Category Archives: European

August 21st – The Mona Lisa is stolen from the Louvre

The Mona Lisa goes missing from the Louvre in 1911!

The Mona Lisa goes missing from the Louvre in 1911!

On this day in 1911, the Mona Lisa (La Gioconda in Italian or La Joconde in French) by Leonardo da Vinci was stolen from the Louvre in Paris, France. Described as the “greatest art theft of the twentieth-century,” the Mona Lisa remained missing for two years before it was discovered in Florence, Italy in the hands of its thief, Vincenzo Peruggia.

On August 21st, 1911, Louis Béroud, an amateur walked into the Louvre, and went to the Salon Carré, where the Mona Lisa was displayed. When he arrived in the room he found that where the Mona Lisa should have hung, only four iron pegs remained. The Mona Lisa, one of the most famous works of art in the world, was stolen. Theories abounded as to the thief of the Mona Lisa. The French poet, Guillaume Apollinaire, who previously advocated burning the painting, was immediately implicated and arrested. Apollinaire accused Pablo Picasso of the theft after being thrown in jail; both were later acquitted however. Another rumour spread that blamed the theft on the German nationalists, in order to humiliate the French, defeated by the Germans in war a little of forty years prior.

It turned out it was not German nationalism, but Italian nationalism that proved the true culprit of the theft of the Mona Lisa. Over two years after the theft, in November 1913, a Florentine art dealer by the name of Alfred Geri received a letter from someone named “Leonardo” who offered to give the Mona Lisa to him in exchange for a reward. Geri then went to Giovanni Poggi, the director of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, for advice on how to proceed. After taking the Mona Lisa for “safekeeping”, Geri and Poggi informed the Florentine police who then promptly arrested Vincenzo Peruggia as the thief of the Mona Lisa. In August 1911, Peruggia was employed at the Louvre, and on the 21st, lifted the Mona Lisa when the Salon Carré was empty. He then hid in a broom closet in the Louvre till the next day, where he left the Louvre with the Mona Lisa under an artist’s smock that he was wearing. As for his motive, Peruggia believed that the Mona Lisa was one of the greatest works by one of the greatest Italian artists. Consequently, Peruggia believed that the Mona Lisa should be exhibited in an Italian museum, not the foreign, Parisian Louvre.

Peruggia went on to serve six months jail time for his crime, however he was praised all over Italy. Peruggia later on served in the Italian army during the First World War, The Mona Lisa was displayed all over Italy and then returned back to Louvre by the end of 1913. Peruggia’s theft of the Mona Lisa was the only theft of the painting in its history, however it has been at risk of damage since 1911. In 1956, the Mona Lisa survived having acid and a rock thrown at it. Luckily the 1956 attacks were minor enough that restoration of the Mona Lisa was possible. Afterwards, a bulletproof glass was put in place to protect the painting. This bulletproof glass proved invaluable in deterring red paint being thrown at the Mona Lisa in 1974 and a tea mug projectile in 2009. Mona Lisa‘s famous smile and gaze remains available for all to see at the Louvre, after being stolen and recovered almost one hundred years ago.

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March 31st – The Eiffel Tower is opened

The Eiffel Tower, in midst of construction.

The Eiffel Tower, in midst of construction.

On this day in 1889, 125 years ago, the Eiffel Tower opened. One of the most well-known landmarks worldwide, the Eiffel Tower has come to symbolize the city of Paris and France, and is the most visited paid monument in the world (almost 7 million visitors each year). For almost 40 years after its opening, the Eiffel Tower was the tallest man-made structure in the world, eclipsed by the Chrysler Building in New York City in 1930.

Interestingly, the Eiffel Tower was never meant to be a permanent fixture in the cityscape of Paris. In honour of the hundredth anniversary of the French Revolution (1789), the city of Paris decided to hold an international exposition and the construction of a monument on the Champ-de-Mars in central Paris. The city decided on Gustav Eiffel’s design, a 984 feet tall open-lattice iron-wrought tower that would be the tallest structure in the world. Eiffel was a famed architect who had only three years ago designed the framework of the Statue of Liberty.

