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Archive for the ‘Commune’ Category

first day

 

When you take a guided tour in France—whether it is a Loire château, or any other building erected before 1789—inevitably, there comes the time when the guide says: “Unfortunately, during the Revolution…,” and there follows a list of damaged or destroyed artifacts. The French were fond of revolutions – when they were happening. Afterward, seeing what they had done in moments of passion, they wept.

The 1789 revolution, the very first one, is well known. The guillotine, the years of terror, the king Louis XVI and the queen Marie-Antoinette executed. Having gotten the taste of it, the French people became serial revolutionaries. March 18 marks the anniversary of the Commune of Paris, one of the three revolutions that shook the city in the 19th century and, decidedly, the bloodiest of all. The sixty-two days of its duration caused up to thirty thousand deaths (the number varies according to different sources).

What led to this bloodbath? Why did the prosperous France of the Second Empire wake up as an impoverished Third Republic? Why was Paris in ruins?

In July 1870, the French declare war on Prussia, or, rather, are tricked to do it. The crafty Chancellor Bismarck needs the conflict to unify a collection of small German-speaking countries into one powerful nation. Ill-prepared, the French army is defeated by the Prussians in the battle of Sedan and the emperor Napoleon III made prisoner. Riots in Paris follow the bad news and the next day, September 4th, the empire is overthrown. A Republican government moves into the City Hall, while the Prussians close in on Paris.

 

rats

During the siege, dogs, cats, and rats were sold at high prices. The rich dined on exotic meat provided by the zoo animals

 

Paris is besieged during the winter months. The weather is cruel and the city suffers from a severe famine. Hunger and typhoid fever ravage Paris from within, while the Prussians shell it from the outside. Starved and ill, the Parisians learn that a new humiliation had visited the country: the German Empire was proclaimed in Versailles and an armistice has been signed.

 

bismarck

The Empire of Germany, a new European power, is proclaimed in the Versailles palace

 

This does not sit well with the Parisians, who do not consider themselves defeated. The German boots desecrating the exquisite beauty of the Hall of Mirrors? Ce n’est pas acceptable! Anger is rising when they learn the terms of peace.  The Germans demand a two-day entry to Paris, the surrender of two provinces (Alsace and Lorraine) and war reparations amounting to one billion gold coins. Their army would occupy the country until the debt is paid off.

 

victory parade

The German victory parade in the streets of Paris

 

Aware that a revolt is brewing, the government moves its headquarters from Paris to Versailles.  The spark ignites when the government tries to disarm Paris by confiscating 248 cannons from Montmartre and other working-class neighborhoods on the periphery. The cannons belong to the city; they were paid for by war subscription. The people rise to defend their property and the soldiers’ loyalty shifts. Two generals are seized and shot. There is no way back. The insurgents erect barricades and the Commune of Paris is proclaimed.

 

debut

800 barricades went up in the city

 

Elected on March 26th, the Commune is in direct opposition to the conservative national government. The core, like in all revolutions, are intellectuals, students, writers, artists, and artisans with egalitarian ideas and the vision of justice for all. Outraged as they are by the government’s betrayal, many Parisians of the middle class join in the insurrection. The main muscle of the revolution is the impressionable working class which, when excited, easily turns into a mob.

 

women

Women were heavily engaged in the insurrection, both as nurses and combatants. The 1789 revolution had its tricoteuses (women who took their knitting to the guillotine to keep their hands busy during the executions). The Commune of Paris gives birth to the pétroleuses. “The women behaved like tigresses, throwing petroleum everywhere and distinguishing themselves by the fury with which they fought”. (Edwin Child, a young Londoner working in Paris.)

