Context and background
Kaiser Wilhelm II and Tsar Nicholas II were third cousins (both were great-great-grandsons of Paul I of Russia), and the Kaiser was a first cousin of Nicholas's wife, Alix of Hesse. The emperors corresponded in English and were accustomed to calling each other "Willy" and "Nicky" but would use their counterparts' formal names in formal communications.
The source of the telegrams is The German White Book, a pamphlet of official documents published to justify the German Government's position after the outbreak of war. The term Willy-Nicky Telegrams is derived from The Willy-Nicky Correspondence, the title of a book by Herman Bernstein published in 1918 which revealed the personal telegraphic correspondence between the two emperors during the period June 1904 to August 1907.
The telegrams start with a plea from the Tsar to the Kaiser to try to stop the serious developments that led up to the World War. An excerpt:
I foresee that very soon I shall be overwhelmed by the pressure forced upon me and be forced to take extreme measures which will lead to war. To try and avoid such a calamity as a European war I beg you in the name of our old friendship to do what you can to stop your allies from going too far. Nicky.
Ultimately, the correspondence changes tone and the two leaders warn each other of impending mobilization due to factors out of their control, while retaining the notion that mobilization does not mean war. An excerpt of the last telegram:
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. As a matter of fact I must request you to immediatly [sic] order your troops on no account to commit the slightest act of trespassing over our frontiers. Willy
The Willy-Nicky telegrams were discussed during the war by representatives of belligerent nations, during the Paris Peace Conference, and on into the interwar years, and beyond. In recent years academic historians have reassessed the exchange. They paid special attention to the telegram of Nicholas II dated July 29, 1914 (for two days before the war):
Thanks for your telegram conciliatory and friendly. Whereas official message presented today by your ambassador to my minister was conveyed in a very different tone. Beg you to explain this divergency! It would be right to give over the Austro-Serbian [sic] problem to the Hague conference. Trust in your wisdom and friendship. Your loving Nicky
On July 29, 1914 Nicholas suggested submitting the Austro-Serbian problem to the Hague Conference (in Hague tribunal) – Wilhelm did not address this in his subsequent telegram. According to Beck, the German Foreign Office omitted this telegram in publishing the correspondence between the Kaiser and the tsar. After the publication of this telegram by the Russian government on January 31, 1915 in the Official Gazette Governmental Herald, the German Foreign Office explained that they regarded this telegram as too "unimportant". In contrast, Russian Foreign Ministry (Minister Sazonov), as well as the French Ambassador in Russia (Maurice Paléologue) believed the telegram very important. Paléologue, Beck and some other authors accused Wilhelm in that he had not supported the proposal of Nicholas to submit the Austro-Serbian problem to the Hague Tribunal for adjustment, and thus abandoned the chance for a peaceful resolution to this problem.
Notes and references
- In full Das Deutsche Weißbuch über den Ausbruch des deutsch-russisch-französischen Krieges, or The German White Book on the Outbreak of the German-Russian-French War
- The World War I Document Archive: The German White Book
- Stowell, Ellery Cory (1915) The Diplomacy of the War of 1914: The beginnings of the war. Boston: Houghton Mifflin p. 252
- Some sources state that the source of these telegrams is Isaac Don Levine's book Letters from the Kaiser to the Tsar: copied from government archives in Petrograd unpublished before 1920 but this is incorrect.
- The National Archives: German White Book
- Bernstein, Herman (1918) The Willy-Nicky Correspondence: Being the Secret and Intimate Telegrams Exchanged between the Kaiser and the Tsar.. Knopf, New York. OL 23360533M, OCLC 332762
- And which, therefore, does not include the telegrams discussed here.
- James M. Beck The Evidence in the Case. A Discussion of the Moral Responsibility for the War of 1914, as Disclosed by the Diplomatic Records of England, Germany, Russia, France, Austria, Italy and Belgium(Beck had been the Assistant Attorney-General of the U. S. and was the author of The War and Humanity), (p.81, p.106)
- Henry Van Dyke (1917) Fighting for peace New York: Charles Scribner's sons. (pp.132-133)
- F. L. Paxson, E. S. Corwin, S. B. Harding and G. S. Ford. A Handy Reference on the Great War, first published in 1918 (War Cyclopedia – N)(re-released as: A Handy Reference on the Great War Honolulu: University Press of the Pacific, 2004)
- Arthur L. Frothingham. Handbook of War Facts and Peace Problems 1919
- M.G. Palaeologus "Tsarist Russia during World War" Moscow: International Relations, 1991 (page 155, 156 - in Russian); previously published as M.G. Paléologue La Russie des Tsars pendant la grande guerre Paris: Plon-Nourrit, 1922. (Chapter XII); Maurice Paléologue. An ambassador's memoirs Volume 1, Chapter VIII (see Sunday, January 31, 1915)
- G. Buchanan. (1923) My Mission to Russia and other diplomatic memories, p. 200
- Winston Churchill. (1931) The unknown war. London: Charles Scribner's Sons, p.170
- James Oliver Murdock, Harold J. Tobin, Henry S. Fraser, Francis O. Wilcox and Willard B. Cowles. "International Judicial Settlement Trends" Proceedings of the American Society of International Law at Its Annual Meeting (1921-1969) Vol. 34, (May 13–15, 1940)] JSTOR 25657027 (p. 125-148)
- Robert K. Massie. Nicholas and Alexandra. New York: 1967; Moscow 2003 (pp. 84, 320 in Russian edition)
- Martin Gilbert. The First World War: A Complete History, 1994, p. 27
- John Keegan. The First World War, 1998, p. 63
- Hew Strachan. The First World War, Vol I: To Arms, 2001, p. 85
- Richard F. Hamilton, Holger H. Herwig. Origins of World War One. Cambridge University Press, 2003 (p. 514)
- Andrei Zubov (ed.) History of Russia. XX Century (Volume I, 1894-1939). Moscow: AST Publishers, 2010 (p. 291)
- James M. Beck The Evidence in the Case. A Discussion of the Moral Responsibility for the War of 1914, as Disclosed by the Diplomatic Records of England, Germany, Russia, France, Austria, Italy and Belgium, (p.106)
- Georges Maurice Paléologue Tsarist Russia during World War. Moscow: International Relations, 1991 (pp.155, 156 - in Russian); originally published as: Maurice G. Paléologue La Russie des Tsars pendant la grande guerre. Paris: Plon-Nourrit, 1922. OL 20437819M Chapter XII pp.309-335 Georges Maurice Paléologue. An ambassador's memoirs (Volume 1, Chapter VIII](see Sunday, January 31, 1915)
- The Willy-Nicky Telegrams - Full text at the World War I Document Archive