The British Codebreaker Who Convinced the U.S. to Join WWI

National Archives
National Archives

On January 16, 1917, Nigel de Grey, a cryptologist working for the British military, intercepted a coded German telegram sent via standard diplomatic channels. This alone was nothing special. The British cryptanalytic office where de Grey worked, called Room 40, had cracked a handful of Germany's ciphers and intercepted their messages daily. Today, however, was different: The jumble of numbers revealed a political bombshell.

We intend to begin on the 1st of February unrestricted submarine warfare. We shall endeavor in spite of this to keep the United States of America neutral. In the event of this not succeeding, we make Mexico a proposal of alliance on the following basis: make war together, make peace together, generous financial support and an understanding on our part that Mexico is to reconquer the lost territory in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona.

The coded message, sent by the German Foreign Minister Arthur Zimmermann, was destined for the German Minister in Mexico City. (Along the way, it had passed through Germany's ambassador in Washington, D.C., Count Johann Heinrich von Bernstorff.) At the time, America was not involved in the Great War. In fact, President Woodrow Wilson had just secured a second term by riding the slogans "He Kept Us Out of War" and "American First." The decrypted message plainly indicated that Germany was hoping Wilson would stick to his campaign trail talking points.

But the message also showed that Germany was afraid. An escalation of submarine warfare could provoke the United States, compelling it to abandon its isolationist policies and enter the war. If that happened, Germany hoped to distract the U.S. by forcing American troops to focus on an enemy closer to home: Mexico.

Upon realizing the message's significance, de Grey immediately sprinted to the office of his superior, William Reginald "Blinker" Hall.

"Do you want America in the war, Sir?" he shouted.

Hall gave de Grey, who was gleaming with sweat, an incredulous look. "Yes, why?"

"I've got a telegram that will bring them in if you give it to them."

According to an exhibit at the National Cryptologic Museum in Fort Meade, Maryland, "[The British] realized that they held a cryptanalytic 'trump card' that virtually guaranteed America's entry into WWI on the Allied side." Historian David Kahn put it thusly: The "codebreakers held history in the palm of their hands."

When a select few in the U.S. federal government were finally notified of the secret message, many doubted its authenticity, believing it was just a deceitful ploy by the British to win American support. The British assuaged those doubts by acquiring a fresh copy of the coded telegram and handing it over to the Americans. On February 23, a U.S. diplomat saw the message be decrypted with his own eyes—again with the help of codebreaker Nigel de Grey—and independently verified Germany's intentions. The diplomat immediately contacted President Wilson.

When Wilson saw it, he was shocked and insulted. "Good Lord! Good Lord!" he shouted. About one week later, he leaked the message to the press. Americans were similarly outraged.

(As for Mexico, the country knew it was getting a raw deal and never took Germany's bait. Reclaiming the American southwest—what was formerly Mexican territory before the Mexican-American War in the 1840s—was a recipe for disaster. Besides, Germany would have never been able to help anyway: They were blocked by the British Navy.)

By early April, the secret code had compelled the U.S. to join Britain and its allies. Today, the work of de Grey and the other Room 40 codebreakers is widely considered one of the most consequential events in cryptologic history.

 

Hungry for more details about the Zimmermann telegram? Mental Floss’s coverage of the World War I Centennial has you covered here and here.

14 Retro Gifts for Millennials

Ravi Palwe, Unsplash
Ravi Palwe, Unsplash

Millennials were born between 1981 and 1996, which means the pop culture they grew up with is officially retro. No matter what generation you belong to, consider these gifts when shopping for the Millennials in your life this holiday season.

1. Reptar Funko Pop!; $29

Amazon

This vinyl Reptar figurine from Funko is as cool as anything you’d find in the rugrats’ toy box. The monster dinosaur has been redesigned in classic Pop! style, making it a perfect desk or shelf accessory for the grown-up Nickelodeon fan. It also glows in the dark, which should appeal to anyone’s inner child.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Dragon Ball Z Slippers; $20

Hot Topic

You don’t need to change out of your pajamas to feel like a Super Saiyan. These slippers are emblazoned with the same kanji Goku wears on his gi in Dragon Ball Z: one for training under King Kai and one for training with Master Roshi. And with a soft sherpa lining, the footwear feels as good as it looks.

