My brother Richard has become more or less German. Despite his having grown up in Illinois, his nearly fifty years of analyzing German history and nearly forty years of living in Germany have left him with a German family, a German accent and a German perspective on world affairs. Meanwhile, my family has become French, although not to the extent that Richard’s has become German. My son Chris was born in Angers, France, and all of us eventually accumulated years of French residence. When our families get together, we often compare notes on French/German/American differences.

In the 1970s, a few years after Richard and his charming Würzburg-born wife Elisabeth moved from Connecticut back to Germany, my family visited them from France. During the visit, we all went on an excursion into the thick Teutoburg Forest near Detmold. There we joined hundreds of Germans picnicking at the Hermann Monument. Two million people visit the monument each year, the most popular in all Germany.

“Hermann” is a mistranslation of Armin, a Germanic warrior and sometime Roman ally. In the very first decade of the Common Era, Armin defeated three Roman legions under Publius Quinctilius Varus in the Teutoburg Forest. Tacitus described the former Roman ally as the rival of the German leader Segestes, who remained loyal to Rome:

But Varus fell by fate and by the sword of Arminius, with whom Segestes, though dragged into war by the unanimous voice of the nation, continued to be at feud, his resentment being heightened by personal motives, as Arminius had carried off his daughter who was betrothed to another.

For “Romans”, read “French”: During the 19th century, Armin became a national symbol of resistance to the French forces that had invaded and conquered much of Germany during the Napoleonic Wars. Sculptor Ernst von Bandel began the patriotic monument in 1838, but he didn’t finish it until 1875. By then, Prussia had trounced France in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71, Napoleon III’s Second Empire had collapsed, Prussia had taken Alsace and much of Lorraine from France as spoils of war, and Germany had united under Prussian leadership.

Including its base, Armin’s commanding statue towers 175 feet above the ground. The huge sword in Armin’s right hand bears the inscription, “Germany’s unity is my strength, my strength is Germany’s might,” and it points toward France. We tourists couldn’t see the inscription, however. Despite its hollow interior, with a steep stairway reaching to the statue’s head and arms, tourists can’t go beyond the 69 steps that lead up to the base. But we did see the monument’s cornerstone and, inscribed on it, a message calculated to chill Frenchman and Francophile alike:

An Arminius. Über den Rhein hast du einst Roms Legionen getrieben, und Germanien dankt dir, dass es heute noch ist. Schwinge ferner dein Schwert, wenn Frankreichs plu?ndernde Horden gierig lechzend des Rheins heimische Gauen bedrohn.

[To Arminius. Thou once drove Rome’s legions beyond the Rhine, and Germans now thank thee for Germany’s existence. If France’s plundering hordes greedily threaten the homeland’s Rhenish lands, swing thy sword again.]

In these vividly vindictive words, the concepts of credit and blame join forcefully. In 1875, united Germans took credit for humiliating presumptuous France. They retaliated monumentally for decades of French scorn.

The French took a while to reply. In 1867, as Garibaldi led the drive for Italian unification, Emperor Napoleon III‘s troops defended the Pope from Garibaldi’s forces. But in 1870, war-torn France withdrew its soldiers and Italian patriots seized the Papal States. Then German troops humiliated French armies and took the French emperor prisoner. How could the French restore their national honor? Immediately after the disastrous Franco-Prussian War, French Catholics proposed to wash away national sin and shame by two measures: a campaign to encourage popular devotions to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and the construction of a Parisian church dedicated to those devotions. Naturally enough, they called the church Sacré Coeur.

The plan’s originator, Alexandre Legentil, had fled Paris as Prussian armies approached. While in the provinces he had sworn that “if God saved Paris and France and delivered the sovereign pontiff, he would contribute according to his means to the construction in Paris of a sanctuary dedicated to the Sacred Heart.” In 1873, a very Catholic National Assembly authorized the church’s construction on the city’s highest hill, Montmartre—the Martyrs’ Mountain, in one disputed etymology. It took another decade to raise the funds, clear the site and lay the foundation.

Montmartre already had a religious history. Popular legend made it the site of martyrdom for the first bishop of Paris, St. Denis, at the end of the 3rd century. As for the Sacred Heart of Jesus, its veneration had originated during the 17th century under King Louis XIV. In 1864, Pope Pius IX beatified the cult’s 17th-century founder, Marguerite-Marie Alacoque. By 1873, she and the site had become favorites of monarchist, anti-revolutionary Catholics. The joining of the Sacred Heart with Montmartre therefore had powerful resonance in the France of the 1870s.

Yet Montmartre also acquired anti-religious significance as the starting point of the 1871 Paris Commune. The Commune began in March of that year when the defeated government ordered troops to remove cannons from Montmartre’s heights. Parisian workers resisted the order, and the soldiers on guard refused to fire on them. Members of the crowd later seized and killed generals Lecomte and Thomas near the hill. Lecomte had ordered the troops to fire, and Thomas had commanded troops who had slaughtered workers during the Revolution of 1848. Furthermore, as national troops massacred communards in May 1871, a vengeful detachment of their ranks murdered the archbishop of Paris. On Montmartre’s heights, the secular image of the Commune confronted the religious image of the Sacred Heart. Despite fierce secular and republican opposition, the Sacred Heart project won.

The new archbishop of Paris took responsibility for the project in January 1872. He wrote to Legentil:

You have considered from their true perspectives the ills of our country. . . . The conspiracy against God and Christ has prevailed in a multitude of hearts and in punishment for an almost universal apostasy, society has been subjected to all the horrors of war with a victorious foreigner and an even more horrible war amongst the children of the same country. Having become, by our prevarication, rebels against heaven, we have fallen during our troubles into the abyss of anarchy. The land of France presents the terrifying image of a place where no order prevails, while the future offers still more terrors to come. . . . This temple, erected as a public act of contrition and reparation . . . will stand amongst us as a protest against other monuments and works of art erected for the glorification of vice and impiety.

The archbishop got his basilica, and he got it located on Paris’s highest hill.

The foundation stone for Sacré Coeur was laid in 1875, the very same year that Germans finished building the Hermann Monument. Construction of the striking white travertine building ended in 1914, just in time for a war that would end in German humiliation, not French. After Germany’s defeat, Sacré Coeur, like the Hermann Monument, became a favorite tourist destination. In case anyone should miss the church’s national significance, equestrian statues of Joan of Arc and Saint Louis recall France’s military destiny.

The great divide in the French political soul is such that Sacré Coeur inevitably became a split metaphor in an on-going contestation. While Catholics and monarchists adored the church, secularists and republicans ridiculed it. In his 1898 novel Paris, Émile Zola called Sacré Coeur a “citadel of the absurd.” Eugène Ogé drew one of the era’s best-known anticlerical posters as an advertisement for the republican newspaper La Lanterne. It showed an immense, devilish priest wrapped around Sacré Coeur and blotting out the rest of Paris. Its motto: Voilà l’ennemi (“Here is the enemy”). For believers, however, Sacré Coeur came to represent the intermingling of credit and blame in both history and religiously informed meta-history: credit for sustaining faith, blame for sins that weakened France. And Sacré Coeur did more than represent: It aimed to teach future generations of Frenchman what to believe about their past. Believers aimed to beget more believers, and on balance, they succeeded.

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