The Paris Commune, 150 years later – from the siege of the capital to “Bloody Week”



The Paris Commune sparked an insurrection on March 18, 1871, when the radical National Guard, largely left-wing, refused to accept the authority of the French government, killed two generals, and took control of Paris – initiating reign feverish of the two months of the Communards. on the City of Light. FRANCE 24 looks back on this pivotal moment in the history of France, 150 years later.

The catalyst for the Paris Commune was the crushing defeat of France in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 – “La Débâcle”, as Émile Zola called it in his famous 1892 novel. France Napoleon III was captured in September 1870, the same month the Prussians besieged Paris. The 1.7 million Parisians spent 135 days under siege, increasingly starved for resources. The City of Light capitulated in January 1871.

The same month, the French government signed the armistice of Versailles with Otto von Bismarck, Prussian leader and future chancellor of a united Germany. Bismarck agreed that Prussian troops would not occupy Paris. Instead, the French National Guard would maintain order in the capital, where socialist movements such as the First International had flourished in previous years.

The predominantly Catholic and conservative French electorate voted with a right-wing majority in the legislative elections in February. The left-wing radicals of the National Guard controlling Paris did not accept this result – setting the stage for the emergence of the Commune the following month.

“The sight of the ruins is nothing compared to the great Parisian madness”, wrote a giant of French literature, Gustave Flaubert, to another, George Sand, after having visited Paris after the bloody defeat of the Commune in May 1871. “Half the population aspires to hang the other half, which is the compliment,” continued Flaubert, who was immediately opposed to the Commune.

FRANCE 24 discussed the Paris Commune with the British historian Jonathan Fenby, author of “The History of Modern France”.

What caused the creation of the Paris Commune in March 1871?

The long-term causes of the Commune can be traced back to the Revolution of 1789. France had experienced a series of revolutions, 1789, 1830, 1848, and each had emerged from a great push from the left and ended – with Napoleon, with King Louis-Philippe then with Napoleon III. Revolutionary sentiment had germinated during this time in Paris.

When France lost the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, it led to the siege of Paris and then to the peace treaty in early 1871, which many radicals in Paris refused to accept. They believed that the war could continue, had to continue, and when the national elections in France returned a right-wing majority in the National Assembly, the radicals in Paris wanted to go their own way.

The parliamentary majority was very conservative and included a strong monarchist group. So there was a clear division between France as a whole and Paris, where the radicals were much stronger.

The artillery stationed at the top of the Butte Montmartre in the north of Paris, March 18, 1871. © AFP

How did the Communards take control of Paris?

Hostilities broke out between the National Guard, which was the military force inside Paris itself, which remained from the headquarters, and the national government of Adolphe Thiers to find out who was to take control of several hundred old cannons in various districts of Paris. The National Guard refused to give in and was supported by many sympathetic Parisians. Two generals were killed, and Thiers and the government left for Versailles – at which point what would become the Commune took over in Paris.

The National Guard was the dominant force in Paris itself because the French army had been largely disarmed, either by the defeat of the Prussians in the war or by the peace treaty that followed. The National Guard was left in Paris and was supposed to maintain control there, but it turned out to be a much more radical force than Thiers or the Prussians anticipated.

What was the life of Parisians under the Commune during its two-month reign over the City of Light?

In addition to a rift between Paris and the rest of France, there was a rift inside Paris itself – between the more radical parts of the city and the more bourgeois sections of Paris that s were developed under Napoleon III, in particular with the reconstruction of Paris by Baron Haussmann. .

During the elections of the council of 92 members of the Commune at the end of March, the abstention rates were very high in the bourgeois districts of Paris. Many of their inhabitants left the city at one point or another during the Commune.

Life was very disjointed at the time of the Commune. Each the district council was self-executing; there was no single leader. The decisions of the leaders were often very confused.

There were a lot of differences between different parts of the city, with many of the more radical revolutionaries trying out their own ideas – like workers’ control of businesses.

Church and state were separated, labor laws were introduced to reduce working hours, and there were initiatives like soup kitchens, free schools for children, etc. in various parts of the city.

So there was a mixture of adrenaline and a desire for change and, at the same time, the awareness that Thiers was waiting in Versailles and that an army was regrouping outside the city.

The Vend̫me Column was demolished on May 16 Рat the instigation of the artist Gustave Courbet Рas a symbol of the past which the Municipality wanted to get rid of. It was surmounted by a statue of Napoleon to commemorate his victory at the Battle of Austerlitz in 1805 and was rebuilt after the defeat of the Commune.

From the start there was certainly a very strong anti-clerical feeling. As the tension mounted, particularly when the Versailles government prepared to send troops, there was a general tightening of distrust of anyone who might be against the Commune.

The Archbishop of Paris Georges Darboy [considered a hero for organising care for the wounded during the Franco-Prussian War] was arrested and killed, one of many executions.

How was the Commune defeated in The bloody week (“Bloody Week”), which ended when the national army destroyed the last pockets of Communard resistance on May 28?

The regular army found its way into Paris – an undefended path through the fortifications around Paris that passed through the city and pushed into the center, where there was widespread arson and destruction, especially with the fire at the Tuileries Palace and the Hohtel de Ville (town hall), mainly by the retired Communards.

The army sinks into the strongholds of the Commune in Montmartre and elsewhere in the north of Paris and gradually breaks the resistance of the Communards, if only by the weight of numbers. There were massacres on both sides – it was really a very bloody week.

There has been considerable discussion among historians about the number of people killed during the Commune, especially during The bloody week. The figure they tended to give for this week was 10,000 to 20,000. But Robert Tombs, now professor emeritus of French history at the University of Cambridge, did some convincing work in 2012 indicating a figure of about 6,000 to 7,000 Communards killed, based on municipal records. So it appears that the numbers were considerably smaller than the legend says.

What were the long-term consequences of the Commune in French politics?

The Commune was of course immediately followed by the Third Republic, which was a fairly conservative government in every way, and the Commune was presented as a terrible example of what could happen if the government loses control.

The Communards wanted to run Paris as they saw fit regardless of what was going on in the rest of France and this led to a sort of division for decades: Paris only had a mayor general in 1977, in part. for fear of what the capital would do. if he had too much power and followed his own path as under the Commune.

Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Vladimir Lenin and other revolutionaries seized the Commune as an example of proletarian power, with Lenin’s alleged conclusion that the Commune’s problem was that it was not ruthless enough . It remains an absolute benchmark for the left and for the revolutionary tension of French politics. But the violence of the Commune also remains a warning from the right on what radicalism can lead to.

The minority revolutionary impulse provoked a majority conservative reaction. It’s not just in the nineteenth century; you also get that in the twentieth century. We saw it in the upheaval of 1968.

This minority, this revolutionary tradition, is extremely important for France itself. It goes back to 1789. Again and again you get the revolutionary momentum that leads to conservatism to one degree or another.

It is an embarrassing element for the French faced with their own history. The French left particularly cherishes these revolutionary moments; they cherish the progressive side of the Commune. But at the same time, they find the violence – exerted by both Communards and government troops – difficult to control.


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