 

The basic ideas of the revolution are modern and positive: reform of the working conditions, good children education, separation of the church and the state, women’s equality. Their application is awkward, to say the least. “Property is theft,” the revolutionaries declare as they seize the Bank of France. All religious institutions are invaded, their material goods confiscated, the churches turned into social clubs for the people. On April 23, George Sand, the famous novelist and, herself a Republican, writes to Gustav Flaubert, author of Madame Bovary:  “The horrible adventure continues. They ransom, they threaten, they arrest, they judge. They have taken over all the city halls, all the public establishments, they’re pillaging the munitions and the food supplies.” 

 

church

Churches became social clubs for the people

 

Without a clear program and with no political experience, the feeling of brotherhood, with which the Commune started, changes into quarrel and resentment. Valuable time is lost in endless debates and little is achieved. Like George Sand, Parisians become tired of this bizarre social experiment. They long for peace and quiet; the poorer ones want to return to their familiar misery with its own reassuring habits. Others, the ardent supporters, are determined to fight. “The Commune or death!” they chant.

 

army

The Versailles troops approach the walls of Paris

 

Meanwhile, in Versailles, the government has reconstituted the army with war prisoners released by the Germans. The Germans hold their position northwest of the city while the Versailles troops approach from the southeast. Paris is surrounded again. The insurgents attempt several attacks outside the city walls, each time with no success. They send emissaries to Versailles, who are killed. The Commune, in turn, captures hostages, chiefly among the clergy.  On May 21st, the Versailles troops break in and the infamous Bloody Week begins.

 

combat

Barricades are reinforced and new ones added as the combat rages street by street. The soldiers break into houses and pierce the walls to avoid confrontation with the barricades

 

The army takes no prisoners. Every adversary is shot dead. Unarmed civilians caught with gunpowder traces on their hands are executed as well. The Communards take revenge by killing the hostages. The Archbishop of Paris is among the victims.

 

commune massacre haxo

The massacre of hostages

 

massacre rue puebla

The execution of the Archbishop of Paris

 

Paris-burning

Paris burning. In the foreground is the imperial palace

Paris is shelled again, this time by the French army. The Ministry of Finance is destroyed in the process. Fires break out in many prestigious locations. These are later explained by the partisans of the Commune as the result of the shelling. However, most of the gutted buildings bore no traces of shelling. They were deliberately set on fire. The legend of the pétroleuses, if it is a legend, started here. As a result, working-class women caught carrying a suspicious container were summarily executed.

 

petroleuse

 

radnice hori

The City Hall on fire

 

tuileries

The imperial palace after the fire

 

Government and police offices are consumed by the fire, their archives destroyed. The air, already unbreathable, is filled with whirling charred paper remains that settle on the roofs and sidewalks. The Tuileries palace is a total loss. The stones will be sold, piece by piece, as construction material. A wing of the Louvre also suffered fire damage.

The novelist Emile Zola, was one of the first reporters to enter the city during the Bloody Week. He wrote: “Never in civilized times has such a terrible crime ravaged a great city […] The men of the Hotel de Ville could not be other than assassins and arsonists. They were beaten and fled like robbers from the regular army, and took vengeance upon the monuments and houses […] The fires of Paris have pushed over the limit the exasperation of the army. […] Those who burn and who massacre merit no other justice than the gunshot of a soldier.”

 

defeat

The end of the Commune

 

The revenge is atrocious and out of proportion. The Commune killed 64 hostages yet the insurgents are now butchered by the thousands. Nobody is spared, even the injured patients in an ambulance along with the doctors and nurses. Women are shot with children in their arms.

 

summary executions

Many innocents were shot along with the rebels

 

Four days after the battle is over, Emile Zola reports in a softened tone: “The court martials are still meeting and the summary executions continue, less numerous, it’s true. The sound of firing squads, which one still hears in the mournful city, atrociously prolongs the nightmare […] Paris is sick of executions. It seems to Paris that they’re shooting everyone. Paris is not complaining about the shooting of the members of the Commune, but of innocent people. It believes that, among the pile, there are innocent people, and that it’s time that each execution is preceded by at least an attempt at a serious inquiry […] When the echoes of the last shots have ceased, it will take a great deal of gentleness to heal the million people suffering nightmares, those who have emerged, shivering from the fire and massacre.”

sand

G. Sand

Emerging, shivering from the fire, is also George Sand. She writes:” I come from Paris, and I do not know whom to speak to. I am suffocated. I am quite upset, or rather out of heart. The sight of the ruins is nothing compared to the great Parisian insanity. With very rare exceptions, everybody seemed to me only fit for the strait-jacket. One half of the population longs to hang the other half, which returns the compliment. That is clearly to be read in the eyes of the passers-by.”

