Massacre: The Life and Death of the Paris Commune of 1871, by John Merriman, Yale University Press, 384 pp, £20, ISBN: 978-0300174526
On January 11th, over a million people marched through the streets of Paris in solidarity with the journalists of Charlie Hebdo, the two police and four Jewish civilians, victims of the Kouachi brothers and Amedy Coulibaly in their jihadist killing spree. It was a powerful demonstration of respect, sympathy, and support for the principles of press freedom and laicité. There were no political or trade union banners and no slogan-chanting: just sporadic renderings of the Marseillaise and bursts of applause for police along the route. It was the largest Parisian street demonstration since the Liberation in August 1944 and followed a three-pronged route, from the Place de la République to the Place de la Nation: one section going up the boulevard de Ménilmontant and past the Père Lachaise cemetery, another following the boulevard Voltaire through the Place Léon Blum, and a third going down the boulevard des Filles du Calvaire past the Place de la Bastille. The Place de la République, Père Lachaise, boulevard Voltaire and the Bastille formed four fitting symbolic spots for republican solidarity, indelibly linked to the republican image of Marianne, the Enlightenment’s championing of free speech, the Commune’s mur des fédérés and the people’s victory in the 1789 revolution. The end point of the march, the Place de la Nation, has less symbolic power: formerly known as the Place du Trône, and the site where over one thousand three hundred people were guillotined during the French Revolution, it was renamed the Place de la Nation in the 1880s and now has a giant statue of the Triumph of the Republic as its centrepiece.
Symbolism is important in French politics. Republican demonstrations tend to use the artisanal eastern areas of the city as their focal points, whereas the right wing favours the Champs Élysées in the more prosperous west. The artisanal east embraces the faubourg Saint Antoine, the eleventh arrondissement and Belleville, which was a rapidly developing industrial zone in the mid-nineteenth century. All were also focal points of the Paris Commune, which John Merriman brings vividly life in this detailed and action-packed narrative. Merriman is a leading historian of nineteenth century France, of the revolutions of 1830 and 1848, of mid-century Limoges and of the anarchist activity of the 1880s and 1890s. As befits a historian of revolution his heart lies on the left and this compelling narrative is written very much from ground level within the communard side, providing a counterbalance to Robert Tombs’s analysis of the Commune as seen from Versailles.
The Commune was essentially a civil war between a radicalised Paris and the rest of France, following French defeat in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-1. After Napoleon III’s capture at Sedan his Second Empire collapsed and a republic was proclaimed from the traditional site of the balcony of the Hotel de Ville. A government of national defence was hurriedly patched together to carry on the war but Paris was put under siege by the Prussian army, the military situation proved hopeless and in late January a truce was signed with a united Germany. The historic French aim of keeping Germany divided, stretching back to Richelieu but fatally compromised by Napoleon I’s hubris, had finally collapsed. During the siege political radicalism had grown in Paris with the emergence of clubs, newspapers and democratic structures around the National Guard. However, elections that were held in February to a new Assembly, with the authority to negotiate a permanent peace with Germany, produced a right-wing assembly dominated by conservatives and royalists. It appointed the veteran politician Adolphe Thiers as prime minister, a man who came originally from Provence and had been politically active since the 1820s. Thiers was a conservative republican, determined to impose order and bring the capital to heel, and he quickly ended the moratorium on the sale of goods in pawn shops, made all overdue bills (including rent) payable immediately and moved the seat of government to Versailles on the grounds that Paris was too dangerous. These were direct blows at a population that was suffering mass unemployment since the previous summer and the final straw proved to be his order to remove cannon from the National Guard in Montmartre on March 18thy. The central committee of the National Guard stepped in, Thiers pulled back all troops from the city and within days Paris was in revolt.
What followed was over ten weeks of innovation and revolution, marked by vibrant political debate and social welfare reform that included the opening of workers’ cooperatives and collective workshops to provide work and subsistence for the needy and the poor. Politically, the Commune was multipolar and decentralised, with only a very flimsy central authority, initially provided by the central committee of the National Guard and then by a municipal government, or Commune, elected by universal male suffrage in late March. Yet relations between the two, as Merriman points out, were always strained and there was a great deal of autonomy at arrondissement level as well. The Commune’s activists tended to be men and women in their twenties and thirties, most of them literate although few had had a secondary education. Two-thirds had been born outside Paris, and then sucked into areas like La Villette, Belleville and Saint-Denis by the building and industrial boom of the 1850s and 1860s. Many were unskilled labourers, but most activists were artisans, skilled workers, clerks and shopkeepers, with a scattering of intellectuals and artists such as Gustave Courbet the realist painter. Merriman provides a comprehensive picture of their involvement, and also welcome attention to the role of women, who supplied around fifteen per cent of the membership of political clubs; some of them, like Elisabeth Dmitrieff, established the Union des Femmes to build barricades while others like Louise Michel were active and vociferous in clubs and workshops. Although Versailles deliberately exaggerated their importance, several hundred foreigners were also involved, attracted by the potential for a full-blown working class revolution.
