Blog post

Verso commemorates the 140th anniversary of the fall of the Paris Commune

Andrea D'Cruz27 May 2011

Today marks the 140th anniversary of the fall of the Paris Commune—proclaimed on 28 March 1871 and brutally crushed two months later, on 28 May 1871. To commemorate the anniversary, Verso is sharing this excerpt from The Invention of Paris: A History in Footsteps, Eric Hazan's extraordinary tour of the city and its revolutionary past.

The Champs-Élysées was the major axis of Paris collaboration, following an established tradition. Back in 1870, Louise Michel noted how café chairs and counters were broken there, after they had been the only cafés in Paris to open to the Prussians. After the Popular Front, ‘the elegant crowd acclaimed Hitler in the Champs-Élysées cinemas at 20 francs a seat ... The culmination of ignominy was perhaps reached in 1938, on this cagoulard Champs-Élysées where elegant ladies acclaimed Daladier's horrendous triumph and squealed: "Communists, pack your bags; Jews, off to Jerusalem".' Later on, ‘the whole cagoulard elite of the country, hurrying back to its Champs-Élysées and its Boulevard Malesherbes, went into ecstasy over the politeness of the big blond Aryans. On this point there was only one cry from Auteuil to Monceau: the gentleman-executioners were correct, and even men of the world in their own way.' The changing of the Wehrmacht guard took place on the Champs-Élysées every day for four years: at midday, starting from the Rond-Point, the new guard paraded to music up to the Étoile, where it passed in review, before dispersing to the palaces of the general staff.

This political division of Paris goes back a long way. On 20 May 1871, just before the Versaillais entered Paris, Lissagaray took an imaginary friend, ‘one of the most timid men from the timid provinces', on a walk through the city. In the popular quarters - on the Place de la Bastille, ‘gay, animated by the gingerbread fair', at the Cirque Napoléon (Cirque d'Hiver) where five thousand people filled the place from the arena to the dome - the revolutionary festival continued despite (or because of?) imminent catastrophe. The fashionable quarters were silent, plunged in darkness - even though, by an irony of fate, it was here that the shells fired by the Versaillais from Mont Valérien and Courbevoie fell, and the arch of the Arc de Triomphe had to be walled in against the gunfire coming up the Champs-Élysées. Their inhabitants, who only yesterday had animated the salons of the Empire, in the Tuileries and at Compiègne, expressed their feelings with no beating about the bush. Edmond de Goncourt, in the first few days: ‘The quay and the two large streets leading to the Hôtel de Ville are closed by barricades, with lines of National Guard in front of them. One reacts with disgust at the sight of their stupid and abject faces, on which triumph and drunkenness have the shine of a radiant villainy.' And later, while Thiers was bombarding Paris: ‘Still waiting for the attack, for the deliverance that does not come. It is impossible to depict the suffering we experience, amid the despotism on the streets of this scum disguised as soldiers.'

For Maxime Du Camp, awarded the cross of the Légion d'Honneur for his conduct at the time of the ‘criminal insurrection' of June 1848, the Commune was ‘a fit of moral epilepsy; a bloody bacchanalia; a debauchery of petroleum and cheap spirits; a tempest of violence and drunkenness that made the capital of France into the most abject of swamps'. For Théophile Gautier:

Under all the great cities there are dens for lions, cellars sealed with thick bars in which savage, stinking, poisonous beasts are kept, all the refractory perversities that civilization has been unable to tame, those who love blood, those who enjoy real fires as if they were fireworks, those with the taste for theft, those for whom an assault on modesty represents love ... One day it so happened that the distracted keeper forgot the keys to the menagerie doors, and the wild animals spread out across the city with savage cries. It was from these opened cages that the hyenas of 1793 and the gorillas of the Commune broke loose.

