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Imagine you're scrolling through Netflix and you see a movie about World War I. Add it to your list, right? There's gonna be explosions, dramatic scenes in trenches, Germans in funny pointed helmets, submarines firing torpedoes, more explosions...sounds good.
So you start it.
And it has none of those things.
Instead, it's about a guy who spent World War I writing letters and sending telegrams and working behind the scenes to carry out elaborate plots of international espionage—all of which involve more letter writing. Oh, and they're hard to follow, as they take years to actually amount to anything. You fall asleep halfway through, and when you wake up, the guy is retiring because one of his telegrams got him into trouble and made Germany lose the war that this movie didn't show you because every scene took place in an office. You turn it off and write a scathing review about how, if you wanted to waste two hours of your life watching some guy write letters, you could just go to work with your dad.
And that's why they don't make movies about Arthur Zimmermann.
There's a whole other side to wars that doesn't get talked about much or put into movies. The shouting generals, the brave soldiers, and the blood and guts monopolize our perceptions of war. But Zimmermann "fought" World War I from behind a desk as the German Foreign Secretary developing foreign policy and planning Germany's relations with other countries.
While Germany had all kinds of plans to invade nations and seize territory with its military might, there were also sneaky, secretive plans to manipulate other countries. A big part of Germany's war strategy was to sabotage nations so that they would fight amongst themselves and just let Germany win the war.
Imagine that your team is losing a baseball game. There's no way you can score enough runs to win, so you start a rumor that the catcher of the opposing team said some disparaging things about the pitcher's mother. A fight breaks out, the other team's dugout is in chaos, and the umpire starts ejecting players for foul language and misuse of bats. They have to forfeit—and you just won the game without ever having to cross home plate.
Well, Zimmermann was the guy starting the rumors. He was in charge of Germany's behind-the-scenes plotting for world domination—most of which were carried out through telegrams sent in code.
At first, Zimmermann was actually fairly successful at causing infighting among foreign countries. He encouraged the Irish to rebel against the British throughout World War I. And he helped nudge the Russian Revolution along until Russia left the war entirely to argue amongst themselves. His baseball team had made it to playoffs by secretly making all the other teams hate each other.
His distraction plots also included the United States. The infamous Zimmermann Telegram was probably just step number one at getting Mexico (and maybe also Japan) to attack the U.S. Step number two never happened because the telegram was intercepted. Instead of causing a diversion, Zimmermann had given the world written proof of just how shady and underhanded Germany was acting.
Translation: the team finally figured out that it was you starting those rumors all along. Now they're coming after you.
Germany had long feared what would happen if the U.S. entered the war against them, and the Zimmermann telegram made that a near certainty. Zimmermann didn't even try to deny what he'd done. He gave a speech admitting to sending the telegram with the weak excuse that Germany was only going to pay Mexico to invade the U.S. if the U.S. declared war on Germany. By that time, Germany had resumed sinking American ships trying to cross the Atlantic, so Zimmermann's speech sounded like a very casual ransom demand.
The U.S. swiftly went to war with Germany. Mexico did not invade.
Germany lost the war big time.
Zimmermann retired early because of the telegram fiasco and spent the rest of his life not meddling in the affairs of foreign nations or doing much of anything remarkable. He is proof of how one bad mistake can color your reputation for the rest of your life. Of all the things he may have done right, he's remembered for the one thing he did really wrong.
Not to freak you out or anything.