The phrase “Paris Commune” may mean little or nothing to most Americans, but it still resonates with meaning for many French, especially Parisians, for whom it conjures up either fearful images of bloodshed and destruction or memories of a noble cause brutally suppressed. The viewpoint of course varies, depending upon one’s politics and, still to some extent, one’s class. But nonetheless, it resonates. Unlike Americans, the French remember their history—perhaps because they live so closely with tangible vestiges of their past. And if Belleville and Montmartre no longer summon up the images of danger and despair that they once did, then the simmering banlieues just beyond certainly do.
So return a century and a quarter to the year 1871. Louis Napoleon, Bonaparte’s nephew and ruler over the Second Empire, had been captured the previous autumn by the Prussians, after unwisely starting a war with them and their magnificent army. Parisians promptly overthrew his imperial government and established a republic, which attempted to carry on the fight. But by this time, Paris was surrounded by the Prussian army, which was intent on starving the city into submission. After four months of deprivation, during which almost all the horses of Paris (as well as, most famously, the rats) turned up on dinner plates, the French government capitulated. A new government, far more conservative than the old, agreed to peace terms that the belligerently patriotic working class of Paris found humiliating and unacceptable. In March 1871, the workers of Paris rose up in revolt.
The opening shots of this bloodbath took place on the Butte of Montmartre, in a now-obscure spot presently commemorated only by a historic marker. The current address of this site—located just behind Sacré-Coeur—is 36 Rue du Chevalier-de-la-Barre, but in 1871 it was 6 Rue des Rosiers. Here, all hell broke loose after the government sent troops to recover some two hundred cannons that the citizens of Montmartre had dragged all the way from the Place de Wagram to the top of the Butte. Having subsidized these cannons through public subscription, the men, women, and children who participated in this dramatic transfer believed them to be theirs and were determined to keep them safely out of Prussian hands. The government strongly disagreed on the question of the cannons’ ownership and certainly did not want to see such weapons in the hands of Paris’s volatile poor. A confrontation ensued, during which two generals were captured and dragged to 6 Rue des Rosiers, where they were shot.
The spot looks quite different now, as you can readily see from contemporary paintings of Montmartre’s Tour Solférino, a popular guinguette, or tavern and dance hall, then located on the present site of Sacré-Coeur. The dazzling white Sacré-Coeur, which went up in the Commune’s aftermath, was erected in expiation for the sins of France, but its conservative Catholic promoters had little sympathy with the Communards. Not coincidentally, the basilica completely hides the ground where the cannons were parked and the uprising first broke out.
Following Montmartre’s opening shots, Paris’s workers quickly established their own government, the highly contentious but socially conscious Commune, which took over the Hôtel de Ville. Members of the official French government, under Adolphe Thiers, raced for the safety of Versailles, well beyond Paris’s massive walls. Ironically, these walls (and the sixteen muscular forts just outside them) had been built during the 1840s at the instigation of none other than Thiers himself, who well knew their strengths and weaknesses. Their only soft spot was in their southwestern sector, at Auteuil’s Point-du-Jour. Thiers proceeded deliberately, but finally, on the night of May 21—after a lengthy cannon bombardment of western Paris and the capture of Fort d’Issy and other nearby fortresses—government troops poured into Paris.
Much has been made of the rebuilding of Paris under the direction of Louis Napoleon’s prefect of the Seine, Baron Georges Haussmann, whose broad boulevards not only cleaned up some of the most insalubrious slums of central Paris but also provided wide and straight thoroughfares on which troops could march. Unquestionably, the Communards found it difficult to build and defend their barricades in the new Paris, but one unforeseen consequence of Haussmann’s slum clearance was the removal of Paris’s poor from the center of town to its outskirts—to Montmartre, Belleville, and all those impoverished communities in the eleventh, eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth arrondissements. Here, in their home territory, the Communards put up a fierce fight.
Withdrawing from the Hôtel de Ville to the mairie (town hall) of the eleventh and then of the twentieth arrondissement, the Commune’s headquarters was pushed into a corner, even while its supporters continued to fight tenaciously in Belleville and Ménilmontant. During this terrible May week, since known as “Bloody Week,” reprisals triggered reprisals as fury and despair escalated. Seething at the brutality of Thiers’ troops, Communards destroyed Thiers’ stunning mansion on Place St-Georges at Rue Notre-Dame-de-Lorette (9th). They then set to work on other monuments linked with the Ancien Régime and both empires, destroying Bonaparte’s massive Victory Column and statue in the Place Vendôme, and setting the torch to the Palais des Tuileries, the Palais Royal, the Palais de Justice, and the Hôtel de Ville.
Soon it seemed as if all Paris was burning, and the killing still went on. Maddened by the news that Communards had murdered the Archbishop of Paris, Thiers’ troops stepped up their relentless executions. In return, a group of Belleville Communards removed fifty prisoners, including ten Jesuit priests, from the grim Roquette prison in the eleventh arrondissement where they had been held hostage. After dragging these hostages uphill to what now is 81–83 Rue Haxo, in the heart of Belleville, the Communards brutally executed them. The Jesuits have since built a church, the Eglise de Notre-Dame des Otages, on the site.
By the week’s end, only a few pockets of resistance remained—the largest being the famed cemetery of Père-Lachaise, in the twentieth arrondissement. Here, a macabre nighttime gun battle took place among the tombstones, until by morning the remaining Communards had been driven into the cemetery’s far southeastern corner. Lined up against the wall, all 147 were summarily shot and buried in a communal grave. The site, now a place of pilgrimage, is marked only by a plaque dedicated “Aux Morts de la Commune, 21–28 Mai 1871.”
At least twenty thousand Communards and their supporters died—a figure that dwarfs not only the Communards’ own well-publicized executions, but even the grisly body count of the Reign of Terror. This, and a Paris filled with smoking ruins, was the legacy of these terrible weeks and months.
How, people wondered, could Paris possible survive?
By Mary McAuliffe
Introduction: The Terrible Year