Two subjects aroused particular hatred: women, and Gustave Courbet. Arsène Houssaye held that ‘with a kick to their skirts we should cast into the hell of malediction all these horrible creatures who have dishonoured women in the saturnalias and impieties of the Commune'. For another writer:

Their women, these nameless harpies, roamed the streets of Paris for a whole week, pouring petrol into cellars and lighting fires everywhere. They are hunted down with muskets like the wild beasts that they are ... This infamous Courbet, who wanted to burn the Louvre museum, not only deserves to be shot if he has not been already, but the filthy pictures that he sold to the state should also be destroyed.

It was Leconte de Lisle who expressed himself in these terms. And Barbey d'Aurevilly, in Le Figaro for 18 April 1872:

The atrocious bandits of the Commune, with Monsieur Courbet as their clown, are not political enemies. They are the enemies of any society and any order. Can you say what their political ideal is? Of course not! Any more than you can say what is Monsieur Courbet's aesthetic ideal. Their ideal is to steal, and to kill and burn if need be, just as his ideal is to brutally paint the concrete fact, the vulgar and even abject detail.

In the great tradition of intelligence with the enemy against Red Paris, the Versaillais right were collaborators. The same men who pressed for the capitulation of Paris in the face of an army of inferior numbers, begged the Prussians to assist them against the Commune. Bazaine, under siege in Metz, wrote to Bismarck that his army was the only force that could control the anarchy - and indeed, it was the arrival of prisoners freed by the Prussians that gave the Versaillais, from the first days of May, a decisive advantage. On 10 March, even before the uprising of the Commune, Jules Favre wrote to Thiers:

We have decided to put an end to the strongholds of Montmartre and Belleville, and we hope this will be done without spilling blood. This evening, judging a second category of those accused for the events of 31 October, the council of war condemned Flourens, Blanqui, and Levrault to the death penalty in their absence; and Vallès, present, to six months in prison. Tomorrow morning, I shall go to Ferrières to meet with the Prussian authorities on a numberof points of detail.

Flaubert, though very hostile to the Commune, wrote to George Sand on 31 March: ‘Many conservatives who wanted to preserve the republic [in 1851] will regret Badinguet. And call on the Prussians with all their hearts.' And on 30 April: ‘"Thank God the Prussians are here" is the universal cry of the bourgeoisie.' In Le Drapeau tricolore for 2 May, you could read that the Germans were ‘good people who are slandered. The rumour went round, a week ago, that they were leaving. No more Prussians, no more police, no more order, no more security!' Collaboration did not stop at sentiments such as these, there was also military collaboration. The Fédérés believed that the Versaillais would not attack from the side held by the Prussians. But the Prussians who occupied the northern and eastern forts let the Versaillais advance in a sector that was forbidden them by the armistice, thus enabling them to seize the defences of Paris from behind.

When it was all over, in September, Francisque Sarcey noted that

the bourgeoisie found themselves, not without a certain melancholy, between the Prussian feet on their throat and those whom they called the Reds, and could only see as men armed with daggers. I do not know which of these two evils frightened them most; they hated the foreigner more, but they feared more the people of Belleville.

This metonymy is justified if we take ‘Belleville' in the broad sense, as stretching to Ménilmontant on the one side, to the Popincourt quarter and the Faubourg du Temple on the other, and spilling into the 10th arrondissement along the Canal Saint-Martin. The central committee of the National Guard was formed at two popular meetings held during the siege, the first at the Cirque d'Hiver and the second in the Wauxhall on Rue de la Douane (now Léon-Jouhaux) close to the canal - in the course of which Garibaldi was appointed an honorary general of the National Guard by popular acclamation. It was in front of the mairie of the 12th arrondissement that the guillotine was burned by the 137th battalion, in a great moment of joy - ‘that shameful machine of human butchery', as Louise Michel called it. This Red Paris was constantly crossed by fighters on their way to the forts:

Like figures in a dream, the Commune's battalions went past - Flourens's Vengeurs, the Commune's zouaves, the Fédéré scouts who looked like Spanish guerrilleros, the Enfants Perdus who leapt from trench to trench with such gusto, the Commune's Turcos, the Montmartre terrors.

