The Zimmermann Telegram

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 263rd installment in the series.  

January 16-17, 1917: The Zimmermann Telegram

Germany’s decision to resume unrestricted U-boat warfare at the beginning of 1917 was arguably the worst strategic decision of the First World War – but Germany dug the hole even deeper by attempting to start a war between Mexico and the United States. Together these ill-advised moves turned American public opinion decisively against the Central Powers, setting the stage for U.S. entry into the war in April 1917.

The secret initiative to bring Mexico into the war – which didn’t stay secret for long – was laid out in the “Zimmermann Telegram,” a coded message first sent by the German State Secretary for Foreign Affairs Arthur Zimmermann to the German ambassador to the U.S. Johann von Bernstorff, who passed it along to the ambassador to Mexico Heinrich von Eckhardt (this indirect route was used in an attempt to avoid interception, futile as it turned out; below, the coded telegram from Bernstorff). 

In his previous role as undersecretary of foreign affairs Zimmermann enjoyed some success fomenting dissension abroad to distract Germany’s enemies from the European war, most notably the Easter Rising in Ireland, which complicated British war efforts and delivered a stinging propaganda defeat to the Allies, supposedly fighting for the rights of small countries. On taking the reins from the previous foreign secretary, Gottlieb von Jagow, Zimmermann naturally continued his predecessor’s policy of stirring up trouble between Mexico and the U.S. in order to distract the latter – an easy task considering their fraught relations following the Mexican Revolution, Tampico Incident, the repeated depredations of Pancho Villa, and the Punitive Expedition.

But now Zimmermann planned a dangerous escalation, reflecting the mounting stakes. With unrestricted U-boat warfare set to resume on February 1, 1917, Germany’s leaders knew there was a very good chance it would provoke the United States to join the war against them, and so (despite reassuring predictions from military hardliners that the American effort would be desultory at best) were willing to consider any gambit to refocus America’s attention away from Germany – ideally on an enemy closer to home. 

The Germans spared nothing in their effort to bring Mexico into the war, at least as far as promises go. The key enticement – and a diplomatic bombshell when revealed – was the offer to help Mexico win back the lost provinces of the American southwest, taken by the U.S. as spoils of victory in the Mexican-American War in 1848. Even more sensational, the Germans wanted Mexico to help convince Japan to turn on the U.S. as well, capitalizing on growing tension between the countries over Japanese expansion in the Pacific Ocean and aggression in China. The full text of the telegram delivered to Eckhardt read:

We intend to begin on the 1st of February unrestricted submarine warfare. We shall endeavor in spite of this to keep the United States of America neutral. In the event of this not succeeding, we make Mexico a proposal of alliance on the following basis: make war together, make peace together, generous financial support and an understanding on our part that Mexico is to reconquer the lost territory in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. The settlement in detail is left to you. You will inform the President of the above most secretly as soon as the outbreak of war with the United States of America is certain and add the suggestion that he should, on his own initiative, invite Japan to immediate adherence and at the same time mediate between Japan and ourselves. Please call the President’s attention to the fact that the ruthless employment of our submarines now offers the prospect of compelling England in a few months to make peace. Signed, Zimmermann.

Unfortunately for the Germans, Eckhardt and Mexico’s leader Venustiano Carranza (who would be sworn in as president on May 1, 1917) weren’t the only ones privy to this shocking proposal, transmitted by coded telegraph. Unbeknownst to the German foreign ministry the British Admiralty’s cryptography division, “Room 40,” had been monitoring German messages since the war began, and were routinely able to decode these messages with the help of captured codebooks and ciphers. 

The Zimmermann Telegram was originally dispatched from Berlin to Washington, D.C. on January 16, 1917 using standard diplomatic channels, which in wartime meant sending it on undersea telegraph cables via a neutral country – in this case Denmark. After receiving a copy of the intercepted message on January 17, 1917, the British code-breakers went to work and almost immediately realized the value of the intelligence gathered from the partially decoded document, which was bound to infuriate American public opinion and hopefully bring the U.S. into the war on the side of the Allies. They continued their work and by February 5 the message was nearly complete.

