Insurrection – Paris 1870

While watching the shocking events unfold at the Capitol on Wednesday, I was struck by the parallels to another time and place – Paris in 1870 and 1871. Citizens who are encouraged to believe that their government is illegitimate, who are goaded into action, who live with feelings of resentment and injustice can be lured into taking action against their leadership. I don’t pretend to be a student of American politics, but if history is any guide, the insurrection may not be over.

At the beginning of September 1870, Prussia defeated Napoleon III’s French army. A few weeks later the Prussian army completely encircled Paris and laid siege to the city. Most Parisian believed Paris was impregnable. They were certain that the army and the National Guard would defeat the Prussians and rejected any suggestions to the contrary. Elihu Washburne was at that time America’s Minister to France and a resident of Paris.

Michael Hill, author of Elihu Washburne: The Diary and Letters of America’s Minister to France during the Siege and Commune of Paris, writes: “On the 28th [October], in an effort to break through the Prussian lines, the French launched a sortie at the village of Le Bourget, just outside Paris. It was a success at first, but two days later the Prussians reclaimed the town. On October 31, word reach the city [Paris] that Metz, for months considered the strongest fortress of France, had fallen to the Germans and 170,000 more French soldiers had been taken prisoner. When word of these defeats reached Paris, the city broke into chaos. Radical ‘Red’ leaders stormed the Hotel de Ville and temporarily seized control of the government and its leaders.

Radical ‘red’ leaders refers to leaders of the working class who objected to the composition of the French government saying it was too monarchist in allegiance, too elite and wealthy, too influenced by the church, and unrepresentative of the real people of France.

On November 1, 1870, Elihu Washburne writes in his diary:

44th day of the siege. First, as to the events of yesterday. Voila! Another revolution … The Reds, up to this time, cowed by the force of public opinion, now saw their opportunity … I went to the Foreign Office at half past five, and on my arrival, for the first time, learned of the gravity of the situation … Trochu [President of the government of National Defense] had been dismissed, and that Favre [vice-president and Minister of Foreign Affairs] and all the members of the government of the National Defense had resigned.

Hotel de Ville – destroyed during the Commune

When within two or three squares of the Hotel [refers to the Hotel de Ville where the government presided] we found the way on foot through the dense crowd of people and soldiers and entered the building. There we found mostly soldiers, who were roaming around with their muskets reversed.

Washburne proceeds to the Hall of the Municipality [within the Hotel de Ville] where a public meeting was going on.

It was dimly lit by two oil lamps. The room was literally packed with soldiers yelling, singing, disputing and speechmaking. The side rooms were also filled with soldiers, who sat around the tables, copying lists of the new government, as they called it — the Government of the Commune. They all seemed to regard the revolution as an accomplished fact, which was only to be formally ratified at noon today by a vote of the people of Paris.

Ruins of the Ministry of Finance

Washburne was convinced that a revolution had taken place. Later that evening he received word:

that the government of the National Defense had not resigned; but that the Reds headed by Flourens, Blanqui, and others had undertaken a coup d’état, had seized all the members of the government and held them all prisoners in a room in the Hotel de Ville. Some of the people demanded that the members of the government should be sent to the prison of Vincennes; others demanded that they should be shot …

Meanwhile, members of the National Guard faithful to the government, got into the building and effected the release of Trochu and Jules Ferry [secretary of the government], who immediately took steps to release their associates.

In the late evening, Washburne finds the streets deserted and the stillness of death everywhere. What a city! One moment revolution and violence, the next the most profound calm.

On November 2nd, Washburne learns that:

The members of the government of the National Defense were outrageously abused when they were under arrest. They were most grossly insulted and loaded pistols placed at their heads with threats of instant death if they dared to stir

What happened in the months that followed? France surrendered to Prussia at the end of January. A new government formed. However, those leaders calling for the establishment of a commune continued to agitate and foster revolutionary sentiments. Author Michael Hill writes that “by the middle of March, political and social discontent among the lower classes and radical political clubs — which had simmered ominously beneath the surface since October — broke out in an orgie [sic] of crime, incendiarism, ruin, cruelty, desolation … and blood. For the next two months the streets of Paris would be filled with the most horrible events and consequences ever recorded in history.”

Soldiers firing on insurgents

By March 19th, Paris was in full revolt. The government retreated to Versailles. The insurgents were emboldened by their victory. On March 25th, Washburne wrote to Secretary of State Hamilton Fish:

It would be difficult to convey to you an adequate idea of the condition of things existing in Paris. In some portions of the city all is quiet and orderly; but in other parts we see nothing but ‘grim-visaged war,’ barricades, regiments marching and counter marching, the beating of the rappel [call to arms], the mounting guard, the display of cannon and mitrailleuse [rapid fire rifles], and the interdiction of circulation in the streets. Then there are the numerous arrests, the mock trials, and the executions … Anarchy, assassination, and massacre hold high carnival …

Tuileries Palace destroyed during the Commune

The Commune of Paris has absolute power over the entire city and countless acts of violence stoke the terror of its citizens. Citizen pitted against citizen as the French army attacks the Communards and its National Guard. Artillery once more attack Paris. The Commune formed a bureau of denunciation “to which anyone could simply denounce another as a Versailles sympathizer resulting in the accused being immediately arrested or, in some cases, executed.

April 19th: All is one great shipwreck in Paris. Fortune, business, public and private credit, industry, labor are all in the ‘deep bosom of the ocean buried.’ The physiognomy of the city becomes every day more sad. All the upper part of the Champs-Elysees is completely deserted in fear of the shells. Immense barricades are going up at the Place de la Concorde. The great manufacturies and workshops are closed ..

May 2, 1871: Fighting going on all the time all about the city, but without perceptible results … there is a great fury among the insurgents now, and last night they formed a fearful committee–the Committee of Public Safety–which in the first revolution was a committee simply to legalize butchery. This new committee has full powers and the reign of terror may now commence in earnest any day.

May 11, 1871: The worse things grow, the more desperate the Commune becomes.

Government troops continued to bombard the city.

Rue de Rivoli during Paris Commune

May 19, 1871: The Commune gets every day more furious and outrageous. Today they threaten to destroy Paris and bury everybody in the ruins before they surrender.

When the army ultimately breaks into Paris, the communards adopt a “scorched earth policy”, intent on burning the city to the ground. “The Tuileries, part of the Palais-Royal, the Palais de Justice, and finally, the Hotel de Ville were all set ablaze.” Other buildings were also torched.

By May 28th, the insurrection was destroyed.

On May 31st, with fires still smouldering, Washburne writes: The reign of the Commune for ten weeks, pursuing its career of murder, assassination, pillage, robbery, blasphemy, and terror, finally expired in blood and flame … The incredible enormities of the Commune, their massacre of the Archbishop of Paris and the other hostages, their countless murders of other persons who refused to join them in their fiendish work, their horrid and well organized plans of incendiarism intended to destroy almost the entire city and which resulted in the destruction of so many of the great monuments of Paris, are crimes which will never die.

As I said at the beginning, citizens who are encouraged to believe that their government is illegitimate, who are goaded into action, who live with feelings of resentment and injustice can be lured into taking action against their leadership. I don’t pretend to be a student of American politics, but there seem to be parallels here, and the insurrection may not be over.

By the way, my soon-to-release Paris in Ruins is set during the siege of Paris and the Paris Commune.

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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.