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By David E. Hubler
Contributor, In Homeland Security
Throughout history, a rare few manmade structures have survived the centuries – the Parthenon in Athens, the Colosseum in Rome and the Great Wall of China.
It took almost two centuries to construct the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris between 1163 and 1345. But it took only hours on April 15, 2019, for fire to destroy much of the great Gothic edifice that is considered the heart of France.
As Michael Kimmelman, architecture critic of The New York Times, observed, Notre Dame “is an emblem of the old city — the embodiment of the Paris of stone and faith — just as the Eiffel Tower exemplifies the Paris of modernity, joie de vivre and change.”
The blaze brought down the cathedral’s iconic 300-foot spire in a horrific scene reminiscent of the collapse of the Twin Towers in New York on 9/11. Also lost was the cathedral’s wood-timber frame, one of the oldest in Paris.
Each Beam of the Lattice Frame Was Cut from an Individual Tree
Approximately 52 acres of trees were cut down in the 12th century to form the lattice frame. Each beam was fashioned from an individual tree, which led to the frame being nicknamed “the Forest.” No doubt “the Forest” fed the flames that led to its destruction.
Despite what Hugo called the “innumerable degradations and mutilations inflicted on the venerable pile over the centuries both by the action of time and the hand of man,” the classic French Gothic cathedral has withstood the ravages of time.
Indeed, Notre Dame became the literal heart of France. A circular marker with an eight-pointed bronze star embedded in the cobblestones outside Notre Dame signifies “the point from which distances are measured from Paris to other cities in France.”
Notre Dame Experienced Other Damage over the Centuries
In its 856 years, Notre Dame has also experienced desecrations, wars and revolutions. “Finding its Gothic architecture outmoded and ornate,” Kimmelman recounted, Louis XIV (1638-1715) “destroyed much of the church’s interior and swapped it out for one he regarded as more classically tasteful.”
In the midst of the French Revolution, 28 statues of biblical kings on the cathedral’s façade were hauled down and decapitated by a mob of citizens in 1793. The mutilated stones were eventually tossed into a trash heap to be repurposed for construction work. In addition, the fleur-de-lis symbols were cut off of the organ loft.
In the late 18th century, the cathedral, like other churches around France, was transformed from a Christian space and rededicated to the new Cult of Reason, also known as the Age of Reason. With the exception of a giant bell called Emmanuel, the remaining 20 bells were melted down to make cannons.
Notre Dame Was in Poor Condition when Napoleon Chose It for His Coronation
Centuries of decay and disuse left the cathedral in poor condition when Napoleon Bonaparte chose Notre Dame as the site for his coronation as emperor on December 2, 1804. When Napoleon declared Notre Dame’s return to church use and hosted a grand ceremony during which he famously crowned himself, Notre Dame regained its former religious prominence.
Notre Dame Escaped Bomb Damage during the Brief Battle of France
Notre Dame escaped probable destruction during the brief Battle of France in 1940, because the Germans did not bomb the city. The French government had declared Paris an “open city,” which meant that France was basically abandoning it to the invading German armies. According to Johannes Musch of the French National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research (INRAP), “Bombing Paris would only have been an option if Germany would have encountered difficulty to deploy its attack.”
When a triumphant Adolf Hitler marched into Paris with architect Albert Speer and artist Arno Breker on June 23, 1940, he did not go to Notre Dame. Instead, he went first to the Opera. “It was Hitler’s favorite [building] and the first thing he wanted to see,” Speer wrote in “Inside The Third Reich.”
Hitler’s Visit to Paris Did Not Include Notre Dame
There are photographs of Hitler at the Arc de Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower, but none at Notre Dame. In fact, he never went near the famous edifice. Hitler spent all of “three hours in Paris, the one and only time he was to see it,” Speer wrote. It “made him happy when he stood at the height of his triumphs.”
Why didn’t Hitler visit the iconic cathedral? “Atheists tend to insist Hitler was a devout Christian. Christians counter that he was an atheist. And still others suggest that he was a practicing member of the occult,” according to the Discovery Institute.
Historian Richard Weikart posits that Hitler was a pantheist, saying “Nature became Hitler’s only moral guide.” Its Darwinian philosophy allowed him to wage war on all “inferior” races.
Hitler Wanted All of Paris Destroyed as WWII Ended
It was only when Germany’s defeat was imminent that Hitler tried to have Paris razed to the ground. Before the Allies captured Paris in 1944, Hitler told Dietrich von Choltitz, the last German commander of Paris: “The city must not fall into the enemy’s hand except lying in complete rubble.”
Von Choltitz, however, surrendered the entire German garrison to the Allies. Hitler, not knowing this, supposedly asked, “Brennt Paris?” (“Is Paris burning?”)
Rebuilding Notre Dame
Although Notre Dame suffered significant damage in yesterday’s fire, the famous stone façade and twin towers remain intact, according to local officials. French President Emmanuel Macron has promised that the French will “rebuild together.” Already $300 million has been pledged toward that effort, which, if history is a judge, will undoubtedly be successful.