Robert D. Zaretsky is a professor of modern European intellectual and cultural history at the University of Houston and the author of “Catherine & Diderot: The Empress, The Philosopher and the Fate of the Enlightenment.”
“Is Paris burning?” Adolf Hitler, having ordered the leveling of Paris to a “pile of rubble,” supposedly kept asking that question in August 1944. Chief among the city’s marvels he wished to see in flames was Notre Dame de Paris.
The medieval cathedral, of course, was not burning. Intact, it instead welcomed Charles de Gaulle on Aug. 26, when the commander of the Free French forces and de facto president of France led a victory march from the Arc de Triomphe to Notre Dame. Greeted along the way by a mass of jubilant Parisians and the occasional sniper, the cortege filed into the cathedral to hear the “Te Deum.” The hymn was first performed at Notre Dame in 1467 to commemorate the eviction of the English from French soil — a celebration repeated every year until 1793, when leaders of the French Revolution decided that a cathedral was no place to praise the nation.
As the music played that sultry August day during World War II, an act of transubstantiation occurred: The official seat of the Roman Catholic Church in France, Notre Dame became the most important secular site for the French nation.
One reason Monday’s fire at Notre Dame has deeply affected the French is precisely that the cathedral holds an unusual place in France as un lieu de mémoire. The term, coined by historian Pierre Nora, identifies the many “sites of memory” that pepper French history. They include places or people, events or edifices — whether Charlemagne or the Sacré-Coeur Basilica or the Civil Code or the sidewalk cafe — that over the centuries have become the objects of vexing, vying and often violent interpretations.
The interpretations always involve the contested and, at times, combustible question of French identity. Since last November, when the “yellow vest” movement burst onto the scene, fires have been a regular feature of its weekly protests. Whether the flames are burning tires at suburban traffic circles or burning stores along the Champs-Elysées, they seem to symbolize a nation at war with itself over who represents France. Is it “la métropole,” the urban centers riding the wave of technological and industrial changes? Or “la périphérie,” the exurban expanses swamped in the wake of these same changes?
On Monday night, French President Emmanuel Macron was scheduled to give a national televised address, the latest in a series of so far failed attempts to resolve the crisis sparked by the yellow-vest protests. With firefighters battling the flames at Notre Dame, Macron postponed the speech and went to the scene of the disaster, declaring on Twitter that he, like all the French, was stricken to see “this part of us burn.” Yet a glance at history reminds us that Notre Dame was not always a part of all the French. When it was not battered by revolution — the 28 statues of the kings of Judah lined across the western facade were beheaded in 1793 under the mistaken belief that they represented the kings of France — Notre Dame suffered from benign (and, at times, malignant) neglect from Parisians.
It was only in 1831, when Victor Hugo reinvented the cathedral by making it the sublimely tragic protagonist in his novel “Notre Dame de Paris” (not, as Hollywood believes, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”), that the edifice seemed ready for prime time as a site of consensual memory. But history keeps getting in the way.
During the German occupation of France, the cathedral was home to Cardinal Emmanuel Célestin Suhard, a notorious anti-Semite and collaborator. A few decades later, Jean-Marie Lustiger, a Jewish-born convert who had lost his mother in Auschwitz, was named the cathedral’s cardinal by Pope John Paul II. More recently, Notre Dame became the rallying point in 2013 for Le Manif Pour Tous, the massive protest movement against the legalization of gay marriage in France. But it was also the stage for Le Mariage Pour Tous, the equally powerful, and ultimately successful, movement in favor of the law.
In short, tempting though it is to see Notre Dame as a site of national concord, the reality is more complicated. But that does not mean it is also less comforting. As flames ran riot across the cathedral’s roof, consuming centuries-old beams and toppling the majestic spire, France seemed united in grief. But strangely, there is comfort in the knowledge that once the cathedral is rebuilt, it will still reflect a people whose long quarrel over national identity in fact constitutes its core identity.
Notre Dame, Hugo declared, was a “colossal handiwork of one man and one people, a whole both one and complex” — a reassuring truth we will be reminded of once the smoke above the cathedral clears and the protests below resume.