In the period between 1871 and 1914, Europe experienced a period of relative peace, which was conveniently dubbed “La Belle Époque,” or the “Beautiful Era.”
During this time, international law and the Hague Tribunal stepped in to resolve petty quarrels between nations ― successfully brokering peace and hailing a new age beyond the savagery of warfare.
Or so it seemed.
The Belle Epoque ended in the summer of 1914 when war was declared between Austria-Hungary and the Kingdom of Serbia, roughly one month after Franz Ferdinand, the Archduke of Austria, was assassinated in Sarajevo.
The declaration of war ― which was preceded by tensions and uncertainty― triggered a domino effect which led the continent, and subsequently the world, into the bloody conflict.
However, just prior to all hell breaking loose, two monarchs, remnants of the old-fashioned diplomacy, tried to talk it out through personal correspondence. They were the leaders of two of the most powerful belligerents of the war in continental Europe ― Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany and Tsar Nicholas II of Russia.
The two were thirds cousins, also related to another important royal bloodline ― that of King George V of England.
Due to their family ties, Nicholas and Wilhelm grew up together, forming a deep bond with one another. As they became adults and assumed the leadership of their respective countries, the world would change beyond their comprehension.
On the eve of the First World War, the two cousins attempted to communicate with each other, in hopes of calming the tensions which had by July 1914 escalated to never-before-seen heights.
The correspondence went down in history as the “Willy/Nicky Telegrams” due to the nicknames Wilhelm and Nicholas used when addressing one another. They was discovered in 1918 and published with haste by an American journalist, Herman Bernstein, who was at the time tasked with covering the October Revolution in Russia.
The first telegram was sent by Nicholas the II, just hours after the Austro-Hungarian declaration of war. The correspondence included 10 messages in total, sent across the period between July 29th and August 1st, 1914, when the war was already in effect.
The Tsar first addressed his concerns to Wilhelm regarding the worsening situation, and opened the talk by urging him to stand down:
“I foresee that very soon I shall be overwhelmed by the pressure forced upon me and be forced to take extreme measures which will lead to war. To try and avoid such a calamity as a European war I beg you in the name of our old friendship to do what you can to stop your allies from going too far. Nicky.”
In anticipation of war, Russia had already mobilized troops close to the border with Austria-Hungary, cautiously, but firmly awaiting for events to develop.
The mobilization which was in full swing during the time the two royals exchanged telegrams was the decision of the political and military leadership of the countries rather than their own.
At that point, both monarchs were nothing more than representatives of their kingdoms, clinched between the public and the politicians.
This is why the correspondence invites a certain feeling of nostalgia, as it sounds like a fictional account of two divine rulers from the 18th century, negotiating a truce based solely on their personal opinions and interests.
While Kaiser Wilhelm tries to persuade Nicholas that the small landlocked kingdom in the Balkans needs to be punished for supporting the assassination of the Archduke, the Tsar responds that it his duty to protect its weaker ally, for it is a question of honor and prestige.
The pair continued to discuss options of containing the potential conflict and preventing it spreading across Europe, almost reaching an understanding at one point by agreeing to oversee an investigation regarding the assassination.
The tone between them was friendly and both assured one another that their intentions were honest and fair and that an all-out war in Europe was to be avoided at all cost.
However, little did they know that they were caught in what Henry Kissinger later described as the “Doomsday machine.”
The American statesman and political scientist introduced this term to describe how the European realms of the time were locked under a mechanism of alliances, protocols and mobilization timetables which, once set in motion, were impossible to be stopped by mere diplomacy.
The Austro-Hungarian declaration of war triggered a reaction by all parties who had various scores to settle with each other and there was not a gesture in the world that could prevent the explosion of violence which followed.
Although the Tsar of Russia managed to cancel the general mobilization in his country, his decision was quickly recalled by Foreign Minister Sergey Sazonov, who managed convince Nicholas II that such acts of goodwill were unwise in times of great peril.
Therefore, when Wilhelm realized that his cousin was rather hesitant in following through with the retreat of the troops from the border, he sent a cold-mannered reply:
“Immediate affirmative clear and unmistakable answer from your government is the only way to avoid endless misery. Until I have received this answer alas, I am unable to discuss the subject of your telegram. As a matter of fact, I must request you to immediatly [sic] order your troops on no account to commit the slightest act of trespassing over our frontiers. Willy.”
This was the final message of the correspondence, and soon after, the two cousins turned bitter foes. What followed was a devastating war of attrition which cost the world countless lives and became the deathbed of empires.