June 23: a dark day in the city of lights
2012/06/23 § Leave a comment
On this day in 1940 those infamous pictures of Hitler in Paris were taken.
France surrendered to Germany on April 22, 1940: one small step for Nazi world domination, one giant leap for Hitler the tourist. He summoned his pet architect, Albert Speer, to accompany him on a tour of its capital, not to hear what Speer had to say. Hitler had studied well, and needed no guide. Rather, he wanted his architect to see select parts of Paris as he saw them.
Der Führer’s tour (say that out loud, it’s fun–as fun as this post is going to get) was not that different from the one a lot of contemporary tourists take–especially those who catch that convenient bus at the airport that stops first in front of the Opera. That was Hitler’s first stop as well; his entourage then proceeded past the Madeleine, down the Champs Elysees, to the Trocadero, and down the magnificent axis to the Eiffel Tower. After his photo op, they moved on to the Arc de Triomphe, Invalides, Panthéon, Rue de Rivoli, and finally Sacre Coeur. He had little interest in the Louvre (emptied by clever curators who had stashed its treasures all over château country) or Sainte Chapelle (as Gothic was worse than the Bauhaus to him).
Hitler seems to have been most inspired by the architecture of the Opera, Rue de Rivoli and Panthéon–all buildings of great scale and Classical detailing. But it was at the Eiffel Tower (which stylistically left him cold) that he stopped for his close-up. Hitler knew architecture and understood its symbolic potential. Notre Dame, the Louvre, and the Opera may have been the city’s signature landmarks in earlier centuries; ever since 1889 it was the great Iron Lady that was the pièce de résistance, the structure that, when featured with Hitler’s image, would symbolize German control of France and inspire despair in one more swath of Europe. However, this particular pièce also symbolized French résistance: before Hitler’s visit, workmen cut the elevator cables that would have enabled Hitler to easily summit the Tower, and publish the image of him inhabiting the highest manmade point in Europe. But, Hitler did not take the stairs, so the photo didn’t happen, and he never had that great view from the top of Eiffel’s tower.
He did, however, enjoy the view down from Sacre Coeur (which is the best way to visit that church–with your back to it). This vision of the city of great boulevards and monuments, plus the Neo-Classicism he had breathed in earlier that day, wed to memories of Rome under the popes and his idol Mussolini, pitched him into a fever of architectural imagining for his own capital. He again called to Speer, directing him to resume his work replanning Berlin, requiring only that it be more beautiful than Paris. Of course, those grotesque plans came to naught, and the world is left with much less of Hitler’s imprint on the built world than he intended–but what does remain is more than enough.