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France Since 1871
HIST 276 - Lecture 2 - The Paris Commune and Its Legacy
Chapter 1. The Paris Commune in Its Historical Context: Napoleon III and the Franco-Prussian War [00:00:00]
Professor John Merriman: Okay, today I want to talk about the Paris Commune. This is how I end the previous course, but it’s the most appropriate place to start this one, because the Paris Commune hung over Europe for the next twenty or thirty years. And, in my view, the Paris Commune and the massacre that followed the Paris Commune, the massacre of thousands and thousands of people, anticipated the twentieth century, when you became guilty for just being who you were. “À Paris tout le monde était coupable,” — “in Paris everybody was guilty,” shouted out one of the prosecutors as they shot men and women down.
It would be, and I’ll conclude with this, the largest massacre that would take place until the massacre of Armenians by Turks in the latter years of the nineteenth century, and in World War One, as well, in 1915, and it sadly anticipates the horror shows of the twentieth century. “À Paris tout le monde était coupable.” You were guilty because you were left in Paris, because you were too poor to get out. So, what was the Paris Commune? Some of you already know this, but let me talk about that and then give you my view on it. The Paris Commune has to be placed in the context of two things going on. One is that during the Second Empire, which was that regime of Napoleon III that lasted from 1852 to till he was really rounded up by the Prussians in 1870. There was in the late 1860s a revival of republican and socialist organization, and of anarchist disorganization, if you will.
In June of 1868 the Emperor legalizes public meetings, which had been illegal, and in Paris and in very many places, particularly on the edge of Paris, on the margins of urban life, you had meetings in large warehouses, and in big cafés where people discussed politics and imagined reforms that they wanted in the Empire, or many of them wanted a republic, or some sort of democratic, socialist republic. So, there’s a political mobilization in the late 1860s, and in the beginning of 1870 there’s a wave of strikes. Strikes had been illegal in France until 1864. Unions would be illegal in France until 1881; but, so, you had a wave of strikes. So, that’s really the first context and the mobilization of many ordinary people living in Paris.
The second context is the Franco-Prussian War, which you can read about in Chip Sowerwine’s book. But, basically what happens is that Louis Napoleon, Napoleon III, gets suckered into a war without any allies at all because of various dumb things that he’d done against the very clever, extremely aggressive Otto von Bismarck, the Prussian chancellor. It involved one of those obscure things that one had to learn in Western Civ., the way it was taught a long time ago — well I suppose it’s worth remembering anyway — it involved the candidacy of a Royal Family member, a rather obscure one, for the throne of France, which would have left France surrounded by the Royal Family of Prussia, Hollenzollerns, a name that in this course you need not retain unless it’s in some extraordinarily complicated crossword puzzle. But Napoleon protests vigorously, and then, trying to add insult to injury, his ambassador literally chases the German emperor around his garden and is fairly abusive in a verbal way, and Bismarck seizes on this to stoke up anger against France and then reveals to the European world, or those people who cared, that Napoleon III had earlier tried to make a deal which in exchange for supporting Prussia against Austria he would receive Belgium and Luxemburg, which of course the British could never tolerate.
And so, what happens is that he goes to war in the summer of 1870, without any allies, against Prussia and its South German allies, and he thinks he’s going to win. But — as my team was in the Michigan State game last Saturday, with me present, a very sad person you’re looking at — he was blown out, and on September 4th, 1870, there is yet another insurrection in Paris. A crowd storms down to the town hall, they seize power, they proclaim a republic, they name streets different names, and they want to prolong the resistance against the Prussian Army, which has through betrayal and cleverly organized military victories — is sweeping aside French resistance. And Napoleon III, who’s very sick, he would die a couple of years later, probably of stomach cancer, is captured in the Battle of Sedan, s-e-d-a-n, which is a textile town near the Belgian border in the north of France, and he goes off to — is sent packing off to Britain.
Chapter 2. The Siege of Paris [00:06:17]
Now, what happens then is that there are those who want to keep fighting. It’s quite clear that one of the demands of Prussia — ;and, as of late January, a unified Germany — the German Empire was proclaimed in the Hall of Mirrors in the Château of Versailles, by coincidence — but one of the demands is that there’ll be a huge indemnity, which the French will have to pay, and that Alsace and Lorraine, those Eastern provinces, largely German speaking, I remind you, would be amputated and would be annexed by Germany. And, after the Paris region, Alsace and Lorraine were the two most industrialized and prosperous parts of France. And, so, in Paris people find themselves surrounded. They find themselves surrounded, and Paris is — it’s nothing like- -it’s one-third the size of London at this same time, or at any other time, but it has a huge circumference.
