Academic journal article History Review

The Paris Commune

Academic journal article History Review

The Paris Commune

Article excerpt

Robert Tombs explains why the Paris Commune of 1871, which ended with the most ferocious outbreak of civil violence in 19th century Europe, is still a subject of intense historical interest and controversy.

Before daybreak on 18 March 1871, several thousand cold and miserable French troops trudged up the steep streets of Montmartre, the hill overlooking northern Paris, to capture by surprise hundreds of cannon parked on the summit by dissident units of the Paris National Guard, the citizen militia. Seizing these heavy weapons was to be the first step towards reimposing the national government's authority on the unruly capital. Since the beginning of the war with Germany the previous July, which had led to a four-month siege of the city, Parisians had become increasingly disaffected from their rulers. The end of the war had left Paris ungovernable, as most of the regular army was demobilised while the National Guard kept its guns. The newly elected National Assembly, which had a royalist majority, was far away in Bordeaux. The government it appointed, led by Adolphe Thiers, intended to assert its authority over Paris. The Montmartre expedition was the outcome.

It led to one of the most famous, and fateful, scenes in French history Thousands of local National Guards, together with women and children, turned out to obstruct and argue with the outnumbered and visibly unenthusiastic soldiers. The streets became jammed with people, horses and cannon. A few shots were fired by both sides, but generally the soldiers ignored their officers' orders to force back the crowds. Some handed over their rifles and went off `arm in arm, fraternising and singing' with the civilians. Two generals were grabbed by the crowd and later shot in a neighbouring back yard.

Across the city, people threw up barricades, as in 1848 and 1830. The government and the army high command, convinced that they had lost control, retreated with all available troops to Versailles, ten miles south-west of Paris, where the National Assembly arrived from Bordeaux on 20 March. The Central Committee of the Republican Federation of the Paris National Guard -- an unofficial body set up in February to co-ordinate the activity of the militia battalions, hence their popular name of `Federes' -- established a provisional authority at the Hotel de Ville, the city hall.

A week later, elections in which over a quarter of a million voters took part chose a city council mainly composed of revolutionaries -- veteran democrats from 1848, radical journalists, labour militants, patriotic National Guards -- who assumed the title of Paris Commune. `Commune', the French term for the basic unit of local government, signified grass-roots democracy, and also consciously recalled the first revolutionary Paris Commune of 1792; it did not imply communism. The red flag and the 1793 revolutionary calendar were adopted, according to which they were in Germinal Year 79. The proclamation of the Commune was a joyous popular ceremony, described by the writer Jules Valles (a member of the Commune) as `calm and beautiful as a blue river'. The cheering, singing and marching crowds believed that `the Free City of Paris' would begin a new era as a `democratic and social republic'. Every previous insurrection that had successfully gained control of Paris had gone on to rule France.

The origins of the Commune

The roots of the Commune lay in the Parisian `revolutionary tradition', which had already overthrown conservative regimes in 1830 and 1848. Many Parisians aspired to an egalitarian `democratic and social republic'. Republicanism had been revived by campaigns against Emperor Napoleon III in the late 1860s. It was radicalised by the effects of the disastrous Franco-Prussian War (July 1870-January 1871), which led to a rapid and unstoppable German invasion of France. The defeated emperor was overthrown in a republican revolution on 4 September 1870, but the moderate republican government that replaced him managed neither to defeat the Germans nor to negotiate with them. …

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