MIA: Encyclopedia of Marxism: Glossary of Events
The letter that initiated the Franco-Prussian War.
On July 2nd 1870, the Provisional Spanish Government promulgated the candidature of Prince Leopold of the Hohenzollern dynasty (whose staunchest supporter was Prussian Chancellor Otto von Bismarck) as the next King of Spain, succeeding Queen Isabella who had been deposed in September 1868. The Prince was of Southern German decent and a Catholic -- the prospects of which were dreadful for France. On July 6th, France protested, and on July 9th, the French Ambassador to Prussia, Count Vincent Benedetti, requested Kaiser William I to withdrawal the candidacy while the Kaiser was on vacation at Bad Ems. On July 12th, Leopold recieved and obeyed his Kaiser's instructions and withdrew his candidacy.
On July 13, at the Kursaal in Bad Ems (a Spa resort), the French Ambassador to Prussia, Count Vincent Benedetti, requested Kaiser William I to promise that never again would a Prussian Prince aspire to the Spanish throne. During the informal discussion on the promenade, the well bred Kaiser was polite and diplomatic in his refusal of the French request. The Kaiser drafted a note of the exchange and Heinrich Abeken, Councillor of the Legation of the North German Confederation to Paris, passed it into the awaiting hands of the Prussian Chancellor Otto von Bismarck. Bismarck edited the letter with selective deletions making the French request seem an ultimatum, and the Kaiser's rebuff as an arrogant insult. Making matters worse, Bismarck telegraphed the letter on July 14; eve of the French national holiday Bastille Day. On July 19th, 1870, Napoleon III of France declared war on Prussia.
The Kaiser's original letter:
To THE FEDERAL CHANCELLOR, COUNT BISMARCK, No. 61 EOD. 3:10 P.M. (STATION EMS: RUSH!)
M. Benedetti intercepted me on the Promenade in order to demand of me most insistently that I should authorize him to telegraph immediately to Paris that I shall obligate myself for all future time never again to give my approval to the candidacy of the Hohenzollerns should it be renewed. I refused to agree to this, the last time somewhat severely, informing him that one dare not and cannot assume such obligations à tout jamais [forever]. Naturally, I informed him that I had received no news as yet, and since he had been informed earlier than I by way of Paris and Madrid he could easily understand that my Government was once again out of the matter."
Kaiser William I; Ems, July 13, 1870.
Abeken appended the following note:
Since then His Majesty has received a dispatch from the Prince [Charles Anthony]. As His Majesty informed Count Benedetti that he was expecting news from the Prince, His Majesty himself, in view of the above-mentioned demand and in consonance with the advice of Count Eulenburg and myself, decided not to receive the French envoy again but to inform him through an adjutant that His Majesty had now received from the Prince confirmation of the news which Benedetti had already received from Paris, and that he had nothing further to say to the Ambassador. His Majesty leaves it to the judgment of Your Excellency whether or not to communicate at once the new demand by Benedetti and its rejection to our ambassadors and to the press.
From this, Bismarck published the following in newspapers the world over:
After the reports of the renunciation by the hereditary Prince of Hohenzollern had been officially transmitted by the Royal Government of Spain to the Imperial Government of France, the French Ambassador presented to His Majesty the King at Ems the demand to authorize him to telegraph to Paris that His Majesty the King would obligate himself for all future time never again to give his approval to the candidacy of the Hohenzollerns should it be renewed.
His Majesty the King thereupon refused to receive the French envoy again and informed him through an adjutant that His Majesty has nothing further to say to the Ambassador.