 

march

Prisoners being taken to Versailles

 

The surviving rebels are marched twenty miles to Versailles. They suffer insults along the way. One of the gossipy Goncourt brothers later recalled that he saw society ladies, who had never raised their voice, vomit their hatred using invectives that would make a sailor blush.

 

prisoners versailles

Female prisoners awaiting interrogations

 

condamnation

The trials were of short duration, with the execution shortly after

 

The prisoners, who were not condemned to death, were shipped to New Caledonia, an island in the Pacific Ocean.  Forty-three thousand were sent there in crowded conditions and with little food. A handful came back after the amnesty twenty years later.

In all, with thirty thousand dead, not counting the injured, and another forty thousand deported, it took over ten years to restore the Paris working force. These people were not only the manual laborers. They were also highly skilled workers and artisans of superior training. Even today, 146 years after the event, there are fresh flowers laid at the wall where the last Communards were executed. The working class keeps paying respect to the victims of this Parisian calamity.

Related posts:

How Germany was Born in France (The Shah of Persia, on his 1873 visit to Europe, comments on the post-Commune Paris)

Paris of the 1870s: Risen from the Ashes

12 Events That Influenced 19th Century Paris

 

 

 

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Anton von Werner, The Proclamation of the German Empire (January 18, 1871)

King of Prussia`s proclamation as Emperor of Germany in the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles; Bismarck can be seen in the center wearing white.

When declaring war on Prussia in July 1870, Frenchmen did not expect that within months the prosperous Second Empire would be no more. It all happened so fast: the war, the fall of the Empire and its replacement by the Third Republic, followed by the Prussian occupation and the horrors of the Commune uprising yet to come. For Prussia, however, it was a time of glory and the time for unification of all the small German-speaking kingdoms and duchies into a new European power – the German Empire. To France’s chagrin and humiliation, the ceremony was held in the famous Hall of Mirrors in Versailles. For Otto von Bismarck, architect of the unification project, the day marked the culmination of his political career.

Nasir al-Din Shah, ruler of Persia 1848-96, photo by Nadar

Two years later, on a visit to Paris, the Shah of Persia captured in his diary  the prevailing French mood and the political confusion that reigned at the time:

To-day we noticed a singular frame of mind in the French. First of all, they still keep up the state of mourning that followed the German War, and they are all, young or old, sorrowful and melancholy. The dresses of the women, ladies and men, are all dresses used for mourning; with little ornamentation and very plain. Now and then some people shouted: “Vive le Maréchal” , “Vive le Shah de Perse!”, from another one I heard , as I strolled about by night, a loud voice saying: “May his reign and rule be firm and enduring.”

From the whole of these circumstances it becomes evident that there are at present in France numerous parties who desire a monarchy; but they are in three sections, one desiring the son of Napoleon, another the dynasty of Louis-Phillipe, and the third Henry the Fifth, who is then Bourbon family; and although this and the family of Louis Phillipe are really one race, they have distinctions.

The wishers for a republic, on the other hand, have great power; but they are not all of one mind. Some are for a Red Republic, which is a fundamental commonweal. Others are for a moderate republic in which monarchical institutions shall be found, without a monarch’s existing. Others again wish otherwise. Among all these diversities of opinion it is now a very difficult matter to govern, and the consequences of these incidents will surely eventuate in many difficulties, unless that all combine on one plan and establish either a pure monarchy or a pure republic. Then, France is the most powerful of States, and all must take her into their calculations; whereas, with all these dissidences it is a difficult matter for her to preserve her institutions.