In general, Parisians were skeptical of the design of the Eiffel Tower on the city. The French arts establishment published the following in Le Temps:

“We, writers, painters, sculptors, architects and passionate devotees of the hitherto untouched beauty of Paris, protest with all our strength, with all our indignation in the name of slighted French taste, against the erection…of this useless and monstrous Eiffel Tower…To bring our arguments home, imagine for a moment a giddy, ridiculous tower dominating Paris like a gigantic black smokestack, crushing under its barbaric bulk Notre Dame, the Tour Saint-Jacques, the Louvre, the Dome of les Invalides, the Arc de Triomphe, all of our humiliated monuments will disappear in this ghastly dream. And for twenty years…we shall see stretching like a blot of ink the hateful shadow of the hateful column of bolted sheet metal”

Regardless, work on the tower began on January 28th, 1887. The construction of the tower featured an iron framework supported by four masonry piers, from which four columns arose to form a single vertical tower. Three platforms exist in the Eiffel Tower, each with an observation deck. Elevators ascend up the piers along a curve, which were not completed until after the tower’s opening. On March 31st, 1889, Gustav Eiffel climbed all the tower’s stairs to reach the top of the tower, where he raised the French tricolour, with fireworks set off from the second platform, and a 21 cannon salute at ground level. Later on in May, the International Exposition opened, exposing the Eiffel Tower to the world at large. Interestingly, the city of Paris had only granted the Eiffel Tower a 20 year lease on the land it was on, and consequently in 1909 was subject for demolition. However, the Eiffel Tower proved to be highly valuable as an antenna for radio transmission, and was therefore preserved. Bonne fête Tour de Eiffel!

Here is the official site for the Eiffel Tower, with information for visiting: http://www.tour-eiffel.fr/en.html.

And here are some interesting facts concerning the Eiffel Tower:

  • There are 5 billion lights on the Eiffel Tower.
  • The French nickname for the tower is La Dame de Fer, the Iron Lady (how Thatcherite!)
  • Gustav Eiffel installed a meteorological laboratory on the third floor of the tower, which was available for scientists to use for studying anything from gravity to electricity.
  • In order to give the appearance of an uniform colour on the tower, paint is used in a graduated manner to counteract the effect of atmospheric perspective. Consequently, the bottom of the tower is actually painted lighter than the top. The Eiffel Tower is covered with 60 tonnes of paint every seven years to protect against corrosive forces.
  • The names of 72 French scientists are inscribed on the exterior of the first floor of the Eiffel Tower. Scientists honoured include Georges Cuvier, Antoine Lavoisier, Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac, Louis Le Chatelier, Léon Foucault, Charles-Augustin de Coulomb, and Louis Daguerre.
  • In February 4th, 1912, the Austrian tailor Franz Reichelt tested his wearable parachute design by jumping from the Eiffel Tower to deploy the suit. Infamously, and tragically, Reichelt was proven wrong, when his parachute failed to deploy upon jumping from the tower, sending him crashing to the floor. Footage was taken of his perilous jump live, and can be seen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FBN3xfGrx_U.
  • In 1914, a radio transmitter located on the Eiffel Tower jammed German radio communications, which served to hinder the German advance on Paris. In essence, the Eiffel Tower contributed to the Allied victory at the First Battle of the Marne.
  • In 1940, just before France fell to Nazi Germany, the lift cables for the Eiffel Tower’s elevators were cut by the French, to prevent the occupying German forces and Hitler from using them to enjoy the city view of Paris. When Hitler went to visit Paris after the Fall of France, der Fuhrer chose to stay on the ground.
  • Almost 30 replicas of the Eiffel Tower have been built around the world.
  • One of the Hollywood clichés is that in any movie featuring Paris, you are able to see the Eiffel Tower out the window. In reality, city zoning restrictions limit the height of most buildings in Paris to only seven stories, therefore only a few taller buildings exist that would allow for a clear view of the Eiffel Tower.

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February 27th – The Reichstag is set on fire

Firemen race to put out the fire at the Reichstag, February 27th, 1933.

