nazism began with that imperial crowning in Versailles.

Macron must have immediately thought of the infamous Ems Telegram when he heard about Moscow’s written demands to Washington, Washington’s written reply to Moscow, and their subsequent leak / public disclosure by Moscow. One can imagine his mounting horror as he contemplated the possibility that this could lead to a devastating war – could even perhaps have been engineered to deliberately provoke a devastating war – just as that manipulated diplomatic exchange did one hundred and fifty years ago. No wonder he packed his bags and headed straight to Moscow for direct talks.

This column has drawn parallels between President Putin and Napoleon III before (see The Modern Emperor, 15.10.15, issue 24). The suspicion that there might now be parallels between the Russian president and both Napoleon III and Bismarck is pretty terrifying. Fortunately, no historical parallels are 100% sound (something proved by the fact that Putin, in spite of The Modern Emperor, has not yet come to grief in Syria). History never repeats itself exactly. Nevertheless, it’s to the French president’s credit that he recognised that there is a parallel and that he’s determined to do what he can to make sure that the nineteenth century’s history of the notorious Ems Telegram isn’t repeated in the twenty-first century. Even if his efforts prove to be a mere side-show.

Cover page image of Otto von Bismarck: German Federal Archive / Wikimedia / Creative Commons.
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