Cody Boutilier: WWI and the Willy-Nicky telegrams: A historian responds

Dave Wetzel, my favorite historian and an expert on modern Europe whom I cited in a recent piece on Russia’s role in World War One, has responded with a self-correction. Recent reading has modified his views on the fateful days of 29 July – 1 August 1914. Referring to a telegram from Kaiser Wilhelm II assuring his cousin Tsar Nikolai II that Germany meant Russia no harm, Wetzel writes,

I had long thought this more significant than it was.  Writes Christopher Clark, in his terrific book, The Sleepwalkers: “The Willy-Nicky telegrams, as they came to be known, have exerted an endless fascination because, reading them, one seems to be eavesdropping on a private conversation between two emperors from a now vanished Europe, and partly because they convey a sense of a world in which the destinies of nations still rested in the hands of extremely powerful individuals. In fact, both impressions are misleading….At both ends of the conversation the content was was carefully vetted by foreign office personnel.

[But] the telegram of 29 July was exceptional. It arrived at a very special moment when, for once, everything hung on the decision of the tsar because…his permission was required for an order of generalization.” (513)

According to Wetzel, Clark portrays the tsar as a far more decisive and independent individual than the dithering dunce we imagine him to have been. Wetzel’s lecture stated that Foreign Minister Sazonof prevailed upon the tsar to order general mobilization. Wetzel has since revised his evaluation, and concludes that Sazonof’s views only reinforced the tsar’s established opinion that “all attempts to satisfy Germany had failed.”

Thanks to Professor Wetzel for the generous feedback!

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