One of the world’s most famous structures — the Eiffel Tower — turned 125 years old this week. The construction of the Paris tower was completed on March 31, 1889.
Joseph Harriss, author of the book “The Tallest Tower: Eiffel And The Belle Epoque” (excerpt below) joins Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson to discuss the history and legacy of the 1,000-foot-tall Paris landmark.
“It was built to be the centerpiece of the 1889 World’s Fair in Paris,” Harriss said. “The date was not chosen just by chance because 1889, you can imagine, was the centenary of the French Revolution in 1789.”
The tower was named after engineer Gustave Eiffel, whose company designed and built the tower that some people at the time wanted taken down after 20 years.
Book Excerpt: ‘The Tallest Tower’
By Joseph Harriss
Chapter One: “A Fair for France”
The French were not alone in enjoying the momentary state of grace known as the Belle Epoque. Most of northwestern Europe and the northeastern United States experienced it in recognizably similar form — the Gay Nineties. But if France’s euphoria in the last years of the 19th century appears heightened, the impression is perhaps due to a backdrop of travail. For the Franco-Prussian War, in which the Imperial Army of Napoleon III was smashed in a matter of weeks, was not merely a military defeat.
The war led to the loss of France’s large eastern provinces of Alsace and Lorraine, with a population of nearly a million and a half, economically vital mines and industries, and the great city of Strasbourg. Moreover, the settlement that President Adolphe Thiers made with the Germans in February 1871 involved an enormous and debilitating indemnity of five billion francs, or about one billion dollars. It also stipulated that German troops would occupy the country’s eastern region until the sum had been paid.
Parisians in particular had borne much of the brunt of the war, undergoing a five-month siege during which they were reduced to eating cats, rats, and the animals in their zoos. No sooner had peace been concluded than the revolt of the Paris Commune broke out on March 18. A political insurrection in the image of those that had shaken Paris sporadically for a century, the Commune revolt was sparked when President Thiers suspended payment to national guardsmen — the only income of many families because of severe unemployment at the time — and ended a moratorium on rents and bills.
Moreover, Parisians felt increasingly isolated and misunderstood when the National Assembly moved to Versailles to escape the seething resentment in the capital. The national guardsmen of Montmartre and Belleville, on the north side of Paris, refused to yield their weapons, including over 200 cannons, when ordered to disarm. They proclaimed the independent, self-governing Commune of Paris, and for two months the city was ravaged by fire and divided by barricades as 30,000 Communards held out against 130,000 government troops. When Marshal MacMahon’s army finally quelled the revolt after bloody street fighting, nearly 20,000 Parisians had died at the hands of their compatriots. Entire areas of the city lay in ruin.
As the stunned city began to put itself back together, it first had to overcome its own divisive tendencies. Of the National Assembly elected in 1871, nearly 400 of its 650 members were monarchists dedicated to ending the country’s democratic form of government as soon as they could decide who would be king.
Unable to choose among the Comte de Chambord, the Comte de Paris and a possible Bonaparte, however, the Assembly reluctantly gave birth to the ThirdRepublic.
France’s third stab at democracy since the revolution of 1789 came about not due to any real consensus that it was the best form of government, but only because, as President Thiers said later, “It divided us least.” Inevitably, a period of political confusion began — there would be 12 governments over the next eight years alone — but the Republic survived. Ironically, the nation’s most conservative elements, the peasantry and the haute bourgeoisie, would preserve it against the right-wing monarchists.
France went to work on its problems. First of all it paid off the indemnity much more rapidly than anyone had foreseen, thanks to the enthusiastic response of French investors to the government’s bond issues. By July 1871, France had paid Germany enough for German troops to be evacuated from five of 21 occupied eastern departments. The remaining soldiers left in September 1873, a year ahead of schedule; by 1875 France had already balanced its budget.
It began healing its self-inflicted wounds as well. In 1879 the government felt secure enough to make “The Marseillaise” the national anthem, and to move the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate back to Paris from Versailles. It granted a full amnesty in 1880 to the thousands of Communard prisoners or exiles.
As the economy gained momentum, the standard of living improved rapidly. National income nearly doubled in the four decades following 1870; industrial production tripled and foreign trade increased 75 percent. To the chagrin of German geologists who in 1871 had laid out the boundaries of Lorraine in such a way as to annex all known iron deposits, France discovered it had the largest iron vein in Europe on its side of the border, reserves estimated at almost one-fifth of the world’s total supply. During the 1880s, France gradually conquered a colonial empire in Indochina and North and Central Africa that was to become second only to Great Britain’s in terms of population and size. The colonies would also be an enormous new market for French investment and industrial output.
Altogether, it was an amazing comeback. With democracy firmly established and the nation once again a prosperous world power, the government began looking forward to commemorating the centennial of the French Revolution. As early as 1878, several cabinet ministers were gestating the idea of a purely national industrial fair to be held in 1889.
In truth, the government was worried about celebrating the anniversary too ostentatiously. France was already considered with suspicion by the rest of monarchical Europe as a regicidal upstart, a hotbed of bloody republicanism. It would be best, some timorous officials argued, to mark the centennial en famille, and not disturb neighboring crowned heads with an international celebration of revolution. Besides, they feared that invitations to exhibit at a world’s fair held to commemorate 1789 might be met with contemptuous rebuffs from the monarchies.
Prime Minister Jules Ferry, an outspoken, energetic believer in democracy who as minister of education had made free secular schooling compulsory, and as prime minister had been one of the chief promoters of France’s colonial expansion, thought otherwise. He favored a world’s fair as a vehicle for demonstrating France’s newly recovered place in the sun, touting her industrial might, commercial success and engineering savvy.
He ultimately prevailed, and on November 8, 1884, President Jules Grevy signed a brief decree ordering that “A Universal Exposition of the Products of Industry shall be opened in Paris May 5, 1889, and closed October 31 following.” Neither Grevy nor even the audacious Ferry could foresee that this would be the biggest, most varied, and most spectacularly successful world’s fair ever held until that time.
Excerpted from the book THE TALLEST TOWER by Joseph Harriss. Copyright © 2014 by Joseph Harriss. Reprinted with permission of Unlimited Publishing.
- Joseph Harriss, author of “The Tallest Tower: Eiffel And The Belle Epoque” and Paris correspondent for The American Spectator.