The Admiralty was understandably careful about sharing or acting on information uncovered by Room 40, in order to avoid arousing German suspicions that their codes were compromised, but the Zimmermann Telegram presented an opportunity too good to pass up. In order to bring the telegram to the attention of President Woodrow Wilson without tipping their hand to the Germans, and without disclosing the awkward fact that they were spying on American telegraph traffic, Room 40 chief Admiral William Hall came up with two clever ruses. First, the British would tell the Americans they obtained the telegram by bribing a telegraph company employee in Mexico; second, when it was time to go public they would make it appear the deciphered message had been obtained by British agents through treachery in Mexico City, rather than intercepted and deciphered as it crossed the Atlantic. 

For now the British kept their secret to themselves, in the hopes that Germany’s resumption of unrestricted U-boat warfare would be enough to bring the U.S. into the war; they only disclosed the existence of the telegram on February 24, 1917, when their American cousins seemed to be dragging their feet (at which point the British were able to cover their tracks even more completely with the collaboration of the U.S. government, by staging additional deceptions to make it appear that it was American spies who obtained the text – this time through treachery in the German embassy in Washington, D.C. The full details of this exciting episode are set forth in Barbara Tuchman’s classic book, The Zimmermann Telegram. Above, the decoded version).

Meanwhile the Mexican government responded skeptically to the German proposal. U.S.-Mexican relations, while certainly at a low point during the Punitive Expedition, had apparently been improving since the summer of 1916, when Wilson disavowed war with Mexico and Carranza offered concessions. Further, Carranza’s generals warned that Mexico would never be able to absorb the large “Anglo” populations of the states in question, foreshadowing endless future conflicts with restive natives as well as the irredentist U.S. (top, an American cartoon after the telegram became public). 

Worse still, Mexico would bear the brunt of the war by itself, with no prospect of effective help from Germany thanks to the British naval blockade – a daunting prospect considering the Mexican Army could barely secure the country’s own northern territories (Japan was also unlikely to go to war lightly, as it relied on imports of American kerosene, cotton, and steel, and also depended on America as its largest export market). 

In short, Germany had unwittingly provided Britain with a deadly diplomatic weapon, sealing its own fate, all for the sake of an improbable – some might say fantastic – foreign adventure. Later, Zimmermann’s inexplicable admission that he was the author of the telegram put the final nail in the coffin of the reputation of Imperial Germany’s foreign service, already discredited by incompetent diplomacy in the lead-up to the war.

See the previous installment or all entries.

11 Game of Thrones Easter Eggs You Might Have Missed

Helen Sloan, HBO
Helen Sloan, HBO

Game of Thrones is famous for dropping clues of things to come—and subtle nods to George R.R. Martin’s books—in casual bits of dialogue or unassuming props. As fans prepare to say goodbye to the beloved HBO series, we've rounded up 11 Easter eggs you might have missed the first time around, from the debut season all the way up to "Winterfell," the first episode in season 8. Be sure to watch and listen carefully for future references as the final episodes unfold.

1. Ser Davos Seaworth said Jon Snow’s real name in season 3.

Liam Cunningham in 'Game of Thrones'
Helen Sloan, HBO

In season 7, the popular R+L=J theory was finally confirmed. Jon Snow is not the bastard son of Ned Stark, as nearly everyone in Westeros believes, but the legitimate son of Lyanna Stark and Rhaegar Targaryen—and the heir to the Iron Throne. Ergo, his real name is Aegon Targaryen. So far, only a handful of characters on the show have figured it all out, but technically, Davos Seaworth called this a long time ago. When Princess Shireen Baratheon taught Davos to read in season 3, the first word Davos learned was Aegon, foreshadowing Jon Snow’s true lineage.