Excerpt from the Diary of H.M. Shah of Persia During his Tour Through Europe in A.D. 1873

Related posts:

The Bloodbath of the Paris Commune

Paris of the 1870’s: Risen from the ashes

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THE FRENCH REVOLUTION 1789-1792

The storming of the Bastille fortress by the people of Paris

THE FIRST REPUBLIC 1789-1792 (The Reign of Terror)

The guillotine

 THE FIRST EMPIRE 1804-1814 

In 1804, Napoleon Bonaparte declares himself Emperor of the French.

Napoleon I

THE RESTORATION 1814-1830

Louis XVIII (House of Bourbon) is installed as king.

Louis XVIII

THE JULY REVOLUTION 1830

THE JULY MONARCHY  1830-1848

The crown goes to Louis Philippe (House of Orléans).

Louis Phillipe

THE REVOLUTION OF 1848

THE SECOND REPUBLIC  1848-1852

The nephew of Napoleon I, Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, is elected president.

Louis Napoleon, president of the 2nd Republic

THE SECOND EMPIRE  1852-1870

In December 1851, Louis Napoleon Bonaparte stages a coup d’ėtat. He becomes Napoleon III of the Second Empire.

Napoleon III (same man, upgraded wardrobe)

THE THIRD REPUBLIC 1870-1940

The Third Republic established itself after the defeat of Napoleon III during the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871). Taken prisoner after the decisive Battle of Sedan, he was later exiled to England, where he died in 1873.

Napoleon III prisoner of Bismarck

THE  SIEGE OF PARIS

September 19, 1870 to January 28, 1871

Besieged by the Prussian army, the Parisians eat everything on four legs, including rats.

A soup kitchen during the Siege of Paris

THE PARIS COMMUNE

March to May 1871. Popular uprising comparable to the revolution of 1789, severely repressed by the government and ending in the Bloody Week during which an estimated 30,000 people were killed or summarily executed.

Paris burning during the Commune – in the foreground the imperial palace

End of the Bloody Week – bodies exhibited for identification

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From Europe Viewed Through American Spectacles by Charles C. Fulton. Text written in 1873.

 

At the celebrated dry-goods establishment Au Bon Marché, which is extensively patronized by Americans, a new feature has been introduced this season. It having been noticed that American gentlemen frequently get impatient whilst their wives and daughters are shopping, and sometimes hurry them off before they have obtained all they want, a well-fitted-up billiard-saloon has been provided for their amusement whilst the purchases are being made. It seems to answer the purpose well, as the gentlemen are always easy to be found when it is necessary for them to come up to the captain’s office and foot the bill.

An American lady tells us that she went to a hair-dresser’s establishment this morning to get her hair shampooed, and, asking the cost, she received the answer that it would be three francs. After the operation was finished she was presented with a bill for nine francs and upon demurring was told that three of the additional francs were for putting her hair up again, two others for the liquid used, and the fourth for the use of the combs and brush. Can any of our Yankee shampooers come up to this sharp practice?

We stopped in this morning at the horse-meat butcher’s shop to look at the meat. There were nice looking sirloin steaks, spare-rib and sirloin roasts, knuckle-joints for soup, and genuine “salt horse” in abundance. We could not have told it from beef, except that the meat was darker red. The gentleman whom we accompanied assured us that he had eaten it as an experiment, and was of the opinion that it was more tender, as a general thing, than ordinary beef. “But,” he added, “I expect you have frequently dined off of it since you have been in Paris, especially if you have taken any meals at the restaurants”. Well, perhaps we have, but “where ignorance is bliss ‘tis folly to be wise”.

