How Nicky and Willy could have prevented World War I

tags: World War I, Tsar Nicholas II, Kaiser Wilhelm



Graham Allison is director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard’s Kennedy School.

One hundred years ago this week, Tsar Nicholas II of Russia and Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany exchanged a series of telegrams to try to stop the rush to a war that neither of them wanted. They signed their notes “Nicky” and “Willy.”

Cousins who vacationed together, hunted together and enjoyed dressing up in the uniforms of each other’s military officers when sailing on their yachts, these two great-great-grandsons of Paul I of Russia wrote to each other in English, affirming their mutual interests and outlining an agreement that would have resolved the crisis on terms acceptable to both rulers.

Yet only three days after the tsar and kaiser’s initial exchange, Germany declared war on Russia, and World War I was underway. Tragically, these leaders were caught in what Henry Kissinger has called a “doomsday machine”: a network of interlocking alliances and military mobilization timetables that allowed the march of events to overcome their best efforts.

The telegrams between them were discovered by an American journalist in the Russian government archives in 1919 and caused a sensation when they were first published in 1920. A century after they were written, they are vivid reminders of the perils of crisis management — and the wisdom of preventive diplomacy to resolve challenges like today’s territorial dispute in eastern Ukraine before they become crises that suck great powers into confrontations.

The exchange began in the very early morning of July 29, just hours after Austria-Hungary (an ally of Germany) declared war on Serbia (an ally of Russia) in retaliation for the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo. Time was short to find a diplomatic solution that would prevent a regional war from becoming a world war...



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