There is a wall around Paris and there are exterior forts, but you’ve got an enormous number of people besieged by Prussian and other German forces, holding on. At one point, a French politician whom you’ll meet in the textbook, at least, called Gambetta, who died very young, flies away in a balloon, flies down toward Tours on the Loire Valley to try to raise up resistance there, but things get quickly very grim indeed. In October, a French general capitulates rather scandalously in the town of Metz, in the east, which would become a German town — in fact you go to Metz, maybe some of you have been there, Metz [pronounced Mess] — you’ll see this huge sort of lugubrious railroad station that was clearly built in the Second Reich of the Kaisers and of Bismarck.
And, so, Paris is surrounded in this sort of glory that was supposed to be, the Empire has collapsed on the head of France. And, to be sure, there were lots of crowds in Paris. There were the inevitable crowds who shouted for war, which was sort of odd because Paris was increasingly a leftwing city, because the vast majority of the population of Paris were ordinary people, were workers, more about that another time when I talk about Paris; but, the siege goes on and on, and Paris changes appearances. Military dress or parts of uniform become seen just about everywhere. The problem is feeding all of these people, how are you going to feed them? You’ve got all sorts of animals. You’ve got horses which you need for the army but also which they start slaughtering; you’ve got cattle but you have enough food to last for maybe a month; there’s always a lot to drink because of the caves, that is, the wine cellars that people had, but things get worse and worse.
The last regular mail delivery was on September 19th, and thereafter they used balloons. The balloon was invented in the Ardèche by Montgolfier in the late eighteenth century, and the balloon becomes a sort of symbol of perhaps liberty. The people in Paris are awaiting some sort of military help from the provinces, but it simply goes on and on. And during the siege there were sixty-five balloon flights carrying two and a half million letters, weighing a grand total of 10,000 kilograms, so roughly about 20,000 pounds. One astronomer actually left Paris to go off and to observe an eclipse.
They begin using pigeons in order to fly messages out, and then the Germans, who were of course portrayed as committing atrocities — and they’d committed a few, they’d shot some people up in the northeast, but nothing like would occur in 1914, and, of course, nothing at all like what would occur in very different circumstances in 1939, 1940. The Germans bring in these falcons and they go out and they munch the pigeons; and so this was another reason for them, just like the Germans, these poor little pigeons who became the sort of sacred bird, I guess a pigeon’s a bird. Pigeons — people, including me, eat pigeons; pigeoneau is actually quite good. But, anyway, it seemed like an awful thing to do when they’re bringing these falcons and hawks who were imported to intercept these people.
Now, the Paris population included national guardsman, come from the outside to take refuge inside. So, it’s rather like a medieval siege, from that point of view. You’ve got people from the outskirts coming in for food and safety; but, the population is slightly over two million people, and that’s a lot of mouths to feed. You’ve got 1,500 Americans, several of whom leave accounts of the whole thing, 40,000 Belgians, 30,000 Swiss and 5,000 English. So, you’re starting out with about — please don’t write these down — 24,000 cattle, 150,000 sheep, 6,000 hogs, and that is not enough to eat, and people become quite obsessed with what they’re going to eat. And you’re looking at somebody who basically does not like dogs at all but who loves cats, and canine butchers replaced horse butchers. The horses had mostly been eaten up or had been commandeered, as I said before, by the army.
You can still in France today find not canine butchers, you can find horse butchers, and it’s always a red front with a gold head of a horse, appropriately enough. But people began to eat first — not first, but they ate the animals in the zoo and what’s his name, Castorin Pollocks, who many Parisian children, generations, had gone to visit the zoo, find themselves eaten; and they can’t eat the tigers because they’re afraid to open the cages, and, unfortunately, the tigers simply croaked because they’re not going to waste food on them, from their point of view; but, they begin eating dogs and cats. And, so, you had this rather odd situation where instead of dogs guarding their masters or mistresses, you had the masters and mistresses guarding the dogs against people who would take the dogs and, unfortunately, kill them and eat them. And they eat cats as well, and, of course, rats. And Paris had and still has millions of rats. Even if you come home about two or 2:30 in the morning near our apartment you can still see rather large rats dashing across the street; some of them look so bloated they look like sangliers, or wild boar, which you can see occasionally in parts of rural France.
