This week on Glory and Defeat: French troops massacre French socialist revolutionaries in blood and chaos. It’s the Paris Commune.
Welcome to the last episode of Glory and Defeat, the story of the Franco-Prussian War. Last week we covered the end of the war from the January armistice to the Treaty of Frankfurt in May 1871. This week, we focus on the Paris Commune, Europe’s first socialist experiment that ends in a deadly civil war.
France and Germany finally end the Franco-Prussian War with the Preliminary Peace of February 1871. Most French citizens are relieved the war is over despite the controversial peace terms, but a radical minority in Paris is irreconcilable even though the war has weakened their position. Leftist groups and revolutionary workers have are on edge, and even steal weapons when the Germans leave the city on March 3 and 4. On March 10, 1871, the freshly-elected government of Adolphe Thiers bans some leftist newspapers in Paris, lifts rent controls, and moves from Bordeaux to Versailles. The government know that Versailles and its palace are symbols of the monarchy the Paris radicals detest, and the situation explodes.
On March 18 regular troops of the Versailles government try to take control of the artillery stationed on Montmartre from the National Guard. The National Guardsmen and local residents riot, and some government troops join the rebels. The revolutionaries seized the commanding officers and execute them. A worried Thiers orders the evacuation of the city, which earns him the criticism of writer and moderate republican Victor Hugo:
"Thiers wanted to take back the Belleville cannons was tentative when he should have been bold. He’s put a spark to the powder keg […] He wanted to end the political struggle, but instead he started a class war. En voulant éteindre la lutte politique, il a allumé la guerre sociale."
Paris soon falls under the control of the Commune, but it’s not the When the news of Paris spreads, communes rise up in Marseille, Lyon, St Etienne, Le Creusot, Limoges, Narbonne, Toulouse, and Algers – but these are short-lived and don’t really coordinate with Paris other than statements of support. Rural France mostly supports the government.
Ideologically speaking, the Paris Commune members ranged from left-liberal bourgeois to utopian socialism based more on the theories of . Its leaders include Gustave Flourens, Louis-Auguste Blanqui, Charles Delescluze, and Louise Michel.
The Commune tries to legitimize itself with elections, but these are marked by confusion and uncertainty, and only half of eligible voters participate. Still, the revolutionaries sit in the city hall and refuse to recognize the Versailles government. Victor Hugo is critical of both: "Bref, cette Commune est aussi idiote que l’Assemblée est féroce. In short, this Commune is as idiotic as the National Assembly is ferocious. Both sides are crazy. But France, Paris, and the Republic will survive." (Hugo 188)
The Commune sets out its program on April 19 in its Declaration to the French People:
"Those who betrayed France and delivered Paris to the foreigner […] must bear the responsibility for the grief, suffering, and misfortunes of which we are victim […] Paris is again suffering for all of France and is fighting and sacrificing for intellectual, moral, administrative and economic regeneration, glory, and prosperity." (Declaration)
The declaration goes on to list the Commune’s goals, including:
- The preservation of the republic
- The guarantee of individual rights and liberties
- The guarantee of local autonomy for French communities to control:
- The courts
- Local defense and the National Guard
But not all Parisians share these views. Most conservative and property-owning Parisians are against what they consider a violent political experiment. Wealthy actress Sarah Bernhardt falsely believes the Germans support the uprising, but sees it as a catalyst:
"These calls to revolt, these anarchist cries, these howls of crowds shouting: 'Down with the thrones! Down with the Republics! Down with the rich! […] Down with the Jews! Down with the army! […] Down with everything!' These cries woke up the numb. [...] It was terrible! But it was the awakening. It was life after death."
Edmond de Goncourt is also fiercely opposed, as he complains to his diary on March 19: "The Republic is decidedly a beautiful chimera of greatly thinking, generous, disinterested brains; it is not practicable with the evil and petty passions of the French rabble. For them: Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, mean only the enslavement or death of the upper classes.” (Goncourt, 231)
Parisians like Bernhardt and de Goncourt live in fear during the commune, and fully support the Versailles government. De Goncourt is especially critical of the National Guards who have joined the rebels – to him they were cowards in the face of the Prussians but have now suddenly recovered their courage.
Even today, some see the Commune as an early socialist experiment of a council/civic republic. But the Commune quickly sinks into a catastrophic mixture of extremism, egotistical and overwhelmed leadership, lack of an economic plan, poor administration, and arbitrary terror against the rich and the church. On May 16, for example, famous painter Gustave Courbet oversees the destruction of Napoleon I’s 'Colonne Vendôme' as a symbol of tyranny. Meanwhile communard efforts to organize a systematic defense of Paris go nowhere, the leader of the War Committee has no military experience, and members argue bitterly about nearly every topic. Member Ernest Lefèvre is elected to the Commune but leaves soon after : "Ceci est le dilemme, démissionnaire aujourd’hui, fusillé demain. Resign today, shot tomorrow, that’s the dilemma. This Commune is crazy. Deliberations are in secret, and discussions take place revolver in hand."