It is true that the Commune began not in Belleville but Montmartre. This was where the artillery of the National Guard had been parked, at the top of Rue des Rosiers (now du Chevalier-de-la-Barre). Victor Hugo relates this first confrontation in his inimitable fashion. He was in Brussels, having resigned his seat in the Chamber of Deputies - that ‘assembly of rurals' who booed and manhandled him in Bordeaux when he defended Garibaldi, and ‘at the first session, could not make himself heard, the abuse drowning his voice when he offered his sons to the Republic'.

The moment chosen is a dreadful one.
But was the moment really chosen?
Chosen by whom?
Let us examine the matter.
Who acted on 18 March?
Was it the Commune?
No. The Commune didn't exist.
Was it the central committee of the National Guard?
No. This seized the opportunity, but did not create it.
So who acted on 18 March?
It was the National Assembly; or strictly speaking, its majority.
An attenuating circumstance is that it did not act deliberately.
The majority and its government simply wanted to remove the cannon from Montmartre. A small motive for such a great risk.
That's it. Remove the cannon from Montmartre.
That was the idea; how did they set about it?
Montmartre was asleep. Soldiers were sent in the night to seize the cannon. When the cannon were seized, it was realized that they had to be taken away. This needed horses. How many? A thousand! Where to find them? No one had thought about that. What to do? Send people to look for them. Time passed, the day broke, Montmartre woke up; the people came running and wanted their cannon; they had almost stopped thinking about them, but because the cannon had been seized, they demanded them; the soldiers gave in, the cannon were taken back, an insurrection broke out, a revolution began.
Who did that, then?
The government, without wanting to or knowing what it was doing.
This innocent party really is guilty.

Louise Michel expressed the spirit that prevailed in Montmartre during these weeks better than anyone else. During the siege by the Prussians, ‘Montmartre, the mairie, the vigilance committees, the clubs and inhabitants, were along with Belleville the nightmare of the party of Order'. The vigilance committee of the 18th arrondissement met at 41 Chaussée de Clignancourt, ‘where we warmed ourselves more often with the fire of ideas than with logs'. When Louise chaired the meetings, either there or at the club La Patrie en Danger, or again at the Reine-Blanche, she had beside her ‘on the desk a little old pistol without a hammer, which, positioned right and grasped at the right moment, often stopped the Order crowd'. During the Commune, she only left Montmartre to go and fight at the fortifications. She read Baudelaire with a student in a trench outside Clamart while the bullets were whistling past, she shot with the defenders of the fortress of Issy (‘The fortress is magnificent, a spectral fortress ... I spend a good part of the time with the gunners, we've been visited there by Victorine Eudes ... she also doesn't shoot badly'), she worked with an ambulance ‘in the trenches of the Hautes-Bruyères, where I got to know Paintendre, the commander of the Enfants Perdus. If ever that name was justified, it is by him, by all of them; they were so bold that it no longer seemed possible they could be killed':

On 22 May, when all was lost, the Fédérés of the 61st battalion joined us at the mairie [of the 18th arrondissement]. ‘Come with us', they said to me, ‘we're going to die, you were with us on the first day, you must be with us on the last.' ... I set off with the detachment to the Montmartre cemetery, where we took up our position. Although there were very few of us, we thought we could hold out a good while. In some places we had crenellated the walls by hand. Shells struck the cemetery with increasing frequency ... This time the shell fell close to me, coming down through the branches and covering me with flowers, close to Murger's tomb. The white figure throwing marble flowers on this tomb made a charming effect ... There were ever fewer of us; we fell back on the barricades, which still held out. The women passed by, red flag at their head; they had their barricade on the Place Blanche ... More than ten thousand women fought for freedom in those May days, mixed or together.

