Thursday, 18 February 2016

The Paris Commune of 1871

The Paris Commune of 1871 was a revolt by the people of Paris against the French government, following the defeat of France under Emperor Napoleon III by Otto Bismarck’s Prussia.

Paris under siege

During the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 the city of Paris had been besieged by the Prussians for four months and the people reduced to near starvation, with cats, rats and the animals in the zoo being killed for food.

Paris was staunchly Republican and had already declared the Second Empire of Napoleon III to be at an end in September 1870. However, it was not until 28th January 1871 that an armistice was signed and arrangements made for an election to provide France with a government that had authority to negotiate with the conqueror. The new assembly met in Bordeaux, in south-west France, and set up a provisional government, under Adolphe Thiers, in February.

An unpopular solution

However, the assembly and government were overwhelmingly monarchist and only represented the wealthier classes of France. Some of them hoped to establish a new Bonapartist empire headed by the son of Napoleon III. The move of the assembly from Bordeaux to Versailles, the seat of the old French monarchy, aroused suspicions on the part of the Parisians that a restoration of the monarchy was being planned.

Another cause for revolt was the triumphant German procession through the city that took place in March 1871, this having been one of the demands acceded to by the Versailles assembly, although they actually had no choice in the matter. However, the assembly made matters far worse by a move that was within their control, which was to demand payment, with full interest, of all the rents and debts that had been suspended during the siege of Paris the previous year when the people had been eating rats from the sewers.

The establishment of the Commune

Things came to a head when the government ordered the Paris National Guard to disband and sent a small band of soldiers to remove the guns stationed on the heights of Montmartre. This move was resisted and the negotiators sent by Versailles were murdered. Shortly after this the people of Paris set up their own council (or Commune) of 92 elected members.

The word “Commune” might imply that these were early Communists who followed the teachings of Karl Marx. However, although they did include some members who had Socialist leanings, they were by no means all inspired by left-wing politics and included many middle-class business people who wished to carry on their trades on purely capitalist lines but without interference from a government they had no cause to trust.

During its existence the Commune did carry out some economic organisation along what might be thought to be Socialist lines, such as setting up work schemes and taking steps to control the price of foodstuffs to prevent profiteering, but its main energies were devoted to the struggle for survival against the forces sent by the Versailles government.

The defeat of the Commune

The assault against the Commune was led by Marshal MacMahon, under instruction from Adolphe Thiers. An artillery barrage was levied against the city from mid March to early May. The German occupation force stood aside as Frenchman fought Frenchman, with their only contribution being the permission given by Bismarck to Thiers for the assault forces under MacMahon to be increased.

Once a breach had been made in the western defences of Paris, a week of fierce hand-to-hand street fighting took place, with the communards setting up barricades that were overrun one by one. The last stand of the defenders was in the cemetery of Père Lachaise with men taking cover behind the gravestones.

The aftermath and consequences of the Commune

The government was severe in its reprisals against the survivors, with many being executed by firing squad and up to 7,000 being transported to overseas penal settlements. With some 20,000 people having been killed and many more fleeing the city, it is estimated that the population of Paris fell by as many as 100,000 people during the rebellion. Many parts of the city were left as smoking ruins.
Apart from the material damage, the most important long-term consequence of the Paris Commune was the wedge driven between the government and the working class, not only in Paris but other major cities in France (communes had also been established in Lyons and Marseilles, for example). Divisions between the wealthier and poorer classes in France became almost unbridgeable, with a section of the working class being driven towards Marxism. Even to this day, French politics has been marked by the strength of its extremes, with the parties of the far left and far right always doing much better in elections than their equivalents in most other European nations.

The support given by the wealthier classes to the Thiers government increased to the extent that the huge sums demanded by Bismarck as indemnity for the Franco-Prussian War could be paid off far sooner than Bismarck had expected or wished, and the French army could be rebuilt. This was to have consequences in the following century as France continued to believe that she could withstand German aggression, although the two World Wars were to prove this belief to be ill-founded.

As for the internal government of France, the communards were eventually to get their way, with a republic being established under a constitution, agreed in 1875, that was to last until the German invasion of France in 1940.

The Paris Commune was therefore one of the most violent and tragic episodes of recent European history, an event that has left a deep mark on the political life of France ever since.

©John Welford