On the other hand, some of the communard policies can be seen as sensible and progressive. They pass laws against corrupt profiteering, to separate church and state, and for the equality of men and women. Radical teacher Louise Michel is one of the most prominent leaders of the Commune, on an equal footing with her male counterparts. There are also efforts to improve working and living conditions for workers and the poor.
Militarily, the Commune relies on the National Guard battalions that have stayed in Paris according to the agreement with the Germans, along with untrained civilian volunteers. For two months, these forces fight against government troops at the gates of the city and the surrounding forts - the Versailles army’s artillery even shells Paris. Meanwhile German troops are still stationed around the city to enforce the peace terms, and they stand idly by. In fact the Versailles government even pays the Germans for guarding the perimeter. For Versailles, the Commune’s rejection of the social order is a greater threat than the German army.
The Thiers administration at Versailles and the revolutionary Commune at Paris City Hall are in a state of virtual civil war, which comes to a head in one bloody week in May.
On May 21, the French government army under the command of the same Marshal MacMahon who had been defeated at Sedan breaks into the city. There is fighting at hundreds of barricades, but the rebels are completely outmatched. The city burns, ostensibly set alike by communards called "pThe Versailles troops massacre up to 35,000 disarmed communards – including women - in what is known as the semaine sanglante, the bloody week. General the Marquis de Galliffet proves to be a particularly merciless executioner and earns the nickname le Fusilleur de la Commune, the Executioner of the Commune.
The Comte d’Hérisson is happy to fight against the "red" commune, and he participates in the executions:
"It was useless to ask this bandit for further explanations. I had him taken away and justice was done in the pit of the barricade where all the [rebel sailors] and who had been surprised by the sudden arrival of the troops had already been shot."
German soldier Franz Plitt is among the German troops on the old siege ring who are witness to the chaos as communards flee the carnage:
"Dusk was already breaking when suddenly a mob of at least 500 armed insurgents, among them many horrible depraved figures, women and crying children, came towards us. The people wanted to surrender to us; but as we were not authorised to take prisoners, they had to stand opposite us all night in the pouring rain […] We were not allowed to put down [loaded] our rifles [for] the whole night - some of [the crowd] aroused our deepest sympathy, without us being able to help them in the least."
The next day, French government troops take the Communards opposite Plitt and execute them, including teenagers suspected of having taken part in the fighting.
By May 28 the Commune is over, but the trauma of the 72-day revolt will affect those who experience it for decades to come. The government imprisons 40,000 more rebels and deports many of them to overseas colonies like New Caledonia. A graveyard peace reigns among the smoking ruins of France’s once-proud capital. Writer Edmond de Goncourt is relieved the Commune is no more, but the destruction of the still-burning city depresses him:
"You walk in the smoke, you breathe an air that smells of burning and apartment varnish, and on all sides you hear the [sound] of the pumps. In some places there are still traces, horrible remains of the battle. Here is a dead horse, there near the cobblestones of a half-demolished barricade, kepis in a pool of blood. des képis dans une mare de sang." (Goncourt, 326f.)
Goncourt realizes that the brutality of government troops under Mac-Mahon, the loser of Woerth and Sedan, is an attempt to redeem themselves of their own failures in the war with the blood of the communards. Even so, Goncourt cannot bring himself to explicitly condemn the mass executions.
Danish adventurer Wilhelm Dinesen escapes his internment with Bourbaki’s army in Switzerland and is in Paris during the destruction of thev commune. He sympathizes with the plight of the popular classes, but doesn’t support either side. Dinesen has seen and done cruel things in war in 1864 and 1870, is changed by the “butchery” he sees in Paris. The civil war shakes him more deeply than the other conflicts, and he writes an account in 1873 as a way of dealing with the trauma.
The Franco-Prussian War began in 1870 as cabinet war between kings, became a people’s war between nations, and ended in a French civil war between ideologies and classes. Writer Émile Zola later sums up the tragedy in his novel La débâcle:
"It was […] the end of everything, an act of destiny, a mass of disasters such as no nation had ever suffered before: continual defeats, lost provinces, billions to be paid, the most appalling of civil wars drowned in blood, rubble and death in full quarters, no more money, no more honor, a whole world to be rebuilt! tout un monde à reconstruire!"
The Commune and its destruction leave a complicated legacy. They deepened the suffering of the people of Paris, cost thousands of lives, and destroyed parts of one of the world’s great cities. Some see it as another example of the murderous alliance of the bourgeoisie and military aristocrats against the common people and freedom, others as an early example of the totalitarian and violent nature of socialist utopias. Ideological symbolism aside, the French military tries to re-establish its honor by massacring the communards, whose naïve and ideologically blinded leaders help precipitate their own defeat. Parisians in 1871 are indeed faced with rebuilding their whole world.