At the moment when the Versaillais entered Paris, a remarkable turnaround took place. The Fédérés, tired of being pinned down in the forts and trenches, were almost happy to find themselves back on their home ground, in their cobbled streets. Delescluze, who a few days before had been appointed delegate for war, drafted a declaration on 22 May which the Barcelona anarchists of summer 1936 would not have disavowed:

Enough of militarism! No more staff-officers with their gold-embroidered uniforms! Make way for the people, for the combatants bare-armed! The hour of the revolutionary war has struck ... The people know nothing of learned manoeuvres. But when they have a gun in their hands, and paving-stones under their feet, they fear not all the strategists of the monarchical school.

The barricades sprung up with all haste.

That of Rue de Rivoli, which was to protect the Hôtel de Ville, was erected at the entrance of the Place Saint-Jacques, at the corner of Rue Saint-Denis. Fifty workmen did the mason-work, while swarms of children brought wheelbarrows full of earth from the square ... In the 9th arrondissement, Rues Auber, de la Chaussée-d'Antin, de Châteaudun, the crossroads of the Faubourg Montmartre, of Notre-Dame-de-Lorette, la Trinité and Rue des Martyrs were being unpaved. The broad approaches, La Chapelle, Buttes-Chaumont, Belleville, Ménilmontant, Rue de la Roquette, the Bastille, the Boulevards Voltaire and Richard-Lenoir, the Place du Château-d'Eau [now Place de la République], the Grands Boulevards especially from the Porte Saint-Denis; and on the Left Bank the whole length of the Boulevard Saint-Michel, the Panthéon, Rue Saint-Jacques, the Gobelins, and the principal avenues of the 13th arrondissement.

‘On the Place Blanche,' Maroteau wrote the following day in Le Salut public, ‘there was a barricade completely constructed and defended by a women's battalion of around a hundred and twenty. At the moment that I arrived, a dark form detached itself from a carriage gate. It was a girl with a Phrygian bonnet over her ear, a musket in her hand, and a cartridge-belt at her waist: "Halt, citizen, you don't pass here." '

But the majority of these fragile barricades were quickly taken. The Commune had to evacuate the Hôtel de Ville, and the fighting focused around the Place du Château-d'Eau and the Bastille. The Versaillais ‘went to occupy the Saint-Laurent barricade at the junction of the Boulevard Sébastopol, erected batteries against the Château d'Eau, and reached the Quai Valmy by the Rue des Récollets ... In the 3rd arrondissement they were stopped in the Rue Meslay, Rue Nazareth, Rue du Vert-Bois, Rue Charlot and Rue de Saintonge. The 2nd arrondissement, invaded from all sides, was still disputing its Rue Montorgueil.' On 26 May, in the Place de la Bastille, ‘at seven o'clock the presence of soldiers at the top of the faubourg was announced. The Fédérés hurried thither with their cannon. If they do not hold out, the Bastille will be taken. They did hold out. The Rue d'Aligre and the Avenue Lacuée vied with each other in devotion ... The house at the corner of the Rue de la Roquette, the angle of the Rue de Charenton, disappeared like the scenery of a theatre.'

What remained of the Commune and the central committee fell back on the mairie of the 11th arrondissement. On the steps of the staircase, women silently sewed sacks for the barricades. In the main hall, the Commune was in session: ‘Everyone mingled together, officers, ordinary guards, NCOs of various ranks, belts with white or yellow tassels, members of the Commune or the central committee - and all took part in the deliberations.' In this dramatic confusion, it was Delescluze who spoke. Everyone listened in silence, for the slightest whisper would have drowned out his almost lost voice.