Firemen race to put out the fire at the Reichstag, February 27th, 1933.

On this day in 1933, the Reichstag, Germany’s parliament in Berlin, was set on fire. At the time, Marinus van der Lubbe, a Dutch communist in Berlin at the time, as well as three other Bulgarian communists were arrested, tried and executed for starting the fire. Historians today however question whether van der Lubbe and his associates set fire to the Reichstag, or whether the fire was orchestrated and intentionally started by the Nazis. What is agreed upon though is that Adolf Hitler used the fire in the Reichstag as “evidence” of the Communist plot to overthrow the state, leading the German President Hindenburg to agree to Nazi requests to suspend civil liberties and give Hitler extraordinary “emergency powers”. The fire in the Reichstag solidified Nazi rule over Germany and was important in Hitler’s creation of the authoritarian state.

Hitler had been sworn in as Germany’s chancellor and as head of a coalition government only a month earlier. Hitler had envisioned passing the “Enabling Act” through the Reichstag, which would have given the Chancellor (himself) the power to pass laws by decree without the Reichstag in extraneous emergencies. The Enabling Act required 2/3s majority support in the Reichstag, and in January, the Nazis controlled only 1/3 of the seats in the Reichstag.

On February 27th, the Reichstag caught fire. Despite the work of the firemen at the scene, most of the Reichstag was gutted by the blaze. After it was reported that Communists had been arrested for the fire, Hitler asked for and received the “Reichstag Fire Decree” from President Hindenburg. The decree suspended civil liberties in Germany, allowing the Nazis to ban publications that they deemed unfriendly to their cause. Hitler also espoused that the fire in the Reichstag was evidence of a Communist plot to take over Germany, leading to the arrest of thousands of Communists in the days after the fire (including leaders of the Communist Party of Germany, the KPD). These arrests prevented Communists from taking their seats in the Reichstag. As well, several delegates of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) were intimidated from taking their seats in the Reichstag, under-representing their vote in the final tally for the Enabling Act. Consequently on March 23rd, the Enabling Act easily passed through Reichstag, making Hitler effectively the dictator of Germany, der Führer (the leader).

For the rest of the Third Reich’s existence, the Reichstag would not be in use. The building was severely damaged due to Allied bombing, and in postwar Germany, the Reichstag remained in disuse (note that Reichstag was physically in West Berlin, however only metres away from communist East Berlin). The West German parliament was moved to Bonn during the Cold War, leaving the Reichstag in a state of functional limbo. In 1999, 9 years after German reunification, German parliament met in the Reichstag for the first time in 66 years following renovations and restoration. The Reichstag is the second most visited attraction in Germany (after the Cologne Cathedral), and features a huge glass dome that replaced the original cupola (dome) of the Reichstag destroyed in the war. The glass dome allows for a 360° view of the Berlin cityscape. The glass dome also sits directly on top of the debating chamber of the Reichstag, symbolic of government transparency and the idea that the people are above the government, as was not the case during Nazi Germany. As someone who just visited Berlin in the past summer, I can testify that the Reichstag is definitely one of the must-see landmarks of that great city! Registration is required beforehand, but the good thing is that it is free and conveniently located close to other Berlin attractions such as the Brandenburg Gate, Pariser Platz, and the Holocaust Memorial (Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe).

Here is a link to the City of Berlin’s tourist page on visiting the Reichstag and it’s history: http://www.visitberlin.de/en/spot/reichstag

And here is the link for registering to visit the dome of the Reichstag: http://www.bundestag.de/htdocs_e/visits/kupp.html

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February 11th – The Lateran Treaty is signed, the Vatican City is created

Benito Mussolini and Pietro Gasparri signing the Lateran Treaty in 1929, bringing the Vatican City into existence.

Benito Mussolini and Pietro Gasparri signing the Lateran Treaty in 1929, bringing the Vatican City into existence.

On this day in 1929, the Lateran Treaty was signed between the Kingdom of Italy and the Holy See (the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the Catholic Church in Rome), which created the Vatican City and brought resolution to the “Roman Question”. Ever since the Risorgimento (Italian unification) in 1870, the political status of the Pope in Italy had been disputed, however the Lateran Treaty resolved these issues and created the world’s smallest sovereign state: the Vatican City (only 110 acres in area, and a population of 840 today).

