The History of Paris Part III – Haussmann

In the History of Paris Part II we watched the kings of France enhance the beauty of their capital while Paris grew in size, becoming the very center of France. Things seemed okay until the excesses of the later kings named Louis, who spent France into bankruptcy while living an extravagant royal lifestyle that eventually led to dissent. The French Revolution cleared out the monarchy (for a while at least! and Napoleon cleared out the Revolution.

Now it's time to turn our attention to the history of Paris in the mid-19th Century, when Napoleon Bonaparte's nephew, himself an emperor, cleared out big chunks of Paris itself. You may not even know his name today, but it was a civil servant who called himself Baron Haussmann who made the biggest changes ever to happen to Paris.

Baron Haussmann Rebuilds Paris

Baron Haussmann Rebuilds of Paris

Early one morning in 1854 residents of Parisian neighbourhoods were wakened by sounds of destruction. Their city was being changed.

Six months earlier Napoleon III had appointed an engineer and civic administrator by the name of George-Eugene Haussmann to recreate Paris. Haussmann wasted no time in drawing up plans that would change Paris forever. He envisioned the creation of broad, straight boulevards, lined with uniformly grand buildings, parks and open spaces, and a modern water and sanitation system.

Paris in 1853 was a morass of narrow, twisting medieval passageways, so it was remarkable how much of Haussmann's dream was accomplished in the next fifteen years, creating the Paris we know today. It was the biggest transformation in the history of Paris.

Haussmann's rebuilding began with the destruction of many of the city's streets and thousands of its houses. Wide boulevards were plowed through existing neighbourhoods, displacing the residents, and uniform 5-storey apartment buildings were constructed. 20,000 buildings were destroyed and 40,000 were built during the period of redevelopment. Haussmann also oversaw the construction of a sewer and fresh water system, with massive underground reservoirs.

It's because of Haussmann's work that we have modern Paris. But, during the work thousands of low-income Parisians were forced out of their homes and relocated to Belleville and elsewhere in the Paris suburbs. Neighborhoods that had existed for hundreds of years were destroyed by the new, broad boulevards.

On any modern map of Paris it's easy to identify Haussmann's work. All those straight, wide streets, the Grands Boulevards — Boulevard St Michel, Boulevard de Montparnasse, Boulevard Haussmann — that slice across an older plan remind us that he was the architect of modern Paris.

The Paris Commune

The Paris Commune

Before all of his grand dreams for Paris could be completed, Napoleon III fought an ill-advised war against Prussia in 1870 that led to his downfall and made some other big changes in Paris. After being humiliated by the Prussian army, Napoleon III abruptly resigned in September 1870 and the Prussians laid siege to the city, the first major threat to Paris since the Vikings.

The siege lasted four months and was a great hardship to most Parisians. The terms of the treaty angered many of the citizens and a revolt broke out. The government (called "The Third Republic") was forced to move to Versailles and a sort of socialist republic was established in the city Paris called The Paris Commune.

The Paris Commune lasted only two months, but the period was marked by further death and destruction. The Hotel de Ville and the Tuileries Palace were destroyed, and in the end 15,000 to 20,000 were dead with perhaps 40,000 arrested or deported. Paris ended up in shambles and the world wondered if this was the end of the history of Paris.

Paris in the World Wars

Paris in the 20th Century

Amazingly, Paris picked itself up in a matter of months, and a great period of art and culture began.

Modern Paris really began to emerge with the Belle Époque, a flowering of arts, culture and prosperity that came between the Commune and World War I. From this era we have the Impressionist paintings, the Eiffel Tower, cabarets like the Moulin Rouge, and the Paris Metro.

The period that included the two World Wars was not a good time for most Parisians, and horrible for many French. In World War I the German army came within 25 kilometers of Paris and the French government was moved to Bordeaux in western France. Rationing and a terrible flu epidemic in 1916 nearly brought the city to its knees. Millions of French died in the war period.

World War II brought the dark days of German occupation. The Jewish population of Paris suffered unimaginable terror under the Germans, with the active participation of the Vichy government — the darkest time in the history of Paris. Hitler ordered the city to be "left in ruins" when the German army evacuated in 1944 and it was lucky that the German commandant ignored those orders.

Modern Paris

Modern Paris

Paris did recover its sense of self after World War II and today continues to change and modernize. Leaders of France, whether they be kings or presidents or mayors, have always felt the need to make their mark on the glory of Paris. Modern projects they began have included…

  • Centre Pompidou
  • Parc de la Villette in northeast Paris
  • The Tour Montparnasse skyscraper
  • The Grande Arche and La Défense, west of Paris
  • The Louvre Pyramids
  • The Velib bicycle system
  • Opera Bastille
  • The annual Paris Plage
  • Stade de France, the modernistic soccer stadium
  • Recently, the closing of the banks of the Seine to traffic

What have we learned? The history of Paris is long and varied, and that Paris is resilient enough to carry on… and to keep getting better.

Read More About the History of Paris

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