In the year 1918, just after the end of World War I, American journalist, writer, and diplomat Herman Bernstein published a book titled The Willy–Nicky correspondence. It was an anthology of private telegrams exchanged between Tsar Nicholas II and Kaiser Wilhelm over several years, on the eve of the conflict, attempting to soothe tensions. The term stuck, and that collection of messages is still known by that name today.

Bernstein was a Jew born in Vladislalov, a city that is now in Lithuania but then belonged to Russia. However, he emigrated to the US in 1893 and worked in journalism, covering various events of the time for The New York Herald, such as the Bolshevik Revolution or the American Expeditionary Forces campaign in Siberia.

He also conducted numerous interviews with prominent personalities and published novels, poetry, and theater, balancing this with involvement in politics by supporting the Democratic Party, which led to his appointment as ambassador to Albania in 1933.

But his fame primarily comes from The Willy–Nicky correspondence, the origin of which he explained in the book:

During my recent stay in Russia, I learned that, shortly after the Tsar had been deposed, a series of private and intimate telegrams were discovered in the secret archives of Nicholas Romanov in Tsarskoye Selo… The complete correspondence, consisting of sixty-five telegrams exchanged between the emperors during the years 1904, 1905, 1906, and 1907, forms a striking picture of duplicity and violence in international diplomacy, as embodied by the men responsible for the greatest war in world history. The documents, not intended for the eyes of the Secretaries of State of the two emperors, constitute the most notable indictment of the government systems headed by these imperial correspondents.

Bernstein added that the Kaiser appears as a master of intrigue and Mephistophelian conspirator for German world domination. The former Tsar reveals himself as a whimsical weakling, a colorless and characterless identity. A curious duality, considering that both leaders were linked by blood ties; they descended from a common ancestor a century and a half earlier.

To be exact, they were third cousins, as their great-grandfather was Paul I of Russia, the Tsar from 1796 until his assassination in 1801. Paul ascended the throne after the deaths of his father, Peter III, and then his mother, Catherine the Great (whom he detested). She married him in 1773 to Wilhelmina of Hesse-Darmstadt, daughter of Prince Louis IX of Hesse-Darmstadt, who had to convert to the Orthodox faith and be baptized as Natalia Alexeievna. The purpose of that marriage was to strengthen the alliance with Frederick II of Prussia.

However, Wilhelmina died in her first childbirth in 1776, and Paul had to marry again, this time to Sophia Dorothea of Wurttemberg, who had been a candidate before but was rejected for being only fourteen years old. Now, she was about to reach majority and became Tsarina with the name Maria Feodorovna, giving birth to ten children with her husband. The eldest, Alexander I, would inherit the throne in 1801, and after marrying Louise of Baden, they would have two daughters, but both died young.

The line of succession seemed to be interrupted, but Nicholas I, another son of Paul, took up the mantle, assuming the crown when Alexander died without further heirs. He married his third cousin, Charlotte of Prussia (Alexandra Feodorovna for the Russians), daughter of Emperor Frederick III and sister of the future Kaiser Wilhelm I. The first child they had was Alexander II, who would be Tsar from 1855 until his assassination in 1867; married to Maria of Hesse-Darmstadt, they had eight children, the eldest of whom would ascend to the throne in 1881 with the name Alexander III.

A severe nephritis caused Alexander to reign for a short time, only thirteen years, after which his son Nicholas, whom he had – along with five other siblings – with Princess Dagmar of Denmark (in Russia, Maria Feodorovna Romanova). This was Nicholas II, the Nicky of the telegrams, while Willy was Kaiser Wilhelm II, son of Frederick III and grandson of Wilhelm I, and he also happened to be the cousin of the Russian’s wife, Alix of Hesse and the Rhine (known in Russia as Alexandra Feodorovna Romanova and who, by the way, was the granddaughter of Queen Victoria of England).

The personal relationship between them was in line with their kinship, cordial and affectionate. When they met, they spoke in English and used the mentioned nicknames, as shown by the telegrams compiled by Bernstein. It is worth noting that Bernstein did not obtain the messages on his own but from a publication titled The German White Book, a set of official documents distributed by the German government in 1914 to justify its position in the war that had just broken out.

In reality, the German executive was not the only one resorting to propaganda of this kind, as the main belligerents did the same: bringing to light selected diplomatic documentary sources that purported to demonstrate that they had done everything possible to avoid the conflict. Thus, Britain published a Blue Book, and Russia published an Orange Book; different in form but similar in substance. For example, the latter corresponds to a telegram sent on July 27, 1914, to the German embassy in St. Petersburg by Russian War Minister Serge Sazonov, promising not to mobilize the army “under any circumstances”.

