Your RDA of Irony

The Eiffel Conspiracy

Judging from travel posters and movies, you would think the Eiffel Tower was built expressly as a backdrop for romance.  Yet, when the Tower was constructed in the 1880s, it was an act of defiance.  The world’s tallest building, composed of an intricate lattice of wrought iron, certainly refuted both the laws of gravity and the conventions of beauty.  But more than that, the Eiffel Tower would proclaim to the world that France was not to be dismissed as a declining power.  If other countries now had greater armies or more extensive empires, France remained the cultural center of Europe.

Yet a decade earlier France was in ruins.  In 1870, a French diplomat and a Prussian dignitary had an argument.  The Prussian Crown demanded an apology, the French government refused, and the consequence was the Franco-Prussian War.  France thought it would teach Prussia a lesson, but it was Prussia that had done all the studying.  The German army was ready for war, the French simply for a parade.   Within two months, the French army had been trapped and captured.  Paris was besieged, enduring four months of bombardment and starvation before it surrendered.   By the time the French asked for an armistice, they had lost 138,000 men; the German losses were 28,000 dead.

The relative ease of its victories did not make Prussia more magnanimous.  Otto von Bismarck was never that affable.  Nein, France was to be humiliated.  The French provinces of Alsace and Lorraine were annexed by the German state.  France was further obliged to pay an indemnity–in gold–that was intended to cripple her economy; and until that indemnity was paid, German troops would occupy Northern France.  Here, at least, the Germans underestimated France;  the French raised the money in less than three years.  (The money was borrowed from a well-known banking family; but 3 percent interest to the Rothschilds was a bargain compared to the room and board for the German garrisons.)

The Rothschilds might have seemed reckless at the time.  Throughout the 1870s, the French Republic was always on the verge of a collapse or a coup.  A majority of the deputies of the National Assembly actually favored the restoration of  the monarchy.  The unlikely savior of the Republic was the Bourbon heir to the throne.  The cantankerous Comte de Chambord, the grandson of the Charles X, refused any constitution to constrain his divine right to rule.  Even the Royalist deputies were not that nostalgic for the 17th century.  So the Republic survived, if only for lack of a tolerable alternative.

And that survival was to be celebrated.  France would host a World’s Fair in 1889, for the 100th anniversary of the French Republic.   There was a certain Gallic gall in that choice of a theme.  Most of Europe abhorred the idea of the French Revolution; it conjured images of the guillotine and memories of Napoleon. In fact, Tsarist Russia refused any official recognition of this Jacobin commemoration.  So the Russian pavilion would be “unofficial”; there could be no Imperial insignia but the city seals of Moscow and Kiev would be permitted. (The Russians always were good at choreography.)

Yet, a World’s Fair in Paris had an undeniable allure; commerce and entertainment would take precedence over politics.  But such an Exposition would require years of  preparation and bold planning.  In 1884, a government commission announced a competition to create a monument that would represent the spirit of the World Fair.  The challenge certainly piqued Gustave Eiffel (1832-1923), France’s greatest engineer.  His bridges spanned rivers in Bolivia, Hungary and Indo-China.  He was the engineering consultant to the governments of Russia and Japan.  The Statute of Liberty, France’s gift to a fellow republic, was constructed on a framework by Eiffel.  Given his worldwide commitments, Eiffel employed a staff  of engineers, architects and draftsmen.  It was one of his subordinates, an engineer named Maurice Koechlin, who first sketched a design of a most unique tower.

There would be four giant columns of wrought iron, a strong but malleable metal.  The columns would taper until, some 600 feet above ground, they would form one tower that would rise another 300 feet.   Their lattice work structure would limit wind resistance, so it would be possible for the tower to reach an unprecedented height of 300 meters– 984 feet.  That would be twice as high as the Washington Monument, then the world’s tallest building.  Eiffel recognized the brilliance of Koechlin’s proposal, and he applied the resources of his company into turning a sketch into a blueprint.  Under Eiffel’s supervision, forty draftsmen worked on a full-scale design of the tower.  There were to be 18,000 iron girders, beams and joists, each individually designed with a mathematical precision.  Any deviation or miscalculation would threaten the structure.  The blueprints took up 5,000 sheets of drawing paper.

More than 100 designs were presented for the competition, but it was no contest.  On May 12, 1886 the Exposition Committee approved of Eiffel’s proposal.  The Tower would be built on the Champs de Mars and serve as the gateway to the Exposition.  Construction began on January 22, 1887.  The foundations were laid 51 feet underground; that required the excavation of one million cubic feet of soil.  By June the columns began to rise.  Three hundred workers assembled the iron pieces in accordance with the meticulous plans.  But the incomplete structure did not look like a masterpiece.  In an open letter to the Exposition Committee some of France’s leading artists and writers–including Guy de Maupassant and Charles Gounod–denounced the Tower:

“We come, writers, painters, sculptors, architects, passionate lovers of the beauty of Paris — a beauty until now unspoiled — to protest with all our might, with all our outrage, in the name of slighted French taste, in the name of threatened French art and history, against the erection, in the heart of our capital, of the useless and monstrous Eiffel Tower…

Listen to our plea! Imagine now a ridiculous tall tower dominating Paris like a gigantic black factory smokestack, crushing with its barbaric mass Notre Dame, Sainte Chapelle, the Tour Saint-Jacques, the Louvre, the dome of Les Invalides, the Arc de Triomphe, all our humiliated monuments, all our dwarfed architecture, which will be annihilated by Eiffel’s hideous fantasy. For twenty years, over the city of Paris still vibrant with the genius of so many centuries, we shall see, spreading out like a blot of ink, the shadow of this disgusting column of bolted tin.”

That, at least, was the polite criticism.  The more vehement accusation was that the Tower looked Jewish.  The Tower does not seem particularly circumcised, but its design evidently was exotic, foreign, sinister…You know where the synonyms are leading.  Of course, Gustave Eiffel himself was incriminated; he did have a German grandfather.  That grandfather was a Christian; most Germans were.  If you counted on your fingers all the Jews on the Prussian General Staff and in the Imperial Court…


But French conservatives would insist that this was a bar mitzvah.

Yet the hideous Jewish spiderweb continued its construction, and was completed ahead of schedule and under budget.  No doubt, that was further proof of its alien nature.   The World’s Fair opened on May 6th, and the Eiffel Tower was the gateway to 61,722 exhibits and shows.  The visitor could see replicas of the Bastille, Javanese villages, and an Egyptian marketplace–with belly dancers .  From America, there was Buffalo Bill and his Wild West Show; the sharpshooting Annie Oakley was the crowd favorite.  Reflecting the latest advances in technology, the Fair was lit by electricity.  With that added illumination, the Eiffel Tower stood as distinct in the night as it did in the day.  Although the Exposition ended in October, tourists still came to see the world’s tallest building.  In its first year, the Tower sold 1.9 million admissions.  Gustave Eiffel made back all his investment in five months.

Today, more than 250 million visitors have ascended the Eiffel Tower, and it is one of the world’s most beloved landmarks.  French conservatives now are reconciled to it, and they did have the solace of the Dreyfus Affair and the Vichy Regime.

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