Study Guide

Zimmermann Telegram Analysis

By Arthur Zimmermann

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  • Rhetoric

    There's not even a hint of emotion or personality in the Zimmermann Telegram and, whoa, before you get all judgy, it's not Zimmermann's fault.

    Zimmermann wrote the thing thinking that only one guy would ever read it and then burn it afterwards. Instead, it's been famous for a full century, countless people have read it, and it's in practically every single book about World War I. If he'd know what was to become of it, he probably would've tried to make it sound more exciting or witty.

    Actually, scratch that. If he'd known what was to become of it, he wouldn't have sent it at all.

    What makes it effective at connecting with an audience isn't its rhetoric; it's just a straightforward policy suggestion. What we connect with is the fact that we're reading something that we aren't supposed to be reading. The public wasn't meant to see the Zimmermann Telegram. No one was supposed to know how calmly the German government discussed torpedoing ships filled with innocent women and children, or how the violent takeover of three U.S. states could be reduced to a few short facts. The Zimmermann Telegram got its power from shock at what was implied, not from the words themselves.

  • Structure


    Saying that the Zimmermann Telegram has structure may be generous. It didn't even have punctuation. The note was sent in code, basically a list of clustered digits that represented words, or parts of words, if you had the correct cipher.

    The contents of the telegram were commands from a boss to an employee. Zimmermann was telling the German ambassador to Mexico what to do. It's written in the same style as when your mom leaves a sticky note telling you to take out the trash and wash the car. It's just a really inflammatory to-do list.

    Suggest Mexico invade the U.S. Check.

    Suggest Japan come along too. Check.

    How it Breaks Down

    Germany's Going to Be Naughty

    First Zimmermann announces the return of everybody's favorite board game: battleship unrestricted submarine warfare. This is important to mention first because it will likely send the U.S. into a fit that will probably include declaring war. To avoid this totally unnecessary war (and start a different one), read ahead.

    The Plan of Attack (Literally)

    At the heart of the telegram are instructions to the German ambassador. Zimmermann lists several things that need to be suggested to the Mexican president including some humble-brags about how wicked cool the German navy is.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    Zimmermann probably sent lots of telegrams in his life, but this is by far the most consequential, so they named it after him. It's The Zimmermann Telegram. (Don't forget that extra N in his last name, dudes.)

    He undoubtedly wished that he could have his name attached to something less embarrassing for all of history, but he should have thought of that before he hit "send"…or whatever one does to make the telegram go to the place.

  • What's Up With the Opening Lines?

    There aren't really opening lines, although there were instructions for the telegram office to give it to the German Legation (meaning embassy) in Mexico City. These were the only words not in code—and they did their job. It was delivered to the German ambassador.

    Of course, it was also delivered to the code breakers in the British navy, too.


  • What's Up With the Closing Lines?

    There aren't really any closing lines in the Zimmerman Telegram, except that Zimmermann signed his name (also in code) so that Heinrich von Eckardt, the German ambassador to Mexico, would know that the note was real and actually came from his boss. It also helped the rest of the world figure out who was behind the telegram's threatening contents.

    It's nice when you don't have to spend too much time trying to figure out whom to blame.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (1) Sea Level

    The Zimmermann Telegram is only seven sentences long—and that includes the signature. Sure, it's longer than a Tweet, but it's not much worse than an annoyingly long text message.

    The grammar and wording is a little wobbly and awkward in a few places because it was a telegram sent in code, but as far as consequential historical documents go, this one's as easy as they come.

  • Shout-Outs

    In-Text References

    Historical and Political References

    Mexican President Venustiano Carranza (5, 6)
    Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, in which Mexico gave up lots of land to the U.S. (3)

  • Trivia

    The Zimmermann Telegram used American cables (because the German's had been cut) and thus passed through Washington D.C. on its way to Mexico. The Germans weren't supposed to send encrypted messages through this route, but they lied to the U.S. in order to do it. Kind of like using your roommate's Netflix logon info to watch OITNB. And getting caught. (Source)

    The German's didn't have a numerical code for the word "Arizona" so it had to be spelled out phonetically (in code) in the Zimmermann Telegram. Imagine how proud they were in Room 40 when they solved that one. High-fives and Guinness all around. (Source)

    During World War I, 274 German U-boats (submarines) sank 6,596 ships. That's about 24 ships per sub, because math can be both fun and deadly. (Source)

    World War I was called the Great War, the World War, the War of Nations, and most ironically, the War to End All Wars. People didn't start calling it World War I until World War II started. This is an important fact to remember: if you ever go back in time, don't ruin the surprise. (Source)

    Barbara Tuchman, in the preface to a later edition of her book The Zimmermann Telegram, wrote that the code used for breaking the telegram was likely found in a codebook wrapped in several pair of long woolen underwear carried by Helmuth Listemann, a German Consul doing business in the Persian Gulf. He was arrested by British staff who were there obviously doing undercover work for L.L.Bean. (Source)

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