The telegram of July 27/Image: The National Archives

But what matters here are those of Willy and Nicky. The exchange began with a request from the latter to the former to try to put the brakes on the events that were gradually leading Europe to settle its differences with arms:

I foresee that very soon I will feel overwhelmed by the pressure imposed on me and that it will force me to take extreme measures leading to war. To try to avoid such a calamity as a European war, I implore you in the name of our old friendship to do what you can to prevent your allies from going too far. Nicky.

For a while, that was the friendly tone they used. However, gradually the forms became tense in parallel with the displays of strength by their respective governments, to which they were somewhat oblivious, despite their absolute power in the political sphere. Nevertheless, they still did not reach a rupture and even maintained contact until the last moment, on the very morning of the outbreak of the conflict.

The assassination of the Archduke in Sarajevo (Achille Beltrame)/Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

On June 28, 1914, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria during his visit to Sarajevo precipitated events and ignited the final spark. On July 23, the Austro-Hungarian Empire sent an ultimatum to Serbia with impossible conditions to satisfy, prompting not only the Serbs but also the Russians to mobilize their troops. Five days later, the Austro-Hungarians declared war on Serbia, and three days after that, Russia announced general mobilization against Germany.

At that moment, Wilhelm II contacted Nicholas II again, asking him to stop his army. The Tsar refused, so the German government declared war on Russia on August 1 and asked the French not to support their allies. On August 2, they began the invasion of Luxembourg, and on August 3, they declared war on France. On August 4, the same day, the United Kingdom declared war on Germany.

That telegram sent by Nicholas II to Wilhelm on July 29 was left behind when everything was about to explode:

Thank you for your conciliatory and friendly telegram. While the official message presented today by your ambassador to my minister was conveyed in a very different tone. I ask you to explain this discrepancy! It would be right to bring the Austro-Serbian problem to the Hague Conference. I trust in your wisdom and friendship. Your affectionate Nicky.

By referring to The Hague, he meant the Permanent Court of Arbitration, a tribunal created at the first Peace Conference held in that city in 1899 with the aim of resolving disputes between states and thus preventing armed conflicts. Wilhelm did not respond to the proposal because, apparently, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not forward him the telegram, perhaps because it was already considered that there was no turning back on the warpath.

Later, on January 31, 1915, the Russian government made it public in its official bulletin, and against the German ministry, which classified it as unimportant, the Russian Foreign Minister, Sazonov, and the French ambassador in St. Petersburg, Maurice Paléologue, considered it very important and accused the Kaiser of squandering the possibility of a peaceful solution. In contrast, Wilhelm wrote on July 30: The entire weight of the decision rests on your shoulders, and you must take responsibility for peace or war. And the next day, he added in a reproachful tone:

In your appeal to my friendship and your request for assistance, I began to mediate between you and the Austro-Hungarian government. While this action was taking place, your troops mobilized against Austria-Hungary, my ally; therefore, as I have already pointed out, my mediation has become almost illusory. However, I have continued my action. Now I receive reliable news of serious preparations for war on my eastern border. The responsibility for the security of my empire compels me to take preventive defense measures. In my efforts to maintain world peace, I have reached the maximum limit possible. The responsibility for the disaster that now threatens the entire civilized world will not be at my door. At this moment, it is still in your power to prevent it. No one is threatening the honor or power of Russia, which can well afford to await the outcome of my mediation. My friendship for you and your empire, which my grandfather transmitted to me on his deathbed, has always been sacred to me, and honestly, I have often supported Russia when it was in serious trouble, especially in its last war. You can still maintain peace in Europe if Russia agrees to end the mobilization. Measures that must threaten Germany and Austria-Hungary.”

Nicky thanked him for that mediation, but although he assured him that Russian troops would not carry out any provocative action during the negotiations with Serbia, he added that it is technically impossible to stop our military preparations, which were mandatory due to the mobilization of Austria, invoking the mercy of God. On the morning of August 1, Nicholas appealed again to their old friendship to prevent the shedding of blood. The truth is that the correspondence had been so intense those days that the Tsar agreed to stop the general mobilization on the 29th, but it would resume on the 31st under pressure from the executive.

His cousin replied coldly, referring to the need for the Russian government to demobilize its army, in what was the last telegram of those frenetic contacts:

The immediate, clear, and unequivocal affirmative response from your government is the only way to avoid endless misery. Until I receive this response, I cannot discuss the subject of your telegram. In fact, I must ask you to immediately order your troops not to commit the slightest act of crossing our borders. Willy.

It was a dialogue of the deaf; no one was willing to give in, and in the end, catastrophe struck.

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on December 29, 2018. Puedes leer la versión en español en Correspondencia Willy-Nicky, el intercambio de telegramas entre el zar y el káiser en vísperas de la Primera Guerra Mundial


Herman Berstein, The Willy-Nicky correspondence | Isaac Don Levine, Willy-Nicky Letters between Kaiser Wilhelm and the Czar | Barbara Wertheim Tuchman, Los cañones de agosto | The German White Book. Germany’s Reasons for War with Russia | The Willy-Nicky Telegrams | Wikipedia

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