Marie McAuliffe is the author of “Dawn of the Belle Epoque” and “Twilight of the Belle Epoque”.
The life and death of the Paris Commune
By John Merriman
Basic. 327 pages. $29.99
The uprising that Victor Hugo so vividly commemorated and romanticized in “Les Miserables” was actually a small affair, overshadowed by other eruptions that rocked the City of Light during the 19th century. The last of these, the Commune uprising of 1871, was by far the bloodiest and most dramatic. Yet despite the deaths of thousands of communards and their supporters, this bloodbath has slipped into the shadows of history. John Merriman, Charles Seymour Professor of History at Yale University, impressively rescues this revolution from obscurity in “Massacre,” his devastating account of the Commune uprising.
Merriman, whose many books include the classic “A History of Modern Europe” and the more recent “The Dynamite Club”, featuringFrench anarchists of the last century, provides the reader with welcome context, from the ignominy of France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War to the miseries of daily life for Parisian workers. By the time the Commune uprising broke out, Paris and Parisians had suffered tremendously, and those who suffered the most were, as always, the poor.
The insurrection was sparked by France’s humiliating defeat by Germany during the war, in which Bismarck’s army captured Napoleon III and subjected Paris to a brutal winter siege. The new French republic, established after the overthrow of the imperial government of Napoleon III, faltered as food became scarce, fuel became scarcer, and many starved or froze.
After several months, the French capitulated, agreeing to peace terms that included crushing indemnity and the loss of Alsace and Lorraine. Using the opportunity to further humiliate the French, Bismarck proclaimed the German Empire in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles and marched his victorious troops down the Champs-Elysées. For those who had suffered for so long trying to survive the Germans, this was unacceptable. In March 1871, the workers of Paris, warlike and patriotic, revolted.
Faced with this opposition, the French government, under the leadership of Adolphe Thiers, beat a hasty retreat to Versailles, while the workers set up their own government, the highly controversial but socially conscious Paris Commune. Troubles broke out first in the working-class stronghold of Montmartre, where government troops (Merriman calls them the Versaillese) seized large numbers of cannons from the citizens who had subsidized them by public subscription and dragged them to the top. from the Butte de Montmartre, where they were determined to keep them. During the ensuing confrontation, a mob captured two generals and shot them dead.
From this point on, a bloodbath became inevitable, although, as Merriman shows, the Communards were not responsible for all the horror. Thiers carefully planned an invasion of Paris, past forts and through thick walls that decades earlier he had been responsible for building. Troops from Versailles probed and pushed until finally, in May, they found their opening and poured into Paris.
Outnumbered and disorganized, the Communards fought hard but were driven from the city center to its outskirts – to Montmartre, Belleville and all those impoverished communities in the 11th, 18th, 19th and 20th arrondissements. Here, on home soil, they fought hard but were overwhelmed – and slaughtered. Merriman provides chilling descriptions of the massacre, mostly drawn from first-person accounts of the massacres and atrocities committed by the Versaillese. Women, children, ordinary people foraging for food or dragged from their beds – great numbers, Communards and non-Communards alike, were summarily shot or bayoneted, many of them disfigured to the point of being unrecognizable.
Merriman suggests that the humiliation suffered by French soldiers at the hands of the Germans helped fuel the terrible vengeance of the Versaillese, which they wrought on the most vulnerable citizens of Paris. He also notes that fear played a large role among the Parisians who aided the Versaillese, especially as exaggerated rumors circulated about the killing and destruction of the Communards. Paris, after all, was less than a century from the Reign of Terror.
But especially important, according to Merriman, was the hatred the well-to-do had for the downtrodden. He cites individuals who speak of the Communards and their followers as beasts or wild animals, whose extermination was necessary to rid the city of a terrible contagion. Paris, according to this view, needed to be purified — a blood atonement.
When the terrible period of May known since as the “Bloody Week” was over and the last communards were lined up against the wall of the Père Lachaise cemetery and shot, the communards executed 68 hostages, while the Versaillese executed some between 12,000 and 15,000, Communards and non-Communards. Thousands more were massacred in the streets of Paris, and many more simply disappeared.
The Paris Commune may have been the last of the 19th century revolutions, but as Merriman convincingly concludes, it also served as a chilling introduction to the atrocities of the century to come.