Italy before Risorgimento was divided amongst several independent nations. Amongst these nations was the Papal States, a collection of lands in Central Italy, centered on Rome, that were under the direct rule of the Pope himself. While the rest of the Italian peninsula was being united under the leadership of King Victor Emmanuel II of Piedmont-Sardinia, the Papal States actively resisted unification efforts, wishing to maintain Church sovereignty over their lands. French Emperor Napoleon III left a garrison of troops in Rome to protect the Papal States from Italian unification. The threat of war with Prussia, however, led Napoleon III to withdraw his garrison from Rome and back to France, leaving the Papal States nominally defenseless. In 1870, Italian troops moved into the Papal States and occupied Rome, moving the capital of the Kingdom of Italy from Florence to the ‘Eternal City’ (prior to Florence, Turin was the capital of Italy). The Pope did not recognize the authority of the new Italian government in Rome, and for almost 60 years, relations between the Catholic Church and the Italian government would remain strained. The Pope and his cardinals remained “prisoners of the Vatican” for the duration of this time, because if they placed themselves outside the walls of the Vatican, they were afforded the protection of Italian law, which served as an implicit recognition of the authority of the Italian state in Rome. Needless to say, this “Roman Question” was an awkward position for both the Catholic Church and Italy.

Ironically it was the anti-clerical fascist dictator Benito Mussolini that normalized relations between Italy and the Catholic Church. A shrewd politician, Mussolini recognized that the majority of the Italian population, Catholic in religious affiliation, wanted a reconciliation between church and state. On February 11th, 1929, the Lateran Treaty was signed by Prime Minister Benito Mussolini for King Emmanuel III and Pietro Gasparri, Cardinal Secretary of State for Pope Pius XI. Through the Lateran Treaty, the sovereign state of the Vatican City was created, free from Italian law and taxation. Catholicism was recognized as the Italian state religion, with the Church holding authority over marriage and Catholicism being taught in school. Italy also agreed to pay the Vatican City 3250000 lire per annum as an indemnity for the Church’s loss of territory and sovereignty over lands formerly part of the Papal States. Today, despite the downfall of Mussolini and Italian fascism, the Lateran Treaty remains the legal document defining the relationship between Italy and the Vatican City.

Interesting facts about the Vatican City:

  • While the Vatican has approximately 840 citizens, Vatican citizenship is only temporary (citizenship ends upon the discontinuation of residency in the Vatican).
  • St. Peter’s Basilica is the largest Catholic church in the world. The Statue of Liberty can fit underneath the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica!
  • The Vatican has its own telephone system, post office, mint, astronomical observatory, radio station, banking system, and pharmacy. In fact the sale of coins and postage stamps at the Vatican’s post office makes up a substantial portion of the state’s revenue.
  • Per capita, the Vatican has a much higher crime rate than in Italy, given the popularity of the Vatican as a tourist location.

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January 18th – Germany is unified as a nation

Painting by Anton von Werner of the proclamation of the German Empire in the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles on January 18th, 1871. Otto von Bismarck is depicted in the white uniform.

Painting by Anton von Werner of the proclamation of the German Empire in the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles on January 18th, 1871. Otto von Bismarck is depicted in the white uniform.

Ah one of my favourite historical topics. On this day in 1871, Germany was unified as a nation, following the German victory over the French in the Franco-Prussian War. With the proclamation of the German Empire and Kaiser Wilhelm I as German Emperor in the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles, an united Germany soon became the economic and industrial powerhouse of Europe.

For hundreds of years, the lands that we know today as Germany existed as multiple independent states. In fact, prior to 1806 (Holy Roman Empire times), Germany was made up of over 300 small states. Following the defeat of Napoleon in 1815 and the Congress of Vienna, many of these smaller states were consolidated together and a general collection of German-speaking states formed, called the German Confederation. Similar to today’s European Union, states with the German Confederation had their own independence and autonomy, however decisions concerning the Confederation as a whole were decided in a parliament in Frankfurt. Within the German Confederation, two nations emerged as the most powerful within the association: Austria and Prussia.