There were tales, inevitable tales of — and with French food, as you know, presentation accounts for something very much. When food arrives you’re likely to say “c’est bien, bien presentée”; it has all sorts of meanings to it, it’s well presented, but it’s how it looks but how it’s served and of course how it tastes, where you would have — unfortunately this pains me when I think of my poor little kitty — a cat with mice artfully placed around the cat carcass; one has to call it that — what do you have? — carcass of cat. And people simply got by as best they could. And so they have this — and Bismarck had predicted that the siege would end if Parisians went several weeks without their café au lait, the whole thing would be over. But, they create a Central Commission of Hygiene and Sobriety which tell people — encourage people to eat healthfully, and don’t just get wasted all the time — which is what I would have done, I’ll tell you that. No, I take that back, do not film that.
Here’s the proposed menu. You don’t have to know French to know this, but here’s a menu that they’re — this is early in the siege. The word for French is cheval, and here’s a menu; but these people must have been friqués, or fairly wealthy to have been able to eat like this. You don’t even have to know French to get this. It starts it with a consumée de cheval,cheval braisé au chou, collet de cheval à la mode, côte de cheval braisé, fillet de cheval rôti, boeuf et cheval salé froid— you couldn’t do much with horse ice-cream, so it sort of trailed by the end. And somebody once wrote many a superb champion of Longchamps, that is the racetrack, met their end on the table of some well-heeled person from the western fancy districts of Paris. But, it ceased being funny, and it was nothing like the siege of Leningrad where something like a million people died in World War Two of starvation; but, there were all sorts of little caskets being dragged along to what passed then for mortuaries.
Old people and young people, the youngest died in droves; and, of course, sheer drunkenness becomes an enormous problem, and so did venereal disease because of the — Paris at any one time, depending on who’s counting, but the number of prostitutes was at least 10,000 and probably about 25,000, and so venereal disease becomes rampant; and there are also very strange cases of mental illness that were predictable. There are people who are brought into mental institutions who literally think that they’re Joan of Arc, who was burned au Calvados — I shouldn’t say that — but, in Rouen in the fifteenth century; or there are people that believe that they’re God, or that they’re Saint Louis and can somehow save France.
So, hunger sets in and it becomes extremely sad and tragic, and attempts to break out simply don’t work; but, it had its light moments, and I can never resist those. They do a contest — those of you who like to enter contests — saying, “how can we break out of this awful mess, oh, whatever can we do?” And just three of the suggestions that came in, that I would have rewarded them some sort of prize, were the following, or maybe just two of them. One, somebody says that all of these prostitutes are a valuable resource for Paris — Berlin had its own sad legions of prostitutes as well — and that they must be equipped with what they called Prussic, as in Prussian, but Prussic needles that would have a poison, and then the prostitutes would go out to encounter in some sort of cash exchange Prussian soldiers and, at some key moment in the exchange, would stab them in the neck very gently with this pin; that would be the end of their eating sauerkraut and then Paris would free itself.
Somebody else suggested that because of the influence of Wagner and because of the traditional kind of om-pah music that the Parisians always associated with Germans that you would take the orchestras of Paris and teach them how to play om-pah music — this is what they called it, not the Prussians, of course — and that one day they simply would open up one of the gates of Paris, heavily defended, and would march out playing this music and then behind them would become this huge Trojan horse, which they would call the musical mitrailleuse, or the musical machinegun, which would then open up and start blasting away the poor Prussians, who were always assumed to be, by the sneaky Parisians, to be very dumb, but of course they weren’t.
And the other, somebody wrote in and said, well let’s just take this huge tarp, put it on the Place de la Concorde, put bacon and other things and use pigeon power, and all the pigeons would come to that place, and then you engulf the pigeons and you have this powerful balloon that can carry all these people in some sort of airborne stagecoach, ordiligence, out of Paris. But, the thing, it becomes less and less funny and not at all. And, at the very beginning there was a train that went around the Wall of Paris, more about the walls of Paris another time, that’s fun to talk about, and Parisians would take picnic lunches, and they’d get on the train, and then they’d hear these large explosions and realize that they could get killed by these large explosions.