When Oscar Wilde was asked what had been the saddest event of his life, he replied that it was the death of Lucien de Rubempré in Scenes from a Courtesan's Life. If I had to answer the same question, I would choose the death of Delescluze on the barricade of the Château d'Eau. In the account Lissagaray gives, he rises to the level of Plutarch:

He said all was not lost; that they must make a great effort, and hold out to the last ... ‘I propose', said he, ‘that the members of the Commune, engirdled with their scarfs, shall make a review of all the battalions that can be assembled on the Boulevard Voltaire. We shall then at their head proceed to the points to be conquered.' The idea appeared grand, and transported those present ... The distant firing, the cannon of the Père-Lachaise, the confused clamours of the battalions surrounding the mairie, blended with, and at times drowned his voice. Behold, in the midst of this defeat, this old man upright, his eyes luminous, his right hand raised defying despair, these armed men fresh from the battle suspending their breath to listen to this voice which seemed to ascend from the tomb. There was no scene more solemn in the thousand tragedies of that day.

Of course, things very quickly took a turn for the worse:

The Place du Château-d'Eau was ravaged as by a cyclone ... At a quarter to seven ... was saw Delescluze, Jourde, and about a hundred Fédérés marching in the direction of the Château-d'Eau. Delescluze wore his ordinary dress, black hat, coat, and trousers, his red scarf, inconspicuous as was his wont, tied round his waist. Without arms, he leant on a cane. Apprehensive of some panic at the Château-d'Eau, we followed the delegate. Some of us stopped at the Saint-Ambroise church to get arms ... Vermorel, wounded by the side of Lisbonne, whom Theisz and Jaclard were carrying off on a litter, leaving behind him large drops of blood. We thus remained a little behind Delescluze. At about eight yards from the barricade the guards who accompanied him kept back, for the projectiles obscured the entrance of the boulevard.

Delescluze still walked forward. Behold the scene; we have witnessed it; let it be engraved in the annals of history. The sun was setting. The old exile, unmindful whether he was followed, still advanced at the same pace, the only living being on the road. Arrived at the barricade, he bent off to the left and mounted upon the paving-stones. For the last time his austere face, framed in his white beard, appeared to us turned towards death. Suddenly Delescluze disappeared. He had fallen as if thunderstruck on the Place du Château-d'Eau.

Just to make sure, the Versaillais had him condemned to death in his absence in 1874.

The two last days, Saturday 27 and Sunday 28 May, in superb weather, Red Paris was slowly reduced to the Faubourg du Temple. On Saturday evening, the Versaillais were installed on the Place de Fêtes, Rue Fessart, and Rue Pradier as far as Rue Rébeval, where they were contained. The Fédérés occupied a quadrilateral between Rue du Faubourg-du-Temple, Rue de la Folie-Méricourt, Rue de la Roquette and Boulevard Belleville. By Sunday morning, resistance was reduced to the small square formed by the Rues du Faubourg-du-Temple, des Trois-Bornes, des Trois-Couronnes, and the Boulevard de Belleville. Which was the last of the Commune's barricades to hold out? In Lissagaray's account, it was that on Rue Ramponeau: ‘For a quarter of an hour, this was defended by a single Fédéré. Three times he broke the pole of the Versaillais flag displayed on the barricade of Rue de Paris [now de Belleville]. As reward for his courage, this last Commune soldier managed to escape.' Legend has it that this was Lissagaray himself. For others, the last barricade was on Rue Rébeval. But that most often cited is that on Rue de la Fontaine-au-Roi. Louise Michel:

An immense red flag floated over the barricade. The two Ferré's were there, Théophile and Hippolyte, J. B. Clément, the Garibaldian Cambon, Varlin, Vermorel, Champy. The barricade on Rue Saint-Maur had just fallen, that on Rue de la Fontaine-au-Roi stubbornly held, spitting fire in the bloody face of the Versaillais ... The only ones still standing, when the Père-Lachaise cannon fell silent, were those of Fontaine-au-Roi. At the moment that they fired their last shots, a young girl coming from the barricade on Rue Saint-Maur arrived, offering to help. They told her to go away from this place of death, but she remained despite them. It was to this ambulance girl of the last barricade and the last hour that J. B. Clément dedicated, much later, his song Le Temps des Cérises.

Filed under: pariscommune