Arthur Zimmermann

Arthur Zimmermann
Arthur Zimmermann. Wikimedia Commons

Arthur Zimmerman worked as the German Foreign Secretary during 1916-17 (mid World War 1), during which time he sent the Zimmermann Note / Telegram, a document whose clumsy diplomacy (trying to trigger a Mexican invasion of the US) contributed to America’s entry into the war and earned Zimmerman lasting infamy as a hapless failure.

Born 5 October 1864, Died 6 June 1940.

Early Career

Born in 1864 Marggrabowa, East Prussia (now called Olecko and in Poland), Arthur Zimmermann followed a career in the German civil service, moving to the diplomatic branch in 1905. By 1913 he had a major role thanks partly to the Foreign Secretary, Gottlieb von Jagow, who left much of the face to face negotiations and meetings to Zimmermann. Indeed, Arthur was acting as Foreign Secretary alongside German Emperor Wilhelm II and Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg in 1914 when the decision to support Austria-Hungary against Serbia, and thus Russia, and thus enter into the First World War, was taken. Zimmermann himself drafted the telegram giving notice of Germany's commitment. Soon most of Europe was fighting each other, and hundreds of thousands were being killed. Germany, in the middle of it all, managed to stay afloat.

Arguments Over Submarine Strategy

Jagow remained Foreign Secretary until the middle of 1916, when he resigned in protest at the government's decision to resume unrestricted submarine warfare, which was likely to provoke a US declaration of war against Germany. This style of warfare involved using submarines to attack any and all shipping they found, whether or not it appeared to be from neutral nations (although American was using an odd sort of neutrality at the best of times), and one major target was US civilian and shipping craft. The US had warned earlier in the war that such tactics might induce it to fight Germany.

Zimmermann was appointed his replacement on November 25, thanks partly to his talents, but mainly to his complete support of the military rulers – Hindenburg and Ludendorff – and the submarine policy, which was now going to going ahead. Reacting to the threat from America, Zimmermann proposed an alliance with both Mexico and Japan to create a ground war on US soil. However, the telegram of instructions he sent to his Mexican ambassador in March 1917 was intercepted by the British (not entirely honourably, but there was  a war on) and passed onto the US for maximum effect: it became known as the Zimmermann Note, severely embarrassed Germany and contributed to the American public's support for war. They were, as you might imagine, angered by Germany trying to bring bloodshed to their own country, and were now keener on exporting some of their own in return.

A Lack of Denials

For reasons that still baffle political spokesmen, Zimmermann publicly admitted to the telegram’s authenticity. Zimmermann remained Foreign Secretary for a few more months, until he 'retired' from government in the August of 1917 (largely because there wasn't a job for him anymore). He lived until 1940 and died with Germany again at war, his career overshadowed by one short communication.