Biography of Arthur Zimmermann, WWI German Foreign Secretary

Arthur Zimmermann in black and white

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Arthur Zimmermann (October 5, 1864–June 6, 1940) worked as the German Foreign Secretary during 1916 to 1917 (mid World War 1), when he sent the Zimmermann Telegram, a diplomatic document that clumsily tried to trigger a Mexican invasion of the U.S. and contributed to America’s entry into the war. The coded message earned Zimmermann's lasting infamy as a hapless failure.

Fast Facts: Arthur Zimmermann

  • Known For: Writing and sending the historic Zimmermann Note
  • Born: October 5, 1864 in Marggrabowa, East Prussia, Kingdom of Prussia
  • Died: June 6, 1940 in Berlin, Germany
  • Education: Doctorate of law, studied in Leipzig and Königsberg (now Kaliningrad)

Early Career

Born in present-day Olecko, Poland, 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, he was acting as Foreign Secretary alongside German Emperor Wilhelm II and Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg in 1914, when Germany decided to support Austria-Hungary against Serbia (and thus Russia), and enter the First World War. Zimmermann himself drafted the telegram giving notice of the country'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

Unrestricted submarine warfare, which was likely to provoke a U.S. declaration of war against Germany, involved using submarines to attack any shipping they found, whether or not it appeared to be from neutral nations. Although America subscribed to an odd notion of neutrality at the best of times and warned early on that such tactics would draw them into the fray, U.S. civilian and shipping craft was a major target.

Jagow remained German Foreign Secretary until the middle of 1916, when he resigned in protest at the government's decision to resume this style of submarine warfare. Zimmermann was appointed his replacement on November 25, partly because of his talents, but mainly because of his complete support of the submarine policy and the military rulers, Hindenburg and Ludendorff.

Reacting to the American threat, Zimmermann proposed an alliance with both Mexico and Japan to create a ground war on U.S. soil. However, the telegram of instructions sent to his Mexican ambassador in March 1917 was intercepted by the British⁠—not entirely honorably, but all's fair—and passed onto the U.S. for maximum effect. It became known as the Zimmermann Note, severely embarrassed Germany, and contributed to the American public's support for war. Americans were understandably angered by Germany's attempt to send bloodshed to their country, and were keener than ever to export it instead.

A Lack of Denials

For reasons still baffling to political analysts, Zimmermann publicly admitted the telegram’s authenticity. He remained Foreign Secretary for a few more months, until he "retired" from government in August 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.