When Paris’s Universal Exposition opened in April 1889, insults were already bouncing off its centerpiece, Gustave Eiffel’s cast-iron tower. In many quarters it was regarded not as a wonder and marvel but as an outrage.
Ardent Catholics hated it for looming over Notre Dame and celebrating the gospel of secular government. Esthetes pronounced it a grotesque child of the industrial age. It had barely risen above its foundation when forty-six artists and literati, all pledged to the idea that the glory of Paris was written in stone, drafted an open letter of protest to the minister of public works.
France’s very “soul” was imperiled, they warned. “Do not doubt for a moment that the Eiffel Tower, which even commercial America would not want on its soil, disgraces Paris. Everyone feels it, everyone says it … We are only a faint echo of public opinion.”
One thing Eiffel could not have anticipated was the opprobrium of conservatives — better described as right-wing zealots — whose aversion to modernism bordered on paranoia, and whose paranoia was bound up with their anti-semitism. The tower embodied what they believed to be the inherent deformity of a Jewish mind (Eiffel was not in fact Jewish).
Betraying French taste in its proportions and composition, it did worse: it offered spies a high platform from which to telegraph military secrets eastward and would thus serve as a literal instrument of betrayal. So surmised Édouard Drumont and other tenors of the right-wing press.
Five years later, when Drumont announced that charges of espionage had been brought against a Jewish captain named Alfred Dreyfus, the stage had been set for his court martial. Those charges were trumped up by a military caste whose mischief came to light after 1895, provoking the infamous “Dreyfus Affair.”
France split into two camps: on the one hand “Dreyfusards” wanting to redress a flagrant miscarriage of justice, on the other hand “anti-Dreyfusards” convinced that France would lose face if the honor of the army were impugned. It was civil war. And politics walked hand in hand with esthetics. The many who believed that Dreyfus should not under any circumstances be found innocent would have applauded the demolition of Eiffel’s tower. They belonged together, Dreyfus and the Tower, in a rogue’s gallery of Jewish traitors.
Frederick Brown, the author of For the Soul of France: Culture Wars in the Age of Dreyfus, is also the author of Flaubert, which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in biography, and Zola, named an Editor’s Choice by The New York Times Book Review as one of the best books of the year. Brown has twice been the recipient of both Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Humanities fellowships. He lives in New York City.
IMAGE:“The Traitor” – Captain Dreyfus being publicly stripped of his rank in the courtyard of École Militaire. Courtesy of the Cabinet des Estampes of the Bibliothéque Nationale