Buy it: Hot Topic

3. The Pokémon Cookbook; $15

Hop Topic

What do you eat after a long day of training and catching Pokémon? Any dish in The Pokémon Cookbook is a great option. This book features more than 35 recipes inspired by creatures from the Pokémon franchise, including Poké Ball sushi rolls and mashed Meowth potatoes.

Buy it: Hot Topic

4. Lisa Frank Activity Book; $5

Urban Outfitters

Millennials will never be too old for Lisa Frank, especially when the artist’s playful designs come in a relaxing activity book. Watercolor brings the rainbow characters in this collection to life. Just gather some painting supplies and put on a podcast for a relaxing, nostalgia-fueled afternoon.

Buy it: Urban Outfitters

5. Shoebox Tape Recorder with USB; $28

Amazon

The days of recording mix tapes don’t have to be over. This device looks and functions just like tape recorders from the pre-smartphone era. And with a USB port as well as a line-in jack and built-in mic, users can easily import their digital music collection onto retro cassette tapes.

Buy it: Amazon

6. Days of the Week Scrunchie Set; $12

Urban Outfitters

Millennials can be upset that a trend from their youth is old enough to be cool again, or they can embrace it. This scrunchie set is for anyone happy to see the return of the hair accessory. The soft knit ponytail holders come in a set of five—one for each day of the school (or work) week.

Buy it: Urban Outfitters

7. D&D Graphic T-shirt; $38-$48

80s Tees

The perfect gift for the Dungeon Master in your life, this graphic tee is modeled after the cover of the classic Dungeons & Dragons rule book. It’s available in sizes small through 3XL.

Buy it: 80s Tees

8. Chuck E. Cheese T-shirt; $36-$58

80s Tees

Few Millennials survived childhood without experiencing at least one birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese. This retro T-shirt sports the brand’s original name: Chuck E. Cheese’s Pizza Time Theatre. It may be the next-best gift for a Chuck E. Cheese fan behind a decommissioned animatronic.

Buy it: 80s Tees

9. The Nightmare Before Christmas Picnic Blanket Bag; $40

Shop Disney

Fans of Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas will recognize the iconic scene on the front of this messenger bag. Unfold it and the bag becomes a blanket fit for a moonlit picnic among the pumpkins. The bottom side is waterproof and the top layer is made of soft fleece.

Buy it: Shop Disney

10. Toy Story Alien Socks; $15

Shop Disney

You don’t need to be skilled at the claw machine to take home a pair of these socks. Decorated with the aliens from Toy Story, they’re made from soft-knit fabric and are big enough to fit adult feet.

Buy it: Shop Disney

11. Goosebumps Board Game; $24

Amazon

Fans that read every book in R.L. Stine’s series growing up can now play the Goosebumps board game. In this game, based on the Goosebumps movie, players take on the role of their favorite monster from the series and race to the typewriter at the end of the trail of manuscripts.

Buy it: Amazon

12. Tamagotchi Mini; $19

Amazon

If you know someone who killed their Tamagotchi in the '90s, give them another chance to show off their digital pet-care skills. This Tamagotchi is a smaller, simplified version of the original game. It doubles as a keychain, so owners have no excuse to forget to feed their pet.

Buy it: Amazon

13. SNES Classic; $275

Amazon

The SNES Classic is much easier to find now than when it first came out, and it's still just as entertaining for retro video game fans. This mini console comes preloaded with 21 Nintendo games, including Super Mario Kart and Street Fighter II.

Buy it: Amazon

14. Planters Cheez Balls; $24

Amazon

Planters revived its Cheez Balls in 2018 after pulling them from shelves nearly a decade earlier. To Millennials unaware of that fact, this gift could be their dream come true. The throwback snack even comes in the classic canister fans remember.