Yet that potential was never there, for the vast majority of the communards had little interest in attacking private property, and were instead a product of the rich ideological diversity of the French left. Jacobins looked back to the 1789 revolution for their ideal of a centralised democratic republic; Proudhonists had their roots instead in the July Monarchy and looked for a decentralised structure of self-governing cooperatives and communes, of which Paris would just be one. To their left, followers of Auguste Blanqui, who spent the entire commune in prison, insisted on shelving the social question until they had consolidated the political foundations of the revolution. Almost no one subscribed to Marx’s ideal of a socialism founded on the abolition of private property.
If the Commune’s social and political aims were fluid, its religious aims were not and its prime target was the Catholic church, which had firmly attached itself to the conservative and royalist right since 1789. After the death of Archbishop Christophe de Beaumont on the barricades in June 1848 it had become one of the major props of the Second Empire, benefiting in return from an almost total monopoly of the educational system. Largely due to Catholicism’s persistent habit of cosying up to the political right, anticlericalism had become a feature of popular radicalism and exploded into life as the Commune began: church schools were closed, state and church separated, religious orders dispersed and churches used as shelters, refuges and political clubs. When the Versailles government executed several captured prisoners in early April, Archbishop Darboy was taken hostage, along with several dozen priests, and imprisoned in the Conciergerie, which had held victims waiting for the guillotine during the French revolutionary terror. He was eventually executed on May 24th after Thiers refused to barter prisoner exchanges: the third Parisian archbishop to die a violent death since 1848.
What began as festival ended in tragedy. There was no realistic hope of the Communards either fragmenting the French state into self-governing units or persuading the provinces to rally behind them. Without outside support their fate was inevitable. Thiers quickly mopped up mini-communes in Lyon, Marseille, Toulouse and elsewhere. Even leading republican politicians like Clemenceau, Gambetta or Victor Hugo refused to swing behind the Commune, opting instead for an unsuccessful attempt to negotiate a compromise. Thiers then was able to methodically put together an army that badly needed a morale boost after its drubbing at the hands of the Prussians, and gradually move on Paris from the west. It remorselessly reconquered the capital, suburb by suburb and street by street as the Communards fought a long and bloody rearguard battle. The army neutralised barricades by outflanking them through side streets, or firing from high buildings, while the Communards delayed their advance in a desperate rearguard resistance that included the appalling tactic of setting fire to major buildings. The Tuileries Palace was badly damaged, along with the Ministry of Finance and the Palais Royal while the Hôtel de Ville was totally gutted (today’s building is just a faithful replica). The fighting ended in Belleville, and in the tenth and eleventh arrondissements, climaxing in a final massacre in the Père Lachaise cemetery on Sunday, May 28th at the spot now known as the mur des fédérés. Thiers’s forces of order were no sabbatarians, the Commune was well and truly over and much of Haussman’s Paris in ruins.
The exact death toll will never be known. Communards themselves later claimed a figure of more than thirty-five thousand. Merriman goes for a lower figure of seventeen thousand, while Robert Tombs, who studied the conflict from the Versailles side, opts for less than half that number, around eight thousand. Even using the lower death figure, the Commune had almost four times more Parisian deaths in ten weeks than the French revolutionary terror achieved in eighteen months. Yet statistics alone will never reflect the intensity of the conflict and Merriman rightly emphasises the importance of the class hatred that shaped the attitude and behaviour of the political and military authorities both during and after the event. Several army units slaughtered opponents without authorisation, interrogation or reprimand. A Te Deum was later celebrated in Notre Dame for the murdered Archbishop Darboy, but none for the thousands of communard dead, whom Pius IX later called “men escaped from Hell”. The Catholic church went on to clarify its attitude by constructing the basilica of the Sacré-Coeur in Montmartre as an act of penance for the sins that had brought Prussian defeat and civil war. Like Père Lachaise cemetery, it has since lost much of its symbolic significance and became just another stop on the tourist trail.
Yet history has ironies to match its bathos and one of the short-term results of Thiers’s victory over the Commune was the belief that a republic could guarantee order as effectively as a monarchy or empire. As Thiers remarked, “the republic will be conservative or it will not be”. A return to kings was unnecessary –just as well, as the rival Orléanist and Bourbon candidates fell out over who should reign first ‑ and the Third Republic was consolidated in the 1870s, to create the model on which successive republics have been founded. Another consequence was the devastation of the French left as, besides the dead, over four thousand Communards were deported to the Pacific island of New Caledonia. By the time an amnesty allowed thousands to return in 1880 the republic was firmly established: Bastille Day became an official celebration for the first time that year. It was also the year when the first commemoration was held at the mur des fédérés in Père Lachaise, a tradition that continues until now on every May 1st. The communards are dead but their legacy was important and Merriman’s study is the best point of departure for anyone wanting to know the idealism, violence and tragedy involved.
Hugh Gough is emeritus professor of history at University College Dublin.