2. Sansa Starks’s wedding gown contained an embroidered story.

On Game of Thrones, even the clothes have hidden messages. According to the show’s costume designer Michele Clapton, the dress Sansa Stark wore when she married Tyrion Lannister was stitched with her life story. The golden gown featured a fish embroidered around the belly to honor her mother’s house sigil, as well as a Stark direwolf and a Lannister lion on the back.

3. Walder Frey’s death was outlined earlier in the show.

Arya Stark claimed long-awaited vengeance for her family in the season 6 finale, when she finally killed Walder Frey. Before she slit his throat, however, she served him a pie stuffed with the remains of his sons—Black Walder and Lothar. It’s a shocking and gruesome scheme, but it’s also one we’ve heard before. In season 3, Bran told Hodor and his companions the legend of the Rat King: According to this folklore, a cook in the Night’s Watch once killed the son of a visiting king. He chopped the body up and cooked it into a pie that he then served to the king, who loved it so much he asked for seconds. The gods punished the chef by turning him into a large rat who could only survive by eating his own children. As Bran explained, the gods were not offended by the murder or even the cannibalism—they couldn’t abide a man “kill[ing] a guest beneath his roof,” which is exactly what Walder Frey did to Catelyn, Robb, and Talisa Stark.

4. The furniture at King’s Landing reveals regime changes.

Squint hard at the wooden furniture in the Red Keep and you’ll notice a lot of dragons. The Game of Thrones production team intentionally included these pieces—which are most prominent in Tommen Lannister’s bedroom and the Small Council’s meeting room—to remind viewers of past power struggles at King’s Landing. The dragon furniture implies that the Baratheons and Lannisters kept the Targaryens' furnishings after they staged a coup, perhaps while they waited on some new bedframes with roaring lions.

5. Olenna Tyrell referenced family history in Dorne.

When Olenna Tyrell called a secret meeting with Ellaria Sand in Dorne, she admitted to being uneasy in the kingdom—and with good reason. "The last time a Tyrell came to Dorne, he was assassinated,” Lady Olenna told Ellaria. “A hundred red scorpions, was it?” This is a nod to Martin's novels, which detail the death of Lyonel Tyrell. The story goes that Lyonel liked to storm Dornish castles, then kick the lords out of their own bedrooms. One night, he wound up in a bed with a velvet canopy and matching sash, intended to summon women to his room. Except when he tugged the sash to do just that, 100 red scorpions fell from the canopy, killing Lyonel and freeing the Dornish from his tyranny.

6. The magic of Harry Potter is alive in Westeros.

Fandoms collided in season 7 when Samwell Tarly asked Archmaester Ebrose for help accessing “the restricted area of the library.” The phrase was a familiar one for Harry Potter fanatics; in the book series and subsequent movies, Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry has a restricted section of the library containing books on dark magic. Sam’s request felt like a wink to Harry Potter fans, especially since Archmaester Ebrose was played by Jim Broadbent, who played Horace Slughorn in the movies. But that’s not the only connection: Natalia Tena, who plays Nymphadora Tonks in the Harry Potter universe, also appears in Game of Thrones as the wildling woman Osha. In her early scenes, she is seen making brooms.

7. The Meereenese love Monty Python.

The warriors on Game of Thrones aren’t above trash talking. According to David Peterson, the show's language creator, the Meereense fighter who challenged Daario Naharis in season 4 shouted some very silly insults in Low Valyrian. His words translated to the French guard’s speech from Monty Python and Holy Grail—the one that goes, “Your mother was a hamster, and your father smelt of elderberries!”

8. The Iron Throne includes swords from other fantasy franchises.

The swords that form the Iron Throne further link Westeros to other fictional universes. If you look closely, you’ll spy Gandalf’s sword from The Lord of the Rings movies molded into the back of the throne, as well as the weapon Orlando Bloom wields in Kingdom of Heaven.