Buy it: Amazon

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When Europe's First Female Orchestra Conductor Foiled the Nazis While Defying Gender Expectations

Frieda Belinfante (left) and Henriëtte Hilda Bosmans, her then-partner.
Frieda Belinfante (left) and Henriëtte Hilda Bosmans, her then-partner.
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

When Frieda Belinfante was a child, she was teased for her small hands—but no one who mocked her could ever have imagined what she would achieve with them. Before her life was over, Belinfante would use her hands to master instruments, conduct orchestras, and undermine the Nazis.

A Dream Disrupted

Music was important to the Belinfante family—in fact, it was the reason the family existed: Frieda's Jewish father, Aron Belinfante, had met her Christian mother, Georgine Antoinette Hesse, when he gave her piano lessons. Frieda, the third of their four children, started learning cello from her dad when she was 9 or 10 years old.

“He was a very good pianist,” Belinfante said of her father [PDF], but “he was a very bad teacher.” She even said he “didn’t know anything about strings!” After her father died when she was 17, Belinfante continued her musical education with others. She quickly realized she wasn’t destined to be part of the orchestra—she was meant to lead it.

In 1937, Belinfante accomplished a musical milestone: She became Europe’s first professional female orchestra conductor, leading the Het Klein Orkest chamber orchestra. But her success was short-lived. Just three years later, Germany invaded the Netherlands. Performances were no longer possible during World War II, especially considering her orchestra was composed of Jews and non-Jews playing together.

After the Nazis occupied the Netherlands, Belinfante—though she was half-Jewish herself—stayed in the country and became a Resistance activist, making forged identity documents for fleeing Jews. She disguised herself as a man to hide from the Nazis. She once even passed her own mother on the street, who failed to recognize her. “I really looked pretty good,” Belinfante later said of her handsome camouflage.

Belinfante was a member of the CKC, a small group of mostly LGBTQ activists in the Dutch Resistance. As an out lesbian herself, she fit right in. In 1943, the CKC bombed a records office, destroying hundreds of documents showing where Jews lived so that the Nazis couldn’t find them.

Later in the war, after many in the CKC had been captured and executed, Belinfante escaped the Netherlands. She and a Jewish man named Tony traveled by foot across four countries in deep snow from December 1944 to February 1945, traversing the freezing Alps with no jacket. They hiked from 9 a.m. every morning to 10 p.m. every night. When Tony told Belinfante he was exhausted, she replied: “There is no stopping in the snow. We have to walk until we stop somewhere in Switzerland.” Once, they had to strip naked to wade through a river of icy water that came up to their necks, bundling their clothes over their heads so they’d remain dry. A Swiss doctor later told her that the journey was so strenuous, she could have lost her legs if she had gone on much longer [PDF].

Upon crossing the border, Belinfante and Tony were arrested and interrogated by the Swiss. She answered truthfully that her companion was not her husband, but she didn’t know the gravity behind this statement. Because so many people were fleeing to Switzerland, the government had begun limiting immigration by no longer accepting single men as refugees. Belinfante’s answer sent Tony back to the Netherlands, where he was killed. That knowledge haunted her to the end of her life, but she did go on to find moments of joy.

Coming Alive Again

While in the Swiss refugee camp, Belinfante got ahold of a cello, even performing a concert with a visiting couple that had a violin and viola. Decades later, she told a historian that after playing music, “I started to come alive again, because I had felt that I wasn’t even alive.” Unfortunately, the gossip of homophobic refugees in the camp soured her musical experiences there [PDF].

In 1948, Belinfante immigrated to the United States, trading the dark and icy winter of her past for a fresh start in sunny Laguna Beach, California. A decade after the start of her career as a conductor, she picked it back up again and led the Orange County Philharmonic. But while she had survived extreme discrimination in Europe, sexism took music from her again in 1962: The Philharmonic pushed her out because they felt a male in her place would raise the orchestra's profile.

Despite the professional disappointment, Belinfante lived to see Orange County designate February 19 as “Frieda Belinfante Day” to honor her contributions to the arts. In 1991, she moved to New Mexico, where she spent her final days. She told the Los Angeles Times, “I should be born again. I could have done more.”

She died of cancer at the age of 90 in 1995 at her Santa Fe home.