The Paris Commune – from the archives, 1871 | France


The Paris Commune was a radical and popular government which ruled Paris from March 18 to May 28, 1871. It occurred following the defeat of France in the Franco-German War and the collapse of the Second Empire of Napoleon III (1852-1870). The Parisians united to overthrow the existing French regime which had failed to protect them from the Prussian siege. The elected Commune Council adopted socialist policies and oversaw the city’s functions, but was ultimately overthrown when the French army took over the city. About 20,000 insurgents were killed, 38,000 arrested and over 7,000 deported.

March 3, 1871

Victor Hugo, in Les Misérables, describes June 18, 1815 as “the saddest day in the history of France”; but he himself will probably now be the first to transfer the title of this sad preeminence to March 1, 1871. Last Wednesday, France was doubly humiliated; The Prussian troops entered Paris for the third time in this century and, on the same day, the French National Assembly, obliged to meet far away in a provincial town, ratified a peace treaty which proclaimed on all lines the utterly dejected and helpless state of the nation.

The Parisian state

From an occasional correspondent
April 3, 1871

Paris has once again become a besieged city. The government has cut the mail and none of the trains are running. It is said that the army is concentrating in Courbevoie and Puteaux to march on Paris tomorrow. The Municipality is strengthening all its positions. Place Vendôme is bristling with bayonets; every foot of land is covered with armed men. The Grand Hotel was occupied by the National Guards, and all the windows facing the rue de la Paix and the adjacent streets were barricaded with sandbags, loopholes being left for the musketeers. 300,000 francs were requisitioned from the railways.

The Banque de France has taken on a large printing press for the printing of 10-franc notes for the Commune. Tickets will be issued under duress and protest. The Bank is still open and dealing as usual.

There are no obstacles on the bridges yet. All the public buildings near the old Hôtel-Dieu, and the Hôtel itself, have been transformed into fortresses by the Municipality. [Adolphe] Assi and the other members of the Commune walk in parade, preceded by horsemen and followed by a motley staff.

Government spies in Versailles report that the Commune has 156,000 men under arms. The secret societies here number 120,000 men. Both of these figures are exaggerated. The paper strength of all their battalions is 120,000 men, but not half of their battalions have more than 80 men who will serve.

It is now said in Versailles that Marshal Mac-Mahon will command the army. General Chanzy did not give his word so as not to take part in operations against the insurgents. When the rent reduction decree was published, he was received in several model shelters amid prolonged cries of “Long live the democratic and social Republic”.

The dissensions in the Commune are great, but the Committee of the six leaders remains of the same spirit and controls everything. The number of regular soldiers of all arms currently in Paris is incredible. They swarm in all the streets. It is known with certainty that 33 men have been put to death by the Central Committee or their myrmidons since March 18. This number does not include those killed on rue de la Paix. They were executed under the most frivolous pretexts. Three of them were shot by National Guardsmen in Belleville because the latter did not admire the way they were dressed. As I finish my dispatch, I learn that the government will begin to throw its troops across the river at midnight tonight.

From our own correspondent
May 25, 1871

A terrible fire rages in the city center of Paris. The batteries of Versailles fire furiously against the districts which still hold. With the help of the telescope, the gruesome fact is revealed that many dead and injured lie in the streets without any help.

June 1, 1871

Civilian government is temporarily suspended in Paris. the city is divided into four districts, under Generals Ladmirault, Cissey, Douay and Vinoy. “All the powers of the civilian authorities for the maintenance of order are transferred to the military.” Summary executions continue, and military deserters, arsonists and members of the Commune are shot without mercy.

The rue de Rivoli after the fights and fires of the Paris Commune, 1871. Photograph: Niday Picture Library / Alamy

From our special correspondent
L’Observateur, June 4, 1871

I doubt anyone outside of Paris can fully appreciate the horror of the situation over the last few days of last week. For at least four days and four nights, every inmate in each of the city’s countless apartments was in perpetual fear of death by fire. The flammable shells of the insurgents were sown on the city from the batteries of Montmartre and Belleville, and all around the city there were agents or emissaries of the Commune squatting and trying to set fire to any house in the openings of which they could pour. oil. I am quite prepared to admit that there have been immense exaggerations about the number and activity of these agents. In times of panic like today, there is no story too monstrous to be credited with yet. Just yesterday I was talking to a trader I have known for years and congratulated him on the end of it all. “Ah. Sir, he replied, who can say it’s over? I can’t close my eyes without seeing the flames. I can’t sleep at night without dreaming that the house is on fire. And if, as I believe, this saying represents the feeling today of a large number of Parisians, we can realize what their agony must have been like when the air was filled with smoke, and that on all sides we saw only flames.

There is no adviser as cruel as fear, and I cannot doubt that the reprisals committed by the French troops were often brutally, savagely cruel.

From a correspondent
July 26, 1872

The Commune has had its military and political historians, both friendly and hostile, the optimistic narrative of these being as unworthy of credit as the pessimistic narrative. A book which could adopt for itself the epigraph which precedes Montaigne’s essays, “It’s frosty a book of good faith, reader, ‘was still a desiderata until Madame Blanchecotte published her Tablettes d’une Woman during the Commune. This lady is the author of two works of moral philosophy, crowned by the French Academy, and having served in the ambulances during the Prussian siege. During this terrible time, she had grown used to the smell of gunpowder and insensitive to the horrible din of the artillery. This tough apprenticeship had therefore made her fit to be a calm, though thoughtful and sensitive spectator of the terrible civil war that broke out on March 18, 1871.

Tuesday April 15 People are hungry for strong emotions; they take pleasure in seeing the graves of the slain insurgents pass; they are delighted if a fierce display of unsung dead gives them the spectacle of open coffins. I have heard pretty saleswomen with soft eyes complacently communicate these cemetery impressions. Young mothers take their children there; the little ones are happy; they have seen corpses, and they tell it with pride to others.

April 29 As I walked home on the bus this afternoon, I couldn’t help but stare at the face of a growing boy continuously, so naive, so in a good mood, so young and so communicative under his military equipment of sword and rifle, that I asked: “Why, my child, how old are you: you?” – Seventeen, ma’am. I am a volunteer; for you see, I belong to the people. My grandfather was killed in the uprising of June 1848; my father died of grief; and my mother said to me, “Avenge them. It does not mean that we will win; we never win. We are sheep, and we will always be shorn.

wednesday 24 may The night was dreadful, with mutual fury. Shells, shrapnel, cannonade, musketry, everything continued to explode in a frightful concert. The sky itself is red, the lightning bolts of the massacre have ignited it; the action is very near, in Luxembourg; we see the fire and smoke of battle; they shoot from everywhere, roofs, windows, cellars.

3 am: Ambulance carts pass red with blood; under blankets that are too short; the corpses are jostled; they pick them up by carts at a time. Our barricade has finally become “serious”, it is a model. They made loopholes; a machine gunner is already in place, and a huge cannon is waiting to take its place. A young artilleryman steps over him, his gaze fixed and his arms crossed. He barely responds to those who speak to him. More and more powder is constantly being passed to increase the dreadful reserve of the Pantheon. It was the old insurgents who guarded the barricades during the night. They are trembling in the morning air.

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