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Bismarck Remembers the Evening the Ems Dispatch was Edited (July 13, 1870)

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Under this conviction I made use of the royal authorization communicated to me through Abeken, to publish the contents of the telegram; and in the presence of my two guests I reduced the telegram by striking out words, but without adding or altering, to the following form:

“After the news of the renunciation of the hereditary Prince of Hohenzollern had been officially communicated to the imperial government of France by the royal government of Spain, the French ambassador at Ems further demanded of his Majesty the King that he would authorize him to telegraph to Paris that his Majesty the King bound himself for all future time never again to give his consent if the Hohenzollerns should renew their candidature. His Majesty the King thereupon decided not to receive the French ambassador again, and sent to tell him through the aide-de-camp on duty that his Majesty had nothing further to communicate to the ambassador.” The difference in the effect of the abbreviated text of the Ems telegram as compared with that produced by the original was not the result of stronger words but of the form, which made this announcement appear decisive, while Abeken’s version would only have been regarded as a fragment of a negotiation still pending, and to be continued at Berlin.

After I had read out the concentrated edition to my two guests, Moltke remarked: “Now it has a different ring; it sounded before like a parley; now it is like a flourish in answer to a challenge.” I went on to explain: “If in execution of his Majesty’s order I at once communicate this text, which contains no alteration in or addition to the telegram, not only to the newspapers, but also by telegraph to all our embassies, it will be known in Paris before midnight, and not only on account of its contents, but also on account of the manner of its distribution, will have the effect of a red rag upon the Gallic bull. Fight we must if we do not want to act the part of the vanquished without a battle. Success, however, essentially depends upon the impression which the origination of the war makes upon us and others; it is important that we should be the party attacked, and this Gallic overweening and touchiness will make us if we announce in the face of Europe, so far as we can without the speaking-tube of the Reichstag, that we fearlessly meet the public threats of France.”

This explanation brought about in the two generals a revulsion to a more joyous mood, the liveliness of which surprised me. They had suddenly recovered their pleasure in eating and drinking and spoke in a more cheerful vein. Roon said: “Our God of old lives still and will not let us perish in disgrace.” Moltke so far relinquished his passive equanimity that, glancing up joyously towards the ceiling and abandoning his usual punctiliousness of speech, he smote his hand upon his breast and said: “If I may but live to lead our armies in such a war, then the devil may come directly afterwards and fetch away the ‘old carcass.’” He was less robust at that time than afterwards, and doubted whether he would survive the hardships of the campaign.

Source of English translation: Theodore S. Hamerow, ed., The Age of Bismarck: Documents and Interpretations. New York: Harper & Row, 1973, pp. 93-95.

Original German text printed in Otto von Bismarck, Gedanken und Erinnerungen. Stuttgart: J.G. Cotta Nachfolger, 1898, vol. 2, pp. 87-92.

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