By Norman Barth
Paris Kiosque - May 2001 - Volume 8, Number 5
Copyright (c) May 2001 Norman Barth - used with permission
The story of the Paris Commune is an important, but complicated one. In this short piece, I hope to communicate the grand lines of what happened, using sources not too far removed from those events. In the 100 plus years since the Commune, communism has both risen to greater heights, and come crashing down. The Paris Commune of 1871 is a major part of understanding what happened. - Norman Barth
Following a miserable defeat against the Prussians late in 1870, Paris refused to accept the surrender negotiated by the head of the national government Adolphe Thiers early the following year. After all, it was the national government that had declared war on Germany in July 1870. Full of confidence that the Prussians would lose, France marched off to war only to find herself quickly on the defensive after initial victories. All of this fanned the flames of discontent with the national government, and Napoléon III, which had already been strong before the war. The French army defeated, the Prussians now on the outskirts of Paris laid siege to the city. The ineffectual national government was in disaray. After months of impotent attempts to break out, the French government signed an armistice on 28 February 1871.
For the citizens of Paris it was all too much. On 18 March 1871, the Commune of Paris was declared. Until 28 May 1871, the Commune reigned in Paris - a worker's insurrection whose red banners hinted at worker's revolutions to come in the early 20th century some 46 years later.
Baedeker's Paris guide 13th edition, published 27 years later, in 1898, later summarized these events as follows:
The siege of Paris in 1870-71 ranks among the most remarkable occurrences in the annals of modern warefare. After the decisive battle of Sedan [near the border with Belgium where Napoléon III capitulated to the Prussians] the victorious German troops pushed forward to Paris without delay, while the Government of the National Defence made the most strenuous exertions to place the capital in a state of defence. Cattle and grain were sent into the city in immense quantities, the roads by which the prussians would probably march were rendered impassable, and the arming of the forst and the Enceinte [the ramparts surrounding Paris] was proceeded with as rapidly as possible. The troops in Paris at the beginning of the siege numbered about 200,000 men, but of these only 60,000 or 70,000 were regular soldiers. The besieging force was composed of six army-corps under the Crown Prince of Prussia and the army of the Meuse under the Crown Prince of Saxony, the full strength of which consisted of 202,000 infantry, 34,000 cavalry, and 900 guns.
By 15 September 1870, the advanced guard of the Crown Prince's army was within 10 miles of Paris and on the 17th a pontoon bridge was thrown across the Seine at Villeneuve-St-George. After a short but severe contest at Sceaux Versailles was reached, and here a few days later, the German Headquarters were established. Meanwhile the army of the Meuse had occupied the ground on the right banks of the Seine and Marne, thus completing the investiture. The aim of the besiegers was the reduction of the city by famine, while the only course of defence practicable to the besieged was to pierce the investing lines and establish communication with the relief army on the Loire [where the French national government had fled in advance of the German armies].
[Numerous sorties attempting to break out of Paris were led between September and the end of December - each ultimately repulsed]
In the meantime the besiegers had decided on a general bombardment of the city ... and from 5 January 1871 onward an active cannonade was directed against the city from almost every point of its environment. The distress of the besieged now reached its climax. The hopelessness of the situation was recognized by all military authorities, but a final sortie was undertaken in deference to public opinion. The Naional Guards, who had hitherto been spared active service, took part in this sally, which was directed against Versailles, under cover of the guns of Mont Valérien. The French were once more driven back, with immense loss, on 19 January.
Resistence was now at an end. On 23 January, Jules Favre went to Versailles to negotiate an armistice, which was arranged on the 28th of January. The following day the Germans were put in possession of the forts. The preliminaries of peace were concluded on 24 February and signed on 28 February. Part of the German army made a triumphal entry into Paris on 1 March, but was withdrawn in two days on the prompt ratification of the treaty of peace by the National Assembly at Bordeaux.
The Communard insurrection entailed a second siege of Paris (April - May), more disastrous than the first, followed by a fierce and sanguinary week of street-fighting. The Tuileries Palace, Hôtel de Ville were burned, the Vendôme Column overthrown and many other public and private edifices more or less completely burned or ruined.
