Could the Great War have been avoided if leaders had gotten together and negotiated in person instead of exchanging telegrams? In the voluminous historiography of the origins of WWI, there is a very little on the role of the telegraph. Today, as Twitter takes its place conference rooms, we can learn a lot from the failure of telegraph diplomacy one century ago.
One century ago, at midnight on 4 August 1914, Britain’s ultimatum to Germany to halt its attack on Belgium expired. It was the end of a week of ultimatums and declarations of war, which had kicked off on 28 July 1914 with the Austro-Hungarian declaration of war on Serbia. Hour by hour, time was eking away.
The time for replies to these ultimatums became shorter and shorter. While Serbia had 48 hours to reply to Austria’s ultimatum, Germany gave Russia 24 hours and France 18 hours to reply. Britain’s ultimatum to Germany had the shortest response time: only 5 hours. In this rush for time, the telegraph played a key role. The real telegraph drama unfolded at St Petersburg’s Central Telegraph Office at 9.30 pm on 29 July where hundreds of telegraph operators were ready to send mobilisation orders across the Russian empire. They were stopped at the last minute. Russian Tsar Nicholas II changed his mind after receiving a conciliatory telegraph from his cousin, German Kaiser Wilhelm II. But this delayed mobilisation for just for one day.
In the meantime, the two rulers were involved in the ‘Willy-Nicky’ telegraph exchange that created more confusion than understanding. In this decisive week in European history, hundreds of telegrams were exchanged between European capitals in the rush to avoid the looming conflict.
The telegraph introduced the notion of ‘virtual presence’; for the first time in human history, communication was detached from transportation. This was a major paradigm shift. The Internet has simply made communication faster, more diverse, and more pervasive.
Diplomatic communication has not changed a lot in the last 100 years. In 1914, like today, diplomatic reporting from embassies to capitals was instantaneous. At the peak of the July crisis, after Austria’s declaration of war, the flow of diplomatic cables was almost continuous. For example, German Intelligence observed a very intensive encrypted traffic between the Eiffel Tower and the Russian wireless station at Bobruysk, the communication channel used by both French and Russian diplomacies.
In July 1914, diplomats did not lack information. Wired agencies and the press were reporting from the major capitals. Diplomats on the spot were collecting information in public and clandestine ways. Across Europe, various Cabinet Noir were trying to break codes and access trying to break the code and access secret diplomatic communication. This is pretty much how diplomacy looks today.
The major problem that contributed to the failure of diplomacy in 1914 was diplomats’ inability to cope with the volume and speed of electronic communication. They were accustomed to acting in a much slower manner. The speed of exchanges during the July crisis led to crossed messages and confusion. One example was the aforementioned ‘Willy/Nicky’ exchange between German Kaiser Wilhelm II and Russian Tsar Nicholas II, on 29 and 30 July 1914. In this crucial time of the July crisis, telegrams between Berlin and St Petersburg crossed paths and causing mayhem: no one knew exactly what was going on.
In addition, the telegraph gave rulers a false perception of ‘presence’. Although Kaiser Wilhelm was sailing on the North Sea, and most of the German ministers and generals, as well as diplomats in other countries, were enjoying their summer holidays, the telegraph network made them feel that they were in 'control' of the situation. They did not interrupt their holidays, meet in person, and negotiate, like they would have done in an era when the telegraph did not exist (e.g. during the Congress of Vienna in 1814). Britain tried to organise a ‘four power’ mediation conference, in a last-minute attempt to avoid the war, but it was already too late! The counter-factual question remains: What might have happened if world leaders had had a chance to negotiate in person in July 1914? Compromise is easier to reach when people see each other rather than communicate via telegraph or e-mail and Twitter. Differences escalate easier in e-communication than in direct communication.
Most historical analyses agree that towards the end of July 1914, statesmen and diplomats ceased to be the creators of policies and became mere followers ‒ sometimes very clumsy followers ‒ of events that were spiraling out of their control. Unprepared to handle the new technology, diplomats who used to meet and negotiate international peace through direct communication suddenly became involved in the frenetic world of 'modern diplomacy’, conducted via telegrams.
Do we face similar risks today with the use of the Internet? One reassuring development is the cautious use of technology when it comes to delicate negotiations. In spite of the ubiquitous availability of the Internet, all major diplomatic breakthroughs over the last few years were achieved through in situ negotiations, with very little use of technology: the Myanmar transition, the Kosovo arrangement, and the Iran nuke deal. This summer, modern diplomacy will be further tested in dealing with the mushrooming crises in Ukraine, the Middle East, and Libya, to name a few. Are we doomed to repeat history or will we learn from our mistakes?