The topic of German unification is rather lengthy and complex, so I will try to be as “to-the-point” as I can from here on out. The power struggle between Austria and Prussia would play a central role in German unification. Under the leadership of the Prussian prime minister Otto von Bismarck, Prussia and Austria allied to take on Denmark for the duchy of Schlewsig in 1864. Emerging victorious over Denmark, Prussia and Austria soon disputed the status of Schleswig and went to war against each other in 1866. Prussian victory against the Austrians confirmed that Prussia, under the leadership of Bismarck, was now the dominant German state and would lead the way for German unification.

By 1871, Prussia had succeeded in uniting much of Northern Germany as the North German Confederation, however the southern German states of Baden, Württemberg, and Bavaria remained outside of the unified German state. Bismarck, through his diplomatic prowess, decided to orchestrate a war that would unify all Germans, both in the North and South, against a common enemy. In 1871, war broke out between Prussia and France, and through Bismarck’s statescraft, convinced the south German states to come to Prussia’s aid. Emerging victorious in the critical Battle of Sedan, united German victory over France was the catalytic event in German unification. On January 18th, 1871 the unified German Empire was proclaimed, with the Prussian king, Wilhelm I, declared the German Emperor at the Hall of Mirrors in the Palace of Versailles.

The rest is history as some would say. The unified German nation soon became, arguably, the most powerful nation on the European continent. An unified Germany would figure as a dominant player in the world wars, and found itself re-divided after the end of the Second World War into West and East Germany. Re-unification of West and East would happen on October 3rd, 1990 following the symbolic downfall of the Berlin Wall an year beforehand. Interestingly it is that date, October 3rd, which is celebrated today in Germany as its national holiday, rather than January 18th, the date that the modern German state that we know was first created.

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December 22nd – The Dreyfus affair begins

The famous J'Accuse letter (1898) by Emilie Zola, penned in defense of Albert Dreyfus and against anti-Semitism in the French Army

The famous J’Accuse letter (1898) by Emilie Zola, penned in defense of Alfred Dreyfus and against antisemitism in the French Army

On this day in 1894, the Dreyfus affair began in France, a scandal that reverberated deep into French society.

Alfred Dreyfus, a high-ranking Jewish officer in the French Army, was convicted for treason in 1894, accused of communicating military secrets to the Germans. He was convicted and sent to “Devil’s Island”, a French penal colony on the coast of South America for five years. At Devil’s Island, Dreyfus suffered horrible treatment as a prisoner of the state, became malnourished and fed rotting pork, cordoned off from the rest of the prisoners and kept in isolation.

Two years later, new evidence appeared to suggest that Dreyfus was not the traitor, but rather, a French major named Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy. In an attempt to cover up for their earlier mistake in convicting Dreyfus, the army covered up the new evidence and acquitted Esterhazy on only the second day of his trial. Additional charges were placed on Dreyfus, but by this time, the story of Dreyfus became well known to the French public.

Famously, in 1898, the notable author Emilie Zola published an open letter in a newspaper to the French President, entitled J’accuse (en anglais “I accuse”). In J’accuse, Zola accused the government of France and Army of anti-Semitism and the unlawful imprisonment of Dreyfus, pointing to the many errors in the court proceedings and the lack of any credible evidence. For J’accuse, Zola was prosecuted and convicted for libel, but to avoid going to jail, fled to England.

In 1899, Dreyfus was brought back to France to face trial yet again, and despite the immense public debate over his imprisonment, convicted for another 10 year sentence. Giving into public demand and the desire to move on from the Dreyfus affair, the French government shortly pardoned Dreyfus after this trial Dreyfus was set free.