Chapter 3. The Fall of France and the Formation of the Paris Commune [00:19:48]
And, so, as things are going downhill many people in Paris said look, we must keep fighting, but we must imagine a different world where — we have, we’re being betrayed by the provinces that are not helping us, and we need to have help from the provinces. And, in January, somebody puts up a sign, a big red sign, red being the color of the Left — red was illegal, the color red was illegal between 1849 and 1851, because it was believed to excite one group of people against another, which is an exact quote from the French Law — and it’s a big red poster that says, “make way for the Commune, that the people of Paris would have the right to defend themselves and to create a better world in the future.”
Now, let me scramble for my implement here. And this is a conservative response to the mobilization of French workers, and this says the working class population won’t at all listen to bad advice. And, notice here, this guy, this is your basic Parisian urchin who in 1830 in a Delacroix, a famous Delacroix painting called Liberty Leading the People is sort of the hero, but here he’s sort of the bad guy, he’s sort of a Gavroche gone totally wrong, and here is temptation, and here’s this working class family that will surely resist all of this. And this is — God, I love this — one picture, you first see the first picture you can actually see of Paris, this is what they call a daguerréotype from 1837, the faubourg du temple. And you can actually, instead of imagining what things look like, you can see them. And here, this is from the steps of Montmartre, way before the god-awful Sacré-Coeur was built, the basilica — more about that some other time, when I’m in a real frenzy of contempt for the destruction of the Parisian skyline.
But, anyway, this is looking down from Montmartre, and here you’ve got the image of — the female image of liberty, Marianne, and she comes in as the provisional government that is going to capitulate France, it’s going to give up, but not that it’s going to make a damn bit of difference. And then Adolph Thiers, who somebody once called a miserable gnome — t-h-i-e-r-s, Adolph Thiers is there and he’s cutting off the right arm of France, which is Alsace and Lorraine, with Strasbourg and Colmar, and la route des vins and all these important things. And here, this is Marianne being martyred by the French provisional government, and in the back is the — is it the dawning of the social republic of the Left, that is these ordinary people who have fought so long and so hard.
So, France capitulates, not Paris, but France, the provisional government capitulates in the end of January of the year 1871, and the Prussian troops cavalry march down — I guess horses don’t march, they trot — but they trot down the Champs-Elysées, and then the concierges from that area go and symbolically, and for real intent also, clean up the stones afterwards, and there’s a huge indemnity that has to be paid off, and France will lose Alsace-Lorraine. So, France has this provisional government — you can read about this stuff, it’s not that interesting; well, it’s passionately interesting.
But, in February of 1871 there are elections and the provinces, particularly the conservative, western provinces like Brittany return this extremely monarchist dominated National Assembly that is going to determine the future of France. And the landlords come back to Paris, because they had somewhere to go during the siege, and they say, “you pay up, you pay up money with interest”; and the provisional government says, “yes, you pay up money with interest.” And people had no money, and there’s just incredible anger. And Thiers, who in 1848 had advised another regime that fell to revolution, that is, of the July Monarchy, the plotting Louis-Philippe, to withdraw the troops from Paris, in the account of — if there’s any trouble in Paris — he already had this in mind. On March 18th, 1871, he sends troops to Montmartre, the hill of Montmartre, the highest point in Paris, which had only been annexed in 1860, on January 1st; Montmartre which still had this somewhat rural atmosphere — there’s still a wine produced there, the vineyard is about as big as this room, it’s just so they can sell the label of wine from there — because the National Guard of Paris that had defended Paris so heroically, they’ve still got these guns, and, so, they have these guns and, so, they send the troops to get the guns early in the morning.
The women who are at the market see the troops coming, they call the men folk. The men folk take two generals of the provisional government, they put them up against the wall and they shoot them, and Thiers says now we’re going to get these bastards, and he pulls all the troops out, headquartered appropriately enough in Versailles, and Paris is surrounded again by, in this case, somebody else’s government, that is, the provisional government. So, the Commune begins on the 18th of March, 1871, and it lasts until the end of May, 1871. Lenin once called it the “Festival of the Oppressed”; and Lenin was wrong about many things, he was right about a few things but wrong about many, but he got that one right. And, so, for the first time ordinary Parisians found themselves masters of their own lives. The wealthy people mostly got out again, and the commune holds on.
