The Ems Dispatch (French: Dépêche d'Ems, German: Emser Depesche), sometimes called the Ems Telegram, incited France to declare the Franco-Prussian War in July 1870. The actual dispatch was an internal message from the Prussian King's vacationing site to Otto von Bismarck in Berlin, reporting demands made by the French ambassador; it was Bismarck's released statement to the press that became known as Ems Dispatch. The name referred to Bad Ems, a resort spa east of Koblenz on the Lahn river, then situated in Hesse-Nassau, a new possession of Prussia.
The 'Seven Weeks' Austro-Prussian War of 16 June - 23 August 1866, which involved south and north German states on both sides as well as an emerging Italy, increased Prussian power. Austria was defeated in the key Battle of Königgrätz (or Sadowa) on 3 July. The preliminary peace of Nikolsburg, 26 July, was followed by the Peace of Prague, 23 August. The result was that Bismarck was able to expel Austria from the German Confederation, to set up and dominate the North German Confederation—north of the Main—and secure Prussian territorial gains. Hanover, Schleswig-Holstein, Nassau and Hesse-Cassel, and Frankfurt were incorporated into the Prussian kingdom. Prussia's territory expanded by nearly a quarter and its population by more than four million to roughly twenty-four million, though still less than France's thirty-eight million. France did not take part in the war which, though brief, altered the European balance of power. France did not gain territories or prestige. French demands for a "Revanche pour Sadova" (Revenge for Sadowa) took root.
In early 1870, the German Prince Leopold, of the Roman Catholic cadet branch Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen, had been offered the vacant Spanish throne. The government of French Emperor Napoleon III voiced concern over a possible Spanish alliance with the Protestant House of Hohenzollern that ruled the Kingdom of Prussia, protested against it, and hinted about a war. Following the protests by France, Leopold had withdrawn his acceptance in July 1870. This was already considered a diplomatic defeat for Prussia. The French were not yet satisfied with this and demanded further commitments, especially a guarantee by the Prussian king that no member of any branch of his Hohenzollern family would ever be a candidate for the Spanish throne.
On 13 July 1870, King Wilhelm I of Prussia, on his morning stroll in the Kurpark in Ems, was stopped by Count Vincent Benedetti, the French ambassador to Prussia since 1864. Benedetti had been instructed by his superior, Foreign Minister Agénor, the Duc de Gramont, to present the French demand that the king should guarantee that he would never again permit the candidacy of a Hohenzollern prince to the Spanish throne. The meeting was informal and took place on the promenade of the Kursaal with the king’s entourage at a discreet distance. Politely, and in a friendly manner, "with the courtesy that never failed him," the king refused to bind himself to any course of action into the indefinite future. After their exchange, "the two departed coolly."
From the meeting, the King's secretary Heinrich Abeken wrote an account, which was passed on to Otto von Bismarck in Berlin. Wilhelm described Benedetti as "very importunate." The King gave permission to Bismarck to release an account of the events.
Bismarck took it upon himself to edit the report, sharpening the language. He cut out Wilhelm’s conciliatory phrases and emphasized the real issue. The French had made certain demands under threat of war; and Wilhelm had refused them. This was no forgery; it was a clear statement of the facts. Certainly the edit of the telegram, released on the evening of the same day (13 July) to the media and foreign embassies, gave the impression both that Benedetti was rather more demanding and that the King was exceedingly abrupt. It was designed to give the French the impression that King Wilhelm I had insulted Count Benedetti; likewise, the Germans interpreted the modified dispatch as the Count insulting the King.
Bismarck had viewed the worsening relations with France with open satisfaction. If war had to come, now was as good a time as any. His editing, he assured his friends, "would have the effect of a red rag on the Gallic [French] bull." The edited telegram was to be presented henceforth as the cause of the war.
Sent by Heinrich Abeken of the Prussian Foreign Office under King Wilhelm's Instruction to Bismarck.
His Majesty the King has written to me:
Count Benedetti intercepted me on the promenade and ended by demanding of me, in a very importunate manner, that I should authorize him to telegraph at once that I bound myself in perpetuity never again to give my consent if the Hohenzollerns renewed their candidature.
I rejected this demand somewhat sternly, as it is neither right nor possible to undertake engagements of this kind [for ever and ever]. Naturally, I told him that I had not yet received any news and, since he had been better informed via Paris and Madrid than I was, he must surely see that my government was not concerned in the matter.
[The King, on the advice of one of his ministers], decided, in view of the above-mentioned demands, not to receive Count Benedetti any more, but to have him informed, by an adjutant, that His Majesty had now received [from Leopold] confirmation of the news which Benedetti had already had from Paris and had nothing further to say to the ambassador.
His Majesty suggests to Your Excellency, that Benedetti's new demand and its rejection might well be communicated both to our ambassadors and to the Press.
After the news of the renunciation of the Prince von Hohenzollern had been communicated to the Imperial French government by the Royal Spanish government, the French Ambassador in Ems made a further demand on His Majesty the King that he should authorize him to telegraph to Paris that His Majesty the King undertook for all time never again to give his assent should the Hohenzollerns once more take up their candidature.
His Majesty the King thereupon refused to receive the Ambassador again and had the latter informed by the Adjutant of the day that His Majesty had no further communication to make to the Ambassador.
The French translation by the agency Havas did not translate "Adjutant", which in German refers to a high-ranked aide de camp, but in French describes only a non-commissioned officer (adjudant), so implying that the King had deliberately insulted the ambassador by not choosing an officer to carry the message to him. This was the version published by most newspapers the following day, which happened to be July 14 (Bastille Day), setting the tone, letting the French believe that the king had insulted their ambassador, before the ambassador could tell his story.
France's mistaken attitude of its own position carried matters far beyond what was necessary, and France mobilized. Following further improper translations and misinterpretations of the dispatch in the press, excited crowds in Paris demanded war, just as Bismarck had anticipated. The Ems Dispatch had also rallied German national feeling. It was no longer Prussia alone; South German particularism was now cast aside.
Benedetti, the messenger for the Duc de Gramont's demands for pointless guarantees (the Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen family had withdrawn Prince Leopold’s candidature on 11 July 1870 with Wilhelm's "entire and unreserved approval"), became an unseen bit-player; his own dispatches to Paris no longer mattered. In the legislative chamber, by an overwhelming majority, the votes for war credits were passed. France declared war on 19 July 1870, starting the Franco-Prussian War. Following the French defeat in 1871, the Duc de Gramont attempted to throw the blame for the failures of French diplomacy on Benedetti. In his defence Count Benedetti published his version of the events in Ma Mission en Prusse (Paris, 1871).