The Willy and Nicky Telegrams

Kaiser Wilhelm II (left) and Tsar Nicholas II together in 1905

The European heads of state – despite the familial relations linking many of them – failed to reach an understanding. Britain’s King George V, Kaiser Wilhelm II and Tsar Nicholas II (Georgie, Willy and Nicky) were all cousins. George and Wilhelm were both grandsons of Queen Victoria, and Nicholas’s wife was her granddaughter. They had all attended Queen Victoria’s funeral in 1901. Wilhelm once remarked of Nicholas II, ‘The Tsar is not treacherous but he is weak,’ adding, ‘Weakness is not treachery, but it fulfils all its functions.’

Between 29 July and 1 August, the Tsar and his German cousin sent ten telegrams to each other, each written in English and signed off ‘Willy’ or ‘Nicky’, attempting to diffuse the situation their countries now found themselves in. The first telegrams crossed but both were conciliatory. ‘To try and avoid such a calamity as a European war,’ wrote Nicholas, ‘I beg you in the name of our old friendship to do what you can to stop your allies from going too far’; while Wilhelm wrote that he was ‘exerting my utmost influence to induce the Austrians to deal straightly to arrive to a satisfactory understanding with you’.

Both acknowledged that mobilization did not necessarily mean war, and immediate mediation was necessary and urgent. ‘As long as the negotiations with Austria on Serbia’s account are taking place,’ wrote Nicholas, ‘my troops shall not make any provocative action. I give you my solemn word for this.’ But as their respective governments failed to compromise the situation quickly disintegrated. ‘In my endeavours to maintain the peace of the world,’ wrote Wilhelm, ‘I have gone to the utmost limit possible. The responsibility for the disaster which is now threatening the whole civilized world will not be laid at my door.’

The final telegram, from Wilhelm, dated 1 August, states, ‘Immediate affirmative clear and unmistakable answer from your government is the only way to avoid endless misery. Until I have received this answer alas, I am unable to discuss the subject of your telegram.’

They were never to speak to one another again.

For Germany, the mobilization of Russia was an alarming but not unexpected response. On 31 July, Germany sent Russia a twelve-hour ultimatum – cease mobilization with immediate effect otherwise we will declare war. On 1 August, the same day that the Kaiser sent the final telegram to his cousin and when the twelve hours had lapsed without response, Germany duly declared war on Russia. Wilhelm ordered Germany’s mobilization, signing the necessary documentation on a desk made out of oak from Lord Nelson’s HMS Victory and reputably lamenting, ‘To think George and Nicky should have played me false! If my grandmother [Queen Victoria] had been alive, she would never have allowed it.’ German trade unions agreed to suspend all strikes and protest. The Reichstag endorsed the Kaiser’s decision, much to Wilhelm’s delight, who proclaimed proudly, ‘I know no parties any more, only Germans!’

Adolf Hitler in Munich, 1 August 1914, the day war is announced in Germany

In Germany, crowds gathered in city centres to hear the news. In the Bavarian capital of Munich, a photographer captured the moment of enthusiasm as people cheered and threw their hats in the air. Among them, a 25-year-old Austrian drifter who had recently settled in the city. His name was Adolf Hitler. (Hitler had moved to Germany to evade conscription into the Austro-Hungarian army – not because he wanted to avoid military service but because of his hatred of the Habsburg Empire. With the outbreak of war, he applied to join a Bavarian regiment and was rejected on account of his nationality. Undeterred, Hitler wrote a persuasive letter to King Ludwig of Prussia and, as a result, was accepted into the List Regiment.)

Meanwhile, the Tsar immediately renamed the Russian capital, St Petersburg, to the less Germanic-sounding Petrograd and appointed his uncle, the Grand Duke Nicholas Nikolaevich, a man of limited military experience, the commander-in-chief of the Russian army.

Elsewhere, the news of war was greeted enthusiastically. The British philosopher and pacifist, Bertrand Russell, was horrified to witness ‘cheering crowds’ in London and people ‘delighted at the prospect of war’. Austrian writer Stefan Zweig, despite his ‘hatred and aversion to war’, was enraptured: ‘everywhere one saw excited faces … the young people were honestly afraid that they might miss this most wonderful and exciting experience of their lives … that is why they shouted and sang in the trains that carried them to their slaughter.’

On the same day, 1 August, France, Russia’s ally, began its mobilization; thus on 3 August, Germany declared war on France. But what about the third partner in the Triple Entente – Great Britain? The alliance certainly did not commit Britain to war but was it, the British government debated, a matter of honour? If they failed to support Russia, would it reopen Anglo-Russian antagonisms in Afghanistan and, ultimately, India? Both the Russians and the French pressed Britain for a response. The British vacillated. As late as 1 August, it seemed as if Britain would remain neutral. Possibly, had Britain committed herself much sooner, the Germans may have thought twice about being at war with the might of Great Britain and its empire, and pulled back.

On 1 August, Italy, despite its 1882 alliance with Germany and Austria-Hungary, decided for now, at least, to remain neutral. Its obligations, as agreed in the signing of the alliance, only committed her to a war of defence, not, as was the case, a war of aggression. Three days later, on 4 August, the USA also announced its neutrality; President Woodrow Wilson declaring that the USA would remain ‘impartial in thought as well as in action’.

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