9. Ed Sheeran’s fate was revealed in a sex scene.

Ed Sheeran and Maisie Williams in 'Game of Thrones'
Helen Sloan, HBO

Fans were furious when pop star Ed Sheeran appeared in the season 7 premiere as a Lannister soldier Arya Stark encounters in the woods. The response was so negative that Sheeran later joked, “It was fun being in Game of Thrones, but I definitely think they should've killed me off in the episode.” Well, he almost got his wish. In the season 8 premiere, Bronn visits a brothel and hires three women who can’t stop talking about the Lannister men who perished in battle. They specifically reference a “ginger” named “Eddie” who “came back with his face burned off” and no eyelids. Ouch.

10. Euron Greyjoy’s fleet hides some famous faces.

Speaking of cameos: season 8 has already given us two more. When Theon Greyjoy storms his uncle Euron’s ship to free his sister Yara, his men take out the crew with arrows to the face—and, for one especially unfortunate sailor, the eye. That unfortunate sailor was none other than Rob McElhenney, co-creator and star of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Also aboard the ship? Martin Starr of Silicon Valley fame.

11. The show's co-creators are in the Hall of Faces.

Maisie Williams and Tom Wlaschiha 'Game of Thrones'
Helen Sloan, HBO

In a move straight out of Alfred Hitchcock’s playbook, Game of Thrones co-creators David Benioff and David Weiss have cameoed on their own show—or at least, their faces have. The two men’s visages appeared in the Hall of Faces that Arya frequents with Jaqen H’ghar. See if you can spot them on your next rewatch.

Lena Headey Wasn't Sold on Cersei and Euron's Latest Development in Game of Thrones

Helen Sloan, HBO
Helen Sloan, HBO

The debut episode of Game of Thrones's eighth and final season elicited a lot emotion from fans (and attracted a record-setting amount of viewers). Between the long-awaited reunions and Jon Snow finding out who his parents really were, season 8's first episode gave audiences a lot to talk about—including the shocking moment when it was revealed that Cersei Lannister slept with Euron Greyjoy. Many viewers were confused about why Cersei wold jump into bed with Euron so soon after she told him he had to earn her. Even Lena Headey, the actress behind the Queen of the Seven Kingdoms, had to be sold on the idea.

While speaking to Entertainment Weekly about her character's new relationship with Euron, Headey admitted, "I kept saying, 'She wouldn't, she wouldn't, that she would keep fighting.' But [showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss] obviously know what they're doing and were adamant Cersei would do what she had to do."

While Headey worried that the scene might seem too out of character for Cersei, Pilou Asbæk—the actor who plays Euron—thinks that it could be interesting to show the Queen in a new light.

"We had a lot of discussions," Asbæk told Entertainment Weekly. "Would it be out of character for her to be with Greyjoy for power? We discussed it so much that we almost ended up going, 'Maybe it's too much.' Then we decided to try it out and see if it works. Sometimes you have to show different sides of a character. You have to surprise yourself as an actor but you also have to surprise yourself as a character."

Eventually, Headey saw it as a way to prove where her character stands without her brother/lover, Jaime Lannister. "There's something to play in all of it," Headey said. "Cersei is such the ultimate survivor in all of this. She refuses to fall to her knees. She goes to the place where she doesn't want to go, which makes it more powerful sad because of who she's not with."

Euron clearly has ulterior motives in getting close to Cersei, even telling her he wants to "put a prince in [her] belly." He's power-hungry and will do whatever it takes to succeed, but two can definitely play that game. As far as we know, Cersei is already pregnant with Jaime's baby, although many fans believe she's lying. In the scene with Euron in the season 8 premiere, she's even seen drinking wine (something she declined to do in season 7, after telling Jaime that she was with child). On the other hand, however, some theorize she slept with Euron simply so she can tell people her baby is his, not Jaime's.

We'll see exactly what Cersei has up her sleeve when Game of Thrones's second episode airs on Sunday night.

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