The Paris Commune is a fascinating topic and one of the most important events in European history of the 19th century. It was important for us to cover it here on the channel – but it’s also exactly the kind of topic that YouTube and it’s algorithm doesn’t like. It’s messy, it’s violent and it’s very political. Not the kind of viral content that advertisers like to put their products next to and in turn less attractive for YouTube to promote. This is why we build our own streaming platform together with other educational creators. Nebula is a place where you can watch smart videos that interest you, that support the creators directly. CuriosityStream, the sponsor of this video agrees with this and put together a sweet bundle deal: If you subscribe at curiositystream.com/realtimehistory you get access to classic documentaries like Cities that made History on CuriosityStream or you can watch your favorite creators on Nebula, like our World War 2 series Rhineland 45. That’s curiositystream.com/realtimehistory and you get two streaming platforms for less than 15$ a month.
That brings to an end our Glory and Defeat Thanks so much to all of you out there for supporting us on Patreon and making our work possible, as well as our partners Prof. Tobias Arand and Catherine Pfauth. But folks there’s lots more to come on the Real Time History channel. Our next project is Napoleon’s Downfall, the story of the 1812 campaign in Russia and it will launch in late February. I am Jesse Alexander, saying Au Revoir and Auf Wiedersehen, see you next time.
Bonus: The Franco-Prussian War: precursor to the horrors of the 20th century?
The Franco-Prussian War foreshadowed the wars of the 20th century in terms of technology, mentality, propaganda, and the economy. 1870-71 was a laboratory of techno-industrial modernity and national fanaticism fuelled by mass media, which unleashed their full powers in the two world wars. The Comte d’Herisson knew nothing of the air and gas warfare that would come later, but during the siege Parisians still sent him ideas for new weapons like "infallibly steerable balloons of exploding, suffocating, sneeze-inducing bombs."
Another creative exercise was a novel written by German Major Julius von Hoppenstedt in 1909. He re-plays the 1870 battle of Wörth with the new weaponry of his time. Of course in his version the Germans win again, and Hoppenstedt pens a prophetic passage: "The soul of this time is a Zeppelin, and it seemed obvious to let the ingenious inventor [Count Zeppelin] himself steer his airship to victory where he had already crossed his blade with the enemy in 1870."
Just five years later, Zeppelins were actually bombing London.
Historians have also made the connection between 1870 and the world wars, like Alistair Horne in 1967:
"Sedan 1870, Verdun 1916, and Sedan 1940. The battles in this blood-soaked corner of France had much in common - tactically, strategically, historically and psychologically." (Horne, 401)
The events of 1914 and beyond were foreshadowed but not predestined by 1870-71, and things could have turned out differently. As soon as peace came, the Prussian Crown Prince expressed his hopes for the future:
"I am counting on a lasting peace and hope that the Germans and the French, instead of challenging each other in mutual hatred, will as soon as possible draw closer to each other and take up peaceful competition in trade, commerce, industry and the arts."
But the future German Emperor’s vision did not come true. The trauma, destruction, and death of the Franco-Prussian War led to a French desire for revenge, German arrogance and one-sided nationalistic understanding of history – all of which was to prove more powerful than any of the Prince’s pious wishes in 1871.
Arand, Tobias: 1870/71. Der Deutsch-Französische Krieg erzählt in Einzelschicksalen. Hamburg 2018
Bauer, Gerhard u.a. (Hrsg.): Ausst.-Kat. MHM Dresden ‚Krieg – Macht – Nation. Wie das deutsche Kaiserreich entstand. Dresden 2020
Buk-Swienty, Tom: Feuer und Blut. Hauptmann Dinesen. Hamburg 2014
Gouttman, Alain: La grande défaite. 1870-1871. Paris 2015
Horne, Alistair: Es zogen die Preußen wohl über den Rhein. Bern, München, Wien 1967
Bernhardt, Sarah: Ma double vie. Memoires. Paris 1907
Déclaration de la Commune de Paris. (19 avril 1871) https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k55073739/f4.item
Goncourt, Edmond de: Journal des Goncourts. II.1. 1870-1871. Paris 1890
Hérisson, Maurice d’: Nouveau Journal d’un officier d’ordonannce. Paris 1889
Hoppenstedt, Julius von: Ein neues Wörth. Ein Schlachtenbild der Zukunft. Berlin 1909
Hugo, Victor: Choses vues, 2e série. Ollendorf 1913.