The commune, the numbers of the commune were swollen by political refugees. This is a woman called Elisbeth Dmitrieff, who was a Russian militant who was one of the leaders of the commune. And, as in the French Revolution, that is 1789 and following, and as in 1848, clubs of women began to form demanding rights. And the commune, despite the fact that there’s lots of — you could hear in the distance the guns sometimes getting closer and closer, and attempts to break out fail miserably, they pass all sorts of impressive social legislation. They create nurseries for working women; they give contracts to make National Guard uniforms to women’s unions; they plan what will be a lay, secularized education system; they ban night baking because it was not good for the health of people working in bakeries in the middle of the night. And here’s a woman’s club making demands.
Nobody is yet, except these women, thinking of female suffrage. So, it’s kind of an important moment in the history of women, and also it explains the viciousness of the attempt — of the massacre, really, of ordinary working class women when the whole thing falls apart, because women were conceived of as being uppity, as putting forth claims that they shouldn’t be making, by conservatives. And a couple of the communards — one is a woman that you’ll read about later, called Louise Michel, who spends half her time in exile in London, who was an anarchist, basically, was very important, along with Elisabeth Dmitrieff. And, so, you’re surrounded — and people, they don’t agree on everything. You’ve gotJacobins, Jacobins who are the sort of centralized radical republicans or socialists from the French Revolution; you’ve got anarchists who wanted not to take over the state but to destroy it, I’m going to talk about anarchists another time because I’m writing a book about one of them; and you’ve got moderate republicans who simply wanted Paris to have more liberties vis-à-vis the strongly centralized state, more about that next time. You’ve got moderate socialists, you’ve got this whole kind of different people, and they’re meeting around tables, and talking, and arguing, and debating, and yelling, and hugging, long into the night, as the guns draw nearer.
There were communes in other cities, too, with a variety of demands, in Limoges, in Le Creusot, in Saint-Étienne, in Narbonne, in Lyon and in Marseilles, and even an attempt in Bordeaux. And Paris keeps waiting for these armies of citizens to come — and citoyennes, female citizens, also to come and rescue them; but, in the meantime you’ve got people from the northern and northeastern quarters of Paris, the poor, living on the edge of Paris who come down into the fancy quarters, for the very first time when they’re not working as someone’s maid, and they, some — and the painter, Gustav Courbet, the naturalist painter from near Besançon, thus Burial at Ornans, he says, “why don’t we, as a symbol, get rid of this horrible statue of Napoleon that’s standing on the Vendôme column in the Place Vendôme?” The Place Vendôme is near Palais Royale, very fancy. It’s known to Americans who have visited, there are many, but others because that’s the Ritz Hotel where what’s-her-name, Princess Diana left ten years ago now and never made it, unfortunately for her, out of the Pont d’Alma, the tunnel. He says let’s tear the whole damn thing down.
And, so, this is an entry path to see this, to see this thing brought down as a symbol of centralized oppression. And this is the result, this is the crashing. And, so, people would come down and they’d have their pictures taken with a picture, as if it was part of the true cross of the crashed Vendôme column; because for once they had won, for once they had won. And, so, they have to defend Paris. And, so, you’ve got all these cannons that you just saw before, and you’ve got — they still have their uniforms and they build these huge barricades. The first barricades, by the way, were built in Paris in the late sixteenth century, so there’s a long tradition. And you could build barricades across smaller streets, but not across big boulevards, and that was part of the rebuilding of Paris in the 1850s and ’60s, more about that in a minute and much more about that later, because it’s fascinating; at least, I think it’s fascinating.
And here you go, right down by the Seine, there’s some Monet and Manet paintings, both, that are further back, from further back, looking over. Here, you’ve got your basic barricade — and these things are torn up, these are where trees came out of, as in 1968; and here’s your sort of kiosk of modernity, somebody selling newspapers on these boulevards, or near these boulevards, and here’s some of these people. And most of them would be dead within a month of this photo. And there you are looking at them, trying to protect their city. Now, who, first of all, who were the communards, who were the people that was left? Well, when revolutions are victorious everybody rushes forward and says “moi, j’étais là,” I was there, and they give their name and their address and, “why don’t you reward me, or at least pay attention to the fact that I was there?”
