May, 17, 2014

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.


copyright Eric S. Margolis 2014

This post is in: Europe, History


  1. On July 28 1914 the first world war started. I was not alive then, but my parents were and the horror stories I heard about that, made my young mind cringe in fear, if something like that was to happen again.
    When in the early morning hours of May 10 1940 we were roused out of bed and ordered to flee, I saw in my mind`s eye the droves of Belgian fugitives my parents were witness to during the first world-war, except that then I saw myself pushing a cart with some meager belongings, but with no border to flee across.
    Later that day we were told, that we could go home and that we were occupied by the German armies and indeed there were hundreds if not thousands swarming all over our village and countryside. The regular German conscripts were the same as our own soldiers, except their uniforms were of a different color, but their officers were scary. My parents tried to shield us from what they feared was going to repeat from WWI, but young as I was, I could sense their fears.
    We survived that war, which Hitler had no trouble starting, because that Treaty of Versailles had forced Germany into eternal bankruptcy and where the German money was so horrendously inflated, that it took almost a wheelbarrow full of money just to buy a loaf of bread and where the poor saw their children starve to death ever day. Google for Käthe Kollwitz and look at her gripping pieces of art, that depict the miseries suffered back then by the poor.
    I just finished watching an interview on USAWatchdog given by Dr. Paul Craig Roberts to Greg Hunter, in which he explains the American present day financial dilemma and it felt very ominous to me, because I saw the similarities between Germany in the thirties and the US today. The US is not forced into a treaty of Versailles kind of deal, but the circumstances are just as threatening.
    We may be in for the final showdown of the two ideologies, that occupy the world of politics. A privately owned planet versus a publicly owned one; financial slavery of the masses or a true democracy for all. The first one is based on the primordial urge of survival of the fittest, or the latter one, a high enough degree of altruism and cooperation for the sake of a civilization and the ultimate survival of the species, which will also recognize the necessity to help the planet survive.

  2. solum temptare possumus says:

    Mr. Margolis,
    As usual you have taught me points of history to increase my understanding of late 19th and early 20th century history.
    Would that we could produce records on who bankrolled these great powers.
    As history is one of your passions, a book would be most welcome; perhaps someday?
    o7 Saluto te, Domine;
    ad iudicium

  3. And in the vast overkill of media coverage this will be totally ignored.

  4. Do you really mean the French-Russian Alliance, commemorated by the bridge, that caused the Great War? Wasn’t that just one contributing factor, among many other’s, which lead to the war “to end all wars”? However, there is no disputing that this calamity was brought on by the ruling elites of the time, by just a few men in each country, without any care and consideration for the welfare of their own peoples. Sadly, times have not changed, just the ruling elites have and you can expect them to bring us to another world war because of their hubris.

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