In the end, Dreyfus was found to be completely innocent in the entire affair. Much of the evidence produced against Dreyfus was found to be forged and put forth based on prejudiced attacks on Dreyfus’ character. As a citizen from the Alsace region, Dreyfus’ first language was German, or an Alsatian dialect of German. Dreyfus’ Alsatian ancestry raised concerns amongst the French elite, who had only recently humiliatingly defeated by the German Army in 1871. As well, Dreyfus’ Jewish heritage raised issues in the anti-Semitic French Army hierarchy, who felt that upper positions of the Army should belong rightfully to Catholic aristocracy, who had recently loss power in the downfall of Napoleon III. Religion figured prominently in this affair, as the Dreyfus was commonly denounced as a “Judas”, and violent threats to Jews were common throughout France during the entire affair. In 1905, the Radical Party succeeded in passing legislation mandating the separation of church and state in France, after emphasizing the role that the Catholic leadership of France had in instigating the case against Dreyfus.

Ironically, Dreyfus had left Alsace for Paris after the Germans took the territory in 1871 in order to prepare his French Army for a war of revenge (revanche) against Germany for the lost territory. After his pardon, Dreyfus continued to serve in the French military and fought in the First World War, attaining the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. Dreyfus continued to fight for the very Army that had so severely wronged him in the past. Only in 1995 did the French Army publicly state that Dreyfus was innocent.

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December 4th – The final session of the Council of Trent is held

Council of Trent (1588) by Pasquale Cati

Council of Trent (1588) by Pasquale Cati

On this day in 1563, the twenty-fifth and final session of the Council of Trent was held. An eighteen year process held in the northern Italian city of Trent (in italiano, Trento), this Council was a re-examination of the Catholic Church and what it stood for in light of the Protestant Reformation.

For decades, the Catholic Church had been facing internal turmoil over its state of affairs. In 1517, Martin Luther famously posted his 95 Theses on a church door in Wittenburg, Germany. Within these 95 Theses, Luther outlined problems he saw in the Catholic Church and its practices, in particular, the sale of indulgences. Through indulgences, people were able to pay monetarily to the Church in order to have sins forgiven. The money earned from indulgences were highly profitable for the Church, and in fact funded the reconstruction of St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican. In later speeches to congregations, Luther would go out and speak against the corruption of church offices (certain positions such as bishop and even Pope were up for sale), the veneration of relics (a body part of a saint or important religious artifact), and the importance of the Pope as head of the Church. Dissatisfied with the Catholic Church, Luther and his followers broke from the Church, and in doing so, started the Protestant Reformation.

Before continuing further, and I know fellow historians would agree, Martin Luther was not the sole originator of the Protestant Reformation. Many individuals came before Luther in denouncing/criticizing certain practices of the Church including, but not limited to, Ulrich Zwingli, Jan Hus and John Wycliffe. I only begin with Luther for ease of this blog post. I am sure that in future posts I will discuss the Protestant Reformation further and Martin Luther as well (interestingly, Martin Luther was voted as the #2 greatest German on the German television show Unsere Besten, similar to CBC’s The Greatest Canadian).

Fearful of the traction the Protestant Reformation gained throughout Europe, the Catholic Church decided to convene the Council of Trent in 1545. This Council has historically been seen as the affirmation of the Counter-Reformation, that is, the Catholic “rebuttal” to the Protestant Reformation that was going on. At Trent, cardinals sought to address the theological and dogmatic issues brought up by the Protestants in regards to the Catholic Church, and re-evaluate/re-assess what the Catholic Church stood for. The Council of Trent was broken up into three periods and twenty-five different sessions, formulating proclamations on Church policy. Amongst other formulations, at Trent the Catholic Church: condemned Protestantism, deplored the sale of indulgences and church offices, and supported the primacy of the Church and Pope as interpreter of Scripture. On December 4th, 1563, 450 years ago, the final session of the Council of Trent was held, and decrees concerning relics and indulgences were made.

While the Council of Trent solidified the Catholic position in the face of Protestant opposition, tensions in Europe concerning Catholicism vs. Protestantism would linger. Religious wars would pit Catholic nations versus Protestant nations for decades after the conclusion of the Council of Trent until the Treaty of Westphalia (1648) was signed, where cuius regio, eius religio was established. Translated from the Latin as “Whose realm, his religion”, this policy dictated that the ruler of the country would decide the religion that his subjects would follow.

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