It lasted just 72 days, but as a case study in the sheer untamable messiness of history, it’s hard to do better than the Paris Commune. Begun on 18th March 1871, the brief revolution was born of a messy situation, came to a horrifyingly messy end and had a long and thoroughly messy aftermath – and when the French chose to remember it at all, it usually divided them, a touchstone or sore point depending on their political tilt.
The uprising followed hard on the heels of France’s defeat in the swift and savage 1870 war with Prussia. With Napoléon III’s empire abolished and the capital brought to its knees in the four-month Siege of Paris, a new government – nominally republican but in fact staunchly monarchist – signed the act of surrender and agreed to Prussia’s punitive terms, which included huge reparation payments and, particularly bitter, the handing over of Alsace-Lorraine.
The Paris units of the National Guard still had weapons and wanted to fight on, and the Commune began when they seized power. The government withdrew to Versailles and plotted revenge, but for a short, heady time, the Communards had an opportunity to remake their world. Although subsequently demonised as bloodthirsty zealots, they proved to be effective administrators and enlightened policy-makers: the separation of church and state, freedom of the press and the abolition of child labour were just some of their progressive moves.
But reinforced by prisoners of war released by the Prussians for the purpose, the Versailles forces attacked, and by 21st May had breached the city’s defences. They fought from street to street and house to house. Even by the standards of a city famous for insurrection, the violence was staggering: thousands of buildings were damaged or destroyed by artillery, and fire destroyed many more. The vast Tuileries palace was gutted beyond repair, and the Louvre narrowly avoided going up in flames. The death toll in just the final Semaine Sanglante was in the tens of thousands, and after the last Communard gun fell silent, the victorious army proceeded to execute hundreds of suspected partisans, including women and children as young as six.
Shortlived it may have been, but the Commune cast a long shadow, not least over the First World War and the Russian Revolution – yet for a century or more it was an episode many in France preferred to forget. That selective amnesia appears to be easing, however, and a cascade of new books has been published in this 150th anniversary year.
One of the best is a reissue of the 2019 graphic novel Les Damnés de la Commune, a 464-page tour de force by political science student turned graphic designer Raphaël Meyssan, who had the brilliant (and possibly revolutionary) idea to hybridise a cornucopia of Commune-era press illustrations with 21st-century speech bubbles. After eight years’ work, the result was a book that brings history intelligently, vividly and often harrowingly to life; Meyssan then turned it into an animated film, released by the Franco-German broadcaster Arte in May. Both are superb.
Places to visit
1st arrondissement — The idea of dismantling this conspicuously unrepublican 42-metre monument to Napoléon was mooted by the painter Gustave Courbet in late 1870, and on 16th May 1871 it was pulled down and smashed. The post-Commune authorities blamed Courbet – unfairly – and billed him for the reconstruction, but he died before the first payment was due. The rebuilt column was finished in 1875. www.napoleon.org
HÔTEL DE VILLE
3rd arrondissement — The Communards governed Paris from the palatial 16th- and 17th-century city hall, but when the Versailles army breached the capital’s defences at the start of the Semaine Sanglante, the insurgents torched the building – and with it a vast number of irreplacable archives and books. Only the outer stone shell survived in a reconstruction that took 19 years. Entry free (booking required). www.paris.fr/l-hotel-de-ville
3rd arrondissement — The recently reopened museum of Paris history, housed in a Marais mansion and looking glorious after a multi-million-euro revamp, is well provided with art and artefacts connected to the Commune. Not all are on permanent display, but its collections (viewable online) include haunting photos of shattered buildings and curios like a model of the Colonne Vendôme under reconstruction. Entry free. www.carnavalet.paris.fr
CIMETIERE DU PERE LACHAISE
20th arrondissement — The Commune’s bloody final act had its grimly appropriate setting in the capital’s largest cemetery. After hand-to-hand fighting among the gravestones on 28th May 1871, the victorious Versailles army summarily executed 147 Communards against the southern boundary wall. A memorial stone in what was thereafter known as the Mur des Fédérés has been a left-wing shrine for well over a century. Entry free. www.paris.fr/perelachaise
A version of this article appeared in the November 2021 issue of France magazine (see also my Cuttings page).
Les Damnés de la Commune is published by Editions Delcourt; for more details, click here. The animated film version is available on DVD from Arte; more details here.
Main image © Editions Delcourt.