How the First World War Began Just Outside My Door on the Alexandre III Bridge

by / Saturday, 26 July 2014 / Published in Architecture, France, History, Paris

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It is frequently observed, including by many Parisians, that the Pont Alexandre III is the most beautiful bridge in Paris.

Adorned with exquisite Art Nouveau-style lamp posts and embellished with nymphs and cherubs, the bridge elegantly arches over the Seine as a vast avenue connecting the Grand Palais and Les Invalides. It has become legendary in the popular imagination, made famous in films from James Bond’s A View to Kill to Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris; recognised as the glamorous backdrop in chic fashion shoots; and recently used as the setting in Adèle’s video for her song, “Someone Like You”.

I live about two hundred yards from the Alexandre III bridge. From my windows I can see its gold-tipped columns. I cross the bridge on walks with Hugo and Hector almost every evening, stopping mid-way to take in the magnificent view of the Eiffel Tower sparkling against the purple night. 

Occasionally, a friend visiting Paris asks me: “Who was Alexandre III anyway?” An obvious question, though I’m not sure most Parisians know the answer. Or know that the Alexandre III bridge can help us understand the origins of the First World War.

Next week the world commemorates the outbreak of the Great War, as it was long known. It’s often claimed, and generally accepted, that the First World War was triggered by the assassination of Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand by Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip. It’s a simplistic explanation, but has some mechanical truth to it given that the assassination caused Austria-Hungary to declare war on Serbia, setting in motion an infernal domino effect.

Capture d’écran 2014-07-26 à 13.06.18But the historical backstory that led to the outbreak of the First World War was a much more fatally complex saga. And the first act of that ill-fated drama began just down the road from me — on the Alexandre III bridge.

The bridge was named after Tsar Alexander Romanov, Emperor of Russia, King of Poland, and Grand Prince of Finland. Alexander III (pictured below with his wife Dagmar of Denmark) was a massive, hulking man who had the rough manner of the largely peasant population over which he ruled. He was known as “the Peacemaker” because Russia fought no wars during his reign at the end of the 19th century.

Alexander III died in time to miss two catastrophic events that changed the course of history. And yet he played a role in shaping both. The first was the World War I, which began exactly one hundred years ago this coming week. The second was the collapse of the Russian empire and the execution of his son and heir, Nicholas II, along with his entire family.

Alexander III’s connection with the famous Parisian bridge that bears his name was posthumous. When construction began in 1896, he had had been dead for two years. The Russian tsar had died suddenly of kidney disease in 1894 at the relatively young age of 49, thrusting his inexperienced son Nicholas II into a role for which he was neither prepared nor suited.

It was Nicholas II who came to Paris in 1896 to preside over the ceremonies baptising the new bridge in honour of his late father. When laying the first stone on the bridge, Nicholas II was in fact cementing a political alliance between Russia and France negotiated by his father. At the same time, a similar Trinity Bridge was being constructed in St. Petersburg as a reciprocal gesture to mark the Franco-Russian alliance. That bridge was designed by Gustave Eiffel, famous for his tower erected less than a decade earlier for the Paris World Fair in 1889.

Capture d’écran 2014-07-26 à 12.44.53France had self-interested reasons for seeking closer relations with Russia. In the 1890s the Third Republic was still lurching unsteadily forward in the aftershock of the Franco-Prussian War, which had dealt a devastating blow to the French nation. France had foolishly declared war on Prussia in 1870 — and suffered a quick and humiliating defeat. The Prussians had sieged the French capital, driving Parisians to starvation and provoking the civil war bloodshed of the Paris Commune in 1871. The war also gave Bismarck a pretext to consolidate Prussian power over a newly born German nation, which now included French territories Alsace and Lorraine.

Vulnerable and diplomatically isolated, France desperately needed friends and allies in the face of German belligerence. The obvious candidate was Tsar Alexander III, who just happened to despise Otto von Bismarck. Alexander III also needed access to European capital markets to spur economic growth in his largely agricultural empire.

The conditions of mutual self-interest were ripe for a Franco-Russian alliance. France won a military ally; and Russia gained access to cheap loans on the Paris bourse. French elites extended their generosity by bribing much of the Parisian press to promote Russian bonds in their pages as the great story of the day.

It was an intriguing contrast to events today more than a century later. François Hollande and David Cameron, embarrassed by their commercial relations with Russia, are exchanging barbs while accusing the other of selling arms to Vladimir Putin’s ugly regime. At the end of the 19th century, Russia was a strategic ally to both France and Britain in the face of the Teutonic alliance bonding Germany and Austria-Hungary.

The terms of the Franco-Russian alliance were clear: if Germany or Austria-Hungary attacked Russia or France, the other ally would mobilise its army. France committed 1.3 million troops, Russia was ready with 800,000 soldiers.

The assassination of Franz Ferdinand was a distant shot nearly two decades away when Nicholas II was laying the cornerstone on the Pont Alexandre III. The Belle Époque was at its apogee in 1896. The Alexandre III bridge was the architectural centrepiece of the Exposition Universelle that opened four years later in 1900. The bridge, along with the Grand Palais, is one of the few remaining architectural vestiges of that glorious event that brought the entire world to the French capital.

Capture d’écran 2014-07-26 à 12.57.58The Exposition Universelle of 1900, the first international showcase of the Art Nouveau style, was an extravagant Belle Époque bash that brought the civilised world to Paris in a great burst of cultural and technological self-congratulation. It was at that event that marvels such as the escalator and talking films were first unveiled. Oscar Wilde, living in Paris in 1900, attended the fair and recited a verse from his poem “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” on a new-fangled sound recording machine. National pavilions adorned the banks of the Seine like ornate wedding cakes almost Disneyland-like in their opulence.

When the Exposition Universelle was over, Paris stood resolutely at the centre of modern civilisation. In the following decade the French capital boasted the greatest writers, artists and composers of the day – Marcel Proust, Picasso, Matisse, Modigliani, Erik Satie, Stravinsky. Gertrude Stein established her Left Bank salon in 1903.

But dark clouds were gathering over Europe. The Exposition Universelle had marked the strutting high point of an epoch whose narcissistic grandeur would soon plummet into irrational folly. An entire order was about to be swept away.  

When Gavrilo Princip shot Franz Ferdinand in late June 1914, Serbia was an ally of Russia. Austria-Hungary quickly declared war on Serbia. Tsar Nicholas II immediately mobilised his army, provoking Germany to declare war on Russia on August 1, 1914. Three days later, France – by the terms of its alliance with Russia — was dragged into the war. The following day, Britain too was at war with Germany. The death toll when the war finally ended four years later: nearly 20 million.

Next week when I’m taking evening walks across the Alexandre III bridge with Hugo and Hector, and stopping to behold the magnificent vista of the illuminated Seine, I will be reminded that it was here where, symbolically, the cornerstone of the First World War was laid.  

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