“Wait, are you telling me you actually sent that? For God’s sake, woman—it was a joke!” – a hysterical Arthur Zimmermann to his secretary Gretchen, after learning that she had just sent a real telegram on its way to Mexico proposing an allied attack on the United States at the height of World War I.
Gretchen Ziegler certainly was a sweetheart. Whatever else may have been uttered about her in the years that would follow that historic morning, she really was an absolute peach. In an attempt to contribute to the war effort, the shapely university student worked part-time for Foreign Secretary of the German Empire Arthur Zimmermann, who was a friend of her father. It was widely agreed that her charming demeanor, calm blue eyes, and silky voice made her especially suited to sit at the desk of so busy and esteemed a man as Zimmermann. And indeed, naïve though she was, Gretchen was not without intelligence, having earned excellent marks in school. Thus it came almost as a complete surprise when, on the morning of January 19, she committed a grave error that would severely alter the course of modern history.
Arthur Zimmermann certainly was not a sweetheart, and did not have an easy job. The former attorney and badminton enthusiast found himself in the unenviable position of being responsible for all of the empire’s diplomatic efforts in a time of unprecedented military aggression. His many failed attempts to make peace with other European powers were unfailingly sabotaged by the nefarious, hilarious Kaiser Wilhelm II, and he often questioned the purpose of the long days he spent inside a cramped office, enjoying nothing of his day apart from the occasional interruption by his curvy young secretary. And so, late one night, while enjoying a healthy measure of brandy with a few colleagues, he half-joked that there were no more allies left for Germany, at which point his undersecretary raised his glass and proposed a toast to “the Kaiser and Mexico!” The uproarious laughter, undoubtedly fueled by the evening’s libations, continued as several of the officers began drawing up the would-be terms of such a ridiculous proposal. Within a few minutes, a telegram had been drafted, as if from Zimmermann himself to Mexican president Venustiano Carranza. As the officers stumbled out of the office that evening, someone placed the telegram at the desk of young Gretchen, perhaps out of carelessness or perhaps so that Miss Ziegler could share in the laughter the next morning.
Unfortunately, again as a result of the brandy, the next morning came far later for any of Zimmermann’s cohort than it did for sweet, bright-eyed Gretchen, who arrived nearly two hours before anyone else and found herself faced with the single greatest challenge of her blossoming secretarial career—her only prior experience of any difficulty coming when she was charged with the procurement of a suitable shoe horn for Mr. Zimmermann, who was very particular about the length of his shoe horns on account of his chronic lumbago (the lumbago which had severely curbed, at its peak, his dominant run of the badminton courts—but I have digressed). Seeing the word “URGENT” spelled out in bold typeface across the top of the telegram, and the official seal of the department at the bottom, and being unable to reach any of the supervising staff at their homes, innocent Gretchen decided that this was the moment which she feared most, but for which she was most prepared. With the commanding officers indisposed and all lines of communication broken, here was a rare moment in which perhaps the fate of the calloused, war-torn German empire rested in the supple hands of a striking, full-figured woman with a future as promising and expansive as her much admired bust line. And so, with only a brief moment’s hesitation, Gretchen Ziegler sent the telegram.
The Mexican diplomats and military advisors who first received the telegram reacted to it much like the drunken compatriots of Arthur Zimmermann, but with considerably more laughter. And indeed it was a ridiculous idea. Following the 1914 overthrow of the Huerta regime, Mexico was a mere three years into its new government (which would end with the unceremonious assassination of President Carranza only three years later, despite the fact that Carranza habitually disguised himself with an impressive fake mustache and beard). The border attacks of Pancho Villa had already disrupted the slumber of the military and industrial giant that was America, and Mexico was in no position to defend or attack the border in any serious way. Furthermore, both the military support and the eventual spoils of war promised to Mexico by Germany in that facetious document relied on the absurdly flawed presumptions that A) the United States could ever be successfully occupied and that B) Mexico and Germany could somehow exchange goods via the Atlantic ocean, which would have undoubtedly remained in the firm, joint grasp of the United States and Great Britain, each formidable naval heavyweights in their own right. But all of this explanation is to an extent superfluous, given that, once again, the proposal was ridiculous by design. Nonetheless, it is necessary to know these things in order to understand Carranza’s immediate rejection and the subsequent political backlash that swept throughout Germany.
And although the issuance of that ill-conceived telegram eventually forced the resignation of Arthur Zimmermann, even he could not bring himself to blame the girl, whose tearful, full-lipped apology was both genuine and, by all leading accounts of the day, pretty adorable.
In today’s “Revisionist History”, the part of Gretchen Ziegler was played in Jake’s head by Boardwalk Empire’s Paz de la Huerta. Join us next week to see if Jake’s streak of thinly veiled psychosexual imaginings continues to three!