The Reactions to Monday's Notre Dame Fire and Where They Leave Us

By Alexander Lipke

By late Monday evening, as around 400 firefighters battled against the raging flames in Paris’s famous Notre Dame Cathedral, the world had turned its eye on the terrible damage inflicted on French and, indeed, global cultural heritage. What followed was an astonishing frenzy of world leaders showing compassion and news outlets making the most of the video footage they could get their hands on. At the same time, Monday night also saw the mushrooming of countless conspiracy theories about the cause of the fire.

In the wake of the emotionally charged coverage and the widespread consternation arise some uneasy questions of how we mourn the loss of cultural heritage in the heart of Europe and elsewhere.

Beyond simply recounting the facts, many news outlets went out of their way to convey the emotional significance of what had happened to Notre Dame. Particularly the Guardian, perhaps thin-skinned on account of Britain’s own national tragedy currently unfolding in Westminster, seemed to capitalise on emotional language and spoke of “the very heart of France and the soul of Europe [that have been] viciously ripped out”. While the actual damage assessment will take time, the images of a burning Notre Dame lighting the Parisian night sky apparently did not fail to irrevocably burn themselves into the public consciousness. Yet, in the wake of the emotionally charged coverage and the widespread consternation not only arise some uneasy questions of how we mourn the loss of cultural heritage in the heart of Europe and elsewhere but also on Eurocentrism itself.

Parallels to 2015

“Our thoughts go out to our French friends” (Steffen Seibert), “We are all with Paris today” (Donald Tusk), “My thoughts are with the people of Paris tonight and with the emergency services […]” (Theresa May). If we strip the plethora of international leaders’ reactions to yesterday’s devastating fire of the Notre Dame Cathedral off any direct reference to the building, they have a very similar ring to statements in the immediate aftermath of the Paris Attacks of 2015. The blaze that destroyed two-thirds of the cathedral’s roof and its world-famous spire within a matter of hours seems to have ignited similar feelings of helplessness, shock and disbelief as did the terrorist attacks almost three and a half years ago. Following the outbreak of the fire, the surreal photos of the world-famous Cathedral lit up in flames could soon be found on the online front pages of major news outlets all around the world. And on social media netizens were quick to pour their hearts out and share their personal stories connected to Paris’s famous landmark. 24 hours after the fire broke out #NotreDame was still the most widely used hashtag on Twitter worldwide.

An uneasy comparison with the National Museum of Brazil

Not long ago, a cultural tragedy of similar, if not exceeding scale, happened in Rio de Janeiro. On September 2nd 2018, a fire broke out in Brazil’s National Museum and destroyed close to 90% of the collection containing invaluable anthropological and cultural artefacts. Yet, while the museum fire did make headlines in international news, the coverage could not compare to the remarkable amount of worldwide public interest for last night’s Notre Dame fire. Likewise, in less than 24 hours after the Cathedral started burning, a staggering €600m have been raised by wealthy industrialists, banks and individuals in a pledge to rebuild the monument to its former glory. In contrast, although several states have assured the donation of artefacts to Brazil’s National Museum that are similar to the ones destroyed in the fire, financial aid pledges to rebuild the museum have never exceeded a comparably disappointing €1M. How can we account for this immense public reaction to the fire of Notre Dame, especially compared to a similar case that took place only months ago?

Another takeaway from Monday night is perhaps the integrative force unleashed by moments of tragedy that transcends nations, continents and religions. The world seems to stand with France in its moment of grief as a remarkable mosaic of international cover pages compiled by French journalist Cyril Petit shows. Yet, when tragedy strikes outside Europe or the West, are European nations going to stand with the world?