Paris and Environs; Handbook for Travellers by Karl Baedeker 13th ed. published 1898
Having agreed to, and signed the peace accords with Germany, the National Assembly now moved from Bordeaux to Versailles. The Prussians contined to occupy northern France, and to surround Paris. Within Paris however, the Communards remained defient. What was left of the National Guard within the city, and their cannons in particular, became part of the Commune. The National Government at Versailles now attempted to restore order within Paris. The first taste of how hard this would be came early on the morning of 18 March when General Lecomte rode to Montmartre to take control of cannon that had been placed there. As a crowd gathered, the mayor of Montmartre, Georges Clemenceau, berated Lecomte for daring to come for the cannon. The geering of the crowd rose the temperature. Finally Lecomte gave orders to load and fix bayonets. There was no response from his troops. Three times he repeated the order. By now his soldiers were dropping their arms, tearing off their uniforms, and fraternizing with the crowd. The situation was degenerating into chaos, Lecomte and his officers were taken by the rabble and put in an improvised prison in a nearby dancehall [which one might suppose was in/near Place Pigalle].
Yet as things would have it the Commune could not resist the military power of the better organized and provisioned soldiers of the National Assembly in Versailles. The Prussians stood aside as French soldiers marched on French defenders of the Commune. The 600 barricades thrown up throughout the city could not hold them off, and one by one, they fell. Often their defenders were lined up, and summarily shot.
The night of 27-28 May, their last stand took place among the tombs of Père-Lachaise Cemetary. Archibald Forbes, an English journalist, recorded the aftermath at the Mur des Fédérés (Wall of the Federalists) in the south eastern corner of the cemetary.
When I returned the Communists were at their last gasp in the Château d'Eau, the Buttes de Chaumont, and Père-Lachaise. On the afternoon of the 28th, after just one week of fighting, Marshal MacMahon announced, `I am absolute master of Paris'. On the following morning I visited Père-Lachaise, where the very last shots had been fired. Bivouac fires had been fed with the souvenirs of pious sorrow, and the trappings of woe had been torn down to be used as bedclothes. But there had been no great amount of fighting in the cemetery itself. An infallible token of close and heavy firing are the dents of many bullets, and of those there were comparatively few in Père-Lachaise. Shells, however, had fallen freely, and the results were occasionally very ghastly. But the ghastliest sight in Père-Lachaise was in the south-eastern corner, where, close to the boundary wall, there had been a natural hollow. The hollow was now filled up by dead. One could measure the dead by the rod. There they lay, tier above tier, each successive tier powdered over with a coating of chloride of lime - two hundred of them patent to the eye, besides those underneath hidden by the earth covering layer after layer. Among the dead were many women. There, thrown up in the sunlight, was a well-rounded arm with a ring on one of the fingers; there, again, was a bust shapely in death. And yonder faces which to look upon made one sudder - faces distorted out of humanity with ferocity and agony combined. The ghastly effect of the dusty white powder on the dulled eyes, the gnashed teeth, and the jagged beards cannot be described. How died these men and women? Were they carted hither and laid out in this dead-hole of Père-Lachaise? Not so: the hole had been replenished from close by. Just yonder was where they were posted up against that section of pock-pitted wall - there was no difficulty in ready the open book - and were shot to death as they stood or crouched.
The Suppression of the Paris Commune; 23 - 24 May 1871 The Daily News, 26 May 1871
The week of 21 - 28 May became known as La semaine sanglante (The blood-soaked week). Versailles admitted to 17,000 fatalities among the defenders of Paris. Other estimates are as high as 30,000. Losses to the Versailles side are put at about 1000, with 6,500 wounded. All of this within a week, while during the French Revolution, and Terror, 19,000 died in nearly a year an a half. Roughly 50,000 were arrested after the suppression of the Commune. Some of these escaped, many were imprisoned, the worst offenders - some 4,500 - being sent to New Caledonia in the South Pacific.
What is most important about the Paris Commune of 1871? Peter Kropotkin wrote in 1895:
Why is the idea represented by the Commune of Paris so attractive to the workers of every land, of every nationality? The answer is easy. The revolution of 1871 was above all a popular one. It was made by the people themselves, it sprang spontaneously from the midst of the mass, and it was among the great masses of the people that it found its defenders, its heroes, its martyrs. It is just because it was so thoroughly ``low'' that the middle class can never forgive it. And at the same time its moving spirit was the idea of a social revolution; vague certainly, perhaps unconscious, but still the effort to obtain at last, after the struggle of many centuries, true freedom, true equality for all men. It was the revolution of the lowest of the people marching forward to conquer their rights.
Peter Kropotkin, "The Commune of Paris: II How the Commune Failed to realize its true aim and yet set that aim before the world", Freedom Pamphlets, no. 2 London, W. Reeves, 1895.