Kühnhauser, Florian: Kriegs-Erinnerungen eines Soldaten des königlich-bayerischen Infanterie-Leib-Regiments. Partenkirchen 1898
Meisner, Heinrich Otto (Hrsg.). Kaiser Friedrich III. Kriegstagebuch 1870/71. Berlin, Leipzig 1926
Plitt, Franz: Rückerinnerungen eines Dreiundachtzigers. Kassel 1903
Zola, Émile: La Débâcle. Paris 1892
: „La honte de la défaite avait découragé les hommes. Eh, bien, ces appels à la revolte, ces cris anarchists, ces hurlements de foules criant: ‘A bal les trônes! A bas les Républiques! A bas les riches! A bas les calotins! A bas les Juifs! A bas l’armée! A bas les patrons! A bas les travailleurs! A bas tout!’ Ces cris réveillèrent les engourdis. Les Allemand, qui fomentaient toutes ces émeutes, nous rendirent sans vouloir un réel service. Ceux qui s’abandonnaient à la resignation furent secoués dans leur torpeur. D’autres qui demandaient ‘la revanche’ se trouvèrent un aliment à leur inactives. (…) C’etait terrible! Mais c’était le réveil. C’était la vie après la mort.“ (Bernhardt, 286f.)
„Il lui sembla, dans cette lente tombée du jour, au-dessus de cette cité en flammes, qu’une aurore déjà se levait. C’etait bien pourtant la fin de tout, un archarnement du destin, un amas de désastres tels, que jamais nation n’en avait subi d’aussi grands: les continuelles défaites, les provinces perdues, les milliards à payer, la plus effroyable des guerres civiles noyées le sang, des décombres et des morts à pleins quartiers, plus d’argent, plus d’honneur, tout un monde à reconstruire!“ (Zola, 636)
„Bien décidément la République est une belle chimère de cervelles grandement pensantes, généreuses, désintéressées; elle n’est pas praticable avec les mauvaises et les petites passions de la populace française. Chez elle: Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité, ne veulent dire qu’asservissement ou mort des classes supérieures.“ (Goncourt, 231)
„On marche dans la fumée, on respire un air qui sent la fois le brûlé et le vernis d’appartement, et tous côtés on entend le pschit des pompes. Il est encore, dans des endroitroits, des traces, des restes horribles de la bataille. Ici c’est un cheval mort, là près des pavés d’une barricade, à moitié démolie, des képis dans une mare de sang.“ (Goncourt, 326f.)
„Des temps en temps des bruits redoutables: des écroulements de maisons et des fusillades.“ (Goncourt, 230)
Il était inutile de demander de plus longues explications à ce bandit. Je le fis emmener et justice fut faite dans la fosse de la barricade où déjà on avait fusillé tous les pétroleurs et pétroleuses saisis à la Marine et qui avaient été surprise par la brusque arrive des troupes.” (Hérisson, 333)
„Die Schlacht ist beendet. Die Schlächterei kann beginnen,“ (Buk-Swienty, 474)
„Die Dämmerung brach bereits heran, als sich plötzlich ein Haufen von mindestens 500 bewaffneten Aufständischen, darunter viele schreckliche verkommene Gestalten, Frauen und weinende Kinder, auf uns zuwälzte. Die Leute wollten sich uns ergeben; da wir jedoch nicht ermächtigt waren, Gefangene zu machen, so mußten sie einstweilen während der Nacht unter strömendem Regen unseren Truppen, die ihre Gewehre geladen hatten, gegenüber stehen bleiben. Wir durften während der ganzen Nacht weder die Gewehre aus der Hand thun, noch das Gepäck ablegen – und dazu noch der Regen und vor uns die unheimliche Menschenmenge, unter denen so manche unser innigstes Mitleid erregten, ohne daß wir ihnen nur im Geringsten helfen konnten.“ (Plitt, 140)
„In freien Stunden erstiegen wir höher gelegene Häuser, um durch Dachluken dieses ergreifende Schauspiel zu beobachten, stundenlang weideten sich unsere Augen an diesem bestialischen Zerstörungswerk.“ (Kühnhauser, 221)
„Seele der Aufklaerung ist diesmal ein ‚Zeppelin‘, und nahe lag es, den genialen Erfinder (…) selbst sein Linienschiff der Luft dorthin zu Kampf und Sieg steuern zu lassen, wo er 1870 bei kuehnem Erkundungsritt schon einmal seine Klinge mit dem Feinde kreuzte. Aber wie anders jetzt!“ (Hoppenstedt, IV)
„Sedan 1870 – Verdun 1916 und Sedan 1940. Die Schlachten in dieser blutgetränkten Ecke Frankreichs hatten viel Gemeinsames – taktisch, strategisch, historisch und psychologisch.“ (Horne, 401)
„Ich baue auf einen dauernden Frieden und hoffe, daß Deutsche und Franzosen statt in gegenseitigem Hasse sich herauszufordern, baldmöglichst sich einander nähern und den friedlichen Wettkampf in Handel, Gewerbe, Industrie und Kunstaufnehmen werden.“ (Meisner, 399)