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Prince Otto von Bismarck, as the Prime Minister of Prussia, had followed policies which sought to fully associate other German states with Prussia without particular compromise to the Prussian (Hohenzollern) Royal tradition. By late 1866 most of northern Germany was brought within a Prussian dominated North German Confederation but several middle ranking southern German princely states were still largely independent but fearful of both Prussia and France.
When Queen Isabella of Spain abdicated her throne in 1868 a member of a junior branch of the Hohenzollern dynasty was approached as a possible successor. Fearing an encirclement by a Prussian led alliance, France opposed this candidacy of a Hohenzollern prince to replace Queen Isabella. Emperor Napoleon III of France demanded in July 1870 that King Wilhelm I of Prussia also definitively oppose it.
The Ems Telegram was originally a telegram sent by Heinrich Abeken of the Foreign Office acting under the instructions of King Wilhelm I, at a time when the king was staying at the spa town of Ems, to Bismarck which, although acceptably polite and diplomatic as it left Ems, when published after selective, and procatively intended, amendments were made by Bismarck precipitated the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71.
Prince Bismarck acted as he did because he wished to associate yet more of "The Germanies" with Prussian leadership but also because he considered the way in which French opposition to the Hohenzollern candidature had developed to be somewhat humiliating to Prussia.
The telegram's contents outlined the details of a disagreement between Wilhelm and the French ambassador concerning the succession to the Spanish throne.
The Unedited Version reads:-
His Majesty the King has written to me:
"Count Benedetti intercepted me on the promenade and ended by demanding of me in a very importunate manner that I should authorize him to telegraph at once that I bound myself in perpetuity never again to give my consent if the Hohenzollerns renewed their candidature.
I rejected this demand somewhat sternly as it is neither right nor possible to undertake engagements of this kind [for ever and ever]. Naturally I told him that I had not yet received any news and since he had been better informed via Paris and Madrid than I was, he must surely see that my government was not concerned in the matter."
[The King, on the advice of one of his ministers] "decided in view of the above-mentioned demands not to receive Count Benedetti any more, but to have him informed by an adjutant that His Majesty had now received [from Leopold] confirmation of the news which Benedetti had already had from Paris and had nothing further to say to the ambassador.
His Majesty suggests to Your Excellency that Benedetti's new demand and its rejection might well be communicated both to our ambassadors and to the Press."
Bismarck selectively deleted some words from the original telegram to give the provocative impression that each side had insulted the other.
"After the news of the renunciation of the Prince von Hohenzollern had been communicated to the Imperial French government by the Royal Spanish government, the French Ambassador in Ems made a further demand on His Majesty the King that he should authorize him to telegraph to Paris that His Majesty the King undertook for all time never again to give his assent should the Hohenzollerns once more take up their candidature.
His Majesty the King thereupon refused to receive the Ambassador again and had the latter informed by the adjutant of the day that His Majesty had no further communication to make to the Ambassador."
Bismarck ensured that the amended version was released to the newspapers and telegraphed to all of Prussia's foreign embassies. He fully expected that both the content, and the manner of release, would act as "red rags to the Gallic Bull". It was critical, in Bismarck's view, that France be perceived as the attacking power.
French court circles gratified Bismarck's deeper purposes by viewing his version of the Ems Telegram to be intolerable and thus war was declared by the French Empire on the Kingdom of Prussia on July 19th, 1870.
The south German states in fear of a French invasion, joined with the North German Confederation, effectively setting to one side their other fear of "Prussianization". France, which was hitherto seen as a most considerable military power, was soundly defeated by a Prussian led coalition of German forces within two months. In January 1871, in the fabulous Hall of Mirrors in the Palace of Versailles just outside Paris, Wilhelm I was crowned kaiser (Caesar - Emperor) of the new (Second) German Empire.
This Franco-Prussian War was not formally ended until May of 1871. The peace settlement humiliated France, laying ground for future conflict. Germany received an indemnity payment of five billion francs and the territories of Alsace and Lorraine.
Imperial Germany was now, in Bismarck's own estimation, a satisfied power ready for peace. Bismarck was appointed Chancellor to the new Empire and endeavoured to diplomatically ensure that there would not be any European war that might give the French an opportunity to attempt to recover Alsace-Lorraine.
The effective "balance of power" in Europe was however completely transformed. In the five short years 1866-1871, Bismarck's Germany had become the most powerful country in continental Europe. In 1871 Imperial Germany had a rapidly expanding population of some 39 millions. Before the century had run its course Germany was rivaling previously preponderant Britain in terms of overall industrial output.
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The Ems Telegram
Bismarck & the Franco-Prussian War