PARIS - Of the many bridges that span the Seine River, none is more beautiful nor majestic than the Pont Alexandre III. Just south of the splendid Grand Palais, this bridge was named in honor of Russia’s Czar, Alexander III.
Completed in 1892, the bridge is a monument to France’s Bel Epoque and represents the high-water mark of European civilization at the end of the 19th century. It’s also an odd monument to Czarist absolutism here in the birthplace of the French Revolution.
For me, the Pont Alexandre III recalls tragedy and immense sorrow, for this bridge symbolically lit the fuse leading to World War I, whose 100th anniversary we observe this fall.
The deft diplomacy of Prince Otto von Bismarck had led in 1871 to the creation of modern, unified Germany. Key to Bismarck’s statecraft, or “Realpolitik,” was keeping Germany’s rivals divided and preventing an anti-German alliance between France and Russia, Europe’s principal land powers.
Bismarck managed to keep Russia and France apart until he was dismissed by the new, Kaiser Wilhelm II. In 1892, France and Russia signed an historic, anti-German alliance that left Germany hugely outnumbered, facing Europe’s two biggest land armies on its eastern and western borders.
France thirsted for revenge over the loss of Alsace and Lorraine to Germany in the 1870-71 Franco-Prussian War. Russian was determined to tear apart the crumbling Austro-Hungarian Empire, Germany’s sole major ally.
From the turn of the century, German strategists and its general staff kept warning the Kaiser that Germany could not face a two-front war against Russia and France. Even with the dubious aid of Austro-Hungary, Germany would be seriously outnumbered. Equally ominous, if Britain entered the conflict, blockade by the Royal Navy would eventually starve the Central Powers into submission.
Germany was confronted by a very painful choice. Russia’s economy was growing fast each year, producing more arms and rail transport. Russia could mobilize over 15 million men from its vast population. The longer Germany waited the greater Russia’s menace.
Strike now, urged some strategists, or see our slim advantage in quality evaporate. Japan was faced by a similar dilemma in 1940-41. After the US cut off its oil and metal deliveries, Japan had the choice of going to war at once or waiting and seeing its vital oil reserves used up.
The Pont Alexander III was seen in Berlin as the signature on Germany’s death sentence.
Germany could not win a normal two-front war, it could not wait and see Russia grow stronger, it could not risk the threat of American intervention.
The only way out of Germany’s mortal dilemma was developed in 1904 by Count von Schlieffen, chief of the German general staff. His daring plan called for German forces to avoid France’s fortress belt on the Meuse, break through Belgium’s powerful forts, then race southwest in a giant turning movement that would envelop France’s armies along the Marne River and Vosges mountains.
Germany had to strike before full Russian mobilization got under way. Its only hope was to quickly defeat Russia’s western armies, then transfer its troops to the western front against France, which was mobilizing to invade southern Germany and retake Alsace-Lorraine.
The assassination of Austria’s heir, Archduke Ferdinand and his wife at Sarajevo in a plot mounted by Serbia’s secret police, set the doomsday machine of war into motion.
Austria mobilized to punish Serbia; Serbia’s ally Russia began it ponderous but massive mobilization. This forced Germany to mobilize and, in turn France, setting into motion a war that would kill 10 million.
Europe’s golden era as the center of the world was ending.
Britain could have stood aside and pressed for peace, but it was too intent on destroying rival Germany. Even today, British historians, like Margret MacMillan, are so steeped in anti-German bias they continue to distort history and blame German for a war that was everyone’s fault.
By 1917, the two sides were exhausted and almost ready to talk peace. But in a final tragic act of folly, US President Woodrow Wilson decided to send a million US troops to aid the Allies, thus tipping the war against Germany. The evil Versailles Treaty followed, and then its frightful spawn, Adolf Hitler.