Chapter 4. Composition of the Commune: Tensions between Urban and Rural France [00:32:17]
In Paris, you got the Victory Column of the Revolution of 1830, where the Bastille once stood, and it’s got the names of all the people that were killed in three days of July 1830; but, in something like this you have a body count of more than 15,000 people. So, we know who the communards were, they were ordinary people; they were the ordinary workers, men and women who simply couldn’t get out. They weren’t all socialists; as I said, some were anarchists, some were moderate republicans, but they were who were left. They were — their very presence there, that’s where they lived, but their defense of Paris reflects tensions between urban France and conservative rural France. The armies that they were opposing, the French armies, were largely staffed by peasants from conservative areas, or from National Guards brought in from towns like Vannes, or Évreux, or all sorts of places, are brought in.
And, so, the commune — it’s somewhat semi-proletarian, they’re mostly working people. They’re particularly people from the poorer quarters of the north and the northeast, more about that later. They are who, the people that were left. They are artisans, craftsmen, day laborers, domestic servants; they are the people who were left. And, what they were trying to do was imagine a new world which would be less centralized; but, for the socialists, they wanted more centralization. So, it was a very complex, complex period indeed. But it reflects the artisinal base that was still part of the French economy, for sure, with the emphasis on skilled production of handbags, and of gloves, and of finely crafted tables. The cabinet makers were always terribly important in the French Revolution, and they still are, and there are still — all the stores, or most of the stores on one particular street in Paris near the Bastille are still furniture stores.
The kind of myth of the commune was, of course, that from the conservatives’ point of view — was that these were the furies of hell, the men and the women who rose up to slay their social betters. Well, of course, that’s not the case, that’s a sort of a myth for the French Revolution as well. And then you had you had your basic republican interpretation that said they were defending the Republic against this sort of monarchy to be restored, and that certainly is part of that as well; but, it also had its socialist component and Marx, for Marx this was terribly important and for Lenin it was as well. It seemed to be Armageddon for the ruling classes, but it seemed to be that here was this proletariat — even though Marx got that all wrong, because these are not industrial workers, for the most part, but these are the workers that will one day break off their chains. And, so, you can see how this would have an impact on every country, on the United States — those of you who’ve taken American history, this sort of view that immigrants were increasingly bringing socialism and anarchism to the United States.
The commune is important in the big Hay Market Affair, the collective memory of the commune in the Hay Market Affair in Chicago and the people hung there in — when was it — 1886. But, the most important, really the most important result of it was the massacre, I think, itself, because when finally the troops of the provisional government come pouring through the Western gate, a gate that had essentially been left open, in a place called Passy, where there’s some very nice art nouveau buildings, by the way, but which was very collaborationist also in World War Two, though not everybody — what they do, the troops do, is they use the boulevards that had built by Napoleon III as a way of getting to those working class neighborhoods that had always risen up.
And Napoleon III and his Prefect of the Seine — a name you don’t have to remember now, but sometime it would be nice to remember, called Hausmann, a name so important that it became a verb; to hausmann something was to bulldoze it; a man dissed by my late friend Richard Cobb as the “Alsatian Attila” — he had plowed through working class neighborhoods and built the boulevards that — of the modern Paris that one celebrates and where one celebrates. He did it to bring more light, he did it to bring more air, he did it to free the flow for capital, money; that’s why the department stores are on the boulevards. I’ll do this again, not this whole lecture but that part again — and he did it because you can’t build barricades across boulevards, wide ones.
1944, August, we jump ahead, the boulevard, the barricades are across the same streets where they were in many cases in 1792 and in 1789. And the problem, in 1968 it was very hard to build a barricade across the Boulevard St. Michel, which was built by Hausmann at this time. So, the troops come pouring in. This is down the Rue de Rivoli, which was completed in the 1850s and ’60s, and the damage is staggering. This is the Church of the Madeleine, which is still there, and this is the Rue Royale. These streets do not matter, it’s just the visual images with what is really going on that counts. The Hôtel de Ville, which was destroyed. Interestingly enough, ten years ago somebody found photos taken by this Parisian of the siege in the Commune in the back of the Hôtel de Ville; they were found ten years ago, they had survived. I just saw an exposition of them at the Bibliothèque Historique de la Ville de Paris in January, of photos that had never been seen before; but, anyway, this is the Hôtel de Ville which is down by Notre Dame, though it’s not in thecité. Don’t worry about these places.
