The Ems Telegram

The Danish War (1864), the Austro-Prussian War (1866) and the consolidation of the North German Confederation had made Prussia preeminent in Central Europe. Already an equal to France in man- and industrial power, the feared incorporation of the remaining southern German states would make the resulting nation-state the dominant country on the Continent. Contemplating this kind of a union Napoleon III had said: "I can guarantee peace only as long as Bismarck respects the present status: if he draws the south German states into the North German Confederation, our guns will go off by themselves." After unsuccessfully trying to negotiate some kind of compensation for France such as Belgium, Luxembourg or even the German territory west of the Rhine in such an event, Napoleon III reacted with horror to the possibility that a German prince was a candidate for the vacant throne of Spain. The matter was made worse by the fact that the prince in question was Karl-Anton, the son of the Prince of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen, a Catholic, southern German branch of the ruling House of Prussia. The thought of Hohenzollerns both to the east and south fueled the energies of those in France who saw war against "the Germans" as a means of reviving the flaging popularity the Emperor.

When the Prussian, King Wilhelm I, was in the spa-resort of Bad Ems in early July of 1870, he was joined on one of his walks by the French Ambassador Benedetti who raised the issue of the Spanish succession. Wilhelm's account of the exchange was telegraphed by Heinrich Abeken, Councillor of the Legation of the North German Confederation to Paris, from Bad Ems back to Berlin where it was received by Bismarck. One means that Bismarck had seen of drawing the southern German states into an expanded version of the North German Confederation was to exploit hostility against France and particularly against Napoleon. With this in mind, he edited the Ems Telegram so as to lead Germans to believe that France had delivered an ultimatum to King Wilhelm. and the French to believe that Wilhelm had rudely rebuffed a French effort to resolve the diplomatic crisis. The telegram was published in Paris on the eve of the national holiday, Bastille Day and the feeling of insult combined with French national pride led to a quick declaration of war. Compare the facsimile of the Abeken text and Bismarck's edited version with the translated texts of each below.

Facsimile of the Abeken Text and Bismarck's editing.


The Abeken Text:

Ems, July 13, 1870.


His Majesty the King writes to me: "M. Benedetti intercepted me on the Promenade in order to demand of me most insistently that I should authorize him to telegraph immediately to Paris that I shall obligate myself for all future time never again to give my approval to the candidacy of the Hohenzollerns should it be renewed. I refused to agree to this, the last time somewhat severely, informing him that one dare not and cannot assume such obligations tout jamais. Naturally, I informed him that I had received no news as yet, and since he had been informed earlier than I by way of Paris and Madrid he could easily understand that my Government was once again out of the matter."

Since then His Majesty has received a dispatch from the Prince [Charles Anthony]. As His Majesty informed Count Benedetti that he was expecting news from the Prince, His Majesty himself, in view of the above-mentioned demand and in consonance with the advice of Count Eulenburg and myself, decided not to receive the French envoy again but to inform him through an adjutant that His Majesty had now received from the Prince confirmation of the news which Benedetti had already received from Paris, and that he had nothing further to say to the Ambassador. His Majesty leaves it to the judgment of Your Excellency whether or not to communicate at once the new demand by Benedetti and its rejection to our ambassadors and to the press. [Signed] A[beken] 13.7.70

Bismarck's Edited Version:

After the reports of the renunciation by the hereditary Prince of Hohenzollern had been officially transmitted by the Royal Government of Spain to the Imperial Government to the Imperial Government of France, the French Ambassador presented to His Majesty the King at Ems the demand to authorize him to telegraph to Paris that His Majesty the King would obligate himself for all future time never again to give his approval to the candidacy of the Hohenzollerns should it be renewed.

His Majesty the King thereupon refused to receive the French envoy again and informed him through an adjutant that His Majesty has nothing further to say to the Ambassador.