The Commune, during their possession of Paris, destroyed, among other things, all the official records of births and marriages. As most of them were family men and women without marriage, or unconscious of their own parentage, the object was to place all on a level of “equality” in this respect. The work of restoring the records is now in progress as all who are not recorded are regarded in the eye of the law as illegitimate. It has made brisk work for the lawyers.

The Parisians have a singular way of signalizing events in their history by the naming of streets. One of the magnificent boulevards branching off from the Grand Opera-House was named Boulevard 2nd December, the day of the Napoléon coup d’état in 1851. The name is now changed to the Boulevard 4th September, the day of the dethronement of the Emperor and the proclamation of the Republic. Should there be another Empire proclaimed, the name will doubtless be changed again to suit the date of its occurrence.

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From Europe Viewed Through American Spectacles by Charles C. Fulton. Text written in 1873.

Fulton was one of the incomprehensibly rich American tourists who invaded Paris two years after the twin calamities of the Franco-Prussian War and the fall of the Second Empire. In 1871, the city was ruined by Prussian bombardment and the Commune of Paris revolution, both responsible for destroying and damaging many public buildings. It is therefore surprising that Fulton never mentions the wounds Paris had sustained. In the two years that followed, Paris seems to have risen from the ashes to dazzle the foreigners as it did under the reign of Napoleon III.

The boulevards of Paris, extending for miles through all sections of the city, present a gay scene at night. The thousands of cafés, brilliant with gas-jets, have their tables out on the broad pavements, and from eight to ten o’clock in the evening it is difficult to obtain a seat in any of them. Ice-cream and coffee is the extent of the Parisian’s indulgence though a few add a little cognac to their coffee. They spend their summer evenings in promenading the boulevards and occasionally stopping for a cup of their favourite beverage.

The sidewalks of the boulevards are at least thirty-five feet wide, and in many prominent places, women are stationed along the curb-stones with chairs to rent, on which those who are tired may for a few centimes rest themselves and view the promenaders as they pass. The broad streets are also filled with carriages so that it is difficult to effect a crossing. They are required by law to have their lamps burning.

Strangers in the city who wish to view these gas-light scenes generally engage carriages and drive slowly through the different boulevards, and a vast number of carriages are constantly passing to a from the various places of amusement. Everybody seems happy and intent upon enjoyment.

[…] The stores are not only brilliantly lighted, but nearly all of them  have rows of gas-lights on the outside, making the streets almost as light as day.

The display of the stores last night on the Boulevard des Capucines exceeded anything we had ever before seen even in Paris. […] The tasteful  arrangement of the goods, the disposition of the lights, and the reflection in the side-glasses with which the shop-windows are always provided, presented a continuous spectacle of surpassing beauty. Ten years ago the Palais Royal was the great central attraction of Paris, but the boulevard stores have so greatly excelled these small establishments that it is now comparatively deserted at night. The hundreds of jewellers’ windows were sparkling with diamonds and precious stones, and even the fancy and dry-goods stores tried to excel one another in the effort to attract attention of the throngs of promenaders.

We walked through some of these central boulevards for nearly two hours, and everywhere the pavements were so filled that it was difficult for three to walk abreast without being continually jostled by the promenaders. This was also the case in the arcades running through the interior of the squares, where the display was similarly attractive. The best possible order was everywhere preserved and the gensdarmes, with their huge cavalry-swords, stood like statues on the corners of the streets, having no occasion to do more than remain quietly at their posts.

There being no cobble-stone pavements in Paris, the carriages and omnibuses make little or no noise as they glide along the smooth asphaltum, nor is there any dust for them to stir up to vex the eyes and the lungs of the people. The sweeping machines are going all night and until ten o’clock in the morning, making the streets as clean as they could be swept with a corn-broom by hand, and lest any dust should be left in the crevices, they are washed off with hose.

In short, Paris is grand. She has passed through her tribulations, and has again presented herself to the world more beautiful and attractive than ever. That the world is pleased is evident from the many thousands of strangers now lingering here to enjoy the brilliant spectacle.

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