Chapter 5. The State Strikes Back: The Massacre of the Paris Commune [00:38:23]
And then, they put the women on trial. There had been a rumor that female incendiaries, in French les pétroleuses, had been setting fire to fancy houses and had been burning down the Bank of France. And so this rumor was part of the fear of “upitty women” putting forth demands, and they squished them like grapes, and they hauled them off and shot them. Goncourt, one of the writers, the Goncourts, the one who hadn’t died yet, was no friend of ordinary people, but there’s an amazing scene in his memoirs when he’s down by the Hôtel de Ville and he sees these women chained together, being walked around, and he says, “Well what — where are they going?” And, so, the guy next to him says, “Well they’re going to shoot them.” He said, “What do you — they’re going to shoot them? You don’t shoot women, do they?” Well they did. And he describes it and it’s terrifying. I used to read it, but I could never get through it — terrifying. And then he hears thecoup de grâce, it’s the shots, one after another, and then he sees a priest staggering out, overwhelmed by it all, and then he moves onto something else.
The Execution, this is Manet, who is horrified by the whole thing. Manet wasn’t there. Courbet also did an execution scene. And, in the end what there was was this, “à Paris tout le monde était coupable,” Paris, everybody was guilty. Little coffins, people were smaller then. You can still see in the Pantheon — the sort of secular monument to some very wonderful people like Émile Zola, but also just Napoleonic generals, one after another — you can still see bullet holes there, from the Commune, not just from World War Two, from where people were executed. And lots of people who were chimney sweeps were executed because they had been cleaning chimneys and they had gun — the equivalent, they had charcoal on their cheeks and people, they would rip off your shirt to see if you had a bruise from a recoiling rifle.
And it wasn’t a neutral massacre. What is was, they went to areas of Paris like Belleville, which is in the northeast, which had long been assumed to be a radical place, and Montmartre, and that’s where their collective memory of the “forces of order,” as they liked to call it, was very, very precise, and that’s where they went in and massacred them. And that is the most chilling probably legacy of the whole thing. Now, I know it’s easy to look at me and say, “God, there’s an old leftie, why doesn’t he grow up?” That’s what my wife says sometimes, “why don’t you grow up?” But, “why don’t you get over this?” I remember when I was a student in Paris I remember going up to — there’s a place at Père Lachaise Cemetery, and there’s the Wall of the Fédérés, it’s called the Wall of the Fédérés, and that’s where they massacred lots of people. And people used to go up there on May Day, and sometimes on the anniversary of the commune, just to see where these people fell, with enormous more dignity than the people who shot them.
And this was the ultimate lesson of the Commune that would hang over Europe. For the Left, it was a sign that the state is strong, powerful, and can be vicious. Don’t let anyone ever tell you that the victims of terrorism in any century are anywhere approximately near the victims of state terrorism. No matter how awful terrorism was in the anarchist attacks at the beginning of the 1890s, and I’m going to talk to you about it because I’m interested in them; but, this was the real lesson of all of this, as the state, ever more stronger in Europe since the consolidation of territorial monarchies in the fifteenth century, the state growing in power with absolutism, growing in power with the revolution with Napoleon, growing in power with unification of national states.
The state could strike back with unparalleled savagery against those people who got in the way, and that’s what happened at the commune, in the Paris Commune. How many people died? Minimum estimate 15,000, probably closer to 25,000. Yet, when they did the census of 1872 in Paris alone there were 10,000 less shoemakers than there had been before. Shoemakers were an extraordinarily radical trade. Were they all hiding in their aunt’s house in Orléans? Where were they? The flames engulfed the bodies, they were gone, and the amnesty for the communards, the people in the commune, wouldn’t come till 1879, but it hung like a shadow over European politics and French politics for years and years.
And, you know, when you go up there, as you go up to Montmartre, it’s incredible — because I was there once very, very late in the afternoon, and oddly enough I met this woman who went there every day and I said, “why do you go there every day?” And she said she had some sort of lung disease and she couldn’t get out of Paris but she could go into Père Lachaise, and she knew where every tomb was. And she took us up to see the Wall of the Fédérés, I was with some friends of my mother long ago, and I remember looking at that and just thinking. I remember when I was a kid, I read this book by Thomas Wolfe called Look Homeward Angel, and in the end he says — what does he say? — he said, “oh lost, and by the wind grieved, ghost, come back again.” That was the commune and we’re going to go on to the State next time. Have a good day.
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