The Notre-Dame fire was still raging when the French police already knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that it was an accident.
One must congratulate French detectives on their speed of action. They broke the previous record in institutional arson investigation that had stood for 86 years.
For it was on 27 February, 1933, when the Nazis’ hold on power was still tenuous, that the Reichstag building caught fire. The Nazis immediately declared that the communists were responsible, but their ‘immediately’ was nowhere near as immediate as the French record-breaking swiftness the other day.
Hitler’s men only pinned the blame on Georgi Dimitrov (head of Comintern espionage in Europe) and his henchmen hours after the fire had been put out. Obviously, the methodical Teutonic mind can’t move as fast as the impetuous Gallic one.
But once the Nazis settled on the culprits, they broadcast their findings to the world. They then used the publicity to suspend civil liberties and outlaw the Communist party, along with all other opposition.
All senior communists were thrown into Dachau and Buchenwald, and most of them perished there. The smaller fry were lucky enough to escape to the Soviet Shangri-La. They were then thrown into rather colder concentration camps, where most of them also perished.
The Nazis had a vested interest in publicising their, possibly bogus, findings at a hysterical volume. The word ‘accident’ was never mentioned, and wouldn’t have been even if it had described the incident accurately.
My contention is that the French authorities also had a vested interest in publicising their, possibly bogus, findings. The word ‘arson’ was never mentioned, and wouldn’t have been even if it had described the incident accurately.
There exists a whole genre of history called ‘What if…?’ What if somebody had assassinated Lenin in 1917 or Hitler in 1933? What if Japan had attacked the Soviet Union from the east just as the Germans were closing in on Moscow? What if France and Britain had invaded Germany in 1936, after the remilitarisation of the Rhineland?
Opportunities for speculation are endless, and it’s not always futile speculation. Analysing the unrealised possibilities of the past may help assess not only the situations of yesteryear, but also the lie of the land at present and in the immediate future. The ‘What if…?’ genre is legitimate, and, if used judiciously, it can be enlightening.
Now, I’m not invoking some freshly baked conspiracy theory. I possess no evidence that the Notre-Dame tragedy was caused by arson, and I do think the accident version of events is perfectly plausible. After all, it’s during restoration that ancient structures are at their most vulnerable.
Or not so ancient, come to think of it. Some 25 years ago, restoration was done on the building I live in, and it was built as late as 1898. One of the chaps working on the outside of my flat left his acetylene torch on and went off to exercise the inalienable right of the English worker to have a tea break. As a result, my bedroom, along with most of my clothes, was badly burned, and I smelled like a barbecue pit for a week thereafter (much to my colleagues’ hilarity).
So yes, the Notre-Dame fire could have been, probably was, an accident. But what if it wasn’t?
What if the police had taken longer than an hour or two to conduct their investigation? What if they had found out it was a case of arson? What if subsequent investigation had discovered that the fire was set – and I know my imagination is running away with me – by a group of Muslim zealots led by Mohammed Somebody-Or-Other?
Would they then have arrested the group and publicised their investigative breakthrough? Of course not. The Gallic mind may be impetuous, but it’s not as impetuous as that. The authorities wouldn’t have wanted to cause an outburst of public indignation.
For the French tend not to internalise their rage. If it were revealed that Muslims tried to destroy France’s greatest cathedral, the rage would spill out into the streets. Can you imagine the ensuing mayhem, considering that a routine rise in diesel taxes could cause months of rioting?
Suddenly if temporarily, all those who describe themselves as atheist or agnostic would turn into Catholic crusaders. The spirit of St Bernard of Clairvaux and Louis VII would flare up in their hearts, and woe betide any Muslim they could lay their hands on.
At the very least, there would be mass disturbances complete with the usual French delights, such as barricades, cobbles and torches. What’s even worse from the standpoint of Manny’s government is that anti-Muslim parties, such as Marine Le Pen’s National Rally, would milk the situation for all it was worth.
Manny would joyously have every French cathedral blown up if that could extend his stay in the presidential palace. So what’s a little subterfuge among friends? An innocent ruse de guerre, that’s all.
Such speculations don’t have to come true to be awful. It’s bad enough that they are plausible.
P.S. And speaking of blowing up cathedrals, the past master of that art, Stalin, is regaining his erstwhile prominence in Russia. In a recent Levada Centre poll, 70 per cent of the respondents believe that the butcher in the Kremlin played a positive role, versus only 19 per cent who assess his role as negative. In 2008 these numbers were 39 and 38 per cent respectively.