Arthur Zimmermann: Biography & Facts

Instructor: Christina Boggs

Chrissy has taught secondary English and history and writes online curriculum. She has an M.S.Ed. in Social Studies Education.

Arthur Zimmermann, the German Foreign Secretary during World War I, authored one of the most notorious telegrams in the history of the Western World. In this lesson, you will learn about more about Arthur Zimmermann.

Early Life and Career

How much do you know about the United States' entry in to World War I? Perhaps you've studied the effects of German U-boat warfare or the growing tensions between the United States and the Central Powers. But what about the Zimmermann Telegram? Does that ring any bells? The man behind the telegram, Arthur Zimmermann, was one of the most influential people during World War I and is still studied with fascination today.

Arthur Zimmermann was born in the town of Marggrabowa in East Prussia on October 5, 1864. On a modern map, you'll have a difficult time finding East Prussia. After World War II, Zimmermann's hometown was no longer considered part of Germany. Instead, it's located in modern-day Poland. Zimmermann did not come from an aristocratic or noble family, but this did not stop him from becoming a successful diplomat.

At 20 years old, Zimmermann left his home to study law in the cities of Leipzig and Knigsberg. During that time, he worked as an attorney. By 1893, Zimmermann found his way into foreign diplomacy and took a job with the Consular Service Department. In 1896, Zimmermann made his way to China and within four years officially became a German consul, or government official chosen to live in another country to work on foreign relations.

Arthur Zimmermann
Arthur Zimmermann

Becoming German Foreign Secretary

After his time in the Consular Service Department, Arthur Zimmermann made his way back to Germany and found his way into the foreign secretary's office. Zimmermann worked under Gottlieb von Jagow beginning in 1913 and took advantage of every single opportunity he could to get ahead.

By 1914, all of Europe was on the brink of war. A Serbian national had shot the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand. At the time, Austria-Hungary's greatest ally was Germany, and it was expected that they would help each other in this time of need.

Foreign Secretary Jagow was out of the country at the time, so Zimmermann stepped in to do his job. Zimmermann, along with kaiser of Germany and other high-ranking officials, decided their best option was to support Austria-Hungary and let the rest of Europe know that if their demands were not met, they were prepared to go to war.

For the next two years, Zimmermann continued to work under Jagow before his big break came in 1916. Beginning in 1915, Germany had started a policy of unrestricted submarine warfare, meaning they sunk any and all ships that crossed the Atlantic, even neutral ships from countries that were not officially a part of the war. The United States was extremely angry with this policy and asked Germany to stop their unrestricted submarine warfare. Germany eventually agreed and focused their submarine warfare on mostly British ships in the second half of 1915 and most of 1916.

By the end of 1916, Germany was ready to bring World War I to an end at all costs; they believed the only way to do this was to restart their policy of unrestricted submarine warfare. Foreign Secretary Jagow disagreed with this measure and stepped down from his position in protest. By November 25, 1916, Arthur Zimmermann was the new foreign secretary and was full-steam ahead on the unrestricted submarine warfare policy.

The Zimmermann Telegram

In the early months of 1917, Arthur Zimmermann would truly make a name for himself...and not in a good way. It was already decided that Germany would start sinking anything and everything trying to cross the Atlantic, but there was one major issue with this. Germany had promised the United States that they wouldn't attack their ships; going back on this promise surely meant the United States would become a full-